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A pub session (seisiún in Irish Gaelic; seshoon in Manx Gaelic) refers to playing music and/or singing in the relaxed social setting of a local pub, in which the music-making is intermingled with the consumption of ale, stout, and beer and conversation. Performers sing and play traditional songs and tunes from the Irish, English, Scottish and Manx traditions, using instruments such as the fiddle, accordion, concertina, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, tenor banjo, guitar, and bodhrán.
Singing and drinking have happened together from ancient times, but written evidence is fragmentary until the 16th century. In Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, Hal and Falstaff discuss drinking and playing the “tongs and the bones”. There are good depictions of pub singing in paintings by Teniers (1610–1690) and Brouwer (1605/6-1638) but the best ones are by Jan Steen (1625/5-1656).
1800 to 1950
The 1830 Beer Act abolished the levy on beer and quickly doubled the number of pubs in England. The number peaked in the 1870s and declined after 1900. By the 1850s, an increasing number of student songs and commercial song-books were published across Europe. The most famous was the Scottish Students’ Song Bookby John Stuart Blackie (1809–1895). The mixture of traditional songs with hints of erotic humour continues to this day. The Irish tradition also benefited from the compilation of O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, a compilation of 1,850 pieces of Irish session and dance music, published initially by Francis O’Neill (1848–1936) in 1903.
One of the most popular drinking songs, “Little Brown Jug,” dates from the 1860s. By 1908 Percy Grainger had begun to record folk singers, but not in their natural habitat—the pub. In 1938 A.L. Lloyd persuaded his employers at the BBC to record the singers in the Eel’s Foot pub in Eastbridge, Suffolk.
At The Eel’s Foot, 1939–47, the songs performed included: “False Hearted Knight”, “The Dark-Eyed Sailor”, “The Princess Royal”, “The Foggy Dew“, “Underneath Her Apron”, “Pleasant and Delightful”, “The Blackbird.” Surprisingly, one of the songs was “Poor Man’s Heaven” an American IWW song (Industrial Workers of the World), dating from about 1920. The oldest singer there was William “Velvet” Brightwell (1865–1960). In 1947 the BBC made more recordings there and broadcast them as “Anglia Sings” on 19 November 1947. Almost all of the participants were in their 50s and 60s. Six years later the first folk club opened in Newcastle upon Tyne, and the average age was in the 20s.
The fiddle has predominated since the 17th century. The melodeon became popular in the 1890s. By the 1950s the accordiontook over, particularly in Scotland. By the 1960s the guitar was the instrument most frequently heard in a pub. Nowadays so many people can afford instruments that ensemble playing is the norm. Celtic tunes are popular, even in England, however English music is enjoying a large revival currently, due in part to ‘new-folk’ artists playing traditional English music, such as Bellowhead and Eliza Carthy. Some people go to folk festivals simply in order to play along with others in the beer tent.
Choosing an instrument
Each session has its own informal rules as to which instruments are acceptable and in what number. Some sessions may have a strict “‘traditional’ instruments only” rule whereas others will accept anyone who shows up to play with any instrument. The word traditional is used loosely as sessions themselves are a relatively recently revived phenomenon and some instruments considered ‘traditional,’ such as the bouzouki are in fact relatively new to the genres played at a session. It is wise to ask about what is expected at a particular session before bringing a non-‘traditional’ instrument.
Generally there can be an unlimited number of fiddles, flutes, accordions and tin whistles. The bodhrán is common in Irish sessions, but many sessions prefer that only one person play the bodhrán at a time. Uilleann pipes are common in Irish sessions, but the more commonly known Great Highland Bagpipes are never used in a session, because they drown out other instruments. Mandolins, banjos, citterns and bouzoukis are welcome in moderation. Guitars and dulcimers are frequently allowed in sessions without strict “‘traditional’ instruments only” rules.
There are “open sessions”, when anyone who wishes can play, and “closed sessions”, where the playing is restricted to a group. The general rules are fairly simple, but depend on the kind of session. In general, pub sessions are not places for learning an instrument. It is expected that those taking part have attained competence in playing their instrument. Some sessions are wholly instrumental while others will engage the crowd with singing. It is customary to introduce oneself to the other participants before joining in. There will usually be a leader or oldest member who sets the tone and keeps the session running smoothly; often leader(s) do not appear to be leaders at all. Occasionally, even the leaders of a session may not realize that they lead.
Practically, however, there are always leaders at a session, by the nature of human dynamics. Some sessions follow a round-robin structure, others have a more free-for-all approach, and the leader(s) of a session should be observed to see how this particular session is run. Due to freeform nature of the session, there is always an element of serendipity and there is an atmosphere of anticipation and an expectation of tolerance from all present.
It is frowned upon when one openly criticises people who know only one song or only a few tunes. Sessions are occasions to be enjoyed by all participants and if others are accepted members of the group, it’s not up to one person (other than the leaders of the session) to decide that they are not welcome.