A man asked me once if I am Irish. I was playing at a Christmas open house in a casual setting, where people could walk up and talk to us or sing along. I wore my standard winter hat, my Scottish-style tam, and a tartan scarf, because we played in an unheated building. I guess the man didn’t know the tam was Scottish because he told me he saw guys that looked just like me in Ireland. Most of my ancestors hail from the British Isles, so it’s possible.
I wasn’t dressing to create an image; rather I wore a Scottish style cap and tartan scarf for the same reason I play Celtic music, because I feel a connection to the Celtic culture that is part of my heritage. It’s an introspective reason, not an exhibition intended to evoke an image.
Sometimes, however, I dress to promote an image, such as when I played at Great Trail Festival near summer’s end a few years back. I wore colonial clothes because the festival ostensibly recreates the era of the French and Indian War but in reality is a plethora of anachronisms. First, we were playing into microphones. Secondly, some of our music went back to the 1700s, but much was written more recently, and the instrumentation included accordions, an invention of the middle 1800s, and modern-style guitars. We captured the feel of an earlier century but didn’t precisely recreate the music. Other bands played bluegrass, a style that evolved in the 1940s from British Isles fiddling and earlier styles of country music, spiced with a hefty dose of rhythm and blues, and they wore country and western clothing of the late 1900s. As a historian I was hit repeatedly by the anachronicity of it all, but as a performer I enjoyed playing and noticed that many toe-tapping audience members enjoyed the music no matter its provenance or age.
It’s common for performers of traditional folk music to wear clothing of centuries past, but that clothing often is an evocation rather than an accurate costume, and “traditional” is a vague term that in one sense means “author anonymous” and to the music’s aficionados denotes not the age of the music but a certain style that can include newly composed music written in that style.
“Traditional” clothing likewise can be an agglomeration woven from various sources. Bagpipers, for example, wear a uniform derived from the military. Bagpipes were banned in the mid-1700s by the British after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46, and the only place a piper could play was in the British army. Highlanders before the rebellion wore the plaidie, a body-length rectangular wool wrap that encased the body and served as a cloak by day and a blanket by night. The patterns comprised stripes and squares in colors and arrangements that denoted the wearer’s clan. The kilt was invented in the mid-1800s by an Englishman in the heyday of romanticizing national and ethnic origins, a process that continues today, and is considered the traditional Scottish garment for men. Tartans have been standardized and invented anew, although people often believe family patterns have their roots in the mists of antiquity. Pipe band members thus wear tartan kilts, dress shirts, ties and glengarry caps patterned after military dress.
The music itself undergoes a similar process of continually being reinvented, having its origins in rural dances but regularly being revised, expanded and augmented through new instrumentation and new harmonic and melodic ideas. Scottish fiddling was influenced starting in the late 1700s by classically trained fiddler-composers that took the tunes a step away from older musical structures, and it’s said that the music of Nova Scotia is closer to the 18th-century source than the music of the famous Scottish composers.
Celtic music was infused with a new set of ideas in the 1960s and 1970s, when individuals and bands added folk-style and rock-style guitar to the melodies of dance music, which was largely unaccompanied or accompanied by simple chords on piano before then. Those guitarists drew inspiration from the deluge of creativity springing forth in 1960s rock and folk music and in similar manner fashioned complex original, polyphonic accompaniments to old dance tunes. Their experiments then were avant-garde and may have offended the older generation that considered Celtic dance music a solo style, but now the music sounds quite traditional, and a new generation of Celtic musicians is revving up the music with electric guitars and basses, drum kits and keyboards, and I’m one of those older guys who says “That’s not traditional.”
I don’t know if I look Irish, or Scottish — I’ve never traveled overseas. And I wear a tam to keep my head warm. But I do know that when I play jigs, reels and hornpipes on fiddle and mandolin, I feel Irish, and Scottish, and that’s close enough.