logo Enthusiasms No 26
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Correspondence on ...
The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin book and CDs

[Since a number of readers have asked me questions regarding the Cronin/Ó Cróinín book contoversy - usually "Where is it all?" - I though it might be helpful to assemble the entire correspondence in one place, together with a link to the review in question - Ed.]

From: Letters, November 2000

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review (1)

I feel that I (or someone) should add a postscript to my friend Fred McComick's review, of another friend, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's presentation of his grandmother's songs, in The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin: Irish Traditional Singer.  It is, briefly, this; that in Ireland, among people who are passionately concerned about the continuance of the singing tradition and who care about its accurate representation, there has been universal welcome and, in general, approval for this work.  Approval 'in general' I said because no-one denies that the book has deficiencies.  I, personally, would like to know why Dáibhí ignored or selected, some information and advice I offered him and whose inclusion would (I think) have made a better balanced and more accurate book.  And there are numerous unexplained editorial inconsistencies - one of them very serious.  Nevertheless, the book has received welcome and approval because it is recognised that it is a considerable contribution to the literature of the Irish singing tradition.

I attended the book's launch in Dublin.  After Cathal Goan (Head of RTÉ Television and a scholar of Gaelic song) had completed the formalities, we talked - and we sang: Dáibhí sang, I sang, Phil Callery sang, Antaine Ó Faracháin sang, other members of the Ó Cróinín family, uncles, aunts, cousins, sang; Nicholas Carolan (unprecedentedly in my experience) sang.  In Ireland, the publication of a book of (or about) songs, is about singing.  Dáibhí was there among his family.  The book was launched among a community of singers and within a family gathering.  There were therefore, things the book did not have to say: the context of the songs, the nature of the area, the personality of the singer were too well known to need more than a sketch.  Fred seems to have had expectations which were not in the minds of the communities which this book was intended to serve.

He also fails to acknowledge the length of time, the effort and the achievement which it represents.  Most importantly, this is the first time - ever - that the full known repertory of any singer from any area of Ireland has been presented.  That this singer sang songs of great quality, in versions of great beauty, in a style which is delicate and understated, in both Irish and English; that she also sang songs of English music hall and vaudeville origin, dandling songs, children's songs, local songs and silly songs, allows us to construct a new and more open paradigm of the scope of the Irish singing tradition - and from the position of an unimpeachable empirical.  That is no small matter, but instead of acknowledging it, Fred quibbles and takes the editor to task, partly for things which did not matter in the book's context, but only to outsiders and for things which the editor, despite his academic background, (he is Professor of early Irish History at NUI Galway) was not capable of appreciating and might not have thought important if he had.

A few examples of both: nobody in Ireland needs to be told about the Wren Boys - Fred thinks there should have been a note explaining a photograph of Mrs Cronin 'making decorations for the wren-bush'.  He deprecates the absence of any analysis of Mrs Cronin's singing style but, apart from the fact that the CDs obviate the immediate need, it's worth pointing out that such a task needs skill and sympathy - in my experience there is hardly a person in the British Isles with enough of both to do a decent job.  However, these are only two of Fred's quibbles - some of which seem almost spiteful.  He quotes a reference in the introduction to 'the turn of the century' and adds - 'he means of course the twentieth century' - I'm sorry to have to inform you, Fred, (contrary to global hysteria) that it's obvious Dáibhí means the 20th century, a century does not end until the end of its last year - this year is the last of the 20th Century.  (20 X 100 = 2000).  Several other times Fred questions Dáibhí's use of English where I can see no real problem - for example, in connection with Seán Ó Cúill's collection where 'The adjudicators ...  remarked that there were a lot of fine songs in his collection, but because the author was unwilling to cede copyright in their publication it never appeared in print'.  I agree that the adjudicators did not say all the words in that sentence, but only pedantry would draw attention to it; the ordinary reader has no problem.  And, later, Fred makes a point about the Irish Folklore Commission having been recording folklore for eleven years before 1946, the date at which Dáibhí says that Séamus Ó Duilearga, 'conceived a plan to send collectors ...  to record ...  samples of the story telling and folklore ...'  A kinder reader might have worked out that it was the sending of collectors which was the innovation.  Previously recording had been done by correspondents, who lived locally and were either part-timers or had been appointed full-time having distinguished themselves in a part-time capacity.  Lastly, though there is more, Fred's crack about '... a gentleman identified only as Dr Lynch.  If he ever had a first name, it is not recorded here'.  I think it should be gently pointed out that in the Ballyvourney community of around 1900, there were two people (apart from the local landlord, if there was one) who had no 'first' name: the Priest and the Doctor.  In his lack of sympathy for the editor, Fred has failed to recognise that both Dáibhí and his father were members of that community and the use of a deferential title rather than a Christian name, would have seemed natural to them.

