Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff of the Chieftains musical group discuss Irish folk music
BROADCAST: Dec. 8, 1976 | DURATION: 00:29:48
Interviewing Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff two members of the Chieftains musical group specializing in Irish folk music.
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Studs Terkel Well, thank you, Jim. You know, one of the most exciting groups performing in the western world today is The Chieftains. The Chieftains, a group of Irish singers, instrumentalists primarily. And what's interesting to me is that it's traditional music of Ireland, north and south, incidentally. Traditional music, and yet the draw is that of a pop group, and two of the members of The Chieftains are here this morning and we'll hear some of the music they're performing tonight at the Arie Crown Theater, eight o'clock and it's quite a remarkable evening, too, in store, because hearing the recordings of them, you get the idea. So we'll be hearing some of the music of The Chieftains as well as some of the comments of Derek Bell who is a harpist and something of a leprechaun, too, under the mushroom he was born. Derek --
Studs Terkel drum. And is also one of the singers of the group. So in a moment, some of the music of The Chieftains, the history, with the instruments and the meaning of some of the songs. Mostly, the sound after we hear from Jim Unrath and this message. Now, what have we here, we have three tunes, don't we, in one?
Kevin Conneff That's right. All under the title "Away With Me," yeah. The overall title is "Away With Ye," rather, and the first one is, "Ask Me Father Derek," that includes tympan, maybe say something about
Derek Bell That was used in Irish music for many centuries and it was a stringed instrument which was a very near cousin of the harp and also a very near cousin of the fiddle at certain times in its history, and I wanted to bring back the sound of metal strings into Irish music without resorting to --
Derek Bell Yes.
Derek Bell I wanted to bring back the sound of metal strings into Irish music without resorting to banjos and bouzoukis and mandolins and instruments which are indigenous to foreign music and so I revived the harp that's struck with metal strings, the old medieval Irish harp on one hand and I tried to revive the tympan. It was an instrument of the lyre and psaltery and dulcimer family which was played different ways at different times in its history. It was played with the fingers sliding off the string or with a nail or a plectrum plucking the string, and it was played with a struck hammer and also with a bow at certain periods of its history just in the same way as the psaltery was in Europe and so I had a box, shoved strings in the top of it, and did just that with it.
Derek Bell I ought to explain to you that the instrument disappeared shortly before the harp and there are no excellent examples of it around. And that means that the instrument either genuinely disappeared or it evolved into something else.
Derek Bell Yes. In the case of the metal harp, also, as well. But the point is that having brought the thing back, my opinion is that the instrument evolved into a dulcimer, because the dulcimer is in fact still played in folk circles in Ireland, and I don't believe it just disappeared and was put under a shelf and just no longer existed. I think it evolved somewhere else but there's another musicologist in Dublin who thinks it became a psaltery such as the northern European psaltery. So I have three northern European psalteries made to my own specifications so that when we want that kind of sound we can use it.
Derek Bell Exactly,
Derek Bell your three-stringed -- The dulcimer. Appalachian dulcimer , and I believe the tympan in its original state was possibly something very like it, because it started long before the time of St. Patrick. With only three strings, that's in the medieval literature.
Studs Terkel What interests me is this matter of continuity that here, in the region of Appalachia, a very rich American source of British, Irish, Scottish music, many migrants came from Ireland and Scotland years ago, and so as you talk about what happened the dulcimer it might have been one of those crazy pieces of continuity, you know, in which here it is, played here and yet it may have been 'way, 'way back to that, those centuries you're talking about.
Derek Bell Yes, but in America it's impossible to trace any evolution between the Appalachian dulcimer and the hammered one, they're two different families, whereas in Ireland there was, and in Europe there was an evolution because the psaltery and the hammered dulcimer were once exactly the same instrument and they were only called by those different names if they were played in the different ways.
Studs Terkel You are the harp, you are the harpist, and the harp, I suppose if there's one instrument that might be described as a national instrument there is no one, the harp would be closest, wouldn't it?
Derek Bell Well, because the Irish missionaries in the 16th century brought out the Irish harp and taught the Indians to play it, and the Indians make their own harps, and it's now their natural instrument. Or so some scholars believe and others disagree, but that's what I think must have happened.
Studs Terkel One of the, one of the hallmarks of The Chieftains and Paddy Moloney is one of your sparkplugs in the rangers, he's not here this morning, but one of your hallmarks is the background, I think [unintelligible] background of Derek Bell, you're all in a sense scholars, aren't you?
