The cream sinks to the bottom

May 13, 2009

It often seems that way, doesn’t it?  Case in point: recently I’ve been exploring the world of traditional Scottish and Irish folk music.  (I am interested in traditional Welsh music too, but it seems to be hard to come by.)  This is music about which I know very little, and I am starting from a position of near comprehensive ignorance.  I thought it would be a fairly simple matter, what with this Internet thing, to find some lists of “classic” records of traditional music from a few reputable sources.  Not so.

My explorations took me to AllMusic, to Amazon, and to some obscure music magazines with poorly functioning web sites.  Somebody recommended Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth, which is the one album of Scottish music that I have long loved, so I was inclined to trust what he had to say, but otherwise I have been left at sea.  There seems to be a strange reluctance to come out and say what the really good records are.  We’re talking about traditional music here.  Surely there are classic recordings, right?  Who are the Carter Familys, the Woody Guthries, the Jelly Roll Mortons, and the Robert Johnsons of Scottish and Irish folk music?  That’s all I want to know.

I did turn up a few names: Nic Jones, the Tannahill Weavers, Finlay Macneill, the Clancy Brothers.  I haven’t had time nor opportunity to listen to them yet, but I am compiling a list.  One thing that bothers me is that these folks are all recording in the last forty years.  Didn’t anybody in the UK make recordings of folk singers in the early days of recording?

In the meantime I started poking around on eMusic, the world’s finest source of musical flotsam and jetsam.  I decided to use that old ballad “Loch Lomond” as a litmus test.  There are over 200 recordings of the song on eMusic, and, of them all, the one I like best is sung by a fellow named Alastair McDonald.  His name had not appeared during my earlier research, but he seems to be exactly what I was looking for: folksy traditional instruments, a homespun simplicity, a good but not pretty voice, a thick accent, and songs with their roots sunk deep in the soil.  He sounds great.  (Listen to a clip of his “Loch Lomond” here, taken from Scotland in Song)

But here’s the thing: his records are really hard to find. Sure, eMusic has a couple, but many are missing.  Our city library, which is supposed to serve a few million people, not a few of whom have potentially outraged Scottish blood coursing through their veins, has never heard of him.  Amazon doesn’t carry his records.  It’s not even possible to steal them through peer-to-peer file sharing.  He is toiling in deep obscurity, my friends.  The cream sinks to the bottom.

13 Responses to “The cream sinks to the bottom”

  1. Nick Milne Says:

    The Tannahill Weavers are indeed pretty good. You might also look into Silly Wizard, which is sometimes… strange… but always neat. Their “Fisherman’s Song/Lament For the Fisherman’s Wife” (which may or may not have originated with them, I don’t know) is especially great. Thus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC1ZY8SC4ew

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Nick. I probably would have passed over a group called Silly Wizard — if there’s one enduring lesson from LOTR it is that wizard’s are not silly — but I like that song. It’s still a bit too big and competently produced for my tastes.

    I suppose my ideal folk singer is destitute, toothless, and half-drunk, with the soul of the land in his voice. I keep looking.

  3. Dean Says:

    While recommendations from random internet guys like me aren’t necessarily useful, I’ll throw this out there anyway.

    I’ll second the nomination of the Clancy Brothers, who basically created the market for this kind of music single-handedly.

    For instrumental music, it’s hard to beat the Chieftains, but they’re much better seen live than they are on record, where they tend to be a bit long-winded.

    My first step beyond the Clancy’s was an outfit called Planxty – several of their records are available on emusic – the first one (self-titled) is especially good. If you find you like them you can follow the individual members on to their subsequent projects (especially Andy Irvine & Paul Brady and the Bothy Band’s records).

    Another good resource is BBC Wales “Celtic Heartbeat” program, which you can listen to online.

    If you find some good Welsh music, by the way, please post it on the blog, as that’s one area I’d really like to know more about.

    Good luck and enjoy!

  4. cburrell Says:

    Not at all; recommendations from all and sundry are warmly welcomed. Thanks for those pointers; I shall take them under advisement.

    The Bothy Band I came across earlier, so with this second recommendation they are bumped a little higher on the list.

