91. Bard or monk?

Carolan’s inspiration, muse and namesake, the Irish composer and harpist Turlough O’Carolan, belonged to the bardic tradition in which poems, stories, songs and tunes were learned and passed on by ear as itinerant bards roamed the country. However, while the Carolan guitar collects and tells songs and stories as it travels, it also writes them down in these blog posts, perhaps more like an Christian monk labouring alone in their cell to transcribe stories than a bard? This relationship between what is transmitted by ear and what is written down got us thinking. Is Carolan Bard or Monk? And how does the oral tradition co-exist with the Internet?

The oral tradition is conventionally seen as one in which knowledge and culture are passed on from generation to generation orally, or aurally in the case of music. The bards existed as part of a wider Celtic culture that flourished across Europe for millennia, but about which we know relatively little precisely due to a lack of written accounts (Davies 1999). Ironically, what we do know was translated by scholars, from Christian monks labouring in their cells to transcribe myths and legends during the dark ages, to scholars who collected the works of Carolan as the oral tradition was eradicated from Ireland during the 18th Century. There is often confusion over the provenance of material. The authorships of Carolan’s works is often contested (O’Sullivan 2001), as indeed is that of famous classical works from antiquity.  Scholars debate whether Homer wrote the Odyssey or whether this epic tale evolved through generations of storytellers handing it down orally? It all sounds a lot like the Internet today …

Pathways of the mind

A combination of Christmas and lockdown provided an opportunity to catch up with some reading and it was with interest that we turned to John Miles Foley’s book ‘Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind’ (Foley 2012). Foley, Professor of Classical Studies and English at the University of Missouri and founder of the academic journal Oral Tradition, argues that the Internet operates more like an oral tradition that a textual (i.e., written) one. He identifies three distinct kinds of agora, ‘verbal marketplaces’ where cultures exchange ideas and knowledge, that operate in very different ways: the oAgora of oral tradition, the tAgora of textual tradition and the emerging eAgora of internet tradition. He argues that the experience of repeatedly returning to browse the Internet is more akin to hearing a traditional storyteller perform a story than it is to reading a book. He explores several correspondences between the oral and internet traditions:

  • Recurrence not repetition – the experience of both oral and internet traditions is essentially one of recurrence, where stories are told many times, but without strictly repeating. Each time you set out to the browse the Internet, you follow similar but different pathways through its links, searches and recommendations.
  • The oral and internet traditions encourage variation within limits rather than verbatim experiences. Recurrence without repetition enables improvisation, adaptation and personalisation to particular audiences.
  • They therefore both promote what he calls survival of the fittest rather than survival of the fixest – in order to survive in the textual tradition stories are written down and ‘fixed’, whereas in the oral and Internet traditions they survive by continually evolving.
  • Which in turn involves notions of built in copyright, for example open source and creative commons, as opposed to the imposition of mechanical copyright, so that oral and internet traditions are more public than proprietary, whereas the textual tradition is more proprietary than public.


To our mind, Foley makes a powerful argument about some similarities between oral and Internet traditions and his book provides a useful framework for exploring these. Unsurprisingly, given his background and position, the book reads like it is aimed at scholars of literature who already operate in the textual tradition, trying to persuade them that the Internet has developed being beyond a vast electronic library of texts, to being something that instead closely resembles the oral tradition.

However, the case sometimes feels overstated or perhaps too clean cut. While social media are perhaps the primary experience of the Internet for many people, it still retains its role as a repository of various kinds of text. While many do explore it vast network of links, this is not always the experience of being online. And while there do appear to be many examples of built in copyright on the Internet, media conglomerates are also monetizing proprietary information through the emergence of commercial streaming services, increasingly including live streaming.

Our own experiences – and studies – of how two oral music traditions have taken two the Internet have revealed both similarities and significant differences.