Fred's first big gripe is the lack of prominence given to the recordings.  Firstly, this is not unexpected given that Four Courts Press is a book publisher, not a record company.  However, there is a practical reason; let me spell it out - VAT.  A book which 'Includes 2 CDs' does not incur VAT but a set of CDs supported by a book is wholly taxable.  Would you like to pay more, Fred?  Actually, I'd question his argument anyway - the CDs support the book because the book tells more of the story - even if not completely.  Again, the choice of publisher is not accidental - Four Courts is one of the major publishers of academic history in Ireland - Dáibhí's reputation as a historian persuaded them to publish a work in a genre they would not otherwise have accepted.  And this is another reason why Fred's review should have been less stingingly critical.  Although a professional historian, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín is very much an amateur in the area of traditional song.  He has been working on the book since 1990, taking it over following work by his late father, as an exercise in the filio-pious, as a tribute to one special member of his family, but also to others.  He was never the person to conduct ethnographical inquiry; too close to the subject and too far from the discipline.

The second of Fred's big objections (at least, he spends a lot of space on it) concerns the ways in which the texts noted from Mrs Cronin have been supplemented.  First, by listing other versions; I agree with Fred that these are incomplete and inconsistent but if he's ever tried to do such a thing he would find that any other result is very difficult to attain.  Second, by sometimes giving some verses for comparison with what was sung - Fred thinks it's a waste of time - and I agree - but that's all it is.  He reserves his most thorough condemnation for a third decision: that where there is a song-title but no recording was made nor any text exists, a set of words, thought likely to have been analogous with the song Bess meant by that title, has been appended.  Fred rejects this because it cannot have been exactly what Mrs Cronin sang and because the words are sometimes drawn from disparate sources - I think he is again unfair.  The general reader - and there are many of those - the book was being reprinted within a week of its first issue - will find this helpful and no-one, not even the most 'general' reader will make the mistake of concluding that the text given in such cases was that sung by Mrs Cronin.  Come off your academic high horse, Fred.

Fred is at his most severe when it comes to the transcriptions of texts.  He carefully compares them with the CDs and finds glaring inconsistencies - which there are, but a little close reading, before rushing into HTML, would have shown where the inconsistency lies.  Take the first item on the CDs, Níl mo shláinte ar fónamh, We are told that the text is 'From BBC 11988; there is another in DOC's notes.  A third text is in CBÉ 737, 80-82.  There is a copy also in Séamus Ennis's CBÉ copybooks (Sept 1946).  The BBC 1947 version is fuller with VV.2,3 and an introduction in English; cf CBÉ 1595, 71-72 (Cork, 1961).'  (Incidentally Fred says he can't find any reference to the spoken introduction, which he hears on the cd, in the book - sorry, I've just quoted it - but that's not really important).  Has the answer dawned?  It lies in the punctuation - the semi-colons - the transcribed text is not necessarily that of the first item mentioned in the notes.  It may be one of the others - or (shades of Stephen Sedley - already invoked by Fred) it could be a collation.  In order to be sure which, I contacted Dáibhí.  I wonder why Fred did not do so.  He would have been told that there were no collations.  He would have heard that the Editor began working from tapes which had been made for his father and whose quality did not permit absolutely clear audition - hence some gaps in the transcriptions where the CDs are perfectly clear.  He would have been told that the text reproduced was not necessarily that of the first item referred to in the list of available texts but instead that of the fullest single text.  Here, while I think it is useful for us to be provided with more than one of the alternative texts, I would also be highly critical - we should be told clearly which version has been selected.  However, my point is that Fred completely mistook the nature of the offence.  Admittedly he was led into it by Dáibhí's own statement, on page 33, 'In the case of the songs for which there are sound-recorded versions, the printed text given here is that of the recording used for the CDs.'  But the alarm bells should have been set ringing by another (ambiguous) statement - on page 29, '...  the unique collection of manuscript materials assembled by my father ...  has also enabled me to offer the definitive text of all Bess's songs, not just the recorded ones.'  It is clear that this book would have benefitted from careful editing - a further six months from Dáibhí, or a really good proof reader.  However, my criticism of Fred stands equally: a critic cannot afford such careless reading, especially one who warns against 'Failure to read the entire introduction carefully...'

