Enthusiasms No 46
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
As on previous occasions, I've decided to put all the correspondence together into this Enthusiasms piece, rather than as a series of Letters, where it's not always easy to find the piece that someone is referring to, together with a link to the review in question.
Also, in their first letter (below), Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie say they will 'be sending a detailed reaction to the review ... [of which they] will be happy to supply a copy to anyone interested'. They have now produced this detailed reaction, as promised, and it is available from them at: email@example.com
Ed. - 9.5.05
While we await with some interest your opinions on the points we have raised below, we would be grateful if you would include this in your letters section in its entirety, without the benefit of editorial insertions, as has happened to correspondence of ours in the past. We will be sending a detailed reaction to the review, not for publication as we really don't want this to degenerate into a slanging match, but we will be happy to supply a copy to anyone interested. This is not a practice that we would normally wish to indulge in but, as your review is so riven with inaccuracies and unfairness, we feel we would like to set the record straight in order to limit the damage to what is, after all, an album of traditional singers.
To say that we were surprised to read the review of 'Around The Hills of Clare' would be to understate our feelings somewhat - we were gobsmacked. At present, we feel a rather numb depression at finding that someone is prepared to go to these lengths to deliberately rubbish a project which we considered extremely worthwhile and which has been well received in Ireland. Our first reaction was to walk away from it and get on with the rest of our lives. However, we feel that we owe a response on behalf of the performers on these CDs, most of whom are now dead, who have been so generous and have contributed so much to our understanding and love of traditional song, especially as the reviewer seems to have gone out of his way to misrepresent or ignore a number of them.
Of the singers still alive, it is stated that octogenarian "Ollie Conway could not possibly be described as a traditional singer since he apparently came to singing rather late in his life and remains very much a Comhaltas style singer of Comhaltas style songs"; this despite his being widely acknowledged locally as one of the few remaining traditional singers of the older generation in West Clare. His involvement with singing, from childhood, was made clear on the sleeve notes to the LP 'The Lambs on The Green Hills' (a classic, according to the reviewer).
Two other performers, Vincie Boyle and Patrick Lynch, are suggested to be 'revival', presumably because of their ages (50s), even though both come from local country backgrounds, have learned their material traditionally from friends and family and only perform locally, apart from the very rare occasion when Patrick has been invited to do so outside the county. Patrick's magnificent recitation, 'The Battle of Billingsgate' is described thus by the reviewer: "the literary merits of which strike one as owing more to a magazine such as Ireland's Own". However, one of Ireland's leading folklorists, Ríonach uí O/gain from the Department of Irish Folklore, considered this piece significant enough to include it in her definitive work on the folklore of Daniel O'Connell, 'Immortal Dan', and even used an illustration from it for the cover of the book.
Of the singers no longer with us, we are told that Austin Flanagan "really does initially sound like a woman" and are taken to task for not pointing this out. Even if we had agreed with this, we have always avoided making such tasteless personal remarks about people who have been generous enough to give us their songs. Martin Reidy's beautiful 'Maid of The Moorlough Shore' is said to have included "one nonsensical lyrical interpretation", despite the song making perfect poetic and narrative sense and the line in question in no way detracting from the enjoyment and appreciation of it.
The reviewer's disregard for the singers and their songs is underlined for us by the fact that, in a piece of over eight and a half thousand words, an inordinate length for any review, he sees fit to write little more than four paragraphs, less than four hundred words, on the singers and songs combined. (The footnotes to the review are approximately four times that length). Of the fifteen performers on these CDs, the singing of only eight merit a mention, mainly restricted to one or two words. Mikey Kelleher, Vincie Boyle, Nonie Lynch, 'Straighty' Flanagan, Kitty Hayes, Patrick Lynch and Martin Long may as well have stayed at home! Apart from the derisive remark about the recitation, and having 'Banks of Sullane' and 'A Stór Mo Chroí' written off as "Comhaltas style songs", the material is ignored completely. If the reviewer feels that this is all that the fifteen singers, forty three songs, two tunes, two pieces of narrative and one recitation - over two and a half hours of recording - are worth, surely he should say so. Even if this review had not been so offensive, it would have been a disgrace for its neglect of the performers and their material. Instead, the reviewer chooses to put the booklet of notes and texts under the microscope in order to "list the inadequacies". This he sets about with some relish, opening with: "Frankly, to list its inadequacies would be akin to copying the London edition of Yellow Pages in longhand, but I will try!" From the outset, the tone adopted by the reviewer is unpleasantly aggressive, an attitude which we are, by and large, unused to among people who share an interest in traditional music and song. In its way, this is an advantage as it immediately helps us identify the obvious animosity the reviewer appears to bear towards us, in spite of his having had minimal contact with Jim and none whatsoever with Pat (though he does appear to have remarkable insight into her opinions on traditional singers and her definition of what constitutes a 'revival' singer).
