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

Pott's Musical Ideology


Potts’ musical ideology emerged in the mid 20th century (probably settling into place in the 1950s) when the combined forces of modernisation and elitism created a low-status role for the traditional musician in Ireland. The ‘revival’ of the music was only beginning, and nobody could have predicted the role which forces such as legitimation, urbanisation, institutionalisation, and the interaction with popular culture, were to play in the history of this music over the following century. In my opinion Tommie Potts is an important figure in this history, not so mush because of any direct influence he had but because – as is becoming increasingly clear – his drive towards breaking the traditional boundaries of the music were prophetic of a new stream of musicians who have shown a similar motivation towards the evolution of musical styles which contradict the communal nature of the tradition in favour of forms of musical individualism. In this regard, I have pointed out elsewhere (Ó Súilleabháin 1996) that while Potts is held up as the epitome of tradition, he is equally the epitome of innovation. This very duality makes an examination of his music of particular interest at a time when a heated debate on the identity of this musical tradition is underway.

In my conversations with him, Tommie Potts spoke of a meeting he once had with Máirtín Ó Cadhain (one of the major Irish language prose writers of the 20th century):

POTTS:  And he [Máirtín Ó Cadhain] said “well a lot of the intellectuals I’ve spoken to consider the folk music primitive”. And not denigrating, like, but primitive in the sense – like you see, the ballad is for the people. They can understand the story, and musically its not difficult. All join in and so too as I see it with the folk music. Most of us, including myself, can’t understand Cesar Franck or Beethoven. But we can understand a good fiddle player playing ‘The Flogging Reel’ or something like that. A good air too – and cry and weep, you know, and there can be that, but it doesn’t reach very far down.
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 29 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]


The degree to which he leaned into this way of viewing the music is evident from the following letter:

First of all folk music (with ballads) is just as it says the music of the ‘people’ i.e. the peasantry, the masses or the common people – whichever you like – I do not say this in a derogatory sense, but it is a primitive form and at that, it is within the capacity of the ‘people’ to appreciate and understand. This because, generally speaking, the people have no training in the finer points and theory of music.
[Potts MSS, p.V see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

However the contradictory nature of his thought reveals itself in his willingness on the one hand to accept the view that traditional music is ‘primitive’ in his sense of underdeveloped, while on the other in his annoyance at the limitations of such a viewpoint:


POTTS: And in that way, this is what matters about the intellectuals or the intellectual sphere – meaning, well, that there’s no hope, in other words, to do anything with our music towards development to symphony heights.
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 29 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]


Such comments reveal his motivation towards pushing the boundaries of the tradition to breaking point, and beyond. An excellent example of this emerged after he had performed his innovative setting of the reel ‘The Star of Munster’ in the course of a video recording I made of him in 1982:

MOS: Do you find it hard to play the ordinary version now? You wouldn’t ever do it, would you?


MOS:  So, in fact if I asked you to play the ordinary ‘Star of Munster’ you’d find it hard to stop varying it? Would you be able to do it?

POTTS: I’d play it in a different key – if I was in a group, we’ll say for maybe an occasion. [Plays]. No, that’s awful now. [Plays again]. And so on. No. I couldn’t. I couldn’t stay on it.

MOS: I hope you didn’t mind me asking you that?

POTTS: No! No! Actually I wouldn’t play Irish music at all if it was just that. If I was the most proficient performer in the world, I just couldn’t keep at it.

MOS: Talking about that – playing the music just as it is, as you find it in ‘the book’ [O’Neill’s]: would you find it boring to do that?

POTTS: Yeah! Yeah! Well, in a manner of speaking – not to take from the ethnic thing or the culture at all – it’s just that one is entitled to one’s own opinion. Its just primitive in that sense. It’s good. We’re proud of it. But its still in its limitations in that sense, like, primitive.
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 19 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]


In his musical journey towards developing traditional music to “symphony heights”, we find a music coming through him that is a unique reflection of his own yearning to be other than what he finds himself musically. In this, the early radio broadcasts and 78 rpm recordings which he heard reflected the popularity of the romantic era of the 19th century – hence the borrowings as we shall later see, from Chopin, Liszt and others. It is possible that Potts’ music could be viewed as ‘the romanticisation of Irish traditional music’? His interest in the piano (where he can be heard on the ‘Domestic Tapes’ – see Ó Súilleabháin 1987 - trying chords of the 7th, 9th 11th and 13th), programmatic tune titles (sometimes referring to abstract emotional states such as ‘Ambivalence’, ‘Gratitude’, ‘Contemplation’ and ‘Contentment’), as well as the general rhapsodic nature of his musical expression itself as revealed in the irregular musical forms employed by him, and, above all, in the emotive quality which his music has acquired, all of these serve to indicate a process of ‘romanticisation’. Just as the baroque style of 18th century Europe gave way to a 19th century expression which cracked open, so to speak, the emotion contained within the more formal baroque structures, so Potts’ musical style either allows an already existing emotive layer within the dance music tradition a more overt expression, or – depending on your point of view in this matter – it suffuses that same tradition with an overt layer of emotive meaning.

One performer at the present time who continues to acquire increasing recognition is Martin Hayes, the fiddle player, who cites Potts as a prime influence in the evolution of his own musical style. Hayes is well known for the emotive flow within his musical style. For him it seems to be expressed through a focus upon the slow tempo and the ‘nea’ or emotive voice of his native East Clare especially as revealed in a telling upwards glissando at times (presumably the ‘nea’ itself) which evokes a kind of yearning somewhat akin to similar glissandi in a jazz or ‘blues’ style. But Hayes is content to lean on this emotive voice already present within the tradition without disturbing its standard forms. On the contrary, he is a musician well know for an attention to detail within the strict confines of these same traditional forms.

Potts, on the other hand, breaks the banks of tradition through the development of irregular structures that place his music outside the bounds of the shared communal session. Here for the first time in the history of Irish traditional music we see the emergence of what is quintessentially a solo voice. This present article looks at some specific examples of musical borrowings and influences that have shaped that voice.