In this same context, I have been puzzled by Fred's references to the collector, 'Alexander' Freeman - there are articles on song collecting in west Cork in the Journal of the Folk Song Society by an 'A.  Martin Freeman' and a member of the Editorial Board of the Irish Folk Song Society styled in exactly the same way - whose mistake is this?  And in any case, since there is an inconsistency, would it not have merited Fred's using a footnote - as he would suggest for Dáibhí?  And how about the several places in the review where George Pickow's name has been misspelled, 'Picow'?  Finally in this brief bit of separating pots from kettles, there is the matter of The Little Pack of Tailors.  Fred mentions that I pointed Dáibhí in the direction of several odd references and purports not to understand either their relevance or their inclusion.  I suggest he reads the entire song-text and the note which follows it.  The latter gives a text taken from Bess's handwriting which includes the well known lines Johnny will you marry me?  Johnny will you take me?  Johnny will you marry me - or what the devil ails you?  These do not occur in any the recordings of The Little Pack of Tailors within my experience and it is for this verse that I referred to Jeannie Robertson's Bonnie lass come o'er the burn and that the tune for this fragment is sometimes known as Some say the devil's dead.  Elizabeth Cronin muddled the text, Dáibhí made a hames of the referencing and Fred couldn't tell the difference.

I don't intend to quibble further - though there is much more in this review with which to take issue - like its lack of comment on the musical notation and failure even to mention the fact, that where more than one recording exists, we are not told which one has been notated.

It is my view, that, like traditional singing, scholarship is a concerted exercise, a thinking in common.  One person initiates, others correct and augment.  This book is a start.  It has many imperfections and errors but it is far from worthless and it has such references as will allow us to undo some of the mistakes.  (Though it would have been nice to be saved the trouble.)

And to be positive, despite Fred's hostility and errors, his review clarifies much which is unclear in the book and sets an agenda for further endeavour.  It would have been a worthy contribution had it been composed with greater generosity, giving credit where due, correction where justified and setting out suggestions for further work.  (Incidentally, I thought it was clear that there are plans to publish stories and spoken items of Elizabeth Cronin - and I expect that some points Fred desires will be included there.  Perhaps also, the editor and publishers will consider a second edition.)  However, as it stands, the review, which one of my colleagues described as 'vitriolic', causes the friends of the author of this book to wonder whether it will not cause him such pain that it would be better not drawn to his attention.  Which leaves me questioning the worth of the review and the sense of publishing it. *

I value Musical Traditions.  It has stood like a beacon for the principle that the performance of traditional music and song matters far more than its study.  Its editors have fully understood that no amount of study; no amount of careful documentation of what happens, or how things are done in a tradition, will allow anyone to reproduce the spirit of that tradition.  Performance is learned through performance and informed by study.  It is much more important that the Irish singing tradition should be informed (however inconsistently) by a book which has the positive qualities demonstrated by this one, than that I or Fred or anybody else should have to swallow its academic shortcomings.  Has Musical Traditions lost the plot?

John Moulden - 24.11.00

* [An MT review has two purposes: it should alert the potential puchaser to both positive and negative aspects of the publication which might not be immediately apparent upon cursory inspection; it should also raise related issues which are likely to be of interest to readers.  Whatever the merits or failings of Fried's review, I would suggest that it did both these things ... thus there was both worth and sense in publishing it.  The possible reaction of an author to criticism ought not effect the content or the publication of a review ... to extend the logic of John's question, one might even argue that, if a notional author is truly as sensitive as is being suggested here, s/he shouldn't risk publication in the first place - Ed.]

From: Letters, December 2000

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review: (2)

Dear Mr Stradling,

My attention has been drawn to a review of my recent publication, The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin at your website.  I'm sorry to have been the cause of your reviewer's premature hair-loss, and hope that he and your other subscribers won't take it amiss if I offer a few words in mitigation of my misdemeanours.

I'm not sure I can do anything for an individual who asks "Did Bess Cronin have the blas?", and whose idea of perfection for the introductory essay in the book (a lost opportunity, he thinks) is summed up in the statement 'It could have been another Tailor and Ansty'.  That said, there are several things in his review which do deserve a reply, but I have time at the moment only to address the substantitive issue of the printed texts and their relationship to the CD-songs.  Here the reviewer is mistaken - but through no fault of his own.  He has been misled by my words, I'm afraid, and looking back now I can see why.  The story is a long one, but I'll try to keep it short.

In my book (p.  33) I stated 'In the case of the songs for which there are sound-recorded versions, the printed text given here is that of the recording used for the CDs'.  That was my original intention, and for as long as I was working on the texts, that was what I hoped to do.  All the original texts/transcriptions were either from recordings (CBÉ, BBC or American tapes) or else from handwritten versions written either by Bess herself or by a collector.  I initially used the copies my father had of these various recordings, but planned to revisit all the texts once clean (re-mastered) versions became available.  For reasons I cannot go into here (libel laws are stricter in Ireland than in Britain!), the book was finalised before I got the re-mastered songs as they appear on the CDs.  This, I hasten to add, was through no fault of Nicholas Carolan and Glenn Cumiskey at the Irish Traditional Music Archive, or of Harry Bradshaw.  On the contrary, without those three, the project would never have been completed.  But when the final proofs came through to me, I was actually on sabbatical research leave in Germany, and when I eventually got my first copy of the book, there were no accompanying CDs!  A case of putting the cart before the horse, as your reviewer might say, but that, unfortunately, is how things worked out.

