Review | Singing Ideas: Performance, Politics, and Oral Poetry

Singing Ideas: Performance, Politics, and Oral Poetry. By Tríona Ní Shíocháin. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017. 214 pp. ISBN: 9781785337673

Reviewed by Emily Hynes

Tríona Ní Shíocháin’s short volume, Singing Ideas: Performance, Politics, and Oral Poetry, presents an innovative take on researching the ephemeral, non-textual archives of oral tradition. Ní Shíocháin demonstrates how oral performance as song is best understood as a “liminal experience that is foundational in the lives of humans, providing an expressive play-sphere through which thought and identity are formed and renewed" (4). Using this framework to analyze some of the fourteen surviving songs of song poet Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire, the author concludes that “song engenders socio-processual thought of huge importance to the development of political ideas" (4). Overall, Ní Shíocháin acknowledges the political and personal agency of the raced, classed, and gendered subaltern as manifested through the liminal moments of oral poetry.

The first two of the book’s three chapters are devoted to outlining Ní Shíocháin’s critique of literacy’s authority and her theory of liminality, respectively. Her first chapter, a polemic to the literary institution, draws heavily on Joseph Muleka’s critique of the West’s attitude toward Africa. This critique problematizes scholarly discourses that have cast the literary as “objective, advanced, and transcendent” (8). Ní Shíocháin’s disregard for quests for the urtexts of Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire’s songs is evidence of her pushback against the textual archives of past research. The discursive gaps which have resulted from the hierarchy of text over speech spur Ní Shíocháin to provide her call to future researchers: it is a pity not to embrace the non-textual, with its multitude of interpretations, as a palpable force of socio-political change.  

For Ní Shíocháin, the very nature of multivocal, essentially multi-authored songs in an oral tradition provides ample opportunity to show music’s ability, more than speech, to allow the subaltern to sing their grievances when they cannot be spoken. These oral traditions of the subaltern, which evolve and live outside of elite, written history, offer a different history than what survived through the textual archive. To support the idea of song’s ability to operate outside of regulated speaking and writing, Ní Shíocháin offers valuable case studies, including songs of the Somali Women's Democratic Association during the Somali Civil War, and South African President Jacob Zuma’s use of the song ‘My Machine Gun’ during elections in 2005.

Narrowing her purview to connecting oral poetry, women and politics, Ní Shíocháin highlights an eclectic group of case studies of Swazi, Dyula, and Scottish songs in which oral poetry provides an opportunity for the oppressed to voice subversive criticisms in public spaces. In one of the underlying, yet unstated purposes of the book, the chapter concludes with a rousing call for scholars to embrace the alternate histories made available when operating outside of the textual archive.

Where the first chapter provided an outspoken, urgent call for researchers to embrace the living, oral archive, the second chapter dives into a theoretical explanation of the liminality of oral traditions. Ní Shíocháin unpacks the liminal as a ludic space of ekstasis and communitas. Drawing further on Turner’s theory of liminality as a place where everything “trembles in the balance” (Turner 1982:43), Ní Shíocháin describes how the antistructured liminality of oral history can be applied to its multi-authored nature and lack of urtext. Thus, there exists a space between reality and fantasy, the profane and sacred, where socio-political structures do not rule. It is in this space where the jesters, the unwed mothers, and the outcasts of society can express their experiences. It is a space, opened through song, where hierarchies fall and socio-political ideologies are reborn.

Ní Shíocháin next turns to Irish folklore. Irish poets were considered to be “imbued with special knowledge and often represented as crossing a metaphysical boundary between this world and the next” (29). This special attribute of song poets allowed them to, in the creation of their works, invent a nearly sacred space of opportunities for ekstasis and communitas through music. The pseudo-ritualistic nature of this transitory state allows the music to remove not just the listeners and performers but also the subject of the poetry into another space, away from the “profane world” and then redirect it out of this changed state and back to the “ordinary world” when finished (35). Ní Shíocháin uses the keening women’s waulking songs and motivic structures in Irish song as examples of the potentialities for re-creative impulses; these examples link the emotional experience and the very antistructure of Irish song to the gifted song poets’ place in the limbo of liminality.

