New inventions and technology can make life—and Irish music—more convenient, more accessible, and sweeter…. and more complicated. This episode examines a few innovations like the washing machine, the personal computer, and to the electric bicycle—though you’ll have to go to Episode 18-Wax Cylinders to the World Wide Web for extensive chat about recording technologies… and also Episode 40-Irish Tunes in the Key of C-19.
There are also plenty of Irish tunes here that mention tech and innovations. (Because whether or not you’re actually thinking about short and long clicking sounds, if you call a tune The Telegraph, it’s still a reference to what was once a remarkable new way to transmit messages.)
For SHEET MUSIC, downloadable recordings, and videos of all the ORIGINAL TUNES in this episode, please visit my Original Tunes Page.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters:
Linda Gore, Michael Stoner, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast
Episode 70 – Navigating Tech and Writing Tunes
How trad players process inventions and innovations
This Irish Music Stories episode aired March 21, 2023
* * * * * * *
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Karan Casey: Waterford-born, Cork-based singer
>> Sarah James: Massachusetts-based whistle player
>> Alison Wylie: France-based harp and flute player
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
* * * * * * *
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: “Red Molly” AKA Wheels of the World, from The Blue Dress
Artist: Shannon Heaton ]
Like how new inventions and technology can make life—and Irish music—more convenient, more accessible, and sweeter. Massachusetts-based whistle player Sarah James is part of an online Irish music session my husband Matt and I run. And she collaborates with a group in England over Zoom.
>> Sarah: The Zoom experiment, the Zoom sessions — that has made me practice every day. And I haven’t done that since I started playing 15+ years ago. So that’s been great.
Not to mention the fun of getting to interact and play with people from around the world. I mean, there are people from Taiwan, and China, and Japan, and Europe, and Israel and Ireland… And you do kind of get to know people after a while. So, yeah, I think it’s great. I think it’s gonna be part of my life for the foreseeable future!
>> Shannon: Of course, technology can also distract from music.. and from home and family life—like when you’re looking for a version of a tune and you get stuck going down a YouTube rabbit hole… or when you can’t get yourself (or your kid) away from the devices.
>> Parent to Kid: All right, time’s up
>> Kid: Ohhhh! Just like five minutes? Can I just finish the round?
[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: For a lot of us, tech weaves through our days—invaluable, intrusive, invisible. Apps, and tools, and connective platforms have enabled us Irish musicians to learn tunes that used to be inaccessible, unless you lived in a certain region or travelled to academic libraries. It’s easy to find tutorials online. It’s inexpensive to record and distribute music independently. And it’s easier and easier to collaborate remotely, and build relationships, and make podcasts without leaving the house.
But easy access to all things trad means that sometimes really uninformed stuff gets passed around. Sometimes the masters get overlooked because their recordings aren’t as loud or slick, or because they aren’t shouting about their own music. And tools like email, social media, and I suppose chatbots can be helpful for Irish musicians… until they’re just a bit stupid, or they take lots of time and focus away from actually playing tunes.
[ Music: “Across the Water,” from Across the Water
Artists: Alex Cumming & Nicola Beazley ]
[ Music: “Chimes,” from from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
In this episode I’ll consider some joys and concerns of new inventions—from the washing machine to the PC to the electric bicycle. [I won’t get into recording technology, since Episode 18 already explores wax cylinders to the World Wide Web. But I will find tunes that mention tech and innovations. Because when novel things happen, Irish musicians sometimes mark them with tunes. Or maybe a tune comes first and the title is just something to call it. But whether or not you’re actually thinking about short and long clicking sounds, if you call a tune The Telegraph, it’s still a reference to what was once a remarkable new way to transmit messages.
And it’s still remarkable to meet up with other people, who have undoubtedly encountered those same things, and play tunes together. Whether you call the tunes the Telegraph Reel, the Shannon Breeze, or Rollin’ in the Ryegrass, or ChatGPT.
Getting together in-person to play these tunes (and talk about chatbots) was not possible to do in March 2020. When Covid suspended in-person get togethers, a lot of us went online. That’s how my husband Matt and I kept in touch with folks and met new ones—with a live-streamed YouTube music session.
