Various Artists: Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways

Various Artists
Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways
Smithsonian Folkways

The goal of this album isn’t hard to figure out: they’ve got it in the description. “Like all the compilations in the Classic series, this one is meant to serve as a brief introduction to the Celtic music riches of the Folkways catalog.” So they assume you’re not already familiar with the folk repertoire they’re offering, the tunes have been picked to be clearly accomplished and good — a solid album — nothing that might make you say, “That person is too amateur, her voice is shaky.” Sometimes, though, a field recording can be both shaky and interesting but they’ll also leave you to discover how later, in other releases — and sometimes the songs are even familiar — “Her singing of this song was featured in the film Far From the Madding Crowd,” writes the compiler, referring to Isla Cameron on “Bushes and Briars”. He also points out when Harry Cox is addressing a tune that the American portion of his audience might recognize as the original “Streets of Laredo”.

He gives one- or two-track examples of the many ways that Celtic music can be played. There’s music from Ireland, music from Scotland, a single fiddle tune from Jean Carignan of Canada (because the poor Bretons usually only get one shot on these things, the North England borderland included), and some migrant-derived music from North America because the Smithsonian is located in Washington, DC. Brian Conway of New York City revives compositions by old Martin Wynne on a fiddle track named, “Martin Wynne’s Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4”. You’ll hear examples of uillean pipes and Northumbrian smallpipes. You’ll hear the anarchic piper Billy Pigg on “Border Spirit”, long after he had moved away from the established staccato playing into a more hungry ravening style. There are examples of women singing, examples of men singing, a sean-nós children’s song, flutes, reels, sad ballads, one comedy lust song about a collier (“With My Pit Boots On” sung by Louis Killen with jigging vibrato — moral, do not get into bed with coal miners, they are faithless booted people), and the source recordings of some classics and standards. Lucy Stewart sings her personal 14-verse version of “Tifty’s Annie”, which is now apparently the folk repertoire’s prime version of “Tifty’s Annie” after she pronounced it at home in Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, somewhere between October 1959 and August 1960, with birds high-pitched in the garden. Annie Smith perished of love and if you’re in the Fyvie graveyard you can still see the stone that lets you know that she “departit the 19 of Janvari 1673,” setting a bad example for us all.

A large number of these recordings were part of the mid-century folk revival, helping to propel and feed the movement at that time when people who had spent their lives singing in kitchens or quietly being banned from competitions because they kept winning everything — but were not known outside the regional audience for their instrument — found themselves sought out and attended to, the microphone swinging in their direction after years of no microphones. Festival organizers showing an interest. The Clancy Brothers, represented here individually on several tracks, developed their voices into careers, thanks to festivals, LPs, and television. “The Bonny Bunch of Roses” sees Patrick Clancy in 1959 on the brink of national American fame, rolling his lyrics up and down in a vocal cradle at the Newport Folk Festival and letting the end of each line linger in a hum, asking you to hold this in your mind before he goes on to the next point.

In fact all of this folk singing pays attention to stories and endings, the completion of sentences and the news presented in the lyrics, that the man was walking “down by the Port Albert”, or that the woman asked her mother to make a bed for her to die in, and then that the mother did indeed make that bed, and the woman died in it. Always the pause so that the listener can absorb. You’re treated as if you are in the room with the singer, unable to rewind and relisten. The instrumentals don’t pause but they repeat, Michael Gorman in “The Strayaway Child” fiddling a melody, doing it again, going back, remembering it slightly, playing again, change progressing but slow. There’s always this idea that your brain is tracing back over the information it has just received as it gets ready to accept to the next variation, news of the world outside the ears arriving in increments, being rearranged and supplemented, the altering threatening world made safe in one small area, the forward thrust of time behaving as if it’s been tamed by the will of the musician.

RATING 7 / 10