I was frankly taken aback by the extraordinary quality of the re-mastered recordings when I did hear them, and realised the astonishing work that Harry had done in cleaning up the CBÉ tapes in particular.  It was at that stage also that I realised the mistake I had made in my stated purpose of giving the printed versions as transcriptions of the songs as they appeared on the CDs.  To be honest, Nicholas did warn me at an earlier stage that I was giving a hostage to fortune in making such a statement!  Your reviewer has taken that hostage and inflicted unspeakable tortures on it!

But the situation is actually not as bad as it might appear.  In fact, ALL the transcriptions of recorded songs are from one or other of the recordings (I worked initially from CBÉ and BBC tapes, then American ones).  This means that, if a particular printed text does not correspond word-for-word to the CD version, it is in fact a transcript of ANOTHER recording, one I had been using for working-purposes before the CD selection had been finalised.  Once I had seen the running-order of the two CDs (faxed to me in Germany by Nicholas) I did ask the publishers if it would be possible, even at that late stage, to adjust the relevant rubric in the book (the heading 'Text' that accompanies each song), but unfortunately I was too late and the book had already gone to press.  In hindsight I realise that I should've added an insert to the song-book, making clear what had happened.

This is all very unsatisfactory I know, and your reviewer can hardly be blamed for working himself into a frenzy about the apparent disparity between texts and CDs.  It is important to realise, however, that - contrary to the impression your reviewer (and others) may have formed - there are NO interpolated or contaminated texts printed in the book.  Where there is a recording of a given song, the printed text is from a recording (though not necessarily the one cited, for the reasons given above).  It is possible that, over the long gestation-period of the project, I may have used one or other of Bess's handwritten versions rather than a transcript from a tape, and failed to correct that.  Realising that this might be a possibility, I tried to allow for the eventuality in the first sentence of p.  33 'The texts of the songs that follow are ALMOST ALL taken either from Bess's own handwritten transcriptions, or from the sound recordings made of her singing, or from versions taken down ...  by some other collector'.  It is also the case that some songs (whether in Irish or in English) are clearer on the CDs than they were on my working-tapes, which explains my occasional uncertainty in transcribing where none appears to exist.

However, there is a silver lining (of sorts!) in all this.  Your reviewer can rest assured that the printed texts of Bess Cronin's songs given in the book are authentic, uncontaminated and uninterpolated records of performances she gave, whether into a microphone or as noted down by my father or some other collector.  Any other texts are clearly marked as such.  That means that users of the book can listen to the CDs and, where it happens that the text is not a straight transcript of the CD, compare the words with the printed text of another performance.  That way they can appreciate the subtle variations between performances - an unexptected bonus, to be sure, but a useful one for all that.  There's no reason to throw away the book and keep only the CDs!

I've taken up enough of your time with all this, but I hope that it goes some way to setting to rest the doubts your reviewer expressed about the authenticity of what he was reading in my book.

May I say in conclusion how impressed I was by your website - quite the best and most useful I've seen in a long time.

Yours sincerely

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín - 12.12.00

From: Letters, December 2000

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review: (3)

Regarding John Moulden's letter about my review of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, I will not attempt a complete rebuttal of his comments - particularly in the light of Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's chasteningly magnanimous communication [see below].  I will say, however, that of Moulden's criticisms, there are just a couple which hold some water.  The rest are of no significance whatsoever, and of those, one baffles me, another contradicts itself, and the rest merely underline the argument I was pursuing.

Before rushing to the keyboard, John might have paused to reflect that the strictures of Value Added Tax and limited editorial experience are irrelevant to the job in hand; namely, that I was given a finished product which required evaluation.  The aim of reviewing a work is not to tell its originator whether a good job has been done, nor to dictate what shall and shall not be published.  It is to offer informed opinion to a paying public.  The extent of Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's editorial difficulties should not have had any effect on the review - even if I had known about them.

John Moulden, on the other hand, could have taken a leaf out of his own book and rung me or e-mailed me.  I would have been glad to discuss the matter with him, and I would have been glad to explain my motives.  As it is, his attack on me bears the implication that I took some sort of perverse delight in savaging this work; he comes close to accusing me of acting out of spite.  That is unforgivable.  Writing that review, the critical bits at any rate, caused me a lot of pain, a lot of anguish and a lot of heart searching.  I had no initial desire whatsoever to censure that book and I did not undertake the task lightly.

