The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A Secret History of Irish Music

Colin Harper & Trevor Hodgett. Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History. (London; Cherry Red, 2005; 15 sterling)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 28 August 2006

In this anthology drawn from and revised after their previous journalism, two critics from Belfast, Colin Harper for trad and folk and Trevor Hodgett for the blues, recount how these genres have both spawned their own Irish artists and how similar musicians from overseas (Ornette Coleman, Muddy Waters, John Fahey, and Bob Dylan the most notable) have influenced the Irish music scene. The book concentrates on the resurgence of these genres in the mid-Sixties. Entries favor musicians first prominent during this decade. They fought for gigs when the showbands still dominated ballrooms. However, Van the Man only is glimpsed from the rather jaundiced perspective of his former bandmates in Them, for example.

U2 peers momentarily from the fringes, Sinéad O'Connor or Michael Flatley not at all, and Clancy Brothers, Pogues, and Chieftains pass by quickly. Rock music overlaps erratically with the book's titular genres. Yet, folk is never distinguished from trad. The blues tends often towards blues-rock. No Wolfe Tones, an iota of Seamus Ennis and Joe Heaney, barely a nod to Fureys, and the showbands lurk more as what to be escaped from rather than entered into. Harper notes, just as one of those amazing asides, how in the late '60s there was a band from the North named 'Therapy', believe it or not. The book's title covers a diverse range, as Altan, Anne Briggs, Johnny Moynihan, Thin Lizzy, The Bothy Band, Henry McCullough, and Arlo Guthrie share space with Martin Hayes, Clannad, Horslips, Planxty, Sweeney's Men, Ottilie Patterson, Terry and Gay Woods, and the ubiquitous Rory Gallagher.

Davy Graham gains sustained attention for his blend of what Harper characterizes as 'folk-baroque', as this troubled guitarist, born to a Scots father and a Guyanian mother, mingled raga, jazz, blues, folk, African, Middle Eastern, and Tin Pan Alley standards from 1962 into a sound on that generated envy and awe among players who would adapt his inspirations. Harper names Graham the father of what would later be labelled as world music. As with so many from the '60s, one wonders what Graham could have achieved if it were not, in his case, a deliberate and consciously taken decision to begin shooting up, leading to drug addiction in 1964, lasting until '68. Jimmy Page, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Dick Gaughan, and Archie Fisher are among those better known than their predecessor who widened Graham's trailblazing path, experimenting with new tunings and fingerpicking styles that would become standard among British folk, and some rock, guitarists. Harper credits Graham as one of the first artists to travel in North Africa, for example, to bring back in the mid-1960s musical influences that until then in the West had been heard on field recordings by only a few travelers or musicologists.

If such artists as the less renowned mentioned above are familiar, such a reader will appreciate the tales spun here. Some of those chronicled merely passed through Ireland, others stayed, many more left. This eclectic era, overlooked by music chroniclers, by Harper and Hodgett is recreated through extensive first-person interviews mixed with the two critics' personal experiences. Harper, the biographer of Bert Jansch, follows his study of the British folk-rock movement by plotting its impact as felt in Ireland.

The writing, gathered from disparate sources, has been revised and annotated to enrich its depth beyond the limits of the original entries written under deadline for magazines. Occasionally, as in the disastrous attempt by Harper to interview Townes Van Zandt, or how both Harper and Hodgett separately reviewed an inimitably dreadful John Fahey concert in Belfast, the results diminish the book's focus. Yet, from a fan's vantage point such entries do document how smug talents from abroad treated their Irish audiences. One wonders what Fahey thought; did he regard his fans as a swarm of culchies? Musicians a few decades ago seemed to leave a.s.a.p. for London, and the a handful of the more favoured floated off to California.