We are grateful to the reviewer for pointing out the small number of genuine errors in the notes, the main ones being two incorrect song references, our failing to qualify a statement about Child having missed 'The Bramble Briar', and our claim that 'Daughter, Dearest Daughter' has survived longest in Ireland. There are a number of factual points we are challenged on, all of which we have since checked and find ourselves in total disagreement with the reviewer, particularly on the question of emigration from Ireland, the reviewer's claim having caused some hilarity here in West Clare.
The writer constantly attempts to undermine our notes with disparaging comments on our choice of 'other recordings' and insists, throughout, in putting forward his own, even to the extent of writing his own note to one of these. Similarly, he persistently challenges the amount of information we give, for example, by suggesting that we should have given a reason as to why the ballad 'Lord Lovell' was not popular in Ireland (isn't it?) and why there are no Irish recordings of 'Little Ball of Yarn'. Also, to counteract our alleged failure to supply such information, the reviewer insists on supplying his own which includes a 217 word statement on the transmission and relevance of narrative song, 146 words on Clare topography, 217 words on Charles Kickham, a 287 word piece on Lord Lovell, and 347 words on the intervention of the clergy into country house dancing, (the reviewer's claims on this last are easily disproved by Breandán Breathnach's excellent article on the subject in volume 6 (1982) of the Clare journal, Dal gCaís). In a number of cases, the information he supplies has already been covered in our notes.
*The reviewer appears to overlook completely that whatever we wrote had to fit, along with two CDs, into a DVD box. This confined us to a 40 page booklet (originally we believed 36 pages to be our limit, but the editor was able to fit the extra pages into his format). *
Apart from those we have acknowledged, virtually all the other alleged errors raised (despite being accompanied by such unhelpful descriptions as "arrant nonsense", "blinding irrelevance", "puzzling", "striking omission", "absurd", "bizarre", etc.) are either incorrect or of minor significance. For instance, lapses on two occasions when we wrote in the first person are described somewhat uncharitably as "mysterious" in one case and, in the other, he accuses us of using another writer's notes! He points out in his customary derogatory manner, a grammatical error we made; however, we note that the review in question is peppered with such errors but we prefer not to criticise at such a level. **
In the course of his seeking out our mistakes, the reviewer makes a number of his own; for instance, he claims that we had omitted a Child number when we had not; also he fails to recognize that two tunes he cites as being different are, in fact, close variants. The most outstanding of these errors is, while attempting to point out a piece of information he claims we have overlooked, he not only gets the name and gender of a singer wrong, but also fails to recognize that what he cites as two songs are, in fact, virtually identical textually, one having two extra verses and a different air. While claiming that "their (sic!) are two songs which share this title", he appears to have overlooked the fact that one was 'Farewell To Miltown Malbay' while the other was 'Farewell to Miltown' or have we sunk to his level?
Typical of his approach is the sarcastic remark: "still, typographical accuracy seems to be of little concern as the inhabitants of Dungarvan will discover in the notes to Lismore Turkeys". This is quite unwarranted as the name of the town was spelt correctly throughout the text; however, the note _accurately_ refers to a recording of Paddy Doran, listed both in the BBC archive and the Roud index as Dungarvon. Even if it had been a typing error on our part (which had also been overlooked by the Music Traditions proof reader), we feel it is totally unnecessary to draw attention to it in such an unpleasant manner.
All in all, we have to confess that this was one of the most destructive reviews we have ever come across. We believe that the malicious approach taken to the task of reviewing this work is not unrelated to a difference of opinion that took place some time ago on the Internet between Geoff Wallis and Jim, concerning another review published in Musical Traditions. Recalling the Elizabeth Cronin book review, once again the editor of this journal has allowed someone take a piece of work entrusted to him in good faith for honest, intelligent scrutiny, and belittle it. This has now happened on at least three occasions, all to Irish subjects, and has gained Musical Traditions a somewhat unsavoury reputation in Ireland as far as its review policy is concerned. This is a great pity as the magazine is unique and has played an invaluable role keeping alive an interest in the performance and understanding of traditional music and song.