Kevin Conneff The second piece that was played there, the one after the tympan piece, was called [Irish], which is, in fact, that's the Irish word 'twisting the hay rope' and it's very often sung sung in Ireland.
Kevin Conneff And she decides the best step to get rid of him is to suggest, she's suggests that he twist a hay rope. And as the hero gets longer, he gets nearer and nearer the door, 'til finally it's so long he's outside the door, and she slams the door after him.
Studs Terkel That could be the guy twisting the rope, the door slammed on him, perhaps he was lucky, because had he not had the door slammed, in court had he succeeded, he might live together for years and years and years and finally he says, "Old hag, you've killed me."
Studs Terkel Before we hear another one, there's another combination of songs, and ask you about the arrangements for the next one, before that, the instrumentation of The Chieftains. There are seven of you.
Studs Terkel Then what The Chieftains are doing, aside from being exciting musically, is also connecting the various Celtic countries and cultures musically. That's why, that's why I suppose these arrangements are so exciting because they're combinations of tunes, too, aren't they?
Studs Terkel all right, but they have -- Paddy has arranged some Scottish tunes. Now who are the instruments? So there's Derek and the stringed instruments, harp and -- And you and the percussive, as well as singing
Derek Bell Yes.
Derek Bell We should say, I think, that people, some people double on other instruments, for instance, Sean Keane doubles on the tin whistle and Paddy himself does, and Michael plays concertina and tin whistle and flute.
Kevin Conneff Yeah.
Kevin Conneff Right.
Kevin Conneff [Irish].
Kevin Conneff "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh," which was the title of, the title of a song, I think, which is common both in Scotland and, and incidentally we're talking about Irish people coming over to America in the early days. Scholars at home, people like Seamus Ennis and Ewan MacColl in Britain claim that the term 'gringo,' which Mexicans use about foreigners, came from that era when apparently people from Scotland and Ireland who sing the song, "Green grow the rushes, oh." They were identified as gringos.
Kevin Conneff Yeah.
Studs Terkel I noticed in the notes, this is sort of a lament. The first one a sort of a lament. This tune involves a history and life of early Ireland. The boy is bringing home by boat a sack of fermented malt to make some poitin. What's poitin?
Studs Terkel And the kid doing it drowned off the coast of Donegal, so it's a tragic song of which we hear, from which we go to "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh." You know, it's funny here that last was "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh" I always had the impression that was a Robert Burns song.
Derek Bell Well, what Michael plays is what's called the Anglo concertina and it's got button keys. It's a little small sort of hexagonal-shaped box with buttons on each side and you get the black notes on one side and the white notes on the other, and well, he must be a genius to sort that one out.
Derek Bell Me?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel But the reaction, here is Belfast and of course, our first reaction is violence and terrorism and bombings and death and battles. Yet you play in Belfast to the audience that is both Catholic and Protestant.
Studs Terkel Well, it also indicates the madness of, the madness of the violence, is that here is Irish music played, you know, the historical and brilliantly arranged by Paddy Moloney or your spark plug and as your group, and yet Protestants, Catholics there and delighting in this music, you see, which --
Derek Bell Well, the music has over the last few years become completely universal in appeal. We not only get Irish audiences, but we get classical audiences and light music fans, and rock fans, and so forth. It cuts across all the barriers.
Kevin Conneff To look at an audience anywhere where we play. This is the amazing thing, you'll have really obviously rock fans, you know, you can tell youngsters from like 10 and you'll have people of 80 years of age at the same concert.
Derek Bell There is something else. The fact that the Irish music is there and there's a tremendous wealth of it is fine. There is such in many countries. What you have to do is you have to choose the most immortal and the most men, the greatest genius and the melodies, you have to pick out the right tunes and then you have to present them in a way that that has a logical shape and means something when it's heard. You can't just play one tune and repeat it over and over again. And you can't submit it to some kind of symphonic development or you just destroy it. You've got to find some other way of giving it a shape and I think it's because we can do that that we can show them music to other people --
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Kevin Conneff Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now, a piece of music history. "Brian Boru's March." This from your earlier album -- By the way, this first album, the album we're playing the work from, called "Bonaparte's Retreat." We're going to hear that quite remarkable piece that goes about 15 minutes --
Studs Terkel Before that, Ireland the publishers of this album, if people can be called publishers of music, "Bonaparte's Retreat," The Chieftains. But an earlier album, "Brian Boru's March," who was Brian Boru?
Kevin Conneff He was at the famous battle of Clontarf, where he was kneeling, praying for inspiration and help, because things weren't going too well and in fact, while he was doing that, he was killed. I forget the exact date of the battle.
