My article, ““Fitting between Present and Past: Memory and Social Interaction in Cape Breton Gaelic Singing” is now available. You can download it from the publisher directly.
Ask a Gaelic singer in Cape Breton to help you learn a particular song and they might begin by commenting about its melody or clever wordplay. They will probably sing it for you, or ask you to sing part of it for them. If it has been published, they might bring out a well-worn copy of a Gaelic songbook. Most often, however, they begin to reminisce in detail about who used to sing the song, and how, and under what circumstances. Now, after many years of visiting Cape Breton, I, too, find that each song reminds me of the person I first heard sing it. For example, I will never hear A Fhleasgaich Uasail without thinking of the late Donald MacDonnell of Mabou and his heartfelt performance at the Johnstown Milling Frolic. It quietened the rowdy room until you could have heard a pin drop.
Such experiences have called me to examine what is behind this linking of musical associations. Surely it is more than mere sentimentality– although surely, it is partly nostalgia. In The Anthropology of Performance, Victor Turner wrote that performative meaning is constructed through, as he put it, “negotiating about ‘fit’ between present and past.” Indeed, it seems that any rendition of a Gaelic song resonates not only with the present circumstances but also with the memories of past performances. One comes to understand a song as a composite of evolving memories, performances and meanings … but it seems that a song’s meaning is not just referential, and does not point solely towards the past.