Audio Advent 2021 Day 2: My top ten Celtic folk songs that you should listen to

Although I enjoy listening to all sorts of genres of music, and have performed even more than I enjoy listening to (I’m talking about you, Mr Cage…), as my previous writings probably give away, my real passion lies in folk music. There are photos of me enjoying the summer folk festival circuit before I could even walk, and falling asleep in bundles of coats while the music played on, so I was really brought up on folk and world music before discovering any other genres, and I suspect that’s why I’ve always had a love for it. 

In this article I will share my top 10 folk songs, in no meaningful order, that I think you should listen to, and explain why I have chosen each one. It hasn’t been easy singling out just 10, but I hope you give a few of them a listen and enjoy them as much as I do! 

1) Cousin Jack - Show of Hands

Show of Hands, as well as being one of the most well known folk groups in the world, is one of the bands I have the earliest memories of seeing live, so they have always had a special place in my heart. This track in particular I remember my baby sister mixing up the lyrics for so I have chosen it almost purely for sentimental reasons. Luckily it also happens to be a great song with a great chorus, and does make you think about the effect of second home owners on Cornish working villages. 

2) Pige Ruadh - Capercaillie

Capercaillie have always been my favourite band, having seen them live younger than I can remember, and then often listening to their music to alleviate the boredom of long childhood car journeys. They’re a fascinating band for many reasons, including their - at the time - revolutionary use of electronic effects in their music, creating some of the first examples of Celtic fusion music. This track, Pige Ruadh, is unfortunately only available on YouTube or on their live recording album ‘Get Out’ that has sadly been out of production for some years, but is one of my favourites of all time. It features a great example of Puirt à beul, or Celtic mouth music, a technique whereby often nonsense lyrics are set to traditional Celtic tunes to mimic or even replace physical instruments. Some say that this technique originated during the Disarming Act and Act of Proscription in 1746 when musical instruments were said to have been banned, however there is no written evidence of this. If you listen carefully, the lyrics, which translate as ‘I found the red jug, I found the red jug, I found the red jug, in the henhouse’ are sung with such precise, short rhythms, and if you were to play just the notes on a violin or accordion for example, you would hear a recognisable folk jig. 

3) New York Girls - Bellowhead

Bellowhead are another firm favourite of mine, and one of the few folk bands well known outside of the Celtic music world, with music played on BBC Radio 2 and 3, recording at Abbey Road Studios, and a period as Artists in Residence at the Southbank Centre. What attracts me to them more than anything else is their completely unique instrumentation, with percussion galore and a four person brass section including the indomitable Sousaphone. They’re a force to be reckoned with on stage, and although they officially parted ways in May 2016, they are reuniting for a Broadside 10th anniversary tour in November 2022 which I am indescribably excited about! New York Girls is probably Bellowhead’s most famous track, and apart from the chuckle-worthy cautionary tale about relations with quayside harlots, it is also a brilliantly catchy tune with funky syncopation, and a chorus that you can sign along to in the car. 

4) Raging Sea - The Elders

The Elders, a six piece Irish folk band based in Kansas City, Missouri, are best known in the American-Irish folk world, having had their songs played on over 120 US radio stations, but have also toured Ireland and Europe, and produced a number of albums enjoyed around the world. This song, Raging Sea, I only discovered recently, but the irresistibly catchy tune means if I haven’t been listening to it deliberately, I’ve more than likely got it stuck in my head! Listen to this one if you’re unafraid of an ear worm…

5) Mrs MacLeod of Raasay - Alasdair MacCuish & The Black Rose Ceilidh Band

I have chosen this as a classic, jolly Celilidh reel, that’s great fun to listen to, great fun to dance to, and great fun to play on the accordion. As a part time amateur accordionist myself, I discovered this tune in a book of sheet music, and thought it was a delight to play, as well as having some slightly trickier harmonic sequences than I had previously attempted on the accordion. For those of you who don’t know, the harmony on an accordion is provided by a selection of buttons on the left hand side of the bellows that are laid out in the circle of fifths, so the more the harmony strays from this, the further apart your fingers have to jump to reach the chords!

6) Dystopia - Talisk

Talisk were a relatively unknown Scottish folk trio until they won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2015, followed by the MC Alba Scots Trad Music Award “Folk Band of the Year” in 2017. Rising to fame so quickly has certainly not come at the detriment of their music making, as their purely instrumental tracks fusing electronics with Scottish and Irish tunes have racked up millions of streams worldwide. What I like most about them however, is their incredible stage presence live. Their energy is infectious, Mohsen Amini’s virtuosic concertina playing is utterly captivating, and the powerful driving beat that accompanies most pieces makes them the leader in Folk Festival dance music. They are certainly a band best seen live.

Flashing lights warning!

7) The Magnificent Seven - Afro Celt Sound System

Formed in 1995 by Simon Emmerson, ACSS have been writing, performing and recording a fascinating mixture of electronic music, Gaelic music and West African music. Although all of their music is worth listening to, and in fact one is used as a study piece in the Edexcell GCSE music syllabus, I have chosen this track in particular because they are joined by The Dhol Foundation, a London based Dhol group lead by Johnny Kalsi. They too are an interesting fusion group, blending traditional Punjab bhangra music with electronic dance beats. So in total, this track blends Gaelic, West African, Northern Indian, electronic and dance styles of music. That’s a lot of fusion!

8) Gone to Fortingall/Wired to the Moon - Micheal McGoldrick and Jerry Douglas

This is a track that I discovered while listening to the Transatlantic Sessions 6 album, and instantly fell in love with it. Micheal McGoldrick is a multi-instrumentalist and composer known particularly for his Irish flute and Uilleann pipes playing, as well as being one of the founding members of Capercaillie. This fusion of two pieces is beautiful, and the resonator guitar played by Jerry Douglass weaving gracefully in and out of the folk melody shows superb musicianship. Listen out for his solo in the middle of the piece - something not often heard in folk tunes!

9) Sporting Paddy - Session A9

I have chosen this for no other reason than that, out of the innumerable and often similar ones to choose from, it has long been my favourite folk reel. Weirdly I have never been able to master it on the accordion, but having first heard it played by Capercaille (again on their elusive ‘Get Out’ live recording) and later by a number of other folk bands, I have yet to listen to it without a smile on my face. It is unapologetically joyful, and performed engagingly here by Session A9 in an arrangement that’s as close to the Capercaillie one as I have been able to find. I hope you enjoy it, too.

10) Ship in High Transit - The Duhks 

I first remember seeing Canadian folk group The Duhks at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2008, where we bought their newest album at the time, and still my favourite album of theirs, ‘Fast Paced World’. Admittedly this is a bit of a step in the bluegrass direction rather than Scottish or Irish folk, but against popular opinion, I have always enjoyed the banjo in a folk group. This track in particular has fascinating metric modulation in the time signature, and as a percussionist myself I can say with confidence that the drummer is doing a commendable job keeping time! The rest of Fast Paced World is all worth listening to, so if you enjoyed this track, do go and explore The Duhks further.

So there we have it, my current top ten folk tunes. I am sure the list will change in a day or so, but if you have made it this far, thank you, and I hope you liked some of the music!

Stay tuned for the rest of Audio Advent 2021.

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