Jigs, reels and hornpipes are a musical genre associated with Britain and Ireland generally described as a type of “folk” or “traditional” music. Scholarly interest in them followed their “discovery” in the late nineteenth century by Antiquarians, some of whom ”collected” them in the belief that they represented the remnants of an ancient expressive culture which was originally ubiquitous among Europe’s indigenous populations. This view was perpetuated throughout the twentieth century “folk revival” and persists today among both practitioners and academia. Strong traditions of these tunes in Ireland and Scotland have encouraged the frequent use of the adjective “Celtic” whereby English Morris dances, which use the same genre of tunes, have been described as manifestations of pagan rituals. The notion of the linear evolution of folk music and folk dances since primitive times is often termed “Sharpian”, after its most enthusiastic proponent Cecil Sharp.
No scholarly account exists of the actual history of dance tunes, despite the fact that in folklore studies, the cultural survival theory proposed by the original Antiquarian “ritualists” has generally been discredited. The literature on traditional music is overwhelmingly organized to present information under separate headings for each separate regional “tradition”. It also assumes that the tunes have always been predominantly transmitted aurally (or “orally”), independent of the use of any form of written musical notation. The original folk music protagonists proposed that this genre of simple, divisioned melodies was the culture of the non-commercial, musically illiterate, provincial-living “folk”, as distinct from the metropolitan elite. Later scholars have interpreted “folk” to mean “the working classes”. This assumption remains largely unchallenged and is the central premise of today’s folk arts activities and as well as academic research.
This study presents an explanation of the origin and history of the musical genre of traditional dance tunes such as jigs, reels and hornpipes, by referring to modern and historical music scripts from across Britain and Ireland, and ignoring modern political and administrative boundaries. Circumstantial evidence from both contemporary practice and historical sources is used to contextualize their original purpose. Evidence is presented to suggest that the earliest known publication of English country dances, Playford’s Dancing Master in 1651, was not, as is generally thought, a collection of village customs collected from the field, but an “aide memoire” for professional dancing masters. The dances were created for social gatherings of the privileged and influential, from which the working classes were excluded.
This culture remained unchanged for centuries. The process of dissemination of these dances and their melodies throughout Britain and Ireland was achieved over the eighteenth century through the influence of English cultural imperialism and commoditization, involving the dancing master profession, the publishing industry, the theatre, the military, and the increasing popularity of music as a parlour entertainment.
Subsequently, the dances and their melodies were adopted by rural and urban working communities. By the nineteenth century, the village fiddler was borrowing from the music scripts of former bourgeois uses. In contrast to most accounts, this history therefore proposes that this widely recognized and ubiquitous (in the folk arts) musical genre of traditional dance tunes was originally an elite culture which was adopted by the working classes, and not the other way round. Nineteenth century scholars of romanticism reinvented these dance tunes as a topic of antiquarian interest.
Since the twentieth century folk revival, this music has continued to be a social uniter and has undergone further commercial commodization. It is also an academic discipline. My proposal is that the distinctive melodic structure of these dance tunes should not be associated with any particular socio-economic class, but instead acknowledged to have been simply inherently connected with social dancing over history. Musically, the genre acts as a skeleton for continued creativity. However, some recent studies and societal preoccupations have been highly influenced by outdated and romanticized ideologies of folklore and tradition. Such beliefs can impede creative agency if applied too literally. Certain conclusions from this historical study are made with the intention that, in the future, inclusivity and encouragement in community music-making may be assured.
Jigs, Reels and Hornpipes: A History of “Traditional” Dance Tunes of Britain and Ireland Submitted By Celia Pendlebury A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy Department of Music, University of Sheffield February 2015
The harp is the only traditional instrument in Wales with an unbroken history up to the present day. It is also the instrument most often cited in Welsh literature through the ages.
The earlier harp was a small instrument – ‘telyn benglin’ (penglin = lap). It was also referred to as the ‘telyn farddol’ or bardic harp – an instrument similar to others throughout Europe. An example of this type of harp can be seen in a wood carving from the early 15th century, on the bed frame of the nobleman Sir Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr. The carving shows a harp player as part of a military campaign.
Twisted horse-hair was used to make the harp strings, and there are many references to the ‘telyn rawn’ (rhawn = horse-hair). In all likelihood, metal strings were also used, as in Ireland. It is thought that the Welsh harp was rather different from the Irish equivalent: with a straighter pillar and lighter in construction. On some harps, small L-shaped wooden pegs held the strings to the soundboard, touching the strings and causing them to ‘buzz’. These pegs were called gwarchïod. Harps in Wales were usually made from wood (for the framework and pegs), animal skin (for wrapping the soundboard), bone (for making the tuning pegs), and horse-hair for the strings. According to description in poetry, a harp would typically have around 30 strings. The Welsh harp was always played on the left shoulder.
By the 14th century, the ‘telyn rawn’ or horse-hair-strung harp was losing ground to the ‘telyn ledr’ or leather-harp – a change bemoaned by the poets, as seen in a cywydd by Dafydd ap Gwilym.
