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  • The Album and the Musical Work in Irish Folk and Traditional Music, ca. 1955–70
  • Adrian Scahill (bio)

In this article I explore the interrelationship between the introduction of the long-playing record (or LP) into Ireland, the impact of the traditional and folk revival, and the emergence of the concept of a musical work within traditional music. The invention of long-playing records in the 1950s affected how record labels, musicians, and consumers conceptualized different musical styles, and it shaped the structure of recorded music (Montgomery 3; Keightley, "Long Play" 380). The LP came to be associated with serious music of artistic worth that was aimed at an adult market. In the same decade the first long-playing records of Irish traditional or folk music were issued during the first phase of the revival. Irish revivalist musicians and activists of the 1950s and 1960s had a number of broad aims that included, but were not limited to, ensuring that this music was appreciated as serious and artistic by a wider audience in Ireland, making high-quality recordings of the music, and presenting the music in a professional and more artistic manner. There was therefore a synergy between what the LP represented in the wider musical field and the processes of recontextualization that were embedded in the revival (Hill and Bithell 15–19). The result of the confluence and force of these stimuli was a new type of creative activity in folk and traditional music in which musicians and singers deliberately grouped together tunes and songs on commercial sound recordings of extended duration, familiarly called albums.

A new emphasis was subsequently placed on the album as a musical product (as opposed to the process of live performance); it became the focus of critical attention and began to be conceived as a type of musical work. The concept of "musical work" resists simple definition and will be discussed later in this essay. However, much [End Page 17] of the writing on musical work draws on Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992). Her sense of the musical work is rooted in the Western European classical-music tradition, and Goehr states that we commonly understand musical works to be

objectified expressions of composers that prior to compositional activity did not exist. We do not treat works as objects just made or put together, like tables and chairs, but as original, unique products of a special, creative activity. We assume further that the tonal, rhythmic, and instrumental properties of works are constitutive of structurally integrated wholes that are symbolically represented by composers in scores. Once created, we treat works as existing after their creators have died, and whether or not they are performed or listened to at any given time.


Given that this article is primarily concerned with an oral tradition and sound recordings, and not with printed scores, I am using musical work in a similar manner to that proposed by Theodore Gracyk, who contends that a recording is a distinct type of "work for playback" that is "recovered by the audience by playing tapes, LPs, and compact discs" (21). In a broad sense musical works are discrete, reproducible or repeatable, and attributable (Talbot 3–5; Bartel 349). The album, which in a popular-music context Keir Keightley defines as "a work of popular music of extended duration" ("Album" 612), can be considered then to be a particular type of musical work.

The traditional- or folk-music album of the 1950s onward was situated within two intersecting recording fields (Turino 66): the global field of high-fidelity album production, and, in this case, the local field of the recording of Irish traditional music. Within the former, the term album was initially used to refer to a folder to hold 78 rpm records, and later was used by record companies to refer to sets of 78 rpm discs (Osborne 88). While the term LP has become conflated with the album, its original use simply indicated a format of longer duration. Richard Osborne notes that the invention of the pre-LP album, which was designed to allow the issuing of classical pieces of music, shows how the 78...