The Litany of the Saints: Musical Quotations and Influences in the Music of Tommie Potts.



Video 1. Excerpt of Tommy Potts 'The Humours of Scariff' (film recordings, see Ó Súilleabháin 1987)


In this essay I wish to turn the normal instance of a composer in a classical tradition borrowing ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ music as material for symphonic development on its head. My case study here is that of an Irish traditional musician borrowing classical themes and motifs as an inspiration for the development of his revived traditional repertoire, and in the process stitching these borrowings so far into the fabric of the traditional material as to be unrecognisable – unless they are pointed out. Instead of the usual story of oral-traditional practise! What can this tell us about music and identity in general, and about music and identity in Ireland, in particular? If a classical composer might wish to make use of Irish traditional material in order to install an Irish identity into the compositional process, what might motivate a traditional musician to cross that action in the opposite direction?

In attempting to answer that question, I will also contrast the traditional fiddler Tommie Potts’ search for a musical voice with the Irish composer Seán Ó Riada’s search for what he termed ‘a native Irish art music’ (Ó Súilleabháin 2004 [a]). Both Potts (1912-1988) and Ó Riada (1930-1971) engaged in crossing the worlds of traditional and classical music at much the same time from the mid 1950s to the later 1960s. While neither has any direct influence on the other, their emergence during the same period raises questions concerning the evaluation of traditional music in Ireland since 1950. In order to fully appreciate the nature of Tommie Potts innovatory style, it is important to situate him historically firmly within his inherited community of traditional music.

In Breandán Breathnach’s first volume published in 1963 of the now classic series entitled Ceol Rinnce na hÉireann, no less than 23 tunes are collected from the fiddler Tommie Potts. The volume itself is dedicated to Tommie’s father, John Potts, the piper, and a further 33 tunes are collected from him. In collecting tunes from Tommie it appears that Breathnach was not interested in an aspect of his music that the fiddler himself regarded as his most important contribution to the tradition of Irish music. While all of the tunes collected from Tommie in that volume are highly representative of his mainstream traditional playing, the nature of the task that Breathnach set himself could not include any examples of the innovative aspects of his musical style.

I have written on related elements of this style both in my PhD dissertation on Potts (Ó Súilleabháin 1987) and in a more recent publication  (Ó Súilleabháin 1996). Some excellent examples of the music itself may be heard on the recording The Liffey Banks issued by Claddagh Records in 1972.  Unfortunately permission could not be procured for the use of excerpts from this recording from which many of the transcriptions below.  Some of the embedded audio is taken from appropriate private recordings but will not correspond exactly with the transcriptions.  However they will give a flavour of the performance style of the peformance of Tommy Potts.  

My purpose in this present discussion is to show some of the influences that inspired Potts in the development of that style. While there is a frequent misconception among the Irish traditional music community that jazz was a primary influence in this, I will show that this is not the case, and that the main thrust came from the tradition of Western art music – in particular recordings of music form the Romantic era of the 19th Century.