Few, with the notable exception of a particularly 'guilty pleasure' of mine from my late teens, stayed in Ireland. Horslips, who conjured a glam-prog-folk swirl of Celtic lore, fashion whimsy, and literate lyrics, did. They also kept control of the pressing, distribution, and copyright of their albums 1972-80. Yet even they were sold down the Lagan when an unscrupulous manager sold off the rights for four thousand pounds to the nth-generation tapes of their LPs which emerged as shoddy CD reissues via the Belfast dealer Outlet. I did not know this years ago, and lived to regret buying the inferior issues. Luckily, as of 2000, the band gained back control, and has re-issued their remastered albums on Demon/Edsel. (I wanted to add their plug, no benefit to me, but out of principle; the band deserves its due and its royalties.) The Irish fought for recognition as talents and innovators in an era that first pigeonholed the musicians as purveyors of whimsy, and then as quondam street fightin' men.

Those interviewed here, or nearly all certainly, sought to transcend any sectarian diminishment or political allegiance. Perhaps it is not so romanticised to see musicians as, in the Troubles, the descendants of the bards permitted to travel about and respected by rulers cowered with the threat of enduring satire and eternal invective? Even Christy Moore, persistently the exception to most of his peers here discussed, managed to scatter his targets broad, as other songs aimed close to snipe. Censorship, of course, throughout the island in the 70s onward undoubtably contributed to the limitations on expression under which Irish musicians and artists laboured if they wished to remain at home. The island was— for all its paramilitary, religious, and cultural tensions— in the fine arts, perhaps mercifully, a less frenetic place four decades ago, where all the creative types seemed to know each other. Despite the traumas, music offered an affordable escape for fans and players. As an aside, the murder of the Miami Showband, it may be recalled, perhaps seared deeper into Irish collective memory: respected musicians, one sensed, were seen to have deserved a free pass across borders and battlegrounds. Little money was gained yet far less than now was then needed to survive. Musicians freely wandered, albeit half-starved, along the roads playing to crowds in pubs, fairs, and festivals. You do read these accounts with an eye and ear towards what until not too long back was a provincial backwater of the Anglo-American-European-Japanese media paths trodden into muck by millions of fans, thousands of musicians, hundreds of journalists, and maybe a dozen promoters. Ireland rarely fueled the 60s global pop explosion.

How Graham directly influenced Irish trad, as opposed to British folk-rock, needed direct explanation. No elaboration develops how Moving Hearts sounded as they fused jazz, rock, and trad. Stockton's Wing's failed move from folk into pop tunes is mentioned, but no details enlighten one who has never heard these songs. Therefore, this book suits best those already cognizant with 1960s and 1970s progressive music. Repetition of material due to the inclusion of multiple entries on the same artists occurs; the index lacks complete references. A necessity in providing guidance to artists interviewed whose legacy may survive only unpredictably on backlists, an annotated discography is a welcome feature.

But, if you do not know what distinguishes Cara Dillon, Shaun Davey, or Tamalin on record, you find barely a hint here. The coverage drifts away from how the songs sound. Instead, recollected tensions and joys of touring and playing grab Harper and Hodgett's attention. Due to the small native scene, greater intensity results from the struggles of Irish-based musicians who found cherished homegrown and sometimes British success, if minimal compared to arena-fillers touted by Anglo-American media.

Hodgett opens one chapter with a powerful vignette—the best passage in this book—of waiting to hear 'world-class' music after braving a typically sinister night to enter a notably down-and-out pub, the Pound, at city center on Townhall Street in 1974 Belfast. Although Harper remarks a tense showdown with one musician who kicked with the other foot, but who approved Harper after the encounter—only the second from across the divide (East Belfast, for Harper) in that punter's career apparently to be granted this privilege! The Troubles enter only tangentially here, as it should be, Hodgett implies. Throughout the book, the emphasis, if slightly detouring into a chapter on Christy Moore, remains on music, fans, the stage, and how such venues could allow Irish men and women a chance to simply enjoy themselves when outside the clubs so much sadness persisted. Both writers convey, despite their unwieldy array of disparate subjects, the energy and creativity sparked when musical styles swirl together in a small nation up until recently largely ignored for many of its contemporary rock, blues, and folk innovators.

