The Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival has its roots in the timeless jam sessions known as tionol (pronounced "chun-ALL"), where like-minded musicians, especially uilleann pipers, would gather to share tunes, teach and learn from each other. When St. Louisans Mike Mullins and Michael Cooney, both pipers, first planned the festival in 1997, they had no ambition greater than replicating those intimate piper sessions. Five years later, the event has become one of the best and best-known celebrations and circulations of Celtic music in the country.
"The first year, we did it on a wing and a prayer," Mullins says. "The first Friday-night sessions were at San Patricio's, which doesn't even exist anymore. The place was absolutely packed, with different sessions upstairs and downstairs. Saturday, we had the workshops at Washington University, at the music department, and we quickly realized that we were too big for the facilities. I was amazed that people came from as far away as they did. There's a lot of interest in people just wanting to play the instruments."
The St. Louis tionol now spans three days and takes in fiddlers, pipers, penny-whistlers, flutists, guitarists, harpists, bodhran players and dancers. Invited teachers and performers include John Skelton, Hilari Farrington, Mark Stone, Ged Foley and legendary singer Aine Meenaghan. Workshops are held during the days, and jam sessions -- and pint-sharing -- at McGurk's in Soulard go far into the night. Naturally, on its own terms, the festival has come to represent the soul of the oral tradition: the furthering of musical and cultural forms in an organic community.
"One of our teachers this year will be Isaac Alderson, a freshman in college from Chicago," Mullins says, "and he's been coming to the festival for all five years. He's going to play with two other young students who are becoming teachers. To me, it's a perfect example of what the idea is all about: to keep the music alive and bring teachers in who know the history and can pass it on. And here are these three kids who've got it and in part learned it at the festival. They're great musicians, and they're carrying it on."
Those who have never been to a Celtic musical gathering will find the closest analogue in the more performance-oriented bluegrass festivals, which, like a tionol, have kept a popular art form from disappearing completely. "In the '60s and '70s, it was even difficult to find a set of uilleann pipes," Mullins says. "I shouldn't say they had died out, but it was very difficult. There were very few people playing them, and in the last 20 years, there's been a real resurgence.
"Bluegrass and old-time music is similar in that respect," Mullins continues. "That music has its roots in Irish and Scottish music, which came over here in the 18th and 19th century, which got morphed into what we call old-timey music. The way it was handed down, it was such an oral tradition. We don't have a culture that does this every day. It's not our daily or weekly entertainment. It's not what we live with day in and day out. Where this all came from, the people who were playing it originally would play their pipes or other instruments pretty much every day, so people grew up with it and knew it. It's more than just a one-on-one thing. It's designed to bring a community together. We got very lucky, stumbling into the format that we did."
The festival culminates in a Saturday-evening concert at the Sheldon; even that more formal performance is loose enough to retain communal vitality. "At the concert, we try to create a session atmosphere," Mullins explains. "I try to encourage the musicians not to play as solo artists but to sit down and figure out a couple of tunes together, do different numbers onstage in sort of a family atmosphere. There are some great dancers in St. Louis as well, and we have them come and dance at the concert. It's dance music, ultimately. If I could set up a bar and make the stage into a pub or maybe an old Irish kitchen, I would. The festival as a whole is a very laid-back, low-key thing. There's a lot of time to sit around and talk to people, to try new instruments and pick up new techniques. No matter who it is, whether it's Paddy Keenan or Michael Cooney, you can just sit down and have a pint and talk and play music."
One of those musicians and teachers, with whom you can share a Guinness or swap a story, is Kevin Burke, a fiddler who grew up in the East End of London and then spent his youth moving back and forth between England and Ireland, where he learned the rare, ornate, effusive style of fiddling associated with County Sligo. "It's hard to describe," Burke says. "It's a bit like trying to describe an accent. If someone wants to know about the Missouri accent, it's recognizable when you're familiar with it but hard to describe to someone who hasn't heard it. But I'll give it a shot. In the north of Ireland, the music tends to be close to Scottish music, quite rhythmic and staccato. As you move farther south, you get to County Clare, and the music is quite languid. It swoops a lot. It sways rather than stomps -- I'll probably get shot for saying all this. Sligo is halfway between the two. To some people, it has the best of both worlds; to others, it falls between the two schools."
Burke was a central member of the Bothy Band, one of the most influential Celtic bands of the '70s, and played on Arlo Guthrie's classic Washington County album. More recently, Burke has been working with bluegrass legend Tim O'Brien in his Crossing outfit, playing the music that has moved back and forth across the Atlantic. "The Irish part of it I find very accessible and easy," Burke says, "but so much of it involves American folk songs with a bluegrass twist or a blues twist or an old-timey element. Trying to blend all those things satisfactorily and not make one incongruous with another has been a challenge I've enjoyed lately. I had never done more than dabble with it, but, playing with Tim, I'm learning what the pieces mean, where they come from. The styles are all quite distinct, once you get to know them. When you don't know them, it all sounds like the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
It may be commonplace to speak of music "you have to hear live," but with Celtic music, especially the kind represented at the spring tionol, the music would barely exist without both live performances and the living interaction of masters and those wanting to learn from them. That dynamic is what gives Celtic music its amazing reach, joyful force and stunning variety. "It means so much it almost means nothing -- 'Celtic music,' that is," Burke says. "If someone tells you he plays jazz, it doesn't really give you that much of an idea of what he's gonna play."
For three days and nights, the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival will do more than just give you an idea of the music. It's as close to the soul of the sound as most of us can hope to come.