Alison Wylie in rural France used online music events like ours not just to keep up, but to advance her Irish music practice.
[ Music: Cofio,” from Llinyn Arian
Composer: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins
Artist: Delyth & Angharad ]
>> Alison: I live in a little village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It’s a pretty remote place.
>> Shannon: Remote. But there was still trad stuff going on. Alison was active in her community, playing whistle and harp before things closed down.
>> Alison: At that time I decided to use it as an opportunity to learn another instrument, so I bought myself a wooden flute. I came across Matt and Shannon’s Virtual Guided Session. I just found it amazing, lovely playing and lots of tunes, which I was able to play along with with the flute, so it was an opportunity to learn. Also an opportunity to play along when no one can hear you. It’s great to be able to play without feeling inhibited by putting off your neighbors.
But the real delight about the Virtual Guided Session was the chat on the side of the screen. Which was really like what goes on in a real session, in that you talk about the music. But you talk about lots of other things, too. Like where we’re from. I mean, already I was amazed to find people from all over the world—America, obviously, or the States, Europe. But China, Russia, Zimbabwe. And we’d all be playing and sharing this music together. It’s just wonderful.
We’d talk about the weather, we’d talk about what we were drinking, what we were gonna eat that evening, what was going on in our lives. And when things finally eased up a bit, I decided to have my long delayed trip to Ireland. And I’d already met Grania at the VGS, in the chat. I knew that she lived in East Kerry. And I arranged to call in on her. Well, it was great. We had lunch together, chatted, played a few tunes. And got on really well.
It was quite a funny incident when her teenage children came home from school, and they were quite surprised to find this stranger sitting at their kitchen table chatting with their mum. And Grania said “ah, yes, well actually I’m doing what I told you never, ever to do! I’m meeting someone in person who I’ve only met online.”
>> Shannon: It’s like totally amazing that Grania and Alison met in person. And a number of other members of our community have met in person. Folks have travelled to meet up! From Slovakia to Poland. From Paris to Virginia. From Colorado to Japan. We’re not ‘just’ online anymore. This YouTube session thing started as a temporary solution. But now that Matt and I and much of our music community is back out there, we’re still meeting. Which we couldn’t do with this gang, because we’re scattered all around the world.
>> Alison: It’s so great that the Virtual Guided Session carries on. And this this global community can continue. I think we’ve really managed to create something really quite special. We’re friends. We’re people who’ve shared something really important together.
>> Shannon: Writer, farmer, and conservationist Wendell Berry has written that new tools must work better than the ones they’re replacing. They should be cheaper, smaller, and use less energy. They must be easily repairable and be made or sold locally. And they shouldn’t replace or disrupt existing goods.
All the conveniences that I’ve used to build the Virtual replacement Session would not pass the Wendell test. But his stringent ideals are compelling. And March is kind of ho hum at the moment here in Boston. It’s not really Spring yet. And we have some tedious and tiresome tasks to tend to (like taxes). So it might be refreshing to do a partial audit of some of the tools and tech that have touched my musical life—like with the Virtual Guided Session. and innovations that have come along over the last few hundred years. Which tools are better, cheaper, smaller, and more joyous than their predecessors? And which ones have had tunes named for them?
[ sound typing ]
I’ll start with my dad’s old Royal.
I usually use this manual typewriter to write letters to friends. The keys jam sometimes (though it’s easy to fix that). But this machine is how my mom and dad used to write news article and book drafts. We were not a wealthy family, but my dad was one of the very first ones in his newsroom to obtain a personal computer—an Apple 2e. And for him, that was a big improvement over the old Royal.
In August 2020 I recorded myself typing a note to our Virtual Guided Session. Just like, “Hi, nice to meet, hope you’re okay.” I was thinking of the challenges we were all facing because of Covid and isolation. And I was thinking of how challenging it must have been for my parents to write articles and book chapters on a manual typewriter. And I challenged myself to come up with a tune that followed the rhythm of this note. I called the tune Carriage Return.
