Lone Voices and the Power of Novel Sounds

Music is an everyday part of life for many people. It fills the silence as you do chores, thrums in the background as you talk with friends, and drifts through elevators, stores, and concert halls. Music is versatile in how and when it can be played, what stories it can tell, and who it can affect the most. It is a powerful tool for connecting people and making lasting monuments to certain feelings and ideas.

It is a shame that this versatility and power are lost or unappreciated for many kinds of music. It is probably possible to count on one hand the number of genres that a majority of people listen to, and this lack of range means neglecting genres with compelling and interesting songs. Thus, for the purpose of folks enjoying more diverse and rare music, it is worthwhile to talk about folk music. “Folk music” might call to mind Hozier, the Lumineers, or perhaps Mumford & Sons, and while these are all talented musicians, their music is not the kind of folk I mean.

Tom Lenihan, an Irish farmer and singer, collected and sang traditional Irish folk songs for most of the 20th century. He picked up his tunes from travelers passing through his town, fellow singers, and stories from his family. Tom’s songs were not unremarkable pop songs about love, nor were they alt-rock or indie songs that are drowned beneath the more popular choices. His music has no synths, guitar riffs, or drum lines: it’s just his voice and the emotion and story he conveys, all meant to be heard and felt intimately by the listener. His songs are living records of culture, history, and imagination. Hearing them made me feel worlds apart from the music I hear on the radio or TV.

The recordings of Tom, which can be found on the Clare County Library website, were taken in his home in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, where he sang to Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie for the Carroll Mackenzie Collection, which features Tom and various other singers. In other words, Tom is not in some studio; he is in the very heart of the history and culture he sings of. This connection to his home is likely one reason the music is so moving despite its simplicity, featuring only Tom’s voice and the occasional creaking of his floor. Although, it is perhaps more accurate to say the music is more moving because of its simplicity. Having only his story to hear and process, your focus is forced toward the lyrics. It feels almost like a conversation with an old relative, not a folk song from a distant land. The conversation is a refreshing one, believe me.

Tom’s songs are only one great example of what folk music can be. When I first heard this music, it felt sparse, as though it were missing something. And, it was, in a sense: there weren’t as many layers of sound as there are in more popular kinds of music, and thus folk music can feel light or uninteresting due to the lack of greater audio stimulation–but that’s not a fault of the genre, it’s a fault of how music sounds today, which predisposes us to want more, not less, sound. Still, something about the lone voice captivated me, and it became clear that the story is the most important part of folk music, not the impressive riffs or intricate rhymes–although those do feature occasionally. Without the pressures and conventions of modern music to impress and be catchy, folk singers are free to put all their effort into the delivery and tone of their lines. This allows for an impressive conveyance of emotion and narrative with only one’s voice, amplified by an individual’s distinctive accent and patterns. The singers do not confine their voices to fit a melody, as one might if they have a catchy instrumental line, but rather bend the melody and cadence of the song to fit the way they speak; these songs are almost spoken word poetry. In essence, the tune is made to fit the words and thus made beautiful by each singer as they speak from the heart and without restriction from other musical elements.

Many folk songs cover a few repeat topics, namely war, grief, and love, but the diversity found in their sound and delivery is astonishing. A favorite song of mine sung by Tom Lenihan is Paddy’s Panacea, more commonly known under modern artists as “Humours of Whiskey.” Hozier did a rendition of it. You can guess what it’s about. Another good one is “The Men of County Clare,” sung about the brave heroes of Tom’s home. It’s good if you wish to feel like an Irish patriot. These songs and many others, sung by the people of County Clare, can be found on the Clare County Library website at the bottom of the page in the “County Clare” section under the Music link. If you’re feeling adventurous, give ‘em a listen, and hopefully, you will find all the joy and wonder Tom felt as he sang. I know I did.

I want to conclude by encouraging anyone reading to seek out new music. Finding new sounds that shock and enthrall you expands not only your listening options but also your listening ability – how you enjoy the music you currently like. You might recognize new sounds or pick up on similarities you couldn’t have noticed before. If you’re a metalhead, try country. If you’re a Swiftie, get into some King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. If, like me, you think yourself a collector of all kinds of music, then prove yourself wrong – I do, frequently. Go forth, my dear Reedies, and hear incredible things.

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