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Get Your Irish Up with some Celtic Music on St. Patrick's Day!

Defining "Celtic music," contemporary or not, can be an exercise in frustration. Even among the experts, reaching consensus isn't easy. To many people, Celtic music might be described as "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I hear it." The focus of this Special Collection is the style and feel of music often associated with Ireland and Scotland, plus Wales, the Maritime provinces of Canada, along with parts of Spain, France and even England. The emphasis is on contemporary music, whether performed acoustically or electronically.


Celtic Music edited by Kenny Mathieson (2001): There are plenty of performers and bands recognized in this colorful title. In addition to spotlighting music from Ireland, Scotland and the Maritime provinces of Canada, it includes chapters about Celtic music from places such as Iberia (Spain) and Brittany (France). Recommended recordings are sprinkled throughout the book.

Celtic Music: A Complete Guide by June Skinner Sawyers (2001): The author charts the evolution of Celtic music from the 12th century to contemporary times. In her initial chapter ("What Is Celtic Music?"), she points out that "the current Celtic 'scene' has little to do with authentic Celtic tradition." Recommended recordings include not only the expected (Chieftains, Capercaillie, etc.), but also the unexpected (U2, Cranberries, etc.).

Celtic Tides: Traditional Music in a New Age by Martin Melhuish (1998): This book is a companion to a Canadian television special of the same name, as well as to a music CD sampler (listed below). The author explores the popularization of Celtic music, complete with interviews and a thorough discography (through 1998).

The Rough Guide to Irish Music by Geoff Wallis and Sue Wilson (2001): This is a small format book, but its 600 pages are packed with information about Irish performers, groups and family bands, including the most popular such as the Chieftains, Pogues and Lunasa, as well as many lesser known but influential artists like members of the O'Domhnaill family. The introductory sections focus on topics such as forms and styles of Irish music.

The Rough Guide to World Music (1995): A chapter on Celtic music opens this authoritative publication. Featured sub-sections include "Irish Soul," "Harps, Bards and Punks" and "The Breton Accent." The overview is comparatively short (42 pages), but informative and entertaining.

Performers: Music and Websites

The performers identified below provide an overview of Celtic music today. Performer names are linked to the Catalog of the Canton Public Library. Where official, fan or other websites are listed, they are included as a source for further information and not as an endorsement of any commercial products being sold.

Altan (Official Website): Altan follows a back-to-basics approach to traditional Irish music. Sample its work on The Best of Altan: The Songs or, if you want to try a single album, Island Angel is considered by some critics to be one of the best traditional Irish recordings of the 90's.

Anuna (Official Website): The performances of the group, Anuna, are a blend of ancient Celtic music and ghostly choral arrangements, complete with strong elements of mythology and folklore. It appeared as an integral part of Riverdance until 1996. You'll find a variety of recordings by Anuna at the Canton Public Library, including Omnis.

Mary Black (Official Website): Like many Celtic performers, Black got her start as part of a musical family. In the early 80's, she moved on, joining the Irish band, De Dannan. She is considered one of Ireland's leading female singers. Speaking with the Angel is one of a number of her albums that you will find at the library.

Black 47 (Official Website): The leader of this Irish-American band is Larry Kirwan, an emigrant to the U.S. Black 47's performances--on record and in person--are exceptionally powerful, a rich mixture of rock, reggae and rap, all with a Celtic flair. Fire of Freedom includes numbers such as "Livin' in America," "James Connolly" and "Funky Ceili."

Blackthorn (Official Website): Blackthorn is a very popular four-member folk ensemble based in the Detroit area, though lead vocalist Richard McMullan was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. All members--McMullan, Gary McMullen, Fred Klein and Dennis Green--are multi-instrumentalists, between them playing more than ten instruments during concert performances. You'll find a handful of Blackthorn CDs at the library, including one of its newest, First Light.

Paul Brady (Official Website): Brady's musical path includes an early stint in Planxty, followed by a long and successful solo career during which he recorded albums such as Spirits Colliding.

Capercaillie (Official Website): The Scottish group, Capercaillie, is applauded for its success in combining the old with the new, especially for its imaginative and contemporary arrangements. Billboard magazine called it "the most exciting and vibrant band in Celtic music today." Meantime, Sean Connery complimented lead singer Karen Matheson as having "a throat surely touched by the hand of God." Dusk Till Dawn is a collection of 17 of the group's best recordings.

Cherish the Ladies (Official Website): Initially launched as a one-time concert concept, the Irish-American Cherish the Ladies was the first all-woman traditional Irish band. Calling themselves a "music and dance ensemble," they often include local and regional step-dancing champions as part of their shows. Their album, At Home, is available at the Canton Public Library.