[ Music: “Carriage Reel,” from Living Room
Artist/Composer: Shannon Heaton ]
Simpler than Leroy Anderson’s concerto for typewriter that he wrote in 1950, which is not an Irish tune. But it’s still pretty danceable. Pounding out phrases and rhythms on a manual typewriter.
Creative constraints and commemorative prompts like these can be really useful for composers. Like, if I just said I want to write more music, I might not necessarily break out the manuscript paper and start sketching. But when I set out to write a short Irish reel using the rhythm of a typewriter, in a flute friendly key, in time for next week’s Virtual Guided Session, it might lead me to hunt and peck for a tune.
The typewriter was faster than longhand writing, and in many cases it was neater, and more consistent, and even more accessible.
[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from ” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri made his 1808 typewriter with raised characters on the keys for a childhood friend in the early stages of blindness. He wanted to help her communicate with the world.
The typewriter touched a lot of people’s lives. It revolutionized businesses, and became the main tool for clerical workers, which led to more women going the workforce. And it had a very duple meter rhythm to it. 1, 2, 1, 2..
Next came the electric typewriter and eventually the computer. Faster, more consistent. Better? Well, it could do a lot more things. And it really boosted production. So did the modern plough.
Pre 1800, people had basically been clearing the ground with crude forks. And then iron and steel ploughs came along, sturdy enough to be pulled by horses. So instead of scratching at the earth with a glorified stick, farmers could ride behind a machine. And it could plough, smooth and prepare the ground, and plant large areas in just one day. That’s when tunes called “Speed the Plough” started circulating.
[ Music: “Speed the Plough,” (named Charlie Mulvahill’s, Speed the Plough) from Kerry Fiddles
Artists: Padraig O’Keefe, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford ]
‘Speed the Plough’ was short, apparently, for ‘God speed the plough,’ which was a phrase from an old English folk song, popular after the Christmas holidays, when farmers would return to the fields.
The dance tune Speed the Plough was composed in 1799 by John Moorehead (Muirhead) from Armagh. And after it showed up in a popular play, many versions of the tune spread, including the one associated with fiddle master Padraig O’Keefe, playing here with Julia Clifford and Dennis Murphy.
[ music swells ]
I wonder if speedy ploughs gave fiddle players more time for tunes. Or if they just led to more and bigger farming, which would take time away from music making. Also, the faster and deeper the farming, the more soil erosion, because you’re cutting into lots of dirt all at once and you’re disturbing all that bacteria, and fungi, and gross stuff that make soil naturally fertile. And it also releases a lot of greenhouse gasses.
That’s what moved the writer Wendell Berry to take up small scale farming. He was an academic first. He’d received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961, he lived in Tuscany, he lived in southern France, he taught English at New York University. And then he and his wife Tanya decided to settle with their two kids in Kentucky to raise vegetables and animals.
He used the same plough that his father and grandfather had used. And Wendell planted mixed crops; he took care to preserve the soil; he moved animals around so their waste would make optimal compost mixes. In other words, he and his family became organic farmers.
Wendell Berry has written about his experiences in essays, poems, and books. He’s still at it. He’s 88 years old now, and he’s still critical of consumerism. He advocates slowing the pace and keeping the scale small. And really, even when it’s trying to bust out, traditional music is still pretty small scale. Even when it’s dressed up with clever arrangements and modern production sensibilities, even when bands take hip photos, it’s still traditional music vs popular music. It’s an enduring vs. ephemeral practice. And many of the practitioners still have had ties to farming and rural life, so there are lots of tunes that name garden delights, and harvests, and fields, pitchforks, and ploughs.
[ Music: “Speed the Plough,” from Living Room
Artist: Shannon Heaton ]
Speed the Plough was one of the first tunes I learned on my trusty Bb Generation tin whistle that my dad ran over with the car once. It flattened out the bottom. But we fixed it. And I learned how to play the Harvest Home, and the Sporting Pitchfork, and Speed the Plough on this thing. Since this is partly a personal audit, speaking of ploughs and gardening, I admit that while I aspire to much of Wendell’s small scale, local living, I often buy food that comes c/o larger scale and non local farming: olive oil, rice, avocados, bananas, coffee, and tea. These goods have fueled my family and my Irish music pursuits.