It is hardly surprising that this review has taken so long to produce; it was obviously a 'labour of hate'. That it only put in an appearance four months after the release date of 'Around The Hills of Clare' would have been reprehensible had it not been for the fact that the delay lessens the chance of it doing any major damage. We are in no way suggesting that the editor should have attempted to alter the wording or intervene in any other way to influence its form once it had been submitted, but we do believe that the piece, with its spiteful and sarcastic comments, falls so far below acceptable standards of journalism that it should never have been published in the first place.
We find ourselves in total agreement with the sentiments of a mutual acquaintance of ourselves and the editor who, having read the review, wrote to us describing Musical Traditions as having "shot itself in the foot", and went on to say "Rod has really excelled himself here. Apart from being unfair, there seems something personal underlying that review". The same observations have also been made in Clare.
Originally we undertook to put together 'Around The Hills of Clare' on behalf of The Goilín Singers Club in Dublin. At the request of the editor, and with some difficulty, we brought Musical Traditions on board. To say that we now feel that our trust has been betrayed would be an understatement! We would seriously recommend that the editor urgently examines his policy before his reviewers seek out further victims. We hope that The Goilín, whose organisers have been so generous with their advice, energy and funding, will not suffer from this rather unpleasant incident.
Throughout this response, we have stressed the adverse effect that this ill-conceived and unfair review might have on making available recordings of traditional singers to a wider audience; God knows, there a few enough of those being released nowadays. Musical Traditions Magazine, by publishing it, must take its share of the blame for any damage done.
No doubt the above is full of errors, both factual and grammatical and poorly written to boot but, after all, we're human too!
Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie - 24.4.05
This is particularly true in the case of MT, since it is really the only one of its kind, and people are unsure of how 'heavy' or invasive my editing is. Generally, it's as light as possible; if I foresee problems I discuss them with the writer - as I did with Geoff Wallis in this instance - but I leave the final decision with him/her since, as MT's Home Page states 'The views expressed in all articles, reviews, etc, are those of the author of each piece, not of the Editor.'
When I'm sent a CD for review I have to make a decision about who to send it to. I send it to the person I believe is best capable of writing that particular review. My first choice in the case of Around the Hills of Clare would have been Tom Munnelly - but he was ruled out by his involvement in the project anyway. My second choice was Geoff Wallis, whose knowledge of Irish music is first-rate.
I had no idea that Geoff would find fault with the CD's booklet, since my knowledge of Irish music is pretty basic. Nor was I able to suggest the correction of any of the errors he mentioned, when I was designing the booklet, for that very same reason.
Jim and Pat say that Geoff has his facts wrong. If so, I'm sure plenty of people will be writing to correct him ... and I will publish their letters. Debate is always beneficial.
Jim and Pat have told me that all the other reviews Around the Hills of Clare has received have been glowing - so, in a way, I'm glad of my ignorance, since I might have been tempted to send it to someone less knowledgeable in order to secure another glowing review - which would have been a disservice to us all! If there are errors, then it's the job of a competent reviewer to point them out ... no one is going to learn anything by ignoring them.
As an editor, I can merely select what I consider to be a suitable reviewer ... and then print what s/he writes, without censorship - even when it's uncomfortable to do so!
And it was particularly uncomfortable to print Jim and Pat's letter exactly as written - as they asked me to do (though I did add their names to the end of it, since they had omitted to do so) - with what amounts to a downright libel regarding my own involvement in the project ... but I did, without the censorship they suggest I should have applied to Geoff's review.
They say 'Originally we undertook to put together 'Around The Hills of Clare' on behalf of The Goilín Singers Club in Dublin. At the request of the editor, and with some difficulty, we brought Musical Traditions on board.' This is quite untrue.
