Celtic in the Queen’s Head

Gravity of BirdsMolly Nolan ’19 programs student band events for the Cambridge Queen’s Head every week. This Friday she’s sharing her native Celtic folk music with musicians from Harvard and around the world.

By Sasha Barish ‘20

When I sat down to talk to Molly Nolan ’19 about Folk Night at the Cambridge Queen’s Head, all I knew about the performance was that she seemed really, really excited for it.

“I'm a traditional musician from Scotland, and the history/cultural significance of folk and roots music is very important to me,” she had written in a publicity email. “I've been waiting years for this kind of show to happen at Harvard.”

As I soon discovered, that excitement is justified. Classical, jazz, and rock groups are ubiquitous at Harvard, and it’seasy to put together large, regularly rehearsing ensembles in genres that so many people here play, but for Nolan,

Robyn McKay
Robyn McKay
it’s not that simple. Most of her classmates from the traditional Scottish music academy she attended are on other continents. So her involvement in college music has mostly been limited to playing solo music at events and producing other student concerts. On Friday, November 3, however, the Queen’s Head, located in the basement of Memorial Hall, will feature a lineup of traditional Celtic music, including Nolan and others from all over the world, whose schedules fortuitously lined up.  A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows. The concert is free with HUID.

It seems like you have a few different musical cultures together in one show. Can you talk about that?
It is really interesting, because people are coming from a lot of different places, but there is a common origin, which is Scottish and Irish traditions. Some, like myself and Robyn McKay, are coming directly from that tradition. Robyn is a piper and whistle player, and I’ll be playing piano with her. She’s from Glasgow in Scotland and is currently studying at Cape Breton University, which is one of the very few universities in the world that offers a traditional Celtic music course. We went to school together and we’ve played together a lot, so we’ll be dredging up some old music from then. Shaughna Jones is from New York and she’s got Irish heritage, so she is a few generations away

Molly Nolan '19
Molly Nolan '19
from it, and it’s really interesting to see how those things prevail. The last act we have is Gravity of Birds, who have one musician from the islands in Scotland and then two other musicians who are American, so they’ve grown up with Americana and those roots traditions, and they’ve fused them together, which is a perfect example of how fluid the traditions are. Something about traditional music is that it’s very unitable to being influenced by other genres, so we’ve had traditional and classical pieces before, and influences with jazz and various other things.

Why is folk music important to you, or rather what is it like to retain your traditions in a multicultural environment like Harvard?
I’m a history and literature major, so heritage is something that’s very important to me. My traditional music school in Scotland was very much about learning about your heritage and your traditions, and America is a different kettle of fish, in that it’s a lot of different cultures coming together, but for me [the music] is a way of reminding myself of home and reminding myself of who I am. Part of my outward identification to people is that I’m a traditional musician, because often Scotland gets conflated with the United Kingdom, for example, and it’s very important to me that I’m Scottish and that people recognize that.

If people who don’t know much about this kind of music come to the event, what should they listen for? What might they find interesting to notice?
We’re very aware that it’s a new thing for people. The most obvious thing is that the instrumentation is very different; we’re going to have some mandolin, possibly bouzouki, bagpipes and steel whistles. There’ll be a lot of original compositions, so it’s interesting to listen to both the old music they play and then the contemporary pieces they’ve composed in that style, pulling from that origin.

Are you or other people planning on making more folk music happen at Harvard in the future?
I think the interest would probably be there if I did try and start something formal.