Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Folk Hymn Tune Update

I was looking in Gather this Sunday again and noted a good few weirdnesses. I think I've told you about how "Mairi's Wedding", a traditional Scottish tune, is listed as being "Marie's Wedding", a traditional Irish one. Well, it gets worse, because apparently Mr. Bell (who should know better) thinks "Wild Mountain Thyme" is also a traditional Irish tune when it's really Scottish as a haggis. (Also, his version of the tune is...ugh. Yuck. Leaden. If tin whistle tunebooks can notate this stuff right, why can't professional composers, I ask you? Either that or all organists stink, which I refuse to believe.)

There is apparently a principle among church composers that they may syncopate to their heart's content, but folk tunes they appropriate must be "regularized" until all the heart and soul has gone out of them. The hymnbook version of "Were You There" is a good example. So is anything set to "Waly Waly". Rory Cooney and Sydney Carter are the only folks I can think of who don't do this...but then, they're good. (And you can say a lot of stuff about the days when my parish worked out of the Missalette, but at least back then we knew how sing "Were You There" like a spiritual instead of an off-key bellows.)

I still think the most entertaining Celtic song setting was the one which claimed that "Wrap Me Up in Me Oilskins and Jacket" (aka "Fiddler's Green", but there's a zillion tunes and songs called "Fiddler's Green", of which some are trad and some aren't) was a traditional song. Bwahaha. Somebody must have clued them in (and gotten their cut), since it was in Worship and it's not in Gather. But why would somebody have to tell a professional musician? It's a decent song, but the tune doesn't particularly sound like a nineteenth century sea shanty. It sounds like what it is -- a professionally-written fifties/sixties folk band song. By the same token, for all the trading that goes back and forth between the islands, you can generally tell in dance songs whether a tune is Irish or Scottish. Since "Mairi's Wedding" is a very Scottish-sounding dance tune, it's incredible that a trained musician could mistake it -- especially since the first tin whistle tunebook you picked up would probably set you right. Since "Wild Mountain Thyme" has lyrics about 'laddie' and 'heather', it's not a secret that it's Scottish. (Okay, it might be Northern Irish...but I've never seen it in an Irish songbook....)

Look, I know I've pulled some boners in my day, but I'm an amateur. These guys make real money with their work, and I expect better of them. If they don't catch it, I expect better of their publishers.

However, I will say that at least Mr. Bell tends to use song tunes instead of dance tunes. There's a rich heritage of "slow airs", sean nos songs, and even traditional hymns and hymn tunes in the Celtic musical tradition, a great deal of which is neglected in favor of the flashier dance tunes and crowd-pleasing fast instrumentals. If people are serious about including Celtic music in church music, maybe they should be using exactly those tunes composed for contemplative moments of beauty and awe that touches the heart. And not just for new versions of "St. Patrick's Breastplate", either. It's a big tradition out there.


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