Before as after Riverdance, Irish musicians yearn for spotlights. The fact that worldwide audiences exist for Irish music can be credited to talents from the renaissance of the '60s and '70s. These artists dominate coverage here. The younger generation interviewed tends to follow those earlier feted rather than veer off onto uncharted terrain. Still, the presence of a fresh cohort of players and fans eager for trad, folk, and blues-influenced Irish music attests both to the success of the earlier musicians and the passion of those who continue to find listeners. Making a living as an Irish recording artist, a half-century ago, would have been nearly impossible. This book's diverse styles a half-century ago most Irish musicians would have disdained, their audiences would have ignored, and the island's showband promoters would have rejected.

Investigating the careers of many artists who worked in between the U.S. and Britain, touring in, living in, or passing through Ireland for more than four decades, Harper and Hodgett stitch, in Harper's phrase, 'a patchwork history of Irish music interwoven of many fine tapestries'. Given the camaraderie easily found among a more intimate gathering of homegrown or transplanted talents, the authors suggest how their book can advocate for these worthy artists, whereas coddled chart-toppers tend to provide pre-fabricated interview responses and press kits. While this work deals with mostly the non-rock element, although crossover appeal's inevitable, it does have a notable predecessor that has pioneered a similar track through the now obscured rock heritage of Ireland.

Following the method of Mark Prendergast's groundbreaking 1987 account of the modern Irish music scene, Isle of Noises, Harper and Hodgett include first-hand testimony, as lifelong fans able to make careers now as critics, of how mid-20th century stodgy showbands and staid dancehalls began to open up to folk-rock, blues-rock, and world music categories as their musicians shared tunes at their Irish crossroads. As fans as well as critics, Hodgett and Harper share their enthusiasm. The book may be a bit rough about the edges and in its assembly, but the double perspective the authors provide enables greater depth to be entered into as they seek to recapture the emotions of playing, touring, and inventing music. The authors compile and expand their earlier reviews of concerts, features for music magazines, and interviews with artists into a sampler of two fans- turned- journalists and their writings over the past fifteen years rather than a dry musical history or pithy record guide.


(An edited version of this article will appear in 'RootsWorld: the online magazine of the world's music'.)





Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

3 September 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Sinn Fein: Or the Party of Symbolic Republicanism
David Kruidenier

Public Commitment or Public Relations
Martin Galvin

Suits You, Sir
John Kennedy

False Memory Syndrome
Ray McAreavey

True Faith
Eamon Sweeney

Not the Cathal Goulding I Knew
Liam O Comain

Dark Days Ahead
John Kennedy

Return to Conflict No Alternative
David Adams

Sir Reg's Party Games
Anthony McIntyre

A Secret History of Irish Music
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Unionism's Favourite Nationalist
Dr John Coulter

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 7
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 8
Michael Gillespie

Trotsky and the Ghetto of the Sects
Mick Hall

Global Conscience Not US Capital: The Case for Liberal Intervention
Gabriel Glickman

Letter to Bertie
Michael McKevitt Justice Campaign

27 August 2006

The Price of Our Memory
Anthony McIntyre

In the Balance
John Kennedy

The Time for Revolutionary Marxism is NOW
Darren Cogavin

No! To A Holy War
Liam O Comain

Rendition Collusion
Eoin McGrath

Rendition Flights
John Kennedy

An Open Letter to Martina Anderson
Dr John Coulter

An Honest Writer: Cristóir Ó Floinn
Seaghán Ó Murchú

A Dual Presidency: An Improbable Solution to the Irish Problem
Michael Gillespie

Michéal Mhá Dúnnáin

Petition Calling for a Referendum on Irish Unification
Patrick Lismore

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 5
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 6
Michael Gillespie

Number Crunching
Dr John Coulter

PFI Ventures Show the Con in all its Sordid Splendour
Anthony McIntyre



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices