"Celtic" Music
What's in a name?

Updated: November 9, 2000

  The term "celtic music" has been used widely, but incorrectly, in recent years to refer to the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland/Cape Breton Island, Brittany in France, Wales, Galicia and Asturias in Spain, and a few other areas. However, this label is misleading, since the Celts had little or nothing to do with this music, and the music traditions of these diverse areas do not all stem from a common root.

  Nevertheless, the term has come to be used, even by people other than marketers, as a shortcut to describe the folk and dance music of these areas which, to varying degrees, share tunes, dances, songs, instruments, and language. Correct or not, the contemporary use of the term "celtic music" has created a common understanding of what music is referred to.

  Most closely related are the Irish and Scottish/Cape Breton traditions which share both tune types (jigs, reels, hornpipes), tunes, songs, and variants of Gaelic. More distantly related are the music traditions of Wales and Brittany, and finally the traditions of the neighboring areas of Galicia and Astures.

  As the world shrinks through easier travel within and between countries, the mixing of music between the cultures increases. Irish bands now frequently play Breton dance tunes from France. The very Irish group The Chieftains have released albums of both Breton and Galician music.

Regardless of historical differences, common features of all this music allow players and listeners to appreciate it very easily. I think it would be awful if these music traditions were to meld into some homogenous form of "world music". Traditional music is under enormous pressure both from pop music ubiquitous on the radio and television, and even from widespread "celtic" CDs. These most clearly threaten to cause the loss of local music traditions within a tradition. However, there seems to be a growing appreciation of these local traditions so there may be increasing hope. To the extent I can, I hope these pages help contribute to the health of local musical traditions.

So, let the debate about the term "celtic music" continue. Just please do it in the back room; I'm too busy enjoying the music.

Please send your comments or suggestions to me, Jim Scarff, at: jim@sfcelticmusic.com.