In her third chapter, Ní Shíocháin turns to the work of Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire. It would behoove the reader to read the “Appendix of Songs and Lore” (131-189) prior to this chapter as that is where Ní Shíocháin includes her collecting methodology, full song texts with English translations, and notes on orthography and translationHere, the author engages with the textual archive to illustrate the attitudes of Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire’s friends and contemporaries toward the singer. As Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire was illiterate, there is no textual archive of her own making to seek. Ní Shíocháin’s clear admiration for the subject comes through in her language: the textual evidence paints Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire as a formidable woman in a male-dominated field, admired and respected by both men and women.

Ní Shíocháin connects Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire’s millenarian, semi-prophetic songs to the Rockite Conflict of 1822, the Battle of Keimaneigh, the Jacobite movement, and the United Irish Rebellion of 1798. In analyzing Máire Bhuí Ní Laeire’s song texts from recordings made in the late twentieth century, connections can be made between political events of the time to upheavals in the community regarding the place of gender, class, and status. Ní Shíocháin summarizes her analyses in noting that “though she invokes a higher power that will be instrumental in bringing about the day of reckoning, in the mortal world it is the ordinary people who will take the mantle of power unto themselves” (101). Here, Ní Shíocháin shows how her use of textual and non-textual archives come together to bring the text of the songs into the performance sphere, not abstracted from their living, sociocultural status, but instead embraced by it. The author finds comfort in embracing the living moments of oral performance in which everything trembles in the balance.

Ní Shíocháin’s theorizations of these liminal moments in song are an interdisciplinary manifestation of coalescing ideas from literary studies, anthropology, philosophy, and ethnomusicology. For example, one of Ní Shíocháin’s main arguments is that song is a unique way for the subaltern to express agency through liminal moments of ekstasis. She builds this argument by first breaking down the literacy/orality divide through citing the works of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Subsequently, she advocates for oral poetry’s importance through siding with Joseph Muleka’s critique of Hegel’s dismissal of oral tradition as poetry. Then, she brings oral poetry not only into a legitimized space academically, but positions it as an essential aspect of Turner’s communitas and ekstasis through discussing ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran’s work on female Jelimusow singers from Mali. Further, Ní Shíocháin uses Judith Becker’s ethnomusicological work on ethnographer Arnold van Gunnep’s theorization of “trancing” to show how music “performs and actualizes” a liminality through which Turner’s ekstasis and a feeling of “time outside of time” (35) manifest in the moment when everything “trembles in the balance” (Turner 1974:75).

This complicated web of theories connects threads between disciplines and positions Ní Shíocháin between musical and extra-musical disciplines. Her work highlights valuable considerations for those working with oral history and “multi-authored” music. And, her emphasis on the importance of the subaltern singing to utilize agency in a uniquely liminal moment of play, expression, and ekstasis can easily be applied to other singing situations, both for individual and community music making. This analysis brings about methodological questions regarding authorship, power, and agency.

Ní Shíocháin only briefly addresses frameworks from women’s studies and historical analyses of eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland. These areas would provide ample opportunities for further research. Additionally, throughout the book she is clear that within liminality, the potential for what cannot be spoken to be sung applies largely to the subaltern. This focus raises questions for further research regarding the place of liminality and the play-sphere of song in alternate socioeconomic circles from Ní Shíocháin’s subjects, i.e. for those with something to lose. Overall, her work synthesizing van Gennep, Turner, and Nagy’s theoretical frameworks proves to be a promising advance in the realm of studying oral performance. Ní Shíocháin’s weaving of frameworks from philosophy and literature in Singing Ideas will be useful to anyone studying performance of the subaltern, embodiment, and unjust political structures of power. I, for one, will be returning to this book for a captivating and insightful consideration of possibilities in which the subaltern may not only speak, but sing.


Works Cited

Turner, Victor. "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology." Rice Institute Pamphlet - Rice University Studies 60, no. 3 (1974): 53—92.


Emily Hynes is a PhD student in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on music in prisons in the American South and explores how commodification and myth affect stereotypes of black prisoners and their musicking.

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