Wendell Berry does almost all his farming with horses. And for his writing, he uses a pencil and paper.
[ Music: Apples in Winter, from A Place I Know
Artist: Siúcra ]
He refuses to buy a personal computer, because he thinks the manufacture and marketing of the tech is wasteful and intrusive. And mostly because he doesn’t think he’ll write any better with a computer. After writing drafts on paper, Wendell’s wife Tanya types his work on a Royal standard typewriter. As she types, she corrects errors and makes notes in the margin. So she’s, in fact, his editor.
One of his critics wrote that ‘WIFE’ is Wendell’s energy-saving device. “Drop a pile of handwritten notes on ‘WIFE’ and you get back a finished manuscript, edited while it was typed. What computer can do that?”
Ouch. And also, even people who use computers have editors. Editors help shape, clarify, and strengthen messages. They check accuracy. They help writers understand and realize their goals. They affect how messages land.
So far, human editors seem to do better–and have more nuance—than chatbots. That’s why I read most of my podcast ideas to my husband Matt. For some earlier episodes, my friend Carol Zall was also a great sounding board.
So even if you have a small team, several hands make light and usually better work. And to do the work you need a few tools. Wendell uses a pencil and paper… and an old plough. Tanya uses an old Royal, nearly the same model my dad used, the one I used to write my reel Carriage Return.
[ ding sound effect ]
[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
I do enjoy using the typewriter sometimes. But most of the stories and podcast scripts I write usually start with Blackwing pencils and paper. But I also have a computer. Two, actually. A 10-year old laptop, and a desktop that I bought during the pandemic, so I could livestream music sessions and teach Zoom lessons. I had done a little bit of remote teaching before, using Skype and a few other platforms.
Zoom Meetings was a new tool for me in 2020. As you probably know, it’s a video-telephone and online chat software developed by this guy Eric Yuan. Eric had moved from Beijing to Silicon Valley, where he pitched this idea for a video conference system that would work on mobile devices. It didn’t land, so he started his own company. He launched it in 2013, and businesses latched onto it right away. Zoom was stable and easy for companies to use. More optimized for groups and for a variety of devices to allow people to connect remotely.
Before these videoconferencing systems, live-streaming was also a way to share real-time events from anywhere to anywhere (with appropriate broadband connections).
But for me, before 2020, most of my music sharing was done in-person. Or with teaching videos I’d put on my YouTube channel, but those were pre-recorded. It’s only really been the last three years that I’ve fully embraced these platforms and online ways of sharing Irish music and connecting with other players. Videoconferencing, live-streaming, and collaborating with my peers to record remotely—these have all brought great benefits and frustrations.
[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Do these tools work better than what they’re replacing? Do they pass the Wendell test? Does Zoom work better than playing together in person?
Well, NO. We can’t play at the same time. And it’s kind of dumb to be in our computer squares. But also, it’s kinda cool that we’re all in our own homes, able to be comfortable. Maybe childcare isn’t as much of an issue. We can still hear one another, even though we have to take turns playing. And we can each hear ourselves clearly, so we’re faced with how we really sound by ourselves. And that might not be such a terrible thing.
Back to the Wendell Berry equations: Is my computer made locally and easy to repair? No.
Does this remote paradigm end up being cheaper, and does it use less energy than carting myself all over the world—or than my fellow Irish music lovers trekking out to hear me or take lessons? Well… it takes a lot of energy to produce, distribute, and power all these computers. And staying indoors means using more energy at home. But gathering a group online means no driving, no flying, and less physical wear and tear on the humans who would be moving around. Well, the humans who have access to broadband, which is not everybody. But still, a lot of us have been able to bond from our own homes, in chat windows, in our own little video conference squares.
