March 15, 2013
Beyond “Danny Boy” Celtic music, says Richard Carlin, a record producer who has long specialized in the genre, “runs far, far deeper than something like Riverdance.” For the just-released Classic Celtic Music, he combed the Smithsonian Folkways vaults for 23 choice tracks, recorded between 1945 and 1986, that would brighten anybody’s St. Patrick’s Day: a jig by fiddler Michael Gorman and banjoist Margaret Barry, an air with Billy Pigg on Northumbrian smallpipes, a song by the Irish vocalist Sorcha Ní Ghuairim in the lilting, haunting style known as sean-nós. Dancing encouraged but not required.
Carlin, who play the concertina, has been interested in Celtic music for decades, even recording his own album with Folkways in 1977, “In Come A Bumblebee.” Around the Mall spoke with Carlin by telephone.
You’ve worked with Folkways and know its catalog of offerings well?
I worked for Folkways in the mid-70s and did some production of Irish albums for them at that time when it was still an independent company. And then some years later, I wrote a history of the label and in writing that history, thought, you know there are lots of different aspects of the catalog that haven’t been, that aren’t as well known, as explored. And a lot of people weren’t aware that as early as the mid-40s, Moses Asch, the man who owned Folkways, was already recording traditional Irish music. So, that was where the idea came from, to draw on the catalog, to highlight—because there’s over, I don’t know, 2,200 albums that were released during his lifetime and so it’s a massive catalog and everybody knows about Pete Seeger and Lead Belly and what not, but not many people, I think, were aware of some of the other things he did.
What makes Celtic music unique, what defines it?
Celtic music is sort of a catch-all term that really wasn’t used by the musicians themselves even when I played with those musicians. They didn’t call themselves Celtic musicians. That wasn’t even at that time really a genre that people talked about. It started out with the Celtic Twilight School at the turn of the century where there was a revival of all things Irish, Gaelic, people like Yeats and John Millington Synge. It was a literary movement. Then there was the formation of Irish cultural organizations that were formed to promote traditional dance and traditional music. In general, the term is used to refer to traditional musics of the British Isles and the related cultures, there’s Celtic cultures in France, in Canada, in Brittany, in various different areas, but it’s become sort of a catch-all phrase, mostly applied to Irish traditional music or Scottish.
People like to say, “This music has been known for thousands of years, since the dawn of time.” But not so much. Polka for example was an Eastern European tradition that became very popular in the mid-19th century and spread to Ireland, so now it’s considered traditional Irish dance music but it certainly isn’t that old in the grand scheme of things and really was sort of like saying 100 years ago, disco might be considered traditional music, because polka was very much the same way that disco was, a European, fad music.
How did it change when it came to America?
When musicians play the music they like—and again this is often to the embarrassment of folklorists—you know, you go to record a traditional ballad singer, and they’ll start singing Elvis Presley, and in the past, you wouldn’t put that on the record. You’d only put on the record, the traditional ballads they sang, which was, in a way, somewhat misrepresentative, but it’s because we were only interested in hearing the “true” folk music. These musicians played the music they like and therefore, like any immigrant group, when the Irish came to America they were very influenced. The Irish dance bands of the 20s and 30s played for dancing, so they not only played Irish dance music, they played, popular swing music, and they incorporated similar instruments like saxophones.
How did you get interested in the type of music, I know when you went to Oberlin College you found a thriving Irish music scene in Cleveland, what drew you in?
I was playing the music myself and just wanted to play music and had no idea that there was this large traditional community there and so it really just started out as myself and a few friends of mine visiting with these others musicians in the basements of their homes, which is mostly where they played and it was just out of a love of playing the music and wanting to play more and that kind of thing than the idea that, oh, I’m going to record an album or anything like that.
January 14, 2013
Monday, January 14: The Higgs Boson Particle: Why It Matters
The Higgs Boson is a particle so small that it took scientists 50 years to find it. Headlines exploded last year when the so-called “God particle” was detected, but can something so small really be so important? Renowned theoretical astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss spends the evening explaining why without this elusive mini-particle, our entire understanding of physics would unravel. Bring along or pick up a copy of Krauss’s latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, if you would like an autograph. $28-$40 (student discounts available), tickets here. 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. Natural History Museum.
*BONUS*: Grammy-winning Smithsonian Folkways artists Los Texmaniacs are in town tonight for the first time since the release of their latest album, Texas Towns & Tex-Mex Sounds. The Texan quartet plays jams rooted in conjunto polka music (with instruments like the 12-string banjo sexto and the button accordion), but also draws from classic rock, blues and Chicano dance sounds. Polka the night away! $15, tickets here. 7:30 p.m. The Hamilton.
Tuesday, January 15: See the President up “Close”
Here’s your chance to get up close and personal with Barack Obama. Sure, the president himself is busy preparing for his second inauguration, but a huge portrait of him by famed artist Chuck Close is on display today in the National Portrait Gallery. Stop by to congratulate Mr. President on his reelection or to air your political grievances to him — just be sure not to disturb the other visitors. (Close, by the way, also has captured Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, and was appointed in 2010 to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.) Free. On display until March 2013 on the second floor of the South Rotunda at the National Portrait Gallery.
Wednesday, January 16: Between the Folds
There is a lot more to origami than making cute cranes. The 17th century Japanese art of paper folding is still seriously practiced today by artists who devote their entire lives to learning its intricate and often deeply mathematical techniques. Between the Folds, a documentary, profiles a group of artists and scientists who hope to push the art to its next level. One of the group’s artists, Erik Demaine, will present the film, as well as answer questions and demonstrate folds. Free. Noon. Renwick Gallery.
Thursday, January 17: Peacock Room Shutters Open
Want a taste of luxury? The Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room, once an opulent British dining room, now hosts more than 250 ceramics from Egypt, Iran, Japan, China and Korea that museum founder Charles Lang Freer collected on his travels. At noon, the museum opens the room’s shutters to bathe the collection in sunlight, and the room glows blue, green and gold. The shimmering colors won’t fade any time soon, either; special filtering film on the room’s windows prevents the sun’s effects on the ceramics. Free. Noon to 5:30 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Also check out our specially created Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is also packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.