The flute player Séamus Tansey is cut from vintage cloth, best described now as a veteran Irish traditional musician, he has a reputation in traditional music circles, firstly as an exceptional flute player in the old Sligo style, and secondly, as a controversialist. He holds strong opinions and has freely committed those to print, in CD liner notes and books, in lectures, as well as giving interviews to National radio journalists where his comments have caused debate to rage for weeks.
Séamus sent me the following letter about a year ago, it was typed in block capitals and it ran for several pages. It needed editing, putting into context and (in places) a bit of correcting too. It was also far too long for a feature in my regular print publication (Irish Music Magazine) and as the contents of the letter were triggered by his perceived internet flaming, I thought long and hard about the best web based space to present the letter to.
What follows needs a little introduction. Séamus is of the generation of plain speaking country people, a generation who had a definite sense of what was traditional music. It is obvious that a number of live music events have rubbed both Séamus and his fellow players up the wrong way. One in particular occurred, over ten years ago in O’Shea’s Merchant Hotel, a popular music venue by the banks of the river Liffey in Dublin’s city centre. Like many Irish bars, the audience paid little attention to the music and the noise in the venues was so loud as to make it impossible for Séamus to accurately tune his flute by ear. This led to a disagreement with the accordion player, Siobhan Langston. In the old days that could have been easily forgotten, people could move on, yet Séamus did not walk away from this and wrote a strongly worded letter to Siobhan outlining his grievances. Her father made the letter public on one of the biggest radio shows in country. That was back in 2004. There are items in the current letter, which relate to that night in O’Shea’s and have been a smoking gun for over a decade now.
There are many issues here, such as the relationship between the musicians and their instruments and how they interact to create the living tradition, the place and value of different instruments in that tradition, indeed the very notion that an instrument is capable of carrying the tradition at all. The respect or otherwise certain instruments enjoy in the tradition, the tensions that arise between different players in terms of repertoire, style and their approach to others with whom they share a stage, the role of tradition itself in establishing the confines of what is acceptable practice both in terms of the choices that musicians make and the interactions they have with each other.
I offer no commentary or opinion on this letter, in places I have included explanations in parenthesis, Séamus is both eloquent and passionate, he is well able to address his detractors. And yes the letter does ramble, but what you have here is the genuine voice of Tansey, it is not constrained by an interviewer’s list of questions, neither is it re-crafted for literary merit, it is in places raw and visceral, autobiographical and heartfelt, passionate and peppery. I have edited the piece for clarity and to ensure the letter falls within the bounds of acceptable and legal discourse. It could trigger more discussions, Tansey’s tone is forthright and there could be a strong reaction to it. If there is, my hope is that anything that flows from this will be measured and respectful.
Sean A chara. May I through the medium of your widely read magazine be allowed to answer some of the many pot shots aimed at me over the years by different and varied sources through out the country and overseas.
I tried to answer many of those charges through a traditional music forum on the Internet and although this letter was posted-twice there, this letter never appeared, I feel that I have been denied the right of reply and of free expression even though others have a free hand.
This letter if published will grant me the space to answer the people who were allowed open season on Tansey.
In answer to Squeeze box and others, across those internet pages for the last eleven years, I have this to say; you all have a nick name, known as keyboard warriors who haven’t the guts to come out in the open and put forward your real names. I would like to know the nickname I have, I never heard it before but I know I have one. I am not really computer literate because when I was a boy, computers did not exist hence the long delay in replying.
Squeezebox is either a melodeon or an accordion player possibly playing the instrument with one hand. The other fingering the bases like tits on a bull, a bull has tits but no milk; nothing comes out. These one armed bandits, these keyboard warriors have come up again on the land to inflect themselves on our music like the melodeon players of old.