Chieftains (Official Website): The Chieftains are considered the greatest popularizers of traditional Celtic music. The Canton Public Library has approximately two dozen recordings by the group, coming from throughout the band's four-decade history. In recent years, they've released collaborations with many artists, including Van Morrison, Nanci Griffith, Roger Daltry, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss. The Chieftains' Collection: The Very Best of the Claddagh Years is a good overview of the group's earliest recordings. One of those albums, 4, introduced acclaimed harpist Derek Bell, who passed away in 2002. The Best of the Chieftains is another excellent collection. Also recommended is Water from the Well, which is an audio accompaniment to the video of the same name (see Videos: Music, below).

Clannad (Official Website): Clannad was formed in 1970, a union of two Irish families (Brennan and Duggan). The youngest family member, Enya, carved her own solo career and wasn't credited on any of the group's recordings until Fuaim in 1982. Rogha: The Best of Clannad and A Magical Gathering: The Clannad Anthology provide excellent overviews of the group and its evolution covering three decades.

Enya (Official Website): Immensely successful, especially commercially, Enya charted an independent path upon leaving the group, Clannad. For better or worse, her recordings have often been lumped under the "New Age" heading, in large part due to their atmospheric sound. The Celts was her first solo album, but Watermark and Shepherd Moons easily eclipsed that title in terms of worldwide sales.

Great Big Sea (Official Website): Member Bob Hallett describes this Newfoundland outfit as "a really aggressive folk band that marries traditional Celtic music with modern rhythms." Its Sea of No Cares album features songs such as "French Perfume," "Scolding Wife" and "Yarmouth Town."

Eileen Ivers (Official Website): Ivers has served as a member of Cherish the Ladies, as well as having a featured presence in the stage musical, Riverdance. Born in the Bronx to Irish emigrants, she is one of the most popular Irish fiddlers today. So Far: The Eileen Ivers Collection is a great way to familiarize yourself with her talents.

Lash (Official Website): The Lash is based in Michigan, and one of its albums, Every Direction, is a remarkably polished blend of Celtic folk and rock, with other influences clearly illustrated by the song, "Irish Cajun Polka Queen." In the book, Celtic Tides, the band describes its performances of Celtic mayhem as "folk music for rockers, rock music for folkies."

Leahy (Official Website): This group of nine brothers and sisters has won numerous "best" awards from the Canadian music industry and saw its popularity soar when Shania Twain added them to a world tour in the late 90's. A real-life family of performers, they were raised on a farm in Ontario. Their self-titled debut recording, Leahy, is an instrumental affair, with one tune, "The Call to Dance," utilizing step-dancing as part of the music.

Lunasa (Official Website): This all-instrumental Irish band is noted for its powerful, rhythmic approach, with The Merry Sisters of Fate being a good introduction to its work.

Ashley MacIsaac (Official Website): MacIsaac is one of the more exuberant fiddlers today, hailing from the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia. As a youngster, his performances were more traditional (try Not Calm: Cape Breton Fiddle Music, with Howie MacDonald), but he's charged ahead in more contemporary directions in recent years (listen to Hi, How Are You Today?). MacIsaac is a younger cousin of another Cape Breton fiddler, Natalie MacMaster.

Natalie MacMaster (Official Website): Listen to My Roots Are Showing for a taste of fiddle music as played on Cape Breton Island, Canada. (Check this Special Multimedia Collection for an entry for Ashley MacIsaac, her younger cousin and another fiddler from Nova Scotia.)

Loreena McKennitt (Official Website): Born and raised in Manitoba, McKennitt is noted in the book, Celtic Music by June Skinner Sawyers, as developing a gradual appreciation of Celtic music, though today she is recognized for her current world view of music in which everything is connected. Included among the library's collection are recordings such as The Visit, Parallel Dreams and Elemental.

Oysterband (Official Website): The Oysterband is English though it is often lumped under the Celtic heading, perhaps making it an "honorary Celtic group." Its rousing performances compare favorably to the best Irish folk-rock bands. For example, listen to "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down" from the Granite Years, a "best of" collection.

Pogues (Website): The now-disbanded Pogues were Londoners of Irish descent who brashly walked a fine line between Irish folk, rock and punk music, serving as inspiration for dozens of bands that followed. Try the Very Best of the Pogues, but hold onto your hat. The Pogues are raucous and "in your face."

Rankins (Website): Once upon a time, this Canadian group was known as the Rankin Family. Under either name, it's something of an institution in Canada. The Rankins Collection highlights a number of recordings throughout the band's history. Try some of the more Celtic-flavored songs like "Grey Dusk of Eve" and "Fail Il E."

