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  • A New Approach to the Classification of Gaelic Song
  • Virginia Blankenhorn (bio)

A good deal of water has flowed under the bridge since James Ross published "A Classification of Gaelic Folk-Song" in 1957.1 Ross's study was typical of a time when scholars favored a clinical and taxonomical approach to oral traditional culture, before modern theories about text, context, and genre began to raise good questions about the application of scientific methods to the analysis of cultural activity. The search for answers to these questions has greatly advanced the way ethnographers and ethnomusicologists understand culture, including the cultures of the Gael.2 After six decades, it seems fitting to revisit Ross's classification system, and to examine whether the effort of constructing such a system is still worthwhile or not.

In The Anthropology of Music, Alan Merriam (1964:209) suggests that we understand musical activity by considering the uses and functions that music serves within a given culture:

In the study of human behavior we search constantly … not only for the descriptive facts about music, but, more important, for the meaning of music. We wish to know not only what a thing is, but, more significantly, what it does for people and how it does it.

Merriam defines the uses of music as "the ways in which music is employed in human society … the habitual practice or customary exercise of music either as a thing in itself or in conjunction with other activities" (210), suggesting that the uses of music can be understood in terms of how musical activity is manifest in daily life—in what social contexts it occurs, and to what utilitarian purposes it is deployed. Function, on the other hand, "concerns the reasons for [music's] employment, particularly the broader purpose which it serves" (ibid.). He contrasts a song's express utility—what it is used for by and within the community, how the people put it to conscious use—with its meaning for that community, how its members feel about that song, and what it says about their life together. He writes (ibid.):

Function may not be expressed or even understood from the standpoint of folk evaluation. … The sense in which we use these terms, then, refers to the understanding of what music does for human beings as evaluated by the outside observer …

As Merriam suggests, these "functional" concepts may go without saying within the community itself. Indeed, John Shaw's Cape Breton experience seems to indicate as much. Shaw (2010:22) recalls what his informants said when he asked them why they sang:

[W]ithout exception the singers regarded it as a non-question and registered a degree of polite confusion as to what was intended by it. The only really coherent answer, that of my friend Dan Allan Gillis of Broad Cove, stated the shared cultural perception concisely enough: "Singing songs? Well, I don't know. People have been singing songs since the world began." The underlying message coming from a people whose favorite pastime is to speculate, usually with great eloquence, on anything encountered in their daily experience, is that singing is a fundamental property of creation along with humankind, the natural environment or the passage of time. In the world-view of their community it doesn't need explaining.

Similarly, Thomas McKean (1997:139) observes of his subject, song-maker Iain MacNeacail of Skye, that while he might classify his compositions as nothing more than pastimes:

song-making, learning and singing were such a part of daily life that they also functioned on many other levels. … MacNeacail, as part of the community, may not see some of the other ways the songs work; he is unable to gain an objective perspective (and it probably does not occur to him to try).

Even so, the gradual transformation of the Gàidhealtachd, the decline of traditional work and leisure contexts, and the increasing influence of the dominant culture have long prompted Gaels to think carefully about their community's legacy of traditional song and lore, and the role that legacy played in the life of the community, in the lives of their parents and grandparents. As a consequence, our understandings of both...

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