Mike Yates, in his review of our previous collaboration, From Puck to Appleby, wrote 'Jim and Pat now have a large collection of recordings. From Puck to Appleby is only the tip of the iceberg. Is there any chance that there will be follow-up CDs? I certainly hope so.' I agreed with his comment, and so subsequently asked Jim and Pat whether there was anything else we could work on together. They told me of the West Clare project they were just starting with the Góilín Club. Jim also asked me for details of how to set out the DTP format for the DVD case booklets I use, and I sent him a very comprehensive guide to doing that. Later I was asked if I would undertake to do the whole presentation side of the project in collaboration with them and the Góilín Club. Discussions ensued with the Góilín's Jerry O'Reilly, and it was agreed that I would produce the booklet, case cover and record labels in PDF format for their printer, whilst they would handle the CD side of things and the eventual manufacture of the finished product. It would be published as a joint Góilín and MT publication, and I would receive some free copies to sell. To reiterate - the Góilín asked me to help with the project!
Their letter goes on 'To say that we now feel that our trust has been betrayed would be an understatement!' I have a coinsiderable number of e-mails both from Jim and Pat and Jerry, praising my layout, thanking me for my work, and expressing their gratitude for getting it done so quickly. No indication of any 'betrayal of trust' to be found. Indeed, I don't quite understand of what this 'trust' might consist. I was asked to design the project's paperwork; I did so - to the evident satisfaction of all concerned. I was never asked to ensure that the finished product should receive a glowing review in MT - nor could I have possibly agreed to do so!
Naturally, I would have prefered that the review had praised it unreservedly (it is, after all, a very good pair of CDs of some lovely singing) - but things don't always work out as we'd hope in this life.
Ed. - 25.4.05
With reference to Rod Stradling's response to our letter of 24th April, we feel sure that those who have read Geoff Wallis's review of Around the Hills of Clare and the letter will have seen that we did not, at any time, suggest we wanted a 'glowing' (Rod's description) review and it is more than a little disingenuous of him to suggest that we did.
Nor did we suggest that it should be censored in any way. However, it is the duty of an editor to ensure that articles, reviews, etc. which he or she publishes are honest, impartial and fulfil their functions. This review did not meet those criteria. The time spent on the singers and their songs was negligible and the attitude towards them was, at best, questionable. The open hostility shown towards the authors fell well below acceptable levels of journalism. We believe a responsible editor would return such a review to its author to rethink his or her approach; readers and writers alike should be able to trust that this will be done.
The facts given regarding Musical Traditions becoming involved in the project are as we stated; however, this is a side issue. The important question for us is whether an album of traditional performers has received the attention it merits; we believe it has not. The review speaks for itself; we have nothing to add.
Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie - 26.4.05
In light of the discontent with the review of Around the Hills of Clare aired by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie, I am writing to make a few points about reviews from the veiwpoint of someone who often purchases CDs and books after reading comments in MT.
The recent Jim Bainbridge CD is a typical example. Your own review was to the point, concentrating on the music, the quality of recording, standard of delivery, the tunes and songs included, and a little about the man. Soundclips, which were well chosen, were very helpful in allowing me to form my own opinions. The details of where to buy the CD were also most useful (I received a copy in a couple of days from Jim, with a very nice note).
The Geoff Wallis review of Around the Hills of Clare showed a very good knowledge of the subject, and provided most of the main criteria for what I consider a helpful review, apart from soundclips. It appeared atypical, however, in concentrating primarily on the CD notes, at times going into very minor details and virtually presenting an alternative set of notes. The tone throughout, I thought, was tinged with an element of 'nastiness', which seemed out of place for such a review.
Having not listened to the CD or read the notes, I cannot comment on the many individual points raised, and have no interest in 'taking sides'. I have limited my comments to what I feel are helpful reviews for me, as a prospective buyer of traditional music CDs and books, and which I might add MT most often provides.
Thanks for all your excellent work.
I bought Around the Hills of Clare when it was released, based upon previous experience of the work of Musical Traditions, the Góilín Club, Jim Carroll and Pat McKenzie and some of the singers. I am glad I did, because the two CDs are a delight. However, I wonder if I would have bought had I waited to read the review, which I feel is unbalanced. If others are now reluctant to buy this is a pity, as the potential audience is already small enough. Whatever its academic failings, Hills of Clare is well worth listening to.
I am a scholar of sorts, but not of traditional music. Therefore I am not in a position to enter the current dispute, except perhaps to observe that normally academic custard pies do not contain quite so much vitriol. If I was qualified to review Hills of Clare I would place much more emphasis on the quality of the songs and singers. In a varied collection there are few songs or performances that I did not fully enjoy. Some are outstanding. I thought the booklet quite adequate, particularly the biographies and the excellent photographs. While someone of the reviewer's expertise and interests may be right in that the booklet fails those 'wishing to learn more about the county's traditions', I cannot agree that the overall production in any way provides a 'disservice' to the singers who grace it.
