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O'Carolan Can

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

O'Carolan memorial in Ireland

There was a time when musicians were revered. I mean truly respected. Even if they weren't part of a famous band. Maybe they didn't make gobs of money, but if a musician* came to town, people were like, "Here! Come to my place. You can stay as long as you like, and eat our food. All that we ask is that you make music for us." (I'm sure I'm romanticizing the idea, a bit). Oh, that it could be like that again.

Turlough O'Carolan was just such a musician. He was a blind harpist who traveled all around Ireland in the 1700s composing music for his patrons. He was so respected and admired, it was said that people would delay the start of a wedding or a funeral until he could get there and play. He often would stay at someone's estate or home and write a song in their honour, and name the piece after them. That is why most O'Carolan songs are people's names; Eleanor Plunkett, Fanny Power, George Brabazon, Hugh O'Donnell, The Landlady, etc.

How I wish that were an acceptable vocation today. I suppose the closest thing we have to that is house concerts, but to do this for a living! And to be so respected, simply for being a musician, that people would welcome you with open arms to come play for them. But the general public doesn't seem to see freelance musicians/composers in that way. Musicians today have to basically justify what they charge for a gig (which of course includes travel, wear & tear and upkeep of their instrument/voice, practice and all the time spent mastering their craft, additional equipment, etc). People generally don't know what a musician deserves to get paid, so a musician needs to know what they are worth, so they do not get underpaid. Or they have to justify being paid at all! They are often told, "You'll get good exposure" as a consolation for not getting remuneration.

There are so many recruitments and requests for musicians to play at musicals, shows, events, churches, etc, with the basic unquestionable understanding that it will be volunteer only. And yet everyone recognizes how important music is. How vital it is to health, happiness, healing, well-being, to feeling connected, to feeling whole. Music is used to tell stories, remember the past, encourage peace and end of war, to share truth, to inspire, to instill hope, to create unity, to protest corruption, to bring lost cultures and traditions back to life, to help us remember who we are. Have you ever watched a commercial or scene from a movie on mute and felt nothing, but then you watch it again with the music on? The difference that music makes to the general experience, to our emotions, is undeniable.

If we put as much money into music as we did into pharmaceuticals, or weapons, or corporations, there would be no reason for any musician to play for free; Unless, of course, you want to! But my point is that music is so vital to our very sense of humanity, it should be viewed as no less important as other professions (this goes for all the arts, actually), and the level of respect should match.

*NOTE: I was going to use the word "minstrel" but the very word "minstrel" conjures up images of a poor and lowly performer. When I looked up the history of minstrels, apparently they were no different from many struggling musicians today. Not really respected, and rather kept in palaces and in court to entertain royalty, until they were replaced by troubadours and became wandering minstrels in order to make ends meet.

My arrangement of O'Carolan's Planxty George Brabazon

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