It was depressing to find John focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of my review, as though they were its entire content.  My comments were by no means confined to editorial shortcomings; what of my unstinting praise of the CD half of the package, Mrs Cronin's singing, her large and heterogeneous repertoire, my amazement at the originality of the songmakers around Baile Mhúirne?  For that matter, my remarks about Lord Gregory, about Mrs Cronin's possible textual improvisations, about the influence of the local broadside trade, and my speculative comments about a possible Ulster connection ...  all of these and more elicited not one word from John Moulden.

His letter implies that the book was designed for the esoteric few who know and value Irish folksong well enough to accommodate any editorial shortcomings.  I could not disagree more - and the speed at which the book has been selling tears that argument to pieces.  More to the point, we are living in the global village of the twenty-first century, where intercultural exchanges ought to be the norm.  Musical Traditions is a highly eclectic journal, which supports interculturalism to the hilt.  I do not believe that esotericism or ethnocentricity played any part in the thinking of the editor or the publisher of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin.  However, if that were otherwise, then the package should not have been sent to Musical Traditions for review.

Finally, I find John Moulden's broadening of the argument into an attack on MT editorial policy, the most offensive part of his whole tirade.  I and I alone am responsible for the content of that review.  I and I alone will carry the can, if there are any cans to be carried.

Having said all that, I apologise without reservation to anyone who was upset by the tone of my review.  Because of the editorial problems - which I had no way of knowing about - this book got me very exasperated, and some of my exasperation leeched onto the page.  This irritation led me into several pieces of incidental criticism - my carping over 'Gaeltacht area' for instance - which I hope I would have otherwise avoided.  And I ought to have been more generous in acknowledging Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's work in producing this opus.

Nevertheless, even when those editorial problems are taken into account, the book had too many errors and shortcomings for a work of its calibre.  I hope and believe that they will be put right before a second edition is published.  If, bearing in mind my disadvantage point on the Saxon side of the Celtic Sea, I can be of any help in this work, I will be only too happy to assist.

Fred McCormick - 20.12.00

From: Letters, January 2001

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review: (4)

Dear Rod

As a good friend and colleague of Fred McCormick I have been observing the correspondence surrounding his review of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin with great interest (and not a little concern).  I would like to say a word or two in defence of Fred, and in defence of academic theory.

I should inform you that, as a popular music historian, I have only a limited knowledge of Irish folk song.  Nevertheless I have made myself aware of the contents of the book and know and admire Fred's expertise in this field (one of a number of areas, I might add).  Additionally, I also feel some responsibility for the current hornet's nest, for it was I who persuaded Fred to re-enter the academic world to teach Irish music to Continuing Education students at the Institute of Popular Music.

I can reliably inform you that, throughout his teaching for the IPM, Fred has complained vociferously about the lack of quality written material on Irish music; about the poor standards of most of what has been published; about a singular lack of original thought and ideas; about a refusal to borrow or learn from other disciplines, and about a refusal to at least question conventional wisdom and accepted modes of thought.  There are doubtless honourable exceptions - and Fred mentions several - however the state of published material on Irish ('traditional' or otherwise) music and song looks decidedly bleak.

Where a vacuum such as this exists, dubious pieces of authorship are accepted as authoritative purely by default.  This occurs because there are no comparable texts, no argumentative practices, no theory ('academic' or otherwise: Nick Cohn's Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom - a popular music text - springs to mind).  If such a piece of dubious authorship happens to come dressed in scholarly clothing, and bearing the monicker of an academic publisher, the unchallenged stamp of authority is resolute (Niall Mackinnon's The British Folk Scene, for example).  Whether Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's book actually fits this picture is irrelevant for the moment.  I would simply state that the reaction which has been engendered by Fred's review underlines (at least to me) his fundamental argument: that received wisdom and lack of theory concerning (Irish) music has effectively 'produced' a hidebound, shallow discipline in which only the predispositions and avers of the inquirers are satiated.

According to Fred, the Beth Cronin book is methodologically unsound, badly transcribed, littered with mistakes and possesses impoverished and (occasionally) naive scholarship.  Having read the book from cover to cover, I would suggest that it also suffers from bad editing and woeful proof reading.  Fred obviously thinks that it is an awful piece of work and was not prepared to mince his words in saying so.  Why on earth should he?  Where would the justice or honesty lie in saying otherwise?  Why should the editor or the publisher (or anyone else, for that matter) expect people to fork out good money for a text without close scrutiny?  This does not happen in other genres of music (take a look at book reviews in Record Collector, Mojo - even, with apologies to Dave Harker, the Folk Music Journal!) and yet, somehow, Irish music is regarded as sacrosanct.