  5. M. Carlson Says:

    I, like Dean, am one of those random internet guys (or gals, in my case) I ran across this while I was looking for info. on St. Brendan. . .but what a great topic! I second the fellow who recommended Silly Wizard, though if you are going for the uber-trad, perhaps a trek through Alan Lomax’s acquisitions would be in order. I am not that well versed in his collections, but I believe they date from the 50’s and are your real McCoy average Joes singing traditional music.

    Paddy Tunney would be another fellow to look up from that era; his recordings are not easy to find, but he sounds as though he’s having such fun! Joe Heaney, also an Irishman, would probably fulfill your requirements as well, though he tends to sing in Irish, not English.

    Skipping ahead to present times, my personal preference is for Scots and Irish Gaelic singing, and I do enjoy some of the young-and-current in that field. Lorcan MacMathuna (he has a few videos posted on YouTube) has some very nice traditional-style music in Irish, with minimal backup. A current favorite among my Scottish CD’s is Na Seoid (I can’t get those ` s in there properly) by Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid. You can listen to clips from it at CD Baby: http://cdbaby.com/cd/makennedynaseoid
    One especially nice thing about this group is that all of the members sing in other bands, or as soloists in their own right, so it is a great place for an introduction to the genre.
    One further–and very random–thing you might enjoy checking into is canntaireachd. This was a vocal method of teaching traditional bagpipe music, still in use, to some extent. The recordings by Robert Nicol and Robert Brown (also called “The Bobs of Balmoral”) are considered classics.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Well now, this is superb. Thank you very much. I went looking for these names on eMusic, and found several of them. Paddy Tunney sounds just like what I want, and following the links has turned up several discs of “field recordings” in Ireland and Scotland. I am a happy man tonight.

    I was under the impression that Alan Lomax’s recordings were exclusively American in provenance. I’m going to have to check whether that is correct.

  7. Ellen Says:

    Try Jean Redpath for traditional Scottish folksongs. Solo artist, singing a capella, with guitar or sometimes cello.
    I agree…I love this type of music, but it is really hard to find.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Jean Redpath is a name that had come up in my explorations, but I’ve not yet heard her. Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll renew my efforts.

  9. Trad Fan Says:

    I would recommend checking out the magazine “Dirty Linen” and their website for trad Scots artists. Another good source is the radio show “Thistle and Shamrock” and website. These are the main places I learned about trad Scottish and other Celtic music. Green Linnet has many outstanding CD collections featuring many trad Scots/Irish/General Celtic groups. Almost all of the artists that I am aware of have recorded in the last 30 years. I’m not sure why there isn’t a lot of early Scots music available, although it may have to do with how much the Scots were suppressed until recent years.

    Scots: Silly Wizard and their members since they broke up in 1988 (Andy M. Stewart, Phil Cunningham & Aly Bain, Johnny Cunningham) Tannahill Weavers, Dougie MacLean, Old Blind Dogs (and ex-members Jim Malcolm and Ian Benzie.)

    Irish: Solas, Black Family, Deanta, Capercaillie, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell, Craobh Rua . . . and lots more. Check them out on YouTube – most of those named here are on there somewhere.

    Have fun – the more trad music you discover, the more you will discover. 🙂

  10. cburrell Says:

    Thanks very much for these suggestions. There are quite a few new names in there, so this gives me fresh leads.

    I had not heard of “Thistle and Shamrock”; I will try to find some time to listen to a show.

  11. M. Carlson Says:

    Hello again! I was wandering about the internet this morning and came across the School of Scottish Studies website which jogged my memory about your post:
    http://www.pearl.arts.ed.ac.uk/
    If you click the link for “Tocher” on the side, and then “select articles by type,” they give you an option for “Songs,” and at the bottom of *that* page, you get a few old ballads in Scots.

    It’s a pretty neat setup: archival recordings from various dates, along with transcriptions of the tunes, the words, and any accompanying commentary which was recorded.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, M. Carlson. I’m glad you stopped by again because I wanted to thank you for suggesting Paddy Tunney in your previous comment. I have managed to find a few songs that he recorded, and they are just what I was looking for. I have also been following up some of your other suggestions, but Paddy Tunney hits the nail on the head.

  13. M.Carlson Says:

    I’m delighted that Paddy Tunney filled the bill! He’s such a kick to listen to!


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