MT logo Letters - July to Sept 1999

Re: Birkin Tree review


My name is Michael Queally and I am from County Clare in Ireland.  I have played the fiddle since I was twelve (I am now twenty seven) and I have met the Birkin Tree on numerous occasions.  I think that your review of their album was a discrace and conveyed no understanding of how they have added to our music.  Irish music has to evolve, that is proven by Riverdance, Sharon Shannon etc etc etc.  If any entity does not evolve it dies, QED.

Members of the Birkin Tree have composed some beautiful Irish music.  Some conforms to Reel and Jig format, some slow airs etc.  I heard their album and I liked it.  If your reviewer did not like the thought structures around track build-ups, once is enough to say it.  I read half the review and had enough.  It sounded like somebody with a hangover that has nothing constructive to say except grunt at people that try to do something.

I'm sorry for being blunt, but you are perfectly capable of it also

Best regards

Mike Queally - 7.8.99

Music by Mail


Having just seen the small ads, I thought I should tell you that "Music by Mail" seem to have a stock of some interesting old vinyl, including treasures such as "Songs from the Eel's Foot" and "Sing say and play".  These are, apparently, all new!  I've bought three albums including "The English Village Fiddler" and they've all been OK.

The only thing which which worries me a little is that I suspect they are connected to Celtic Music who seem to have received such bad press recently.  Anyway, I've enjoyed listening to the albums.  Music by Mail can be contacted on 01423 888979.

"Scimitar" - 4.8.99

Re: Birkin Tree review

Dear Sirs,

We are grateful and a little embarrassed for the effort taken by Mr Roly Brown in writing the review of our album 'A Cheap Present'; a review that is, by far, the longest one that ever appeared about us.  What a pity it has been a negative one.  And we have to thank you for its open and direct speaking: as Mr Brown pointed out, "no one is served either by facile dismissal or by allowing interpretation to be unchallenged".  Adjectives like "embarrassing", "ridiculous" and "pathetic" are seldom read in critical reviews, but probably more often heard from the live voice of listeners, and seeing them on print can add a healthy flavour of realism.

Many of the ideas that have been exposed in the review depend essentially on one's individual taste, so it would be pointless to discuss them in a letter to the magazine (around a table, in a good night of talk, would be the right place).  Regarding some particular statements, some of us would even agree with Mr Brown's point of view.  We are eight musicians in the band, and we often happen to have different opinions; as a mater of fact we believe in our album, but we are far from thinking that it's perfect.

(There's one thing that we have to complain about in Mr Brown's methods, and it is when he suggests that the dedication of a tune to the memory of a dead friend "declines to soap".  That's unfair.  One could as well look at the photographs inside the booklet and say we are ugly, which may be true, but has nothing to do with music).

What we are more concerned about, and urged us to a response, are some more substantial topics that Mr Brown has put on the table for discussion.  First of all, the suspicion that our reasons to play Irish music should be found in the "incredible upsurge of Irish music" with its "vast commercial potential".  So that "one might suspect the commercial aspect in particular as contributing nothing to any culture save that of the moment: the gig and the image".  When we met Irish music it was nearly twenty years ago.  We began listening and studying it, and timidly playing it, because we were fascinated by its beauty.  It was quite unknown in Italy at those times, and if a young musician was wishful to increase his financial incomes, Irish music would have been the last thing to suggest him.  We kept on playing it because of the pleasure it continues giving us, and because we found that we were approaching a living tradition; we looked earnestly for its cultural and social context, and as a result in our approaches we never felt we were left alone.  Some of us played and still play Italian traditional music, too; but, except from some small spots here and there, the real Italian traditional music has unfortunately disappeared.  Some bands can still play very good Italian traditional music, but that's a rediscovery, whose roots in people's life have been forever dried out: it makes a big difference.

Be sure that from our early attempts to play Irish music we had clearly in mind the final suggestion of the reviewer, that we should "do well to think hard about the underlying cultural basis of the music": that's one thing we have always tried to do.  There is an obvious tension between the cultural context in which this music has grown, and our homeland's own.  This is something you can't avoid when a music spreads so widely outside the borders it was born inside.  For sure, we never had in our mind to "adapt" Irish music to a supposed Italian mood.  For sure, also, somewhere in our music something emerges, that reveals our being foreigners – how could we possibly avoid it?  We can't pretend we are Irishmen, and we don't think to this fact as to an original sin.  When it happens we try to discern between good and bad music, every time keeping as a strong reference all the great masters of Irish music, some of them are mentioned by Mr Brown himself in his review.