Coleman the great if you ever heard of him and possibly not said of your melodeon fore bearers in his time and I quote; "When they die bury the squeeze box along with them.” But fear not all you one armed bandits and keyboard warriors out there. All is not lost Joe Burke is still alive and well, taking classes for reward and don't tell me you haven’t all heard of Joe Burke a living legend on the squeeze box or the late Finbarr Dwyer there are tapes and CDs available of him and other great box players throughout the country who play the accordion correctly with both hands. Now if you haven’t heard of any of them then you are all in trouble because you have a lot to learn and a lot of homework to do
Now what I have written about Siobhan Langston (www.thesession.org) is what Pontius Pilate said to the Jews "what I have written I have written.” I will have respect even at the cost of world war three. I am entitled to that and have that throughout the entire traditional music world. I did not in my opinion get that respect from Sharon because her entire body language was hostile from the word go. When you say to a traditional musician that their instrument is flat its an insult and say it twice it's a double insult, if on the other hand she said my instrument was either to high or low the I could have made the necessary adjustments at the same time retaining respect for the dignity of the man and musician, which is me
Now if she was a man and said what she said that night in Dublin it would be a different story I merely sent her a letter instead containing what is known in the sporting world as a pep talk, showing her some of the disrespect which she showed me and she didn’t like it, good at dishing it out but can’t take it. I was after spending a week end with a keyboard player from Russia of all places, her name was Tanya and she played for years as a classically-trained musician with the Stalingrad symphony orchestra she never complained once that I was flat, sharp, high or low so what was little Sharon’s problem from Kerry maybe it was her accordion was flat instead of my flute or she just didn't want me there full stop.
I was tired after playing the entire weekend so the feeling if she only knew it was perfectly mutual. I understand she was in Australia on Comhaltas Tours, I was never there or ever on a Comhaltas tour because I was never asked but I was all over Europe and America many times over but do not go around shouting about it
Now there are a few more things I want to clear up in answer to all the cheap comments made from all those key board warriors shooting from behind ditches and thank those people who stood up.
My short stay in Belfast was due to the fact that I was brought to Ardoyne with a gun in my back and stood between life and death for an hour, while they checked me out. All over a toilet roll that was missing in the toilet and the man who did the good Samaritan and passed a new one under the door. I innocently bought a drink for him in appreciation of his kindness. He could not see why, as no one buys a drink for anyone around that town unless, I was “special branch looking for information” he said holding a gun to my side, saying “sit down on that chair mate I am going to check you out” as he lifted a phone.
They were nice lads after that and even brought me a drink, I saw very quickly however that one would have to be very very careful around that town even with musicians because you didn’t know who or what you were dealing with. It’s an old Mayo saying never stick in your shovel where there is no muck, in other words its manners to wait until you’re asked and no place is that more true than in the Falls Road.
I didn’t have to prove myself to them in Belfast, that is why I sat back and waited to be asked but, when it did happen they came to me not the other way around, to play buck shee music [free] in their shebeen shop.
There were the faithful few in Belfast of course, such as the MacPeake family, great people who looked after me. Got me a roof over my head and a bite in my mouth when I was destitute. They also found me a room with a little shoe maker, God Rest him, who taught me how to cook and look after myself I played with the family MacPeakes for a time and it was an honour and a privilege opening up a world that was magic and lost to me after what I went through having gone 20 rounds with the Irish Free State family law and welfare systems and so forth over custody of my kids, which I lost in the end, having gone to jail for contempt and lost my home, family everything down there I was not in the mood to be messed about by Sharon Langtons of this world.
This world kicked me in the b... And I kicked back as best I could, simple as that. I didn’t feel I had to be nice after that especially to people who tried to knock be about no matter who they were. It was then I met my second wife, which brought me great happiness we are together today and am very lucky to have met her because she transformed my life. I was asked to join a folk group called Mountain Dew, which took the Falls Road by storm playing in all the folk clubs. We’re closed down by the Provos because our folk group refused to mix music and politics and was not one of the gang who spent long terms in jail but couldn’t play to keep themselves warm. Those same Lurgan people where we were playing Irish traditional music in one of their Provo pubs turned up the television to drown me out and guess who was on the television? Prince Charles looking at flowers.
