by Mary-Ann Brandon
HUERFANO- In this day of instant messaging and a virtual encyclopedia at our fingertips, the notion of passing along cultural information via oral tradition might seem antiquated. With a combination of humor, seriousness and academic zeal, the performers at this year’s Celtic festival continue to share the history of how their ancestral music was not lost, entirely, during a time in history when recording devices did not exist and much of music was not documented even in a written form.
Friday night’s concert with John Taylor and Ed Miller gave us a taste of the Celtic vocal/fiddle tradition. The roots of country music were evident in the selections they chose. Their song about the angels’ share (referring to the 17% of whiskey that is lost to evaporation) is a term still used in the American south where illegal corn whiskey is, to this day, manufactured in the Appalachian hills. The melodies and instrumentation are obviously the precursors to our own Appalachian folk music.
Following Ed and John was an impressive duo who took us more deeply into the instrumental tradition with Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Chris Newman playing brilliant harp and guitar, respectively. While both remained true to their discipline, they alluded to outside influences in their introductions and playing. Newman’s obvious Django inspiration was confirmed when he told me that he was, at one time, Stephane Grappelli’s guitarist. In bringing a little back beat and swing to the straight on the beat, 1, 2, 3, 4 cadence of traditional Celtic music, Newman resisted the urge to bend notes and turn the music towards bluegrass or blues, instead, opting for a subtle blending of styles. Máire treated us to a solo tune that was in an ancient style of harp playing, transporting us to another space in time. Interestingly, their interpretation of a tune entitled “Molly St. James” evoked the compositions of Stephen Foster. The discovery of this ostensible connection inspires an intellectual curiosity to learn more about our deep musical roots.
Saturday’s events included a concert by local favorites Willson and McKee. After their concert, the duo participated in the informal ceilidh in the La Veta Park. Kim McKee expertly led the crowd in an Irish dance lesson. With audience participation, the music took on a life that gives a glimpse into where some of our own folk dance traditions may have been hatched.
The main concert, this night, at the Fox Theater was opened by Jerry O’Sullivan performing solo uilleann pipes, a bellows instrument that fought him periodically, perhaps due to our dry air. As if admonishing a child, O’Sullivan scolded his pipe and then apologized to the audience for its ill behavior, getting a good laugh from the crowd in the process.
After intermission, Nancy Dick took the stage to offer a poignant dedication to her friend of 40 years, festival organizer, Barbara Yule. Yule was presented with a plaque commemorating her years as general director along with an announcement that she would be vacating that post but would remain on the board as “artistic director”.
Headliners of the night, Kitchen Quartet, launched into their set that included academic, yet entertaining, lessons about the art of sean-nos dancing by Shannon Dunne. Sadly, Keiran Jordan was unable to dance due to a foot injury, but Sean Mcomskey on button accordion and Cleek Schrey on fiddle, held down the Irish tunes with Schrey, periodically, jumping into dance along with Dunne.
The concert schedule concluded on Sunday with a performance by Denver’s favorite Irish band, Colcannon. Lead singer/percussionist, Mick Bolger kept the audience entertained with his humorous patter while Rod Garnett, Mike Fitzmaurice, Jean Bolger and Brian Mulluns rounded out the band. Playing with precision and gusto they provided a nice, tight, closing set.
American music is a unique cross pollinated hybrid that couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world. The loss of much oral tradition that died during slavery when families were separated is well documented. A huge wave of Irish immigrants, many who were indentured servants, rubbed shoulders with African Americans and inevitably wound up playing music together. Bluegrass is the obvious musical child born of this union. In the Southwestern U.S., Czech and German immigrants brought the accordion along with the waltz and polka from their homelands and mixed with the Mexican musicians creating Norteno.
The opportunity to experience the pure roots of some of our own American folk music is a rare treat unless we are lucky enough to travel abroad or live in a big city. Huerfano county is a long way, geographically, from the British Isles but quite clearly this remote region has enthusiastically embraced their music and culture. Kudos to all the supporters and hard working volunteers who made this event a success!