And yet there are some signals that make us think that we have a different opinion about what is right or wrong, what is allowed or forbidden in "true" traditional music.  We know, this could be a dangerous topic for us to hit: how can these presumptuous Italians give lessons about Irish music… Let us borrow one of the many expressive statements of the review: "if you can't engage on a serious level, why bother at all?" So we feel in right to cultivate our opinions, how humble they can be, and ready to put them under trial, conscious of the risk of making mistakes too.  We love and respect the tradition; if one is in search of a truth, his ideas are better spoken than hushed, since there is no better way to have them confirmed or changed.

So, what about the strong statement: "it has to be re-emphasised that this is supposed to be dance music not music for passive observation?" We are not saying anything new in objecting that Irish music has long since developed a separate – although parallel – line from music played strictly for dancers to the one which is played in different social occasions.  This is an important phenomenon that has brought relevant stylistic consequences in the execution of the tunes.  Many of the best performances of the masters could bring just hardships and no satisfaction to someone who would try to dance over them.

Somewhere else in the review, Mr Brown mentions Martin Hayes as a musician "totally unrepresentative of everyday tradition".  This reveals a poor understanding of traditional music.  On the contrary, we (among many others) think that Martin's playing is fully coherent with the great Clare fiddle tradition.  His own personal history speaks for himself, and if his playing may sound "peculiar" to someone, it's only because he adds his genius and his uncommon sensibility to a matter that he owns deeply – one could say in his chromosomes – and that is pure tradition.  The difference that he makes is not the one between the orthodox and the spurious, but between a good musician and a master.  Far to be a misleading step in the development of tradition, this is its strength and its vital force.

Ending with lesser matters:

- About The Corsair, we think that the rule imposing that the hornpipe has to be played with dotted notes should not be taken too strictly.  There are many examples of hornpipes played (by musicians whose authentic traditional character can't be put under doubt) with a more flowing phrasing, closer to the one of the "slow reels".  And the difference between a reel and a hornpipe resides not only in the rhythm, but – not less important – in the developing of the tune, its underlying harmonic suggestions, accents and resting notes of the phrase.

- We are not sure we understand Mr Brown's question: "Birkin Tree, what kind of a name is that at all?"   Birkin Tree is the title of a song that can be found in a Tannahill Weavers' recording (and more recently in one Old Blind Dogs release).  We are told that "birkin" is a Scottish word for "birch".

- To give justice to each one's work, the responsibility for fiddle playing is equally shared between Carlo Galantini and Daniele Caronna.

Yours sincerely,

Birkin Tree - 4.7.99
Luigi Fazzo

Re: Henry Joy McCracken - authorship

Dear Rod

In Fred McCormick's review of Frank Harte's 1798: The First Year of Liberty he questions the attribution of the song Henry Joy McCracken to PJ McCall.  There is no doubt it was by McCall.  Because of the various claims and counterclaims I spent a couple of hours tracking it down, initially in PJ McCall's papers in the MS division of the National Library of Ireland, and then to its first printing in The Shan Van Vocht - A Monthly National Magazine edited by Alice Milligan and published in Belfast: page 167 of Vol 1 No 6 of June 1896.  There it is titled The Belfast Mountains: A story of '98.  In a note McCall says "The above song is written to the air of an old northern ballad bearing the same title: The Belfast Mountains.  The incidents are founded on reminiscences given by Robert M Young in Ulster in '98."  PJ McCall - as was his father before him - a collector of ballad sheets (his are in NLI) and of course these were the source of his knowledge of the "old northern ballad." (Which was however known in southern England - Henry Burstow had it.)

I can also add something on Rody or Roddy McCorley.  Although his song is classed with those of '98 and his memorial stone in the graveyard at Duneane, Co Antrim says he died on Good Friday 1799, this is an error.  He was hanged on 28th February 1800.  His association with '98 is thus in some doubt.  A look at the only local newspaper of the time clarifies.  He was a member of what the Belfast Newletter (Tory Press) called "a lawless banditti."  The paper sought to make out that their crimes were indiscriminate, however, since their theft mainly involved arms and their assaults were mainly directed against people thought to have informed or failed to take part in the rebellion, it seems he was involved with a group of 'Defenders'.  Some of them had been involved in the rebellion and McCorley may have been one.  However, he did not suffer as a result of that involvement but for subsequent actions.  A version reputedly supplied to the Irish Folklore Commission by a lady who learned it from an aunt of Rody's is about twice as long as what Frank sings.

Last point - Fred compares Frank's style on his early and late recordings.  I would make one comment about this.  Early = Ewan MacColl: Late = Frank Harte (well approximately.)