Rawlins Cross: One of the leaders of this now-disbanded group joked during an interview on Canadian television that it was part of the only "growth industry" in the province of Newfoundland, that being music. It was named for a highway intersection in the capital, St. John's. Reel 'n' Roll and Living River both spotlight the dynamic vocals of Joey Kitson, supported by brothers Dave and Geoff Panting, and the rest of the crew.

Runrig (Official Website): A Scottish band, Runrig dates back to 1978. Its sound is broad and sweeping, not unlike what you might hear if the Moody Blues ever played Celtic music. For much of the group's history, it was fronted by vocalist Donnie Munro (listen to The Cutter & The Clan). Runrig's reputation for featuring excellent lead singers continued with Munro's replacement, Bruce Guthro. Performances alternate between English and Gaelic.

Solas (Official Website) Solas is one of the more significant American-Irish bands, and it's one of the more versatile in terms of its ability to play with power and, alternately, sensitivity. The Words that Remain is a favorite among the recordings available at the library.

Samplers of Celtic Music

A good way to sample a variety of Celtic performers is to look for collections of Celtic music. These are just a few of the samplers available at the library.

25 Years of Celtic Music: This is a double disc from Green Linnet Records, one of the primary purveyers of Celtic music. Performers include Silly Wizard, Patrick Street, Old Blind Dogs, Kevin Burke and the Tannahill Weavers.

Brave Hearts: New Scots Music: You'll find tunes from Ashley MacIsaac, Mary Jane Lamond, Leahy and others on this disc.

Celtic Tides: A sampler from the record label, Putumayo, features performers like Clannad, Capercaillie, Mary Black and Solas from Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States. Be sure to check Celtic Tides: Traditional Music in a New Age, a book companion to the music CD.

Fiona Ritchie Presents the Best of The Thistle & Shamrock: Check Additional Internet Resources (see below) for a link to The Thistle & Shamrock program aired on many public radio stations. Show host, Fiona Ritchie, culls some of her favorites from the many programs that have aired, including works by Clannad, Altan, Relativity, Sileas, Maura O'Connell and the Battlefield Band. A surprise cut is "Corryvreckan" by Ossian harpist, William Jackson.

Troubadours of British Folk, Volume 3: Though the title says "British," the musicians featured include groups as such Runrig, the Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard, all firmly rooted in the Celtic style.

Videos: Music

Chieftains: Water From the Well (Videocassette and DVD): Members of the Chieftains offer "tales of their earliest memories of Irish music," while revisiting places in Ireland that helped form their musical soul. Includes group performances, with guest appearances by Van Morrison, Ashley MacIsaac, Los Lobos and Altan.

The Kennedy Center Presents: The Irish Gala (Videocassette): This public television production features performances of musicians such as Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Maighread and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, and Donal Lunny in collaboration with artists like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Ricky Skaggs to celebrate Irish and Irish-American music, dance and culture. Included is a set from Riverdance.

Videos: Dance

It's hard to listen to Celtic music, especially jigs and reels, without beginning to toe tap to the beat. Celtic dance is triggered by the music, leading to some very popular stage shows in recent years.

Riverdance: The Show (Videocassette): This is the original cast recording of the popular stage presentation, from the Point Theatre in Dublin and starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. Riverdance is billed as "the ultimate celebration of the very best of Irish culture."

Riverdance: Live from New York City (Videocassette): The setting for this production is Radio City Music Hall, with Colin Dunne joining Jean Butler in the lead roles. The line-up of songs and dances for this version differs somewhat from the Michael Flatley edition.

Lord of the Dance (Videocassette): Michael Flatley stars in this sequel to Riverdance, also performed at the Point Theatre in Dublin. It re-tells Irish folk legend "in a dazzling and updated style."

Celtic Feet (Videocassette): This isn't a stage presentation, but it helps teach Irish dancing, step by step, just in case you want to create your own "Riverdance." The instructor is Colin Dunne, star of Riverdance: Live from New York City.

Additional Internet Resources

Celtic Radio on the Internet: This is simply a webpage listing all of the known programs featuring Celtic music and originating in the British Isles to which you should be able to listen online. There is no notation regarding how frequently the list is updated. Eastern Standard Time zone broadcast times are listed in parentheses.

Celtic WebRadio: This website appears to be a personal project of a Celtic music fan, Rudy Ramsey, yet it seems especially complete in identifying opportunities to hear Celtic music online (and even a few sources for viewing it via the Internet). It also includes a lengthy list of performer webpages.

The Thistle and Shamrock: Hosted by Fiona Ritchie and based in Scotland, The Thistle and Shamrock is probably the most popular and widely heard Celtic music radio program on the air today. It is carried by hundreds of National Public Radio affiliates around the U.S., including 17 stations in Michigan. Broadcast Days and Times are found on the program's website. The list includes WDET-FM in Detroit, WUOM-FM in Ann Arbor and WKAR-FM in East Lansing.