Irish sessions and the Internet

Irish sessions involve typically musicians gathering informally to play together in pubs and bars. They exhibit a proud tradition of playing by ear, with musicians appearing to launch into sets of tunes which others then spontaneously join in from memory. While everybody involved, from novices to experts, play the same tunes, there is scope for improvisation in ornamentation and how tunes are segued into sets. There is often an underlying etiquette that discourages, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly, the use sheet music as being something that undercuts the ideal of playing by ear (Foy 2008).

Irish musicians were early adopters of the Internet, establishing a website called thesession.org in 2002 which has enabled them to crowdsource transcriptions and recordings of thousands of tunes, along with extensive notes about local variations, playing techniques and the times and locations of sessions across the globe. These transcriptions include the use of ‘ABC’ notation, a stripped-down shorthand musical notation used my traditional musicians suitable that captures just the basic essence of tunes.

Part of the entry for the tune The Maid Behind the Bar, including an example of ABC notation, from thesession.org

Our own ethnographic study of Irish sessions revealed The Session to be a highly valuable resource, with musicians using it to learn new tunes in preparation for live sessions, which involved them learning from ‘the dots’ (or ABC) from its extensive transcriptions (Benford et al 2012). And yet, they were cautious about revealing this preparatory work in live sessions, especially about being seen to bring out the music. One notable practice was to prepare subtle crib sheets with reminders of sets of tunes and just the first few bars of each written out in ABC notation, just sufficient to prompt the start of a tune, after which muscle memory would take over. These tended to be small and discreet, not obviously resembling sheet music, so they could be easily ignored by other musicians. Interestingly, using mobile phones and other digital devices to record tunes, look things up on the internet or even make phone calls during a session appeared to be generally accepted.  This led us to the idea of ‘situated discretion’ – that is was generally fine to use transcriptions via the session to prepare for sessions, but that care had to be taken not to overtly reveal this during the actual practice. Thus, while there were mutually supportive similarities between oral and internet traditions (manifested in thesession.org), there was also an evident tension between them that had to be negotiated with some caution.

Situated discretion – a subtle crib sheet replaces sheet music

Folks clubs and the Internet

Like many cultural activities, traditional folk clubs have headed online during the global COVID pandemic. Our recent auto-ethnographic study revealed how two longstanding clubs around the Nottingham area approached this in different ways (Benford et al 2021). The Carrington Triangle club transferred its regular singaround format to Zoom as discussed back in Post 79. In contrast, Folk Beeston initially took to producing a weekly video show that members then watched together and chatted about in a live Facebook Watch party.

That both clubs were able to sustain their practices online suggests that there are sufficient similarities between the oral and internet traditions for practices to be able to migrate from the former to the latter. Yet, like with Irish sessions, we noted tensions. Musicians soon discovered that, while they could take it in turns to perform to each other, they were unable to continue a much-loved aspect of their practice, singing and playing ‘in chorus’ together, due to limitations of network latency and bandwidth and Zoom’s audio mixing techniques. Instead, they innovated the new practice of playing along at home while muted. Members acquired new video making skills, including collaborating remotely to produce ‘tiled’ or ‘layered’ videos that gave the appearance of playing live together. Finally, the club made recordings of their weekly shows available on Facebook and Youtube so that people could catch up with the show later on.  These new practices had interesting and unforeseen consequences for their oral tradition. First, while participants were rightly proud of their weekly show and newly found video prowess, they became fatigued from the pressure to produce videos – to an ever increasingly standard – to a tight weekly deadline. Consequently, after a successful season of 21 shows, Folk Beeston also swapped over to a live show in Zoom, though retained the practice of showing some pre-recorded videos each week.

Various prerecorded videos from Folk Beeston’s 21st weekly show

It is notable that the initial 21 prerecorded shows saw no examples of songs recurring in terms of musicians making new recordings of songs that they or others had previously recorded. This differed from their conventional face to face practice and from their subsequent on Zoom, where songs would often recur between shows. It seems like the practice of recording a weekly show exerted a subtle, if never explicitly stated, pressure to avoid recurrence.

