I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood. — A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
Despite what Martin says, no history is ever dead so long as someone, somewhere ‘members it and tells others about it. Same’s true of trad music as anyone who has listened in on the conversations ’bout tunes that the musicians who play in the Neverending Session have between tunes about what they are playing can note. With that thought in mind, I asked some musicians which pieces of music history they keep alive by performing them…
J. S. Boyce — I don’t really consider myself a musician, but I can play a bit. I like Beethoven for his piano sonatas, and, most predictably, I can play the first movement of No. 14 (Moonlight). I’m a big fan of Tempest, also, but it’s probably a bit beyond me.
Emma Bull — Right now that would be ‘Twa Bonnie Maidens.’ It’s so lovely and hopeful and soaring, exulting over Flora MacDonald helping Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye. Yet it’s got a wistful strain, too, at the end, as if the singer knows Charlie won’t be coming back from France, whatever the song says: There’s a wind in the tree, and a ship on the sea / To me hi, bonnie maidens, me twa bonnie maids / By the sea mullet’s nest I will watch o’er the main / And you’re dearly welcome to Skye again.
Tim Hoke — For tunes, I play some Renaissance tunes, because I like that music, and I’m always looking for good contradance tunes, and there are some good dance tunes from that era. For songs, that’s harder to say. I’m a ballad geek. I think it’s well-nigh impossible to establish even a rough date of origin for many of the great ballads. I tend to introduce them as ‘older than anybody I know’.
Larry Kirwan — Blind Mary – the intro to Dear Old Donegal/Sleep Tight in New York City. it’s an old Irish air/lament. It’s evokes the memory of emigration which the song is what the song is about. Also, the song is written about a woman by name of Mary.
Zina Lee — While sessions as we know them today didn’t really exist before the 1900’s or thereabouts (no one knows for sure when they actually started and arguments are rife as to whether they started in London or the US, though most ethnomusicologists agree that they did not in fact start in Ireland), there are lists of some of the tunes played by Irish musicians in the 1700’s in various tutors and such of the time, and some of the names of the tunes are the same. I’m quite sure that there are some tunes still hanging round from the sixteen hundreds, but no one really knows which ones they are. Add to that, even tunes that are completely new can sound very old, and vice versa. There’s a jig called The White Petticoat that sounds rather Slavic (and therefore ‘modern’) — I’ve launched it at sessions, had someone rather doubtfully ask about ‘that modern sounding jig of yours’ and gleefully been able to inform them that it’s in O’Neill’s, which was published around 1900. Prolly some muso went to Bulgaria or somesuch and came back with it in his head. Which is a really long route round to saying, ‘I don’t know which one I play is oldest.’
Peter Massey — I think the oldest / ancient song I sing is one of the many version of John Barleycorn. The one I favour most was collected from Billy Bartle in Bedfordshire around about the time of King James I. I only sing it because nobody else (except Steeleye Span) seems to want to do it! – It does have a good chorus though! On the rare occasions when I pluck up enough courage to sing unaccompanied, I quite like many of the Copper Family songs such as ‘Thousands or More’, ‘Babes in the Wood’ or even ‘Bold Fisherman’ and ‘Cheshire May Carol’.
Lars Nilsson — I sometimes play an old medieval tune called Bransle something which I knicked from John Renbourn’s The Lady and the Unicorn album. I play it because I like the rhythm of it and because it is a good ‘warm-up’-tune
Lenora Rose — Probably the 12th C Ave Maria I’m in the midst of learning. It’s simple
and rather pretty. I’m also learning the Flower Carol, which is the familiar music to good King Wenceslas (which is reputed to be 13th C), but lyrics from the 1600s — and the English lyrics I favour are a translation, and so more modern than that. It’s fun because it’s a Spring Carol, not a Christmas one. She went on to add that I don’t know most of the secular songs from that far back well enough to sing — I strongly favour ballads, which, even if the words can be documented to earlier times, are usually set to 18th century or later tunes. And I love those because I’m passionately, rabidly in love with the spare storytelling.
Josepha Sherman — OK, my dear: I play the folk harp a wee bit (I’m sadly out of practice) and of the older songs, I like ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ ca. 1260 or so, by our old friend, Anonymous. I like it both for the melody and the words, which are cheerful and alive with the image of animals jumping about for the joy of it. It also makes for a cheerful round for several voices. For the earliest songs, though we don’t have the melodies, alas, I love some of the Ancient Egyptian love songs, which are downright modern — such as the one about the girl who sees her boyfriend and rushes out to meet him with half her hair still undone!. She went on to note The Ancient Egyptians had our concept of romantic love, btw, clear in their songs. There’s even a sadly fragmentary one of a wife undressing her husband, who’s passed out after what was clearly too much drinking at a party, and how she loves him even so.
Pat Simmonds — ‘The Return From Fingal’ is a great march reputed to have been composed after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 to pipe Brian Boru’s soldiers back to Dublin. I teach it to all my students and it’s becoming a session standard here in Toronto. It’s definitely a warpipes tune and definitely very, very old so I’d like to err on the side of mythology and think that it’s one of the oldest tunes I play.