logo Enthusiasms No 8
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

The Sunday Newspaper Test

It is a bad idea, probably, to try to do two things at the one time.  On this particular occasion I was attempting to catch up with the stash of Sunday newspapers that threatened to overwhelm the household while, simultaneously, I turned on the radio.  The programme - a regular one, of the traditional music ilk - strummed and tinkled amiably in the background.  With one ear cocked, I was vaguely aware of the records being played and of the presenter's chat ... a 'haunting melody' here and an 'exciting new sound' there washed in and out, while the world's news gripped the major part of my conscious faculties.

Then the other occupant of the household put on a CD, the radio programme having apparently tapped and tootled to its natural end.  The first track of the disc made me look up and ask what it was.  During the second track I reached for the sleeve notes to read more and by the third track the Sunday papers were abandoned.  This music commanded full attention.

Yes, we all develop cultural tastes according to what we have been exposed to or educated in, and one person's musical meat may well be another's poison.  But was it really just random bias that made me put the papers down in order properly to listen to one recording, while another - ostensibly of the same 'traditional' sort - just ambled along in the background like aural wallpaper?

The disc in question was The Lark in the Morning, the result of a riotous journey made in 1955 by American musicologist Diane Hamilton.  Fired by recording forays already made to Ireland by the likes of Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie, she sought the help of Liam Clancy and set off on the trail of now revered fiddlers and singers, among them Padraig O'Keefe, Sarah Makem, Peg Power and Paddy Tunney.  These 'artistes' were in their own homes, among their own friends, down their local pub - the places they were accustomed to be.

And so the fiddle sawed, strident and strong in the way a vigorous dance tradition required.  And so the singers put over their story, clear as a bell, directly to you right there in the room.  The rhythms inherent in the language gave each song its internal - and its only necessary accompaniment.  The styles, honed by life-times of playing or singing, were the performers' own.

So you couldn't do else but listen - which was why this kind of material excited the collectors of 40, 50 and more years ago and the then young musicians of the folk revival.  Now, courtesy of technology which can convert dusty, inaccessible field recordings into high-quality, available compact discs, the same stuff blows like a breath of fresh air to new ears such as mine.

Is this an exercise in nostalgia, assuming something has worth merely because it is old?  Mmm ... don't think so.  So much of the music promoted today as following in that same tradition - although precisely in what way is seldom defined - floats by me, pleasant but predictable, its arrangements either soporifically bland or fussily intrusive.  Increasingly too I have a hunch that, instead of seeking out the root why, where and how the tune or song was composed and played in the first place - singers and bands look no farther than recent recordings or performances by their peers to inform their own choice of material or instruments.  Within a week last June, for example, I heard three new line-ups in the Highlands with, amongst them, four sets of pipes, three fiddles, three harps, three guitars/banjo, three whistles, two keyboards, one piano-accordion.  And a moothie.  I enjoyed it all well enough, but what stayed with me longest, each time, was when a voice or instrument was given space to sing out alone.

So does this plethora of kit-bands matter when so many performers and audiences so clearly love them?  How many really care that we risk ending up with endless variations on the same technically skillful, but unchallenging, theme?

Meanwhile, for this punter, only music as rivetting as The Lark in the Morning passes my Sunday newspaper test.  What passes yours?

E Mairi MacArthur - Summer 1998

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