They also encountered copyright issues; at one point a performer contributed a pre-existing track from an album that they themselves had previously released (with a video added). Facebook recognised this as copyrighted material and halted the watch party, an example of a performer not being allowed to repeat their own previous performance by the platform.

Convergence culture

Our two examples suggest that there are sufficient similarities between the oral and internet traditions for practices to migrate from the former to the latter, but also significant differences that led to various disruptions and tensions surrounding their practices. In appropriating existing Internet platforms for a new purpose, these communities from the oral tradition were also exposed to new possibilities and saw their practices appropriated by the technologies themselves. AIt would seem that adopting a new technology is a two-way street.

This may be in part because the Internet has significant overlaps with the textual tradition too, ones that inevitably spill over into how it supports the oral tradition. Text, music and video can be fixed and published as in ebooks and commercial streaming, or can be ephemeral and open as in chat and video messages. The ease of recording everything that occurs often fixes what is normally ephemeral, while the corresponding ability for audiences to mashup and re-share content makes what appears to fixed fluid once again.

Returning to Foley’s argument, media on the Internet exhibit both recurrence and repetition, survival of both the fixedness and fittest, and public and proprietary ownership. So while one can indeed usefully look at Internet practices through the lens of oral tradition, neglecting the similarities to the textual tradition may downplay or ignore the tensions that arise.

This sense of the Internet being a cultural battleground with media in a constant state of flux and both large corporations and local communities of practice vying for control is captured in the idea of convergence culture, described by media theorist Henry Jenkins (2006) as:
“the flow of content across multiple media platforms, organisations and cultures, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences”.

Seen in the large, convergence culture provides both opportunities for new creative and participatory practices to flourish, and yet also disrupts them and raises tensions evidenced by fiercely fought debates about fake news, authenticity, freedom of speech, copyright, regulation and ownership. It is not surprising then that Irish music sessions and folk clubs that venture online also experience disruptions and tensions alongside new opportunities for creative participation, albeit on a smaller scale.

A citizen of three agoras

And so we return to our original question – is Carolan bard or monk? Perhaps both and neither. Carolan is what Foley called a “citizen of multiple agoras”, a person (or in this case a thing or perhaps a persona) that participates in multiple traditions. Carolan faces the oral tradition through its life as a musical instrument, the textual tradition through its research publications, and the now emerging Internet ‘tradition’ through this blog and its presence on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. Carolan was designed from the outset to bridge between these agoras (even though the term only recently came to our attention) and one might argue that it reveals some of the ways in which they can be creatively connected. Naturally, given the preceding discussion, this also raises tensions. Should Carolan’s blogs and papers spill over into to its musical performances and how might this be done? Should its blog and performances be experienced alongside published papers and how might this be done?

Finally, on this point, while Foley’s book was published as both a regular book and an ebook, it was also made available as (and is very much structured as) an interactive website. Today, eight years after Foley’s death – shortly after his book was published – the book remains available while the website is no longer accessible – another somewhat ironic example of the tensions involved in being a citizen different traditions and agoras.


Barry Foy, Field Guide to the Irish Music Session, Frogchart Press, August 2008

Donal O’Sullivan, Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, Ossian, 2001

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, New York University Press, 2006.

John Miles Foley, Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind, University of Illinois Press, 2012

Norman Davies, The Isles: A History, Chapter 2: The Painted Isles, Macmillan, 1999

Steve Benford, Paul Mansfield and Jocelyn Spence, Producing Liveness: The Trials of Moving Folk Clubs Online During the Global Pandemic, Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 2021), 2021, ACM Press

Steve Benford, Peter Tolmie, Yousif Ahmed, Andy Crabtree, and Tom Rodden, 2012, February. Supporting traditional music-making: designing for situated discretion. In Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 127-136)

3 thoughts on “91. Bard or monk?

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