Now with reference to the Lurgan people that thought I was for the birds when I was seen out among the bushes with a tape recorder in my hand recording bird songs, dogs barking, foxes mating in the night and so on. I was doing all this because I was in the process of compiling and preparing a paper to be presented to the First Cross Roads Conference in 1996 (www.imusic.ie).
This was a gathering of the Irish Traditional music world of all shades of musical opinion about where Irish music was going and where it came from. That is why it was named Crossroads because Irish traditional music was and is at a cross roads today.
The paper I was presenting to a packed house was entitled the “Evolution and Development of Irish Traditional Music from Earliest Times”. The different recordings of bird songs I had made were to demonstrate our trebles, roles back stitches, and doubles from the warbling of the different birds which we take for granted today on our instruments as traditional musicians also the flowing of rivers inspiring our arpeggio techniques for waltzes and backing techniques to. The barks, howls, mating calls and crys of wild and domestic animals is heard in the barks, cranns, back stitches and notation of the pipe’s ornamentation that have been handed down to us for centuries.
Like the galloping hooves of wild horses being handed down to us to give us our rhythms on bodhráns and drums. All this shows where our music evolved from since the first tribe of people walked this land. The people of the sun or better known as the Tuatha de Dannan who captured those sounds of nature on their instruments transformed them into the music we know today, long before stereo recorders, Hi Fi, CDs or computers.
So where did they get their inspiration from? All this I presented to the crossroads conference in a paper and later in a lecture as a vital reason why some of them there present should not tamper bastardise compromise cross pollinate or copulate with outside cultures which many of them are doing alas. Thus subverting the message of the music and its source; needless to say many of them laughed at my thesis but all they could put forward as an alternative source was it must be celestial, meaning it came from heaven if you don’t mind, what a bankrupt mentality.
Now let me point out that as far as I’m concerned when God made Matt Molloy he broke the mould. I wish like hell nevertheless that when making an informed opinion please make it from listening to all my six CDs and not on one record alone namely “Easter Snow” which is not by any means my best recording despite the fact that Tony MacManus played a blinder in guitar backing and the young lad John McCusker on the organ. Now when Josie Keegan was fit to back the great Sean Maguire I’m sure she was more than able to back me. The same can be said about Mary Mullholland, Charlie Lennon and John Coakley all among the top piano drivers in the country and all backers on my records and no guitar or bouzouki twanging and tinkling along in the back ground (MacManus excluded). Now if my records are breathy it must be you have the bloody treble on too much, a small bit of bass will do the trick and you will hear no breath because that's one thing that's stands out about my records and that is the absence of breath unless you have the treble turned up to z to cherry pick.
[On some web forums] I am being called a jerk, well, it takes one to know one. Me and my kind brought Irish traditional music kicking and screaming into the 20th and the 21st century, we don't kneed upstarts and Johnny-come-latelys to stick their long noses into our business. We saved the damn thing from start to finish, and anyway the generations who appreciated our music are long in the graveyards and you don’t count. In conclusion why have I gone to all this trouble of answering this conglomeration of so called intellectual pot smoking volcanic manure vomited up from a shower of lefties and other long haired dropouts and jerks across those pages? It is to demonstrate or remind them that, when any of them has harrowed all my kind and me have ploughed, then and only then can they afford to open their mouths.
To have a rattle at me because they don’t like me as a person even though the bulk of them never met me or know any thing about me in their lives. Thanks once again to the good people who stood up for me and showed another side to Tansey, the real Tansey.
Yours faithfully in music. Do chara. Seamus Tansey
Photo Credits: (1),(2),(5) Séamus Tansey, (3) McPeake Family, (4) Matt Molloy (unknown/website).