So, Fred's review has produced a fair measure of adverse reaction and the detractors are by no means confined to the letters page of Musical Traditions.  "Good!" one might exclaim "Yee hah, a debate!", even.  But, sadly, the vibes indicate an Irish music establishment merely contented with the publication of such a book, rather than concerning itself with the shortcomings.  In fact, it seems to be the case that any old rubbish is better than no rubbish at all.  This is simply not good enough!  A book as heavily flawed as Fred claims this one to be would be torn to shreds in any other 'academic' discipline (including Early Irish history).  This is because, in the academic world, progress is made via argument and debate; theoretical development is made via the rejection of the substandard.  It is certainly not made through the closing of ranks.  And I'm not so sure that Fred is the lone voice crying in the wilderness, in any case.  If one reads John Moulden's letter (ignoring the somewhat hostile tone) it is quite clear that he also finds certain aspects of the book unsatisfactory.

I am not qualified enough to delve too deeply into specifics, but a few broad comments are in order, I think.  First of all, those transcriptions.  We have read Dáibhí Ó Cróinín' s explanation of why the texts in the book differ from those on the CDs; or, rather, how the laws of libel prevent him from 'spilling the beans'.  But, surely, laws of libel are not the issue, here.  The question should be, how did a leading academic practitioner allow himself to get so out of touch with his publisher as to allow a 'cock up' of this magnitude?  Fred has offered to publish the indexes of the recordings used for the CDs in Musical Traditions.  This would certainly go some way to de-confuse a very disconcerting issue (I was lost, to be honest!).  But Dáibhí Ó Cróinín cannot lay his hands on his own research material(?)  Is anything good enough for folk music research?

But this strange admission also smokescreens the other problems raised by Fred.  For instance, his review considers the very real possibility that Mrs Cronin might have varied her texts from performance to performance.  I don't know whether Fred has some inside knowledge - maybe a crystal ball - or whether he just guessed lucky.  But the fact that he was right is displayed in the differences between the book and the CDs, isn't it?  Given what we now know, would it not have been sensible practice to transcribe and print every single text noted down from her, instead of comparing her versions of texts with examples obtained from other singers?  From a popular music perspective, a comparison of Beth Cronin's personal variations might have informed us about Mrs Cronin as a creative performance artist (or should we not use words like 'creative' and 'performance' together?).

I would also suggest that comparing her own varied texts with other equally varied texts is not a satisfactory academic exercise without giving consideration to the creative possibilities of variation in performance (text and context, so to speak); this would be appropriate in both Mrs Cronin's performances and those of others.  Under these circumstances terms such as 'same' and 'different' take on new meanings, leading to some interesting semiotic conclusions (some of which may disavow the rather binary concept of trying to fill gaps in her repertoire by including songs collected from other sources).

John Moulden's letter claims that this book assembles Mrs Cronin's entire known repertory, thereby affording a unique, unimpeachable and empirical paradigm of the Irish singing tradition.  What??!!  Certainly, an empirical approach would be a welcome change to the romanticism which continues to characterise folk music writing.  However, a paradigm, fabricated around the repertoire of one singer, out of badly edited, unreliable raw material sounds like a construction bound to fail.  As a point of interest, we don't (and will never) have her entire known repertory.  Much of it cannot be reconstructed - and that is precisely the complaint raised by Fred.

There is also the question of poor editing.  Referring once again to the John Moulden letter, he takes Fred to task over a piece of actuality on one of the discs.  Fred does indeed appear to have missed the reference (which is buried away in the list of index numbers).  However, it's not surprising that he did, for it certainly took some finding.  Neither the critic nor the reader should have to delve for information in this way.  Any decent ethnographer will transcribe the actuality and list it in the book along with the song and text; actually, its existence should have been identified in the CD track listings...take a look at any original soundtrack in Virgin and/or HMV!

On the question of scholarship, I am clearly at a disadvantage.  However, several of Ó Cróinín's remarks struck me as somewhat naive.  His rather snide comments about Cecil Sharp, for instance, are totally out of context; there is also the silly observation that not every song appealed to Mrs Cronin.  How does that make her any different to any other singer (or, indeed, any other member of the human race)?  Of considerably more importance is the almost total lack of any social or historical background to Mrs Cronin's singing persona.  Surely a Professor of Early Irish History is capable of giving us an historical ethnology of his 'own' community?

Finally, there is the matter of proof reading.  I don't know whether the publishers hired a proof reader, but that isn't really the point.  Surely the buck stops with the editor to eliminate errors.  Even I spotted two different dates for the founding of the Gaelic League (on two succesive pagesl) and, although John Moulden found several mistakes in Fred's review, he, in turn, seems to mould these points to suit his own argument...rather tawdry, don't you think?  (he'll be taking his ball home, next).  The point remains that Fred would not have taken so much time on the review had not the book been so heavily flawed.

