Celtic sessions: songs as old as the hills
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS – Twice a month, music from the Celtic harp and penny whistle wafts from lakeside living rooms as a group of 18 musicians gather to honor the ancient practice of song making.
Most are part of the Charlotte Folk Society, a group begun in 1982 with an aim to preserve the folk music, crafts and lore of the Scots-Irish who settled into the Blue Ridge Mountains and piedmont valley hundreds of years ago.
“Music is one of those innate expressions of life away from the drudgery of work,” Bethli Miescher-Clemens, secretary of the folk society, said. “Some of the songs are 400 or 500 years old and have only evolved a very little bit over time.”
Celtic sessions are informal gatherings of local musicians who generally have some grasp of Celtic instruments and may memorize songs before the meetings. In slow sessions, songs are not played as fast, and there is a shorter list of tunes to consider.
Bethli and her husband, Mark, have participated in both slow and fast Celtic music sessions in area homes for the past four years. Mark plays the Celtic guitar while Bethli, a former cellist, plays the bodhran, a type of drum, and the Irish whistle.
“I bought a guitar in the 1960s and declared myself a folk singer,” Mark joked. “But I’ve never played anything so instrumental. Celtic sessions have given me the opportunity to hone my craft and play with other musicians who are really dedicated to playing in the proper style.”
Musicians choose from a selection of jigs, reels and waltzes from Ireland, Scotland, eastern Canada and New England with poetic names like “Dark Island,” “Flowers of Edinburgh” and “Inisheer.”
Sessions aren’t concerts, as private homes are often stuffed with players’ unfurled instruments. Yet the curious can attend a session if they’re considering joining.
The group is in search of a public venue, ideally an Irish pub, to hold its meetings.
“We follow a protocol developed many years ago for how music is handled and sessions are run,” said Bethli. “People gather for sessions in Dublin, Japan, Sydney, San Francisco and Boston, and they follow a similar protocol with similar instruments.”
This means that the three-hour sessions are run almost identically worldwide, no matter how different the musicians’ faces appear from one another.
“We enjoy Guinness while we play, and a session driver operates a website that puts out all the tunes for us to learn,” Bethli said. “We’ll go around a circle, and people call out what they want to play. There’s lots of laughter.”
Bethli said some musicians only learn by ear in the proper aural folk tradition, and certain sessions consider sheet music taboo.
Her group’s music is mostly traditional, but occasionally veers toward modern punk or rock tunes the average person would recognize.
“There’s a sense of community that comes with it. We’ve met a lot of new people through sessions and have started a series of small bands,” Mark said.
Want to learn more?
For more information, visit www.folksociety.org.