When this music is consigned to an academic boneyard then this review's balance may be justified - but by then I really won't give a damn. As long as there are some who enjoy the traditional music and song of these islands as a living thing (and clearly the reviewer is one) then these CDs may be appreciated for their musical worth, and will be a fitting tribute to the men and women whose artistry they thankfully preserve. I for one would like to heartily thank Jim Carroll & Pat McKenzie and everyone else involved in their production.
Let me urge readers who have not heard Hills of Clare to buy it, and if the booklet niggles, then press repeat play on your CD - or learn one of the songs. That would be the best service we could do for the people of Clare, most no longer with us, whose living music these CDs contain.
Indeed, I'd like to go one step further and state categorically that, as someone whose life has not involved more than a smidgeon of contact with the English folk and traditional scene, I do not carry any ideological baggage regarding the 'correctness' of the views of anybody. However, I would state most strongly that writing on traditional music, especially Irish traditional music, is bedevilled by those who believe that they possess ownership of the only approach to the subject. If Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie (why's it never the other way around, by the way?) were to publish their combined autobiography, I suspect it would be called Our Correct Views on Everything and the follow-up would undoubtedly be Why Our Correct Views Are Correct.
Such ideological trifles might seem irrelevant, except that the letter from Jim and Pat includes mention of a private document which they'll send to any interested parties, detailing their entire reaction to my review. Such practice was, of course, the norm for groups like the WRP and Spartacists in the 1970s when 'official' reactions would be made at a meeting and then a private document made available for suitably vetted and sympathetic souls. Such practice decreed that this was the group's final statement on the matter (all other opinions to be nullified), just as Jim and Pat have announced that they will make no further comments in their second letter. They claim that they do so to avoid any argument developing ' into a slanging match', but employing such phrases as '[the] review is so riven with inaccuracies and unfairness' is hardly likely to guarantee that. Indeed, their inappropriate use of the word 'riven' is entirely typical of the general illiteracy of their booklet.
However, the main problem is that Jim and Pat are two people who feel that they have a fundamental understanding of 'the truth', whatever that means, and like most other fundamentalists, whether political or religious, they regard any criticism as being a diversion from their chosen path. So, when such criticism arrives and threatens to prick the bubble of self-righteousness which encapsulates their views on the world and its diverse activities, they react with seemingly innocent outrage.
The fact that the release of Around the Hills of Clare has been 'well received in Ireland' is completely irrelevant. Perry Como records have been 'well received in Ireland' and nobody could possibly claim that the popularity of Big Tom and The Mainliners illustrates the inherent good taste of the population. Rather, I would postulate that, just as in the case of Frank Harte's Bonaparte album, reviewers have not bothered to pay justified attention to the writing of Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie. Such sloppiness seems to pervade recent writing on Irish music and, in my own way, I'm trying to make the whole process more rigorous.
They also look askance at a review of some 8000 words. Believe me, I would not have written so much if there had been any sense that the booklet's authors truly understood their task. They clearly did not, and I did.
Jim and Pat also make the remarkable comment that I have ignored the 'material' sung by the singers. Forgive me, but what is this term 'material'? I've never met a traditional singer who sang 'material', but I've met plenty who sang songs. The whole point of my review, which they conveniently seem to have ignored, was that their own writing on such 'material' was hopelessly inadequate.
Much of their response is utterly risible. They state that, apart from the few errors they're willing to acknowledge, 'There are a number of factual points we are challenged on, all of which we have since checked and find ourselves in total disagreement with the reviewer'. So these will presumably include their failure to identify the particular mother of the particular Bishop of Derry and so many other factual errors that listing them is pointless.
However, there are some particular points which I'd like to counter.
The reason I mentioned the fact that Roud records so many occurrences of Lord Lovell from English-speaking countries, but so few from Ireland is surely worthy of a comment which Jim and Pat neglected to include. Their failure to cite the version recorded by Sarah and Rita Keane is an extraordinary omission.
One hearing of Ollie Conway's singing will ratify my statement that he is not, and never could be considered, an Irish traditional singer. He does sing traditional songs, but not traditionally, if that makes sense, but more in the manner of a stage tenor.