During a music meet-up over Zoom, there were two flute players, Jennifer and Chris. And their frames were situated next to each other. At one point, a cat walked out of Chris’s ‘room’ into Jennifer’s. And during the journey the cat changed colors. Well, that’s what it looked like on my screen…. this animal jumping from a home in Virginia to one in Michigan.
So that inspired a march that starts with four notes [sing]—and then I repeated those same four notes [sing]. Get it? Twin phrases… like twin cats. I called the tune Zoom Twins.
[ Music: “Zoom Twins,” from Living Room
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]
Innovations, new technology. Bound to be some benefits and some frustrations. And tunes and songs usually come in response to something great, or crummy. Something of note. Some experience that resonates, because maybe a bunch of people are going through it at the same time.
In past Irish Music Stories episodes, I have included some of my own tunes, if they are relevant to the story. Or if the music makes a handy transition somewhere. For this season, I’m being a bit more deliberate about including my own compositions (alongside plenty of traditional tunes), because I happen to be working on a big composition roundup. So if you’re interested in downloadable recordings or sheet music for the original tunes in this episode, you can find them at IrishMusicStories.org. You can also find full playlists, show notes, AND a list of this month’s Irish Music Stories supporters. Thank you so much, folks, for kicking in, so this show can be free for everybody else. Here’s my kid Nigel to acknowledge this month’s underwriters:
[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Nigel: Thank you to Linda Gore, Michael Stoner, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Lynn Hayes, Bob Suchor, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, and the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast.
>> Shannon: Before modern tech was eating up electricity, human energy was stretched thin. I mean, it still is. But work was more arduous for more people. Most men worked the fields. Women had babies and cared for then, and gathered wood, cooked and preserved food, cleaned and mended clothes. The Britches Full of Stitches was another early tune for me, learned on the Generation tin whistle.
[ Music: “O the Britches Full of Stitches,” from Jackie Daly & Séamus Creagh
Artists: Jackie Daly & Séamus Creagh ]
It’s a polka, which is a type of dance that has rapid shifts from one foot to the next. The polka dance was first developed in ballrooms in Prague. There they named it the pulka, which is Czech for “half-step.” By 1840 it was wildly popular all over Central Europe. And as people headed to England (or America, by way of England), polkas spread around the British Isles and Ireland. Cork is a major port town, so soon lots of accordions and polkas parked it in Cork.
To this day, polkas are a mainstay of the tune repertoire in Sliabh Luachra, which is the name of the region on the border between Cork and Kerry. That’s where this accordion player who’s playing, Jackie Daly is from, and it’s where Seamus Creagh on the fiddle here (from Westmeath) settled, after being lured by the music of Sliabh Luachra.
There are also polkas associated with Sligo musicians. Those tend to be ‘double polkas,’ vs the simpler Sliabh Luachra polkas, like O, the Britches Full of Stitches. Or Tripping to the Well, which was first recorded by Sligo flute player John McKenna, but which I know from the Kerry box player Seamus Begley. He recorded it with Steve Cooney on the memorable 1996 album Meitheal.
[ Music: “John McKenna’s” AKA Tripping to the Well from Meitheal
Séamus Begley & Stephen Cooney ]
Mending britches! Lots of stitches! And tripping to the well for cooking and washing water. It must have been a LOT to keep up with the housework, especially in the 1800s when industrialization spread and cotton so popular. You can’t just brush the dust off of cotton, they way you can with wool, linen, and leather. So there was more soap to make, more buckets of water to fill, more firewood to chop to heat the wash water. And then there was all the washing and wringing and hanging clothes all over the house and the yard to dry. It was so much work, even with kids ‘tripping to the well’ to help out. So people often employed washerwomen.
[ Music: The Irish Washerwoman, from The Piping of Patsy Touhey
Artist: Patsy Touhey ]
George Petrie first collected the jig the Irish Washerwoman jig in 1790. And piper Patsy Touhey recorded it in 1907, the same year it showed up in Francis O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland. By then more homes had running water, electricity, and central heating. Some wealthy people even had early electric washers; but most houses were still doing laundry by hand. Especially in rural areas—in the States and in Ireland.
Waterford singer Karan Casey remembers helping her grandmother with hand washing, as late as the 1970s.
