As I have learned and written about over my adventures traveling the globe while a student at Centre, study abroad is an opportunity to be humbled and open one’s mind and spirit to a different way of living, as well as gain perspective and roundedness from every amazing experience. While my time in Ireland this CentreTerm was full of learning about the rich Irish culture, the topic of the class, The Celtic Roots of Bluegrass Music, added a different level of meaning to the experience—one that brought it from the green grass of Ireland (I mean really, really green), to the bluegrass of Kentucky, while also having the opportunity to bring our bluegrass music to Ireland.
Named for the region of central Kentucky and Appalachia from which it was developed, bluegrass music is a beautiful mix of African and Irish music—a result of the forced emigration that brought these two groups of people together. The list of musical traditions and connections between Appalachian music and Irish music is extensive, including the importance of ballads, oral transmission and regional differences. However, the most beautiful similarity I saw between Irish music and the Bluegrass I know and love was hidden until I had the privilege of seeing it performed up-close and in-person. To play a type of music so regionally specific and rooted in local history is not only an interesting cultural learning opportunity but also the preservation, celebration and honoring of an entire cultural identity through the making of great music.
I picked up the banjo just over two years ago, an idea long-inspired by my interest in its entirely unique sound, blistering speed and uniqueness to Kentucky. “As if the Eiffel Tower were the symbol of everything French, to me, the banjo is the symbol of everything Kentuckian,” I later explained to a large classroom full of French teenagers on the subsequent European tour our bluegrass group Kentucky Music Ensemble took after the conclusion of the Ireland trip. As the symbol of everything Kentuckian, l felt that playing the banjo was a connection I could make with the heritage and land of which I am so proud. After learning about the rich Kentucky music history through banjo lessons with Dr. Tim Lake at Centre, this dream has been well fulfilled.
Long before I began picking the banjo, however, Blackie O’Connell picked up the uilleann pipes (an Irish reed instrument played by blowing a bag kept under the elbow), working as an apprentice under the wing of the legendary piper, traveler Mickey Dunne. O’Connell has come to be one of the most famous contemporary Irish pipers and has brought Irish traditional music to all corners of the world, touring with his companion, bouzouki player Cyril O’Donoghue. In the small but well-known musical town of Doolin, Blackie and Cyril met with our class at a local pub to teach us the history of the uilleann pipes and play us some traditional Irish music. Before playing the quintessential Irish pipes, Blackie gave us the history of the instrument and how it developed along with Ireland over its history of cultural oppression. Surrounded by the enormous and complicated instrument, it became clear to me that Blackie was telling the history of the pipes and that of Ireland simultaneously, as if it were his own life story. For Blackie, the mastering of his instrument was an ironclad way he could make sure that the pipers that came before him (some of whom were killed for playing their instrument) were honored and their memories preserved, as well as shared with the entire world.
Seeing the passionate way the multitude of incredible Irish musicians played and spoke of their instruments made evident that, while the list of similarities between Irish and Kentucky’s music adds up to a doctoral thesis worth of information, the most real connection is one that is spiritual. Those who play Irish music and Bluegrass music, whether they are from the respective regions of the music or not, are bringing beautiful sounds to life for the purpose of celebrating a long history of creativity and beauty in spite of oppression, while sharing that experience with all of the musicians and music lovers that came before them. Blackie, Cyril and the other amazing Irish musicians we had the opportunity to hear and talk with have given me a new appreciation for the role of music in overcoming adversity, diving into the music of different cultures and, most of all, a passion for being a proud cultural ambassador for the bluegrass of Kentucky—whether that be through teaching, casual conversation or picking some banjo strings.
by Ben Bennett
February 18, 2020