NORTH EAST — The songs being performed at Cecil College’s Celtic Festival on March 9 were first sung centuries ago, but musician Charlie Zahm said audiences today will still be able to connect with the stories they tell.
“They’re the story songs, the songs that tell stories of the things we sort of take for granted as making up the stuff of life: love and loss, travel and adventure,” Zahm said.
Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theatre will host the music festival from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 9, bringing back an MST tradition after the event took a pause a few years ago.
Zahm will be the headlining performer with various other musicians and performers filling out the rest of the three hours of Celtic cultural celebration.
Zahm said he grew up listening to early American, Irish and Scottish music.
“The only kind of music that I know is traditional music,” he said.
He learned to play the five-string banjo when he was 14 and the guitar when he was 16, giving way to his firsthand exploration of the musical genres.
Zahm attributes much of his interest in those early American, Irish and Scottish songs to the fact that they were largely sung in English.
European immigrants emigrated from their homelands and settled in the American colonies and early United States where they either already knew English or assimilated by learning the language, Zahm explained.
“Their songs were passed down from generation to generation all the way to our day, with some variances for sure but they were in English at the time,” he said. “It was very easy for a young guy like me … to learn those old ballads that were in these dusty old song books that I would find at the library or my parents’ house and just go through those pages. You try to find stuff that you think you recognize. If you don’t recognize it, you have to try to follow along with the melody.”
When America was just finding its bearings as a nation and long-distance travel was not yet very common, Zahm said those who did get to explore away from home were often the first of their kin to do so.
“Back in those days, 200 years ago, people would travel all over the world and be the first person in their family to have gone past 10 miles from where they grew up,” he said. “Everything was fresh and new, and a lot of the songs reflect a whole world opening up. Especially in the young United States, there’s so many beautiful songs of just heading west. No roads, you follow the river, you follow the stars, and there’s a great romance in that, at least for me.”
During times of war, soldiers and their families turned to song as a way of coping with longing and loss of their loved ones.
“Those songs from those days are a record of the lives of people that lived it — not only the men who fought in those battles, but the women back home, their wives waiting for them, their children waiting for them,” Zahm said. “Civil War songs where a son would never come home and the mother would lament it for all of her days. His wife or sweetheart would lament it also.”
Although times have changed considerably since the eras in which these songs were written, Zahm said many of the themes and messages at the cores of many of the songs still hold true to this day.
He added that finding out the stories of the real people behind the songs is part of what he enjoys about performing them.
“It makes everything very real to learn these songs, to learn the stories behind them,” he said.
Zahm will be performing with fiddle player Tad Marks and guitar player Steve Hobson, and he promises he and his fellow musicians will deliver a lively performance.
“Our audiences can expect a rousing and rollicking session of music with great songs of the sea, songs of Ireland and Scotland for sure, singalong songs, some instrumental work by my fiddle player and guitar player, some great songs that they will remember from their childhood, as well as of course some that we hope will be brand new to them,” he said.
The show, which will also feature dancers from The McAleer School of Irish Dance and harpist Kendrah Tozzo, will all add up to a great family night out, according to Zahm.
“It’s a very safe and fun environment … You just sit back for three hours and you let this ensemble cast do what they do best, which is presenting the music and the dance of Scotland and Ireland to the theater. There’s nothing to not like about it,” he said.
Zahm hopes enough people come out and support the festival to turn it back into an annual event.
“We’re just delighted that they called and wanted to start it again,” he said. “If there’s a good turnout on Saturday night, chances are pretty good they’ll do it again next year and then it’ll be a tradition again.”
At the end of shows, Zahm said audiences often come up to him and tell him how the songs he sang reminded them of a family member — a feat to which he is proud to contribute.
“I hear people come up to me after the show and say, ‘I haven’t heard that song since I was 5. My grandfather or grandmother used to sing that song to me, and gosh when I heard you sing it I hadn’t even thought about that song for 50 years. They came back to me for the four or five minutes you were singing that song.’”