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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 147-151

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Celtic Music: A Complete Guide. From Ancient Roots to Modern Performers: The Music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Beyond, by June Skinner Sawyers, pp. 366. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. $18.00.

Any volume that purports to provide a "complete guide" to a subject as varied and voluminous as music of the Celtic countries must be viewed with a degree of skepticism, particularly if the volume can easily be held in one hand. Although the audience for such a volume must include those who, only lately smitten by this sort of music, are interested in learning more about its history, influences, and practitioners, it would also need to be useful to musicians and scholars who demand depth and insightful commentary. June Skinner Sawyers does manage to meet the needs of these quite different audiences. Novices will delight in her encyclopedic approach, but scholars might be disturbed by the occasional errors and misapprehensions that arise in an attempt to bring such an unruly subject under one tent.

Skinner Sawyers is an accomplished writer on contemporary music of Britain and and Ireland. Her expertise shows most clearly in the lists of recommended recordings and videos that end each of the ten chapters of the book. Her musical taste is impeccable, and the accompanying notes to each recording or video show that she can well place each work into its proper historical context and relate it to other works of the time or genre. Her grasp of the modern musical scene is sure, and her commentary persuasive and accurate.

The latter chapters of the book, which deal with the influence of Irish, Scottish, and English music on the development of such American genres as rock, blues, bluegrass, musical theater, and the current movement that fuses traditional idioms with folk and rock sensibilities, offer solid writing and analysis. These chapters are the strongest parts of the book. Skinner Sawyers is less persuasive when she attempts to set the stage for these later developments by delving into the history of traditional music and its revival in the twentieth century; there, the analysis and details are more sketchy, and her narrative becomes difficult to follow. She chooses, for the earlier chapters, a nonchronological [End Page 147] exposition that sometimes may bewilder the reader. A number of errors in fact and interpretation mar her presentation.

In the first chapter, the idea of a pan-Celtic form of music is presented and discussed. The term "Celtic music" alone is a controversial one: Gearóid ÓhAllmhuráin, among other ethnomusicologists persuasively argues that it is a neologism which has little historical meaning. It is, however, a term that promoters of traditional and contemporary music have used with great success to market a particular kind of sound, and it is with this usage that most of the readers of Skinner Sawyers's book will be familiar. She confronts the argument surrounding the use of the word "Celtic" squarely in the first chapter of the book:

The word Celtic is thrown about quite a lot nowadays. Indeed, one could even say that, in light of present-day trends, most everything seems to be classified as Celtic in a not-always-too-subtle attempt to join the Celtic bandwagon. Some, especially traditional musicians, cringe at the sound of the very word ... [a]nd it's true that a substantial part of the current Celtic "scene" has little to do with authentic Celtic tradition.

After this prefatory remark, Skinner Sawyers launches into an episodic consideration of all kinds of music that could be termed "Celtic." Her broad definition of this category includes both traditional and contemporary music from countries with languages related to Gaelic, as well as modern hybrid and fusion forms. Skinner Sawyers' presentation is loosely historical: her second chapter treats the "roots" of Irish, Scottish and Welsh music. She mixes musical classification of traditional music —and its "strange connections" with other pentatonic music—with a brief history of pre-Christian...


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