[ Music: “Slip Jig Dreams,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Karan: So I used to stand beside, you know this hand wringer. And you’d feed the clothes in, and I’d turn the handle around, and it would push the clothes through and wring them. And then we went out and hung up the washing properly.
>> Shannon: How long did it take?
>> Karan: Oh it took two or three hours, at least. And probably took more if you were doing sheets or big things. And she also ironed absolutely everything. I suppose it was partly to do with making sure everything was dry. Drying is hard in Ireland, obviously, because of the eternal Irish rain. So she had a whole routine going around that. Yeah, it used to take ages. And also, it’s really hard work. My grandfather had two washing lines in the garage. And they’d hang stuff up there as well. She was thrilled when she got a washing machine. She absolutely loved it.
>> Shannon: So any drawbacks to the modern electric washing machine?
>> Karan: Well I suppose in terms of work, no, But it probably uses up more energy, definitely the dryers do. I do try and hang up the washing, but invariably you’re running in and out watching the rain. It’s nearly a full time job. So I have to confess to using the dryer a lot more—definitely a lot more than my granny would have. She would not have been impressed.
>> Shannon: Before Granny Ryan had her electric washer, she and Karan logged a lot of hours washing, wringing, and hanging clothes. Which did mean time together—and snacks, and songs.
>> Karan: She also made the most beautiful tarts and buns, which was probably the secret to our relationship, because I was allowed to have two desserts every day. Hahaha! She took a break at 3 o’clock in the day. And she’d have her Nescafe coffee, and we’d have one of the two desserts. And she sang, actually. She had one song
Oh there was a little man and he had a little drum
Upstairs, downstairs he did run
With a belly full of fat and a tall silk hat
And a pancake tied to his bum bum bum
[ Music: G Meditation,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton
>> Shannon: Doing less laundry with your grandma might mean less singing together. Although there were plenty of other chores. And a lot of those gradually got easier, too. All the home advancements like deeper sinks connected to water heaters, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners—all of these innovations added up, and streamlined the homemaking. Once household tasks became more manageable, there was a dramatic increase of women in the workforce.
And as public education grew, even more women went to work as teachers. And as industry boomed, women were hired to do clerical tasks (back the Carriage Return reel…). And during WWI, even more women went to work in factories, earning half the wages men had, for those same jobs.
[ Music: “Brown Coffin,” from An Traidisiún Beo
Artist: Angelina Carberry ]
The hornpipe had started showing up in tune collections in 1881 and became popular as the First World War was opening new markets for manufacturers. The tune is called Factory Smoke, or the Brown Coffin, played here by Angelina Carberry.
Donegal fiddle player Danny O’Donnell called this tune The Tide Came In. And the tide of industry and war brought opportunity for some, and coffins for others
>> Chatbot: Innovations can lead to increased productivity and output, which can be beneficial for businesses and individuals.
>> Shannon: Naming a tune after something transformative is a way to mark history and to document public sentiment.
[ Music: “Steampacket,” from Paddy Keenan
Artist: Paddy Keenan ]
Industrial smoke and steam, the air was thicker and thicker with it. This reel, called the Steampacket, appeared in that 1907 Dance Music of Ireland. This is piper Paddy Keenan playing it in 1975.
The British and Irish Steam Packet Company had launched in 1836 to run short trips to carry mail. And by the early 1900s, these ships were carrying passengers as well. Easier ocean crossing for wealthy passengers, on the short and long commutes. But of course this was less easy for sailors and poor travelers stuck in the lower decks. Opportunities and comfort for some, and filth, rats, and disease for others.
The joys and concerns of the washing machine were less problematic, less dramatic than a munitions factory or an ocean liner. But it put independent washerwomen out of work. And of course not everybody was able to get washers.
But prices did come down. And more and more families were able to invest in washing machines, and other time saving devices. And then more women went to work to earn money to buy all those time saving devices… There’s lots to factor when you’re considering the Wendell Berry equation about the value of new tools and technology.
