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Traditional tunes for a Celtic Christmas

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Winter hits hard and long in Northumberland, England, some 300 miles north of London. By the winter solstice, darkness has settled in so completely that the ancients worried whether the sun would ever fully return. The coming of the Northumberland winter was a time of stress.

So the people of those Northern reaches did what they could to cheer themselves. They came up with a set of rituals that included masks, bonfires and stories to bring the community together and help ward off winter’s glumness.

“Throughout all of the Northern lands in Europe there’s a tradition of lighting up the midwinter dark,” said Dave Richardson, a 55-year-old native of Corbridge, a Northumberland town on the River Tyne, 20 miles south of the border between England and Scotland. “It goes back to the big winter worry that the sun would not come back. There’s a deep psychological need to get people together, to party, to have bonfires.”



Some rituals of Richardson’s childhood have receded. Men no longer dress like women and enter uninvited into neighbor’s homes as they used to.

Perhaps the custom that has endured best is the music of midwinter. Come December, the musicians of the Northern British Isles take up their flutes, pennywhistles and fiddles and strike up such tunes as “Da Cold Nights o’ Winter,” “The Dying Year” and “Christmas Day in the Morning” as a celebration, a coming together of souls.




On the backs of musicians like Richardson, that music has been spread around the globe. Richardson and his mates in the five-piece group Boys of the Lough ” including flute and whistle player Cathal McConnell, who founded the band as a trio in 1967 ” have taken Celtic music across Europe and the United States, to Japan, India and Australia.

And for most of the ’90s, Boys of the Lough ” which now includes McConnell, Richardson on a variety of stringed instruments and button accordion, fiddler Kevin Henderson, guitarist Malcolm Stitt and button accordionist Brendan Begley ” have spent the dark months in the States, playing Christmas and winter music concerts. After taking the last two winters off from touring the United States, the Boys are back. Their Celtic Christmas tour lands in the Wheeler Opera House Monday, Dec. 21, the eve of the winter solstice. The concert will include tunes from the Christian tradition and from the pagan side. The tunes come from Scotland, Ireland and the Shetland Islands, and include up-tempo reels and polkas, and slower airs and carols. Much of the music to be performed Monday is taken from the group’s mid-’90s recording, “Midwinter Night’s Dream,” one of 19 CDs by the Boys of the Lough.

This sort of traditional Celtic music is relatively thriving these days. Boys of the Lough are in the midst of their 58th tour by Richardson’s count. Groups such as the Chieftains, Solas, and Altan; and the Crossing, a project of American singer Tim O’Brien, have found good-sized audiences for their take on Celtic music.

But when Richardson was growing up in Northumberland, the native sound had practically been extinguished.

“When we came into this music, it was at a very low ebb. It was laughed at,” said Richardson, who began playing harmonica and guitar in his early teens, and began discovering Celtic-roots music a few years later. “But in the ’60s, there was this going back to the traditions, and I was one of those people. I loved it as soon as I heard it.”

Just as it had in the States, folk music underwent an early ’60s rediscovery in the U.K. Richardson used to travel to London to hear Celtic music in the few pubs where it was played. In 1973, Richardson joined McConnell, a fourth-generation flutist, in Boys of the Lough. The group became the first traditional Celtic band to tour the States, playing in the same coffeehouses that featured folk singers and political protest songs.

Richardson says happily he has had no other job in the 30 years he has been part of the band. And he notes that over that span, he and his mates have allowed the music to evolve.

“We do have songs that we’ve written ourselves that are bang-up-to-date,” he said. “There are two younger fellows in the band [Henderson and Stitt] who bring their ideas in, and we don’t want to crush that. We think it’s good that it should change, that it should reflect the society it comes from. It’s an evolving tradition.”


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