We don’t really know what sort of music the early harpists would have played. The manuscript of Robert ap Huw (c.1580-1665) is the only clue, and it’s taken a long time to decipher! This manuscript is the oldest collection of music for the harp in the world today.
6. Wales’ traditional dance reels
Due to the work of enlightened individuals such as Lady Llanover in the 18th Century, a good many of Wales’ traditional dance reels (folk dance and accompanying dance tune type) have survived. Stephen Rees is one of Wales’s leading folk musicians and musicologists:
Image captionNansi Richards from Wales was known as the original ‘Queen of the Welsh Harp’
“This recording of Pibddawns y Sipsi performed by Nansi Richards, the original ‘Queen of the Welsh Harp’ conveys the ‘hwyl’ or spirit of our traditional dance music.”
A lot of Irish Trad music seems very confident and boisterous to me. By contrast, what little remains of Welsh Trad seems very delicate, shy and timid. Fairy music.
Well, my dear Lords, Ladies, Tradesmen, Peasants, Gangsters, Imposters, Saints, Sinners, Lunatics, Fanatics, Rascals, Rogues and Miscellaneous Rabble out there, what can I tell you today that might be of some interest ?
Please note, I really AM still alive. I don’t want well-meaning over-enthusiastic folks trying to cremate or bury me yet. I’ll give you a thumbs-up sign when the appropriate time for that dramatic event arrives. OK ?
There might not be much time remaining for me to harangue you all from this virtual pulpit. Because I gather that around half of those who suffer serious strokes (who are not killed outright by them) are dead within a year or so.
On the other hand, about half are NOT dead, and live longer. So I may as well operate under the presumption that I am a lucky fellow, and will survive a few more years. Who knows ? My standard ‘three score and ten’ is almost done. And, whatever happens, I’m not going to regain the exuberance of a Spring lamb or foals frolicking in a meadow.
I find it hard to get particularly distressed or pessimistic about this. I’ve had an extremely fortunate and interesting life, plus all kinds of agony and tribulation. Now I see that the end is in view. I don’t have much problem about saying ‘Thankyou’ and letting go. I’m curious to learn what, if anything, comes next for me.
But that’s my private personal business, isn’t it ? We each have to do this stuff on our own, figure it out in our own individual ways. I don’t think it’s for me to preach and tell others how they should deal with it.
There are certain esoteric techniques that are taught in some buddhist, taoist and other sects, for remaining clear and conscious during and after physical death. I’ll probably have a crack at that if I have the chance.
So, given that I may have a couple of years left, what am I going to do with the time ?
I’m pretty much addicted to this internet stuff. I’ve been involved ever since it first became available here. It’s been thrilling ride, in many respects. Like watching the first motor cars replace horse and ox transport. So that has added a lot of stimulation to the last couple of decades.
My first computer was an Apple 8100/80, which appeared in 1994. Before the internet arrived. This technology has been at the core of my daily life ever since. It’s been fascinating to watch.
This was, as far as I know, the first time in human history that a person could reside in a remote isolated place like this, and still be connected to countless thousands of others all around the world, to have discussions and share information.
The radio and TV technological revolutions were slightly similar, but there the information flow is all one way, selected and controlled by the producers. I’ve learned so much amazing stuff via the internet that I could never have accessed by any other means. It’s been exhilarating, and I am deeply grateful for that fun and education. It’s provided me with a much broader, deeper, insight into the nature of existence than I would have got without it.
Also very grateful that I’ve connected with so many incredible cool people. I mean, I’ve lived almost all of my life in the deep countryside, sparsely populated, the selection of acquaintances has been limited, so it’s been a fantastic enriching blessing for me find the rare kindred spirits out there in cyberspace. Thank you all !
I don’t know where we are all going, whether to extinction in a decade or so, or into a long weird techno future I cannot imagine and would not like. Or something else ?
But after this latest setback with my health, speculations from me seem fairly irrelevant, because I’ve got enough problems just surviving the day and night.
I’m intending to recover. From what I gather, most stroke victims improve for the first six months, but then that’s about it, but some carry on improving for another year or 18 months.
As things are, I am rather wrecked. Right leg is dreadful, right half of upper body is somewhat effected, right half of right eye is f****d, and I have the bowel problem which started again a couple of months ago, that has returned after major abdominal surgery seventeen years ago.
Probably the worst difficulty is the internal mental stuff. I’ve had so many conversations with so many people over the last couple of weeks. My memory is seriously damaged. I’m fine at the time, but as soon as an exchange is over and the person has gone, I’ve completely forgotten everything that happened. Doctor today said I can expect that to recover and improve. We shall see.
It’s by no means all negative. A lot of this is tremendously interesting to me. I’m privileged to have survived an event that could have ended me, and to get all kinds of fascinating insights into how whatever I am functions and dysfunctions.
And of course, almost equally fascinating, the Welsh medical services, how they function, and what the staff who run them are like.
So that’s it, for the moment, folks… 🙂