John Moulden - 30.7.99

Re: Ennis and Pearls

Dear Rod

A couple of footnotes to items mentioned in the Musical Traditions letters page:

Malcolm Douglas - 27.7.99

Re: Kimber Review:

Mr Stradling,

I have just now read your very full and thoughtful review of Mr Kimber's album.  I feel that everything that you wrote was true and beyond dispute.  However, overall, I felt the tone of of it to be a little harsh, failing to fully recognise a notable advance by EFDSS.  The fact is that the tone of the booklet(s) deviates from the previously received EFDSS tablets of stone which stated that the sun shone out of Cecil Sharp.  The notes here have more of a ring of historical truth about the importance of Mary Neal.  It is one thing to read Mrs Boyes stating these facts in her book, or even a 1990 FSJ article by a Mr Brickwedde stating that the importance of Claude Wright to the early morris revival had been understated in the need to praise Mr Sharp.  Here is an album sanctioned by the Society that openly acknowledges 'rifts' in its booklet notes.  This must be progress.  Perhaps one day they will also get round to being as straightforward in their writings about Mr Kennedy.  I fear that in the section of fawning praise of Mr Kennedy, and publicising his Folktrax releases, more of significance and interest was left unsaid than was actually stated.

Despite numerous individually targeted recruiting drives, I have been a dedicated lifelong non-member of the EFDSS.  However, I do feel that with this album and with The Century of Song, this organisation is girding its loins to enter the 20th century, just as the rest of us are preparing to leave it.  The fact is that the two CD projects are far in advance of what we have come to expect from this hugely disappointing organisation and those who have criticised and despaired of this moribund body would be fair in recognising the fact.  I communicated my appreciation of the overall presentation of Mr Kimber project to Mr Schofield.  His grateful reply also brought the question, "What should the EFDSS make its next release project?"  There is no doubt in my mind of what this should be, even although it is likely to be commercially less viable than the two projects that I have mentioned here.

On the Century of Song my ears were truly pinned back by the cylinder recordings that were included.  I had learned songs from various books of songs of the Verralls of Horsham and had thought from their wonderful tunes that they must have been fine singers.  I had no idea that recordings of them existed and was mesmerised by The Rambling Sailor as I was by the wonderful anonymous rendition of The Banks of the Nile.  These recordings are priceless jewels, just as important as the Grainger / Taylor et al / Brigg recordings.  All the contents of this famous cardboard box of cylinders should be cleaned up and released.  This may not call for the batch of 1000 which the Century of Song started with but with the current technology, such as that being deployed by MT in its small economy of scale in producing the double albums of Mr Hart, that such a project would be feasible.

You go on to mention the EFDSS website.  The design is quite as bad as you describe, particularly in its choice of colours.  However, it is not intrinsically bad and would be capable of development and clarification.  It is noticeable that the images on the EFDSS site (and indeed on my own) load much more slowly than those on the MT site.  Why do your images load more quickly than mine?  Why are most of your images taking up about 9 and 11K of space when mine of the same size and clarity are taking about 20 and 24K?  What software are you using to reduce the size of your .GIFs and .JPGs?  We need to be told!

Vic Smith - 14.7.99

(I do actually agree with all you say about the Kimber CD - but the truth is, I was so disappointed that it didn't actually live up to my hopes and expectations that I may, as you suggest, have been harsher than was perhaps warranted.

Regarding graphics [non-anoraks may safely ignore what follows] - I merely optimise my photos for Web use.  That means that all JPEGs are saved with 40% compression and at 72 dpi - this being what your monitor can display ... any more is wasted!  This is simply accomplished with the easy-to-use, and inexpensive, PaintShop Pro.  I only ever use GIFs for images with a limited number of colours, and only if they save as smaller than JPEGs.  - Ed.)

Basic Help Needed:

Hi there,

I am writing to ask for a bit of help.  I am a student in a bilingual school in Santiago,Chile, and I've been chosen to attend a meeting held by a lot of the schools in Santiago.  The aim of this meeting is that we can use our English talking about folk music.  The topic is so open, basically I have to research into folk music from England and Scotland, and my mate has to research into folk music from Ireland and Australia.  It is really hard to find information, either in books, or at a simple enough level on the Net.

The sort of thing we're looking for is basic background to folk music in the countries listed, e.g. instruments used, how the music developed, the main characters involved in the development, musical details on it, etc.  Just a basic level.

So, I found your web site, and noticed the letter page, and am wondering if you can post this so people can read it, and hopefully e-mail me some helpful comments, or some web sites where I can look.  Also perhaps you yourself may have some info.

If you could do this for me I would be very grateful.  Unfortunately I don't have much time, the meeting is next week, so if you could do it quickly I would very much appreciate it. Please feel free to pass on my address to anyone you think can help.

Thanks a lot.
Mikeee (Michael J)


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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