There are privacy factors, and costs, and accessibility issues with the tech (and the tech companies) that allow us to stream video in real time. The live-streaming sector grew dramatically in 2020. But live-streaming had been big with gamers starting in the 2010s. ‘Gamers,’ or video gamers, took to live-streaming like Sliabh Luachra took to polkas. Using Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, blah blah, people started playing video games live, for an online audience.
Matt Heaton and I had live-streamed a few concerts around that time. We used Concert Window, a platform that Irish accordion player Dan Gurney founded with guitarist Forrest O’Connor. But the livestreams we’d done were just using the laptop camera and mic, we didn’t really engage much with the chat window. So really, most of the online music sharing I’d done before March 2020 was via pre-recorded videos, which I’d put up on my YouTube channel.
When Covid cancelled all the concerts, and sessions, and music camps, and music lessons, and everything, I didn’t really have much of a set up for live-streaming. Matt and I scrambled to pull components together: we raided our live sound and recording rigs, and we found free software to get all our disparate hardware to communicate. We did all sorts of bizarre things to try to improve our home network connections (like placing our wifi router in magical positional with a metal bowl around it, eventually running cables all over the house to wire ourselves in). It was kind of stupid, and funny, and frustrating.
But also, for the most part it was working. We were running this weekly music session on YouTube, able to get people’s realtime requests and jokes through the chat window. Everybody was connecting with one another. We were all getting acquainted through the chat. Every week was different, and the hour of music and socializing would run based on who showed up.
So when we hit a snag one week, and the chat was not loading, it really gummed up the works. Like, here we are trying to connect with people directly—it’s not like a performance or a pre-recorded video. It’s supposed to be this live thing. The one-way conversation was kind of funny, but also annoying. Fortunately, the chat came back. And we all started talking about the laggy chat and the kink in the cyber hose. So I came up with two slides: “The Laggy Chat,” and “The Kink in the Stream.”
[ Music: “The Laggy Chat, Kink in the Stream,” from Living Room
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]
A few months later our friend Lissa Schnekenburger recorded some fiddle tunes to share with our Virtual Guided Session. She called our chat window ‘rambunctious.’ And another slide slipped out called The Rambunctious Window.
[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
I’m not sure why I had slides on the brain, since I learned a lot of my Irish music in Clare—not in Sliabh Luachra. I was playing more jigs and reels. But there the slides were. And they were working some magic. Bringing back the chat. Keeping me going. Perking me up.
The slide is an exciting tune type that’s used in dancing sets, and it, like the polka, is associated strongly with the music of Sliabh Luachra.
Slides, or ‘single jigs’ are jig adjacent. But they are really different from the 123 456 … 123 456 … 123 456 … that is a jig. Like the Irish Washerwoman (sings a phrase)..
Vs. a slide, which is more of a 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – (sings an example)
There’s some triplety stuff in there, But mostly just 1 a 2 a 3 a 4
[ Music: “Star Above the Garter,” from Star Above the Garter
Artists: Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford ]
This is The Star Above the Garter, played by Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford on their 1969 album of the same name. When I hear great Sliabh Luachra musicians playing slides like these, the tunes feel effortless. Joyous. They’re simple. But there’s complexity in the 1 2 3 4 duple meter feel… against the occasional triple subdivisions. [demonstrates] There’s like a 2 and a 3 thing going on. A nice balance of clarity and complexity.
These Covid years have had certainly had some complexity. And some major complications. But there’s also been sweetness and simplicity. Less running around. Less (or no) travel.
Our family is getting back out there. But we’re trying to stay put a little more than we used to. And use the car a lot less. For us this has meant more biking. Which is great when we’re headed down into Medford Square, our town square. It’s a lot of fun to ride a bike DOWN Fulton Street. In fact, I wrote a tune called “Sailing Down Fulton Street” some years ago to celebrate the journey into town. Because getting back up that hill with groceries and library books is a struggle.
Well, back to the joys of innovation. Life got easier when we invested in an electric assist cargo bike. There is so much storage room on that thing, you can really load up on groceries… or a guitar, amp, gig big… or a kid on the back. And when it’s time to head up the hill, you can turn on the battery. When I do turn on the battery assist, it reminds me that it’s okay to ask for help sometimes.
