The Irish "session" has its origins in America in the 20th century

by the Standing Stones, a duo with Michael Robinson and Vicki Parrish

Some people are under the impression that Irish music sessions are a type of traditional event. However, authorities such as Breandan Breathnach and others agree that Irish music as played traditionally was a solo, unaccompanied musical form. Furthermore, the artistry of the music depends for a large extent on the variation and ornamentation of the basic tune by the performer—subtleties which are necessarily lost when there is more than one performer.

In Cape Breton, which has probably the most conservative tradition in Gaelic music, it was unheard of until quite recently to have more than one fiddler playing at a time. To play while another person was playing would have been considered just as rude as talking while another person was talking.

The only circumstance in which it was common to have more than one person playing at a time was at dances. The lack of affordable PA systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made it necessary to have multiple performers so that the music would be audible.

From the reports of some of the early collectors, it appears that many professional musicians avoided performing in the presence of other musicians for fear that their tunes would be stolen. The stock of tunes in a given area may have been quite small, and knowing a tune that others didn't could be a distinct advantage. Many of the old musicians were extremely jealous of each other, and would carry their special tunes to the grave rather than teach them to anyone other than possibly a son or extremely well-loved pupil (with instructions not to perform them during the teacher's lifetime).

Some of the professionals were more generous, however, and some schools of playing can be traced back to particular founders. (This is described in The Northern Fiddler.)

While there were of course many talented amateur musicians, traditionally the best musicians were usually professional or at least semi-professional. However, being a professional musician in the early 19th century was a career rather similar to being a professional beggar. They often played for tips at cattle fairs, horse races, etc.

A number of professional musicians in the old style kept going well into the 20th century. For example, Johnny Doherty and Padraig O'Keeffe made their livelihood from music without giving concerts until late in their lives, if at all (aside from being taped and played on the radio).

The old harpers were almost all professionals, but they were usually maintained by the old aristocratic families. This form of patronage died out around the middle to late 18th century.

In Scotland professional musicians adopted the modern style of giving concerts, going on tour, etc. around the middle 18th century, just as the old patronage system died out. The musician/beggar lifestyle existed as well—no doubt it depended on your class origins.

Amateurs were much more likely to play in sessions than professionals, lacking the jealousy caused by having to depend on your store of tunes for your bread and butter, and lacking the artistry to perform elegant variations. Since such professional musicians as emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 19th century tended to gravitate towards stage performance (since the opportunities for a traditional musical lifestyle and prejudices against lower-class performers appearing on stage were both absent), it may well be that the establishment of the session as the standard venue for the performance of Irish music was an American innovation.

It is certain that the growth of sessions has changed the form of Irish music. The amount of variation of the tunes has decreased radically and the old descriptive pieces of music have almost totally died out.

The lifestyle in which Irish music originated is almost totally gone, and before we become too nostalgic about it we should remember that it was a life of hard physical labour, grinding poverty, poor health and early death. The fact that the music is changing is an indication that it is still alive and has not become a museum piece. This is not the first time that the music has changed in order to adapt to changing social structures, by any means.

Hammy Hamilton, the well-known Irish flute maker, responded:

Michael Robinson's comments about the session and the development of non-solo playing are very relevant. I've been working in this area for some time and I believe that there is a strong connection between the improvement in social and economic conditions in Ireland at the end of the 19th century and the rise of amateur playing of traditional music. It seems that previously the vast majority of players were professional. Non-solo playing doesn't really appear until the early recordings of the 78 RPM period in the States. The session as we know it today is a much later development, in the majority of cases not being common until the 1950's! The earliest date that I can establish for a pub session is in the late 1930's and I think this would have been very unusual at the time.

Margaret Steiner at Indiana University responded:

First of all, Robinson is quite correct in asserting that traditionally, playing was a solo activity, around the hearth, and perhaps taking place in conjunction with other expressive arts—singing, storytelling, etc., among neighbors who gathered together at a "ceili house." The ceili band, and later the session, were recent innovations.

I can tell you about my experience in Newtownbutler, Co. Fermanagh, where I did my doctoral research and where I returned in 1992. When I began my research in 1978, virtually no instrumental music was heard in the pubs, although sometimes someone would get out his fiddle, or, maybe there would be a fiddle and an accordion, but this was generally at Mrs. Connolly's, a well known "ceili house"—i.e., a home where folk would spontaneously gather to socialize and sometimes to play music or sing or tell stories. Singing, the subject of my dissertation, was integral to community life, and the songs celebrated neighbors and ancestors. People accorded the singers their utmost attention and would signal that attention by "good-manning"; [giving verbal encouragement during performance], singing along on choruses, and applauding on the song's completion. Again, the sort of ensemble playing that people associate with the session was NOT a part of the tradition.

When I returned to Newtown butler, which I had been visiting over a ten-year period, while writing, when I did a post-dissertation visit in 1992, sessions had made their appearance. Young people, some of whom were the progeny of singers, were playing the familiar session tunes, and, as you suggest, for most people, it was background music. I suggest that unlike the songs, which were fraught with palpable meaning for the community, the session music, brought in through radio and records, while pleasant to listen to, did not bear the same meaning for the community. At one session, at the end of the evening, some of the older singers sang began to perform songs which encapsulated what being from Newtown butler is about, and,the moment the singing began, the whole atmosphere changed, and virtually everyone in the pub became intensely engaged.