Rites of Spontaneity: Communality and Subjectivity in Traditional Irish Music Sessions

“Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme
Come lift up your voices in chorus with mine
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again.”1

Picture the scene. You’re sitting in the cosy gloom of a pub. Some musicians are facing each other, playing play well-known traditional Irish tunes on flutes, tin whistles, and fiddles. Each of them plays the melodic line, adding their own variations and grace notes at will. Some musicians are just listening; others are cracking jokes. The crowd nearby is composed of friends, occasional patrons, a regular audience, and curious tourists. Some seem not to care; some are drawn closer to listen or perhaps even participate. This is called a “session”.

It is a scene which can be found the world over, from Dublin to Boston and Rome. It is also the subject of Augusto Ferraiuolo’s forthcoming book Rites of Spontaneity: Communality and Subjectivity in Traditional Irish Music Sessions. Ferraiuolo is a Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at the Department of Anthropology of Boston University whose work focuses on ritual and performances in a transnational and diasporic perspective.

He has published several books and articles in both English and Italian, including The Tammorra: Dance and Music of Southern Italy (2016) and Religious Festive Practices in Boston’s North End: Ephemeral Identities in an Italian-American Community (2009). He also served as a consultant for the Alan Lomax compilation Italian Treasury: Folk Music and Song of Italy (1999). Since 2011, he has been the Director of the Intimate Lens International Ethnographic Film Festival. He is also a musician who has performed in many sessions in Ireland, Italy, and the USA. His most recent recording is Riverrun, with the Irish-Italian band Àr Meitheal.

During the last forty years the practices and the appreciation of this particular music, and of this particular setting, have moved decisively from local arenas into the global marketplace. Ferraiuolo adopts a transnational perspective in documenting and celebrating these contexts in the work, resulting in a book that will appeal to a very wide range of readers, from musicians and aficionados to scholars and students.

From an anthropological point of view, sessions are not just a musical environment. They are a combination of social interactions, suggesting specific dynamics between community, subjects and cultural items. As the author notes in the introduction, the book focuses in on “an extraordinary world, made by extraordinary people, with its laughs and tensions, engagements and conflicts, rivalries and emulations.” Most of all, though, it is about music – and good music, at that.

Augusto Ferraiuolo’s Rites of Spontaneity: Communality and Subjectivity in Traditional Irish Music Sessions is now available to pre-order on our website. For more information on the book or to secure your copy, you can also get in touch with james.brittain@cambridgescholars.com.

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A session at Tommy Doyle’s in Cambridge, MA. Photo courtesy of Sara Piazza.

1. From Here’s a Health to the Company, a traditional song performed by Kevin Conneff and recorded by The Chieftains (1989, RCA Victor, B008OZJNDS).

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