The E-Bike has really made it easier to drive less. But you’re still pedaling a bicycle. You have to face cold, and rain, and wind. And it still takes effort and time to get places. It’s not faster than a car. But it’s often more refreshing.
[ Music: Misty Moors of Medford,” from Living Room
Composer: Shannon Heaton
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]
I called this slip jig the Misty Moors of Medford. I wrote it one morning, after taking my kid to school. We almost took the bus, because it was really foggy and cold. But went for it on the bike, and it ended up being a magical way to see our old town. I even took the long way home, through the historic burial ground near city hall. Riding past 340-year old gravestones in the mist… on my modern electric bike… was pretty special.
For sure, the electric assist bike is a new contraption. Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was skeptical of a lot of modern technologies and social activities, just like Wendell Berry.
Ivan argued that the bicycle—and he’d probably also say the E-bicycle, since there’s still a lot of pedaling there—that the bikes are more convenient, and productive, maybe faster than a car. He said if you add up all the hours you spend to make the money to buy and maintain the car; to pay for insurance and registration; to fuel up; and to park… and if you add this to the time you actually spend in the car including traffic jams and looking for parking, driving is likely to be slower than biking, or even walking in some cases.
This is compelling. The energy it really takes to be able to sit in that car—or the energy it takes to make and distribute an electric bicycle, or to make, market, distribute, power, and afford computers and broadband access—it’s all a pretty hefty load.
[ slip jig dreams reprise ]
There’s a lot to be said for pedalling your own acoustic bicycle. Of the challenge of heading across town on the bike. And there’s a lot to be said for… instead of tuning into an Irish music live-streamed session, about heading across the ocean, or even across town with your flute, and stopping in for tunes even if you don’t know the players. I’ve built skills and friendships by putting myself in awkward and overwhelming situations, and having to figure it all out.
But I’ve also met incredible people online. I’ve experienced community and shared space with people, without leaving the home. And without getting on a plane, or a bus, or a train, or a car. I guess a little more honesty and thoughtfulness might be a good way for me to start learning which conveniences and modern tools reward me the most. And be a bit more disciplined and frugal about other things that might be harmful or have a higher impact on the planet.
Finding balance is tough. It’s probably a different calculus for everybody. And things shift. Situations evolve. One person’s help might be another’s harm. Like it might be easier to, say, move from coal and peat fuel to cleaner forms of energy if you aren’t a miner or a turf cutter. So there are the personal benefits and preferences. And then there’s public health and new awarenesses.
>> Chatbot: Innovations can have a negative impact on the environment, such as increased pollution and energy consumption.
Innovations can create dependency on technology, leading to potential negative effects on mental health, social connections, and physical activity.
>> Shannon: Pfff… when innovations and insights come around, it’s probably worth evaluating how the novelties improve, or complicate, or dumb down our lives. And how to best use them. Then if something’s a keeper—like a ship that can take us across the water—it might even be worth naming a tune after it.
[ Music: “Across the Water,” from Across the Water
Artists: Alex Cumming and Nicola Beazley ]
This track Across the Water is from Alex Cumming and Nicola Beazley’s album of the same name. And this episode of Irish Music Stories is from me—Shannon Heaton. Produced with endorphins from the E-Bike, fueled by slides and polkas, and without any assistance from a chatbot. Matt Heaton found those little chatbot nuggets, which I inserted after I’d putt he whole thing together to be kind of funny. Thank you Matt for always keeping it fun, and for all the editing help and the production music. Thank you Nigel for acknowledging this month’s sponsors. And thank you to Sarah James, Alison Wylie, and Karan Casey for the wee stories about online music, and about laundry.
For playlists, transcripts, and sheet music to these original tunes, and to kick in to help make more Irish Music Stories, please visit IrishMusicStories.org
>> Chatbot: Innovations can raise ethical concerns around issues such as the use of artificial intelligence
Episode guests in order of appearance
World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music
Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist who has appeared on stages and recordings with numerous projects