Celtic music sessions–seisiún in the Irish spelling–are informal gatherings in which musicians play traditional music. Although session music draws from the traditional folk music of the six Celtic nations, the presence of the Pioneer Valley’s large contingent of ethnically Irish residents has helped shape session music in the region. Local sessions draw upon an extensive collective repertoire performed in free-form and improvisational ways. Certain instruments, such as the fiddle, harp, Irish flute, uilleann pipes, and the bodhrán, are specific to traditional Irish music and are found at local sessions. However, local sessions also include guitar, concertina, accordion, mandolin, banjo, viola, and other non-traditional instruments. Perhaps most important, a Celtic session is not a performance; instead, the musicians form a circle that faces inward toward each other and the music is played primarily for themselves.
In making our film, we focused on sessions at The Harp, an Irish pub in North Amherst, and at the Northampton Brewery. The two weekly sessions at The Harp are described as “open” sessions, while the musicians at the Northampton Brewery describe themselves as an established band with a paid gig. We became interested in the dynamics of the open session; as a result, our film primarily focuses on the Thursday and Friday sessions at The Harp. Most session participants claim Irish ancestry. Their collective musical interests, however, are not limited to traditional Celtic music, but include such varied genres as bluegrass, ragtime, rock, orchestral, and medieval music. Furthermore, the common interest in Celtic music encompasses more than Irish music, and includes Quebecois, Cape Breton, and Galician music, as well as the music from the Celtic nations of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann. The Harp sessions consistently draw local musicians as well as musicians from Connecticut and Vermont.
We first came to experience local “Celtic music” half-expecting to find nostalgic ballads, played by Americans, about being Irish. We experienced something entirely different. The session community is inclusive and welcoming, and the circle formed by the session musicians is permeable and inviting. Through the openness of the session, the session folk perpetuate a tradition of shared music and a culture of community.