October 15, 2012

Ever felt stirred awake by the musical voices of your deep ancestors?

Finally, a CD by Big Country found its way into the local used record store (it's a greatest hits). The songs taken from The Crossing don't just get me up on my feet -- just about any decent new wave song could manage that. There's something more, like they're calling to something inside me to wake up, alternately using battering rhythms and streams of heart-string-tugging flourishes to get its attention and hold it.

Here are "Harvest Home" and "Fields of Fire", but you probably know them best for "In a Big Country" --

There's no one else here in my room, but that doesn't stop me from bouncing around in a circle dance, imagining that like-minded, or like-bodied others are here cutting a little rug too. I've never heard Big Country at '80s night, so it's not like a re-enactment of a real experience. It feels more like a family reunion with people I've never met but who, from shared roots, automatically resonate to music like this.

It's not simply grooving to it, which outsiders could feel as well. As I said before, I groove to plenty of good music, but this is something more. It's like how people who read Shakespeare in translation can resonate with it, but to a native speaker of English, the experience is more pure and immediate. That's no slight to non-native speakers -- we too would have a less powerful connection when reading Dante than our Italian counterparts.

Music and dance are already so effective at what social psychologists call "de-individuation," or in plain terms just letting go and going with the flow of the group. But that final remaining fence-post of self-awareness gets washed away too when there's a direct channel to conduct your individual spirit into the greater culture source.

It seems a little odd since only between 1/4 and 1/2 of my blood is Celtic. One grandmother is Scotch-Irish, and her husband was some English, I think Scotch-Irish, and maybe Welsh too. I've got a fully Japanese grandmother, and her husband is a mix of French and English.

Consciously pursuing one or another directions back through my history has yielded very little in the way of feeling a strong bond with that root of the tree. It's a lot like dating and mating -- you get to know the various ancestral voices, and either there's instant chemistry or there isn't. Something about Celtic musical influences, or the thought of grazing my sheep on rolling green hills, just does something for me. (I think the corniness of what I just said only proves how involuntary the reaction is.)

Well, to get away from the more mystical side of things, what might explain these kinds of responses to a culture that we may be quite unfamiliar with in our own lives -- I've certainly never been to Scotland, nor have I seen or heard much, if any, of their folk music through media here in America. All we have to do is remember that the culture that survives isn't a random sample of what was circulating -- it resonated with people's preferences. So it's not something you need to be exposed to, or explicitly taught to appreciate, when you're growing up. If those are your people, and they liked it enough to hold onto it, it'll probably strike a chord with you too.

That would also explain why Irish music picks me up as well, although not to the same extent. I don't have any Irish roots, but the ways of making a living in Ireland and Scotland weren't so radically different, with both places (as well as mountainous Wales) relying much more on pastoralism than they have in other nearby parts of Northwestern Europe. And of course ultimately they do share blood far enough back.

Perhaps it's just chauvinism, but Scotland does seem to strike the proper balance between pastoralist and agrarian influences, not as footloose as the Irish but not as nose-to-the-grindstone as the English either. In fact it seems like every region where pastoralism and agriculture mixed has their Scottish, Irish, and English. In the Near East, that would be, respectively, the Lebanese, the Bedouin, and the Egyptians.

Maybe the best way to wrap up would be listing some more pop songs with greater or lesser Celtic influences, for those interested in exploring further. I'm not counting songs that are too self-consciously Celtic, only those where it fits in seamlessly, even if strikingly. Something that feels like it's trying to call your soul back to the land of the ancestors, kind of thing. Not merely rock songs by bands from a Celtic country. Please leave a comment for the ones I've missed.

- Just about anything from Starfish by the Church. The solo for "Under the Milky Way" has the same bagpipe-sounding guitar that Big Country pioneered.

- Speaking of Australians, "Kiss the Dirt" by INXS. It's only faintly there, but still enough to make it sound like an eclectic mix of rock plus something more ancient.

- The pennywhistle solo in "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon.

- "The Hardest Walk" by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Several songs on Psychocandy have a clear Scottish folk sound, only fused with grungy modern rock music.

- On that note, My Bloody Valentine wouldn't make it, at least not the songs on Loveless. Just your generic grunge music, not grunge fused with something else like on Psychocandy. Ditto for U2, a great band, but not one whose songs have made me feel like I need to re-connect with my Celtic roots.

- But if you are looking for something alterna from that time, a much more successful effort was "Dreams" by the Cranberries.

- "Song to the Siren" as covered by the Cocteau Twins for the This Mortal Coil project.

- Something from Bananarama's self-titled album (1984), when they were more new wave and synthpop. It's a great album all the way, by the way, which you might not have expected if you only knew them from "Venus" and later dance pop songs. The Celtic influence is more low-key, but also more pervasive, in their way of vocal harmonizing and copious use of melodic ornamentation in the vocals, although no one instance ever rising to the distracting level of Mariah Carey et al. "Rough Justice" and "King of the Jungle" might have it more than the others.

- Which reminds me of "Since Yesterday" by Strawberry Switchblade, although admittedly it's not so central in this song. But I'd suspect that listening to the rest of their songs would uncover a purer example.

- "The Village" by New Order. I'm not sure that the band members have any Celtic roots, but this one sure sounds like it. It's got the two parts: an unsustainable pairing of restraint with a driving beat, then letting loose with all those melodic motifs trying to tug at the heart-strings.

- "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush. Another excellent fusion of the primeval with the futuristic, drawing on Celtic for the ancient sound.

- There's a whole lot of everything, including Celtic, on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart by Camper Van Beethoven (Dave Lowery's college radio band before Cracker). But "She Divines Water" and their adaptation of "O Death" have that summoning-you-back-to-your-roots quality.

- It's too bad red-headed babe Belinda Carlisle never did anything palpably Celtic, although "Half the World" and "Summer Rain" have vague unspecified World Music influences.

- "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by the Proclaimers.

- The highly similar "Don't Look Back" by Fine Young Cannibals.

- More ancient-futuristic fusion from OMD with "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans". A lot of their other songs have at least a passage here or there, like the motif between verses of "Talking Loud and Clear".

- I was going to suggest something by Echo and the Bunnymen, but I'm growing too tired to think of a good example right now. Also not sure how prominent the sound would be within the overall song.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I must say I'm impressed by your musical tastes and pretty much every posting I've seen on your page. Consider yourself bookmarked. I found you on Steve Sailer's blogroll, by the way.


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