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The Lomax Collection: Ireland
Various artists; 34 tracks; 51'09". Rounder CD 1742.
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One of the pleasures of reviewing albums is that, every now and then, something very special shows up in my mail box. The arrival of volume 2 of the "World Library of Folk and Primitive Music", Ireland, marked one of those days. The Lomax Collection features reissues of music from discs long out of print as well as new material from the Lomax archives, all remastered in 20-bit digital sound. (The sound on this album is very good given the age and the fact that these were field recordings. There's a little hiss on some cuts, but not enough to really distract or be a problem.)

In 5 to 6 years the collection will comprise over 100 discs and span cultures from Bali to Canada. Among the releases slated for later this summer are albums of Margaret Barry and Jeannie Robertson. Volume 1, England (including Northumbria) and volume 3, Scotland, are already out.

Click here to skip historical information.

From When and Where This Album Came
The long-playing record was barely two years old when Lomax did his Irish fieldwork, and the 12-inch lp had only just won the format battle with the ten-inch lp when this album was released in 1955 as part of the eighteen-record Columbia World Library. The music was mostly collected in 1951 by Alan Lomax and Seamus Ennis in the western counties of Eire, that date making them early collectors but by no means the earliest. (However, Lomax notes in his introduction that some of the recordings were made by Brian George and Maurice Brown of the BBC in 1947.)

These performances come from a period after those available on most of the Irish-in-the-US historical record issues (1920s-1930s, mostly studio performances and often with an incompetent American pianist throwing in bad accompaniment) but before the influence of Sean Riada, the Clancy Brothers, the Chieftains and the large changes in performance that began in the 1960s. This is a period I've got a lot of interest in; the evolution from Sean Riada to Riverdance is a subject of interest to me. What came before the evolution is also of great interest--it is the way that Irish music was performed for a couple of hundred years, changing only slightly or slowly. This CD is a wonderful window on that period.

The notes for this CD are outstanding. They include two pages of introduction by Nicolas Carolan, head of the National Archive--Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin and a 4-page history by Robin Roberts on "Collecting in Ireland with Alan Lomax". Roberts accompanied Lomax and anecdotally and amusingly recalls locations and performers as well as incidents. Lomax's original one-page introduction is included, and 19 pages of complete song lyrics and notes. English and Gaelic words are included for songs sung in Gaelic; some verses not reproduced on the album are included in the notes.

Traditional music collectors face a lot of pitfalls. Sometimes they record what they think is typical of an area or a tradition, only to later find out that they've recorded only a lunatic fringe, or other misrepresentative sample. Sometime they are simply the subject of practical jokes by musicians. Lomax was accompanied by Seamus Ennis, and because of that it is believed that he pretty much avoided these traps. Roberts notes,

"Later, there were those who complained that Alan had roared through Ireland like Attila the Hun ... had not spent enough time with the people to understand them properly and he did not speak Irish. ... Now, of course, the collection is cherished in Ireland. He could not have foreseen that he started something that would blossom into a revival of the music...."
While this is somewhat of an overstatement, Alan Lomax was an experienced collector with (in 1951) eighteen years of field experience, and his work at the least provided a great deal of nourishment to the folk/traditional revivals that hit many cultures in the 1960s. This record, which was in print from 1955 to the mid-1980s, presented traditional Irish music and performers to a broad public for the first time. Historian of Irish music in the U.S. Philippe Varlet comments,
"Sure there were quite a few Irish 78s around, but they generally didn't circulate among the general public, only within the Irish communities. The Columbia World Library series was meant to have a large distribution to the general public, probably in part through public and school libraries. I doubt these would have had much Irish music on hand before that."
Alan Lomax lived in England from 1950 to 1958. Apart from his field work, he produced numerous broadcasts of traditional music for BBC radio, including an eight-part series on Irish music titled "From Dublin to Donegal." With David Attenborough, he produced the first television broadcast of traditional music of the British Isles in 1953. Among others, it featured Margaret Barry. He also persuaded the BBC to hire Peter Kennedy and Seamus Ennis as staff field recorders. For some 15 years the two of them produced a weekly broadcast of their field recordings entitled "As I Roved Out." One of the first singers they recorded was Sarah Makem, the mother of Tommy Makem, who was still living in Armagh at the time.

The Music
The historic, ethnomusicological, aside, this CD is eminently good listening. Specially noteworthy are some great voices, great singing and great songs. Maire O'Sullivan has one of the warmest voices I've heard in a sean nós singer but it is also light and clear. Familiar songs include "The Rocks of Bawn", "She Moved Through the Fair" (with Margaret Barry accompanying herself on 5-string banjo), and "Whiskey in the Jar." "Morrissey and the Russian Sailor" is a hilarious song I've never heard, recorded in front of a very appreciative audience. It is counter-balanced by a chilling keen for a dead child, sung by Kitty Gallagher. Dance music includes "The Copperplate", "The Bucks of Oranmore", "The Lark in the Morning", and "The Maid of Mount Cisco"--tunes we play in Atlanta sessions almost 50 years later and thousands of miles away.

Lomax was searching for

"immemorial Gaelic lyric songs, the English narrative ballads of 17th and 18th c. settings, [dance music], and the even older traditions of the lullaby, the work song and the death-lament. A singer ... he seems to have been mainly on the lookout for song in Ireland" ...
His collecting (or at least the sample on this album) reflects this: 26 vocal tracks, 7 instrumental, and 1 dance with whistle. Performers are: Seamus Ennis (8 tracks; vocal, whistle and pipes), Maire O'Sullivan (4), Elizabeth Cronin (3), Kitty Gallagher (2), Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band (2), Johnny McDonagh (2), Seamus Ennis & Steven Folan, Margaret Barry, Gubnait Cronin, Mickey Cronin, Mickey Doherty, Mary Joyce, Colm Keane, Marie Keohane, Maggie McDonagh, Sean McDonagh, Sean Moriarty, Kate Moynihan.

One complaint - there's about 51 minutes of music on the disc. I wish Rounder had included additional unreleased material. In spite of that, this album gets an A and is a good candidate for my personal favorites list. I particularly recommend it for sean nós (old style) singing fans.

For more info on Lomax and his collecting, see Thanks go to Matthew Barton of The Lomax Collection ( for some of the information about Alan Lomax and this CD.

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