Derek Bell There is a tradition amongst harpers that they always play it, starting off very quietly and getting louder and louder, into the center of the piece and then disappearing again. And something like that was seen in the instrumentation there.
Studs Terkel Talking to Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff, two members of The Chieftains who are performing tonight at Arie Crown Theater, 8 o'clock and to be, and as you can gather, performance musically, but also history is, history of centuries evoked through the genius of a people and Derek's point seems to me is a key one, that in every culture there is the greatest, the best, the genius of a people that is chosen from, and thus becomes universal because you have all listeners, and this is what Paddy Moloney has done in colleagues in choosing the very best. So we'll resume the conversation and also we'll get to hear that great collage in a moment, later, "Bonaparte's Retreat," after we hear from Jim Unrath and a message we'll resume conversation with Kevin Bell and -- No, Derek Bell, Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff.
Studs Terkel And there are two members of The Chieftains and it's Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff. I was thinking, you know, we come to the, now we come to the great piece. This is about 15 minutes and this is called "Bonaparte's Retreat," title of the album, and this might be called almost a mini-history of Ireland. Suppose I read some of the notes and interpolate as we're going. This is "Bonaparte's Retreat," and these are the notes. "The amazing, this amazing collage commences with a lament for the apparent total destruction of Gaelic civilization represented by the flight of the wild geese." Who are the wild geese?
Studs Terkel Ireland, then the -- So "The wild geese, the chieftains of Gaelic Ireland and their followers, who after 1601 were forced to leave Ireland forever and take service in European armies, especially that of France. These are the," so originally the wild geese were soldiers, originally.
Studs Terkel In the pipes, "an image of the sails" and here again the picture, sails dwindling from Ireland's shores. "The defeat of a people, which was [forever?] in the form of wild geese to become a strand in the history of Napoleon." Because here the association of Napoleon, it was a wrong association, but the association of Napoleon with Irish freedom.
Kevin Conneff Yeah, well, Napoleon was a great character in Irish folklore, like there was an awful lot of, there was quite a few songs written about Napoleon and two of them are included here, at least pieces from them, "The Green Linnet" and "The Bonny Bunch of Roses." And I think the same songs in fact are found in Scotland as well.
Kevin Conneff Yeah.
Kevin Conneff It is, yeah. There'll be some of it sung on this, this is, on this album by Dolores Keane who came in and sang it on the album. I have the job of doing it on live performances on stage, I do the
Kevin Conneff Right.
Kevin Conneff Yeah.
Studs Terkel And so there's a song again that's sung, and you sing it tonight and Dolores Keane on this album, and now we come to the fall of Paris, the downfall of Paris. And here the Marseillaise comes in and out, doesn't it?
Kevin Conneff Yeah, this is all, the arrangement is done by Paddy and he's taken little like, the entire song isn't sung, it's just a verse, two verses of "The Green Linnet" and one of the "Bonnie Bunch," but the whole thing forms a great picture of the whole, the whole escapade.
Derek Bell There is one thing we [unintelligible]. There's a portrait of his wife and it is well in the form of Madame Bonaparte. And there's also an extract of our concerto by his court harpist, who was Charles Bochsa.
Studs Terkel Here then, is for the next 14 minutes and 34 seconds, "Bonaparte's Retreat," beginning with a lament, going in to "The Marseillaise," into marches, into almost victories, the voice of "Bonnie Bunch of Roses," the lyrics of it, "The Green Linnet," Napoleon's defeat, and the end of a dream. "Bonaparte's Retreat," described, by the way, I think very happily as a collage, a musical collage of a variety of pieces that make a piece of history, too.
Kevin Conneff Well, on the album this is this is done in the studio in London and Paddy had the idea to get the atmosphere of a hooley, like a party going on. So he invited a few dancers along to get the sound of the feet dancing, and considerably more than he invited came along.
Derek Bell Yes.
Studs Terkel Well, that's Derek Bell and Kevin Conneff, my two guests, members of The Chieftains and so we sort of dance off 'round the house and mind the dresser. Chieftains tonight at Arie Crown Theater at eight. Thank you very much.
Studs Terkel That's The Chieftains. Oh, by the way, as we left here, some guy was around taking pictures, and my two colleagues left, and so we lifted the microphones and now I got to stand up in a chair to talk into the mike. That's our program for this morning and after we hear from Jim Unrath say I, talking high into this mike, we'll speak of tomorrow's guests, also musical.
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