So, Fred stands accused of excessive criticism of unimportant points of detail.  However, given the book's (apparent) status and importance, an exhaustive check was undoubtedly called-for.  I wonder, however, whether his nit-picking is actually very revealing.  For instance, he takes the editor to task for getting confused over the year in which Topic brought out the Folk Songs of England.  That sounds a little trivial (nonetheless important to us Topic fans!) until one realises that the editor quotes the year of copyright (which appears on the back of the LP covers) - not the year of issue (which appears on the LP labels).  As an archivist, this implies to me that the editor may not have even extracted the LPs from their respective sleeves.  Could this further suggest that he may not have even checked on the recordings (or am I getting paranoid, here?).  Both Fred and John Moulden suggest that this book will be read well outside of the immediate community that produced it.  I agree, but, as such, it should be able to stand up not only to historical, but also historiographical investigation (the 'nit-picking', as it were).  Like much of the literature surrounding Irish music, it doesn't.

To conclude, Fred's essay underlines the point I began with.  By review standards it's something of an 'epic'.  I printed it off the internet and it ran to thirty eight pages!  It displays a wide and detailed knowledge of its subject.  It embodies a great deal of background detail and includes several interesting hypotheses.  I cannot check the latter's feasibility, and his work includes at least one contention that I take serious issue with.  It is the question of emotional content.  Here, and in one or two other places, Fred lapses into the sort of sentimental rhetoric which is all-too-common among folkies.  One can appreciate his admiration of good singing, and one can understand his being moved by it.  Nevertheless, emotion in song performance is such a subjective matter that I would have avoided commenting on it.  Emotional display is mediated by the performer's social culture and by what the listener hears (or in this case, wants to hear).  In short, we have no way of comparing Mrs Cronin's expressions of feelings with those of any other performer, inside the pop world or outside.

I think the response to Fred's review has been, sadly, rather discouraging.  There has been fury at his exposing a work of dubious scholarship.  There has been silence at his own attempts at critical scholarship.  Fred claims that the role of a reviewer is to 'offer informed opinion to a paying public'.  Granted, but with something like this I would have stated that it is also to correct and criticise the author's contentions and to offer alternative modes of thought.  I think that Fred has done this; something John Moulden's reworking of Cecil Sharp's Guild Socialist reworking of Darwin's theory of natural selection will never be able to do.

The bottom line is that the book will stack up along with all the other books on Irish music which mislead and misinform.  As long as we carry on down this road, as long as nobody is willing to discuss and debate what Irish music actually is, the subject will remain something of a joke.  I eagerly await The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin in my local remainders bookshop.

Dr Mike Brocken - 10.1.01
University of Liverpool, Institute of Popular Music

From: Letters, March 2001

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review: (5)

Dear Rod,

As I remarked in my previous e-mail to you, I've been extremely busy in the last few months with a funding-application here, as a result of which I've not been in a position till now to get back to the 'Musical Traditions' website.  However, having just had a look at the correspondence about Bess Cronin that has taken place since last I looked in I'm afraid I have to say that I find the Editorial standard of the letters page - insofar as there is any standard - objectionable, at least as regards the Bess Cronin debate.  As a Review-Editor for a reputable Medieval Studies journal I'm well aware of the need for vigorous discussion and debate of matters at issue between scholars.  Your own addendum as Moderator of the 'Musical Traditions' discussion-pages to Fred McCormick's initial review led me to believe that you shared such a view.  However, publication of the ignorant and offensive letter by Dr Mike Brocken of Liverpool University seems to me to indicate that there is, in fact, no meaningful moderatorship of the letters at all.

I'm at a loss to understand why the views of a self-declared ignoramus in the subject should be given the freedom of your pages.  Dr Brocken describes himself as an individual who has 'only a limited knowledge of Irish folk song', and 'not qualified enough to delve too deeply into specifics'.  With no expertise, and what appears to be a limited understanding of English, he flourishes instead his mastery of 'academic theory', with its 'semiotic conclusions' and 'binary concepts', and all the other useless baggage of the genre.  Armed with this mish-mash of half-baked ideas he parades a series of criticisms about my Bess Cronin work based almost entirely on the second-hand opinions of Fred McCormick (who at least knows SOMETHING about the subject!) and a rag-bag of bizarre misunderstandings all of his own making.  His comments are just too silly to merit any reply, but in view of the fact that he was allowed to air them at my expense, I must - reluctantly - withdraw my previous offer to publish the newly-discovered Bess Cronin material in your pages.

Yours sincerely,

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín - 30.3.01

P.S.  I too look forward to the day when 'The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin' shows up in Dr Brocken's local remainders' shop.  That way he can buy his second copy of the book, as I did the second copies I have of Peter Kennedy's 'Folksongs of Britain & Ireland' and Sam Henry's 'Songs of the People'.

From: Editorial, April 2001

"He'll be taking his ball home, next"

The above phrase occurs in the letter from Mike Brocken about the 'Elizabeth Cronin review controversy' which was published in our Letters pages in January.  In fact, Dr Brocken's remark was about John Moulden - but appears to have been more widely prophetic than he might have imagined.

Some four months ago, I was happy to publish Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's letter responding to Fred McCormick's review, and extremely pleased by its calm tone and magnanimous approach to the matter.  As may be imagined, Dáibhí and I exchanged several e-mails over the following few weeks, and my opinion of him was further enhanced by an offer he subsequently made.  I'd had the temerity to ask if he fancied contributing anything for publication in MT, and he replied:

"I wonder would you find it useful if I sent the texts of some Bess Cronin songs that I was given when I was in Cúil Aodha a week ago - two or three are 'new' (i.e., either not known to me before or else noted by title in the book from one of her song-lists, but no text then to hand).  One or two already in the book, but these (handwritten versions, from a copybook of my father's dated 1939!!) are slightly different."
... and added, in a further message:
"Fred mentioned that you might write asking for a listing of the actual sources for the printed texts in my book.  I'd be delighted in principle to oblige, but fear that it'll take a while ...  I'll be happy to post it on your site.  It's work that should be done anyway ..."
Naturally, I was delighted that such a positive result might be the outcome of what had, at times, been some rather heated debate in our letters pages.  However, I refrained from publicising the fact, as I didn't want to appear to be putting Dáibhí under any obligation to fulfil his kind offer.  Despite being very busy with his University work, he took the trouble to keep me informed of developments in the succeeding months.

So I was very surprised by an e-mail from him last week (now published in out Letters page) telling me that he was unhappy about my publication of Mike Brocken's letter:

"[Your] publication of the ignorant and offensive letter by Dr Mike Brocken of Liverpool University seems to me to indicate that there is, in fact, no meaningful moderatorship of the letters at all.  I'm at a loss to understand why the views of a self-declared ignoramus in the subject should be given the freedom of your pages ...  His comments are just too silly to merit any reply, but in view of the fact that he was allowed to air them at my expense, I must - reluctantly - withdraw my previous offer to publish the newly-discovered Bess Cronin material in your pages."

Now, I'm not aware that I've ever given the impression that the Letters pages were Moderated - and nor are they.  Nor do I see any need to have a moderated Letters Page - this is not an academic Journal.  Any letters sent for publication appear as requested and as the authors sent them - but spell-checked.  If I'm aware of any blatant inaccuracies or misunderstandings, I will sometimes add a brief editorial comment to that effect ... I did so in only one instance among the four letters concerned.  And in this particular case, the few facts being discussed are not in dispute - the arguments being raised are for the most part dependent upon opinion.  I don't set myself as an arbitrator of the validity of authors' opinions, and feel that McCormick and Brocken are as entitled to put their points of view as are Ó Cróinín and Moulden - without undue interference from me.

Nor, to be frank, do I see much in Dr Brocken's letter, or in my publication of it, which could be construed as being 'at Dr Ó Cróinín's expense' - let alone ignorant or offensive.  For the most part, it merely reiterates points which have been raised before - and, for the most part, not answered!  Let's be specific:

These are the important criticisms which Fred McCormick's review levelled at the book part of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin.  These are the criticisms which Dáibhí Ó Cróinín has failed to even discuss, let alone attempt to answer.  Maybe he would now care to do so?

These are also the points which Ó Cróinín's and Moulden's letters have essentially side-tracked - a pity, as I believe they need discussion.  The tone of the review has already been discussed, explained and apologised for ... it does not need to be covered further, I think.  The MT Letters Page is a forum for people with an interest in traditional music to share their thoughts with other such people.  There is no requirement for them to be experts.  MT is not an academic Journal and its correspondence pages are not moderated.  I will both welcome and publish any contributions discussing some or all of the above matters.  That, at least, would be a positive outcome ............

Throughout my life, I've attempted to share my great enthusiasm for (and moderate knowledge of) traditional music in every possible way.  One of the results of my re-publication of MT on the Net has been to help others in doing the same.  I see this as being positive and helpful.  I believe most readers would agree that we all benefit from it.

So I'm sorry that Dáibhí Ó Cróinín has decided to take his ball home.  I don't see how it is any way positive or helpful.  Nor do I (as yet) see who benefits from it.

Rod Stradling - 9.4.01

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