The fact that Patrick Lynch's recitation has been included in an academic publication does not mean that it is of any intrinsic value. That it has been included in a collection by 'one of Ireland's leading folklorists' is utterly irrelevant since Jim and Pat's booklet, especially in reference to The Little Ball of Yarn, demonstrates that folklorists often don't know their aardvarks from their elephants. I stand by my original comment that it is a hopelessly trite piece and will add that it is delivered in a stentorian manner far afield from the delivery normally adopted in Irish settings.
My comment about the singing of Austin Flanagan is utterly justified. It is not a 'tasteless remark' to suggest so. What on earth is 'tasteless' about suggesting that an initial impression provides the feeling that the listener might be hearing a woman? I suggest that this tells us more about the booklet's compilers' attitudes than my own.
Yes, there is a 'nonsensical lyrical interpretation' in Martin Reidy's Maid of the Moorlough Shore and Jim and Pat should have at least mentioned this.
Jim and Pat claim that, barring a couple of realisations, 'there are a number of factual points we are challenged on, all of which we have since checked and find ourselves in total disagreement with the reviewer' and go on to suggest that, regarding emigration, ' the reviewer's claim ... caused some hilarity here in West Clare.' Fine, but I didn't make any claims regarding emigration and I suspect that either there's a shortage of good jokes in West Clare or the merriment may have been angled in another direction.
Jim and Pat actually wrote 'Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famine, evictions, political upheaval and general poverty led to mass emigration from Ireland.' I simply pointed out that this was utter rubbish and they'd be well advised to look up the meaning of the word 'throughout' in any decent dictionary, otherwise we'll probably all be concerned about the Ennis burger-bun shortage of 1985.
My other comments in the review were engendered by the sheer inadequacy of Jim and Pat's comments and their often nonsensical quality. However, I'm utterly nonplussed by the suggestion that my comments on the priesthood's disruption of country house dances are incorrect since my research (which was undertaken a few years back) was based on contemporary newspaper reports and other accounts. Breandán Breathnach wasn't always right in his observations!
Regarding the footnotes, there are so many because the booklet was so infuriatingly inaccurate.
I don't reckon that Jim and Pat's claim re: the size of their booklet is of any relevance since the recent Gael Linn Seoltaí Séidte collection fitted a 100-page booklet into the same space.
My reference to the mysterious 'I' who appears in the discographical sections has not been countered. Jim and Pat customarily employ the very royal 'we'. Why did they not do so in the cases I mentioned is unfathomable unless, dare I suggest, they could not be bothered to amend the notes written by one of the people assisting their discographical research.
In terms of typography, why is it offensive to point out that Jim and Pat have misspelt numerous words? The fact that both the BBC and Roud erroneously refer to 'Dungarvon' should have been acknowledged and corrected. That they repeatedly get Eamon de Valera's name wrong is unforgivable.
The fact that my review took some four months to appear was entirely the result of my own busy work schedule which meant that I was away from home for some five weeks. The review was actually completed by the beginning of February and could have then been published, but, anticipating a negative response from Jim and Pat, I asked Rod to delay its appearance until my return in March. I then decided to take further time smoothing its edges.
I'll stand solidly by the complimentary elements of my review, whose main points were that:
I have two further comments. Jim and Pat cite Fred McCormick's utterly laudable review of the Elizabeth Cronin book and accompanying CDs and my own review of Around the Hills of Clare as being two of 'at least three occasions' (they do not cite other examples) of writing which has 'gained Musical Traditions a somewhat unsavoury reputation in Ireland as far as its review policy is concerned'. This is so far from my own experience as to beggar belief. My own conversations have revealed many people who fully value the kind of incisive criticism employed by MT's writers.
Lastly, Jim and Pat wrote that 'we have stressed the adverse effect that this ill-conceived and unfair review might have on making available recordings of traditional singers to a wider audience'. This is garbage. People who want to make their own recordings of traditional singers available to a wider audience will continue to do so. However, they would be well advised to take heed of the utter inadequacy of the notes penned by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie on their subjects and come up with something far better. It's not difficult and it's a pity that neither Jim nor Pat is prepared to recognise this.
Be that as it may, my review of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin was written almost five years ago, and I would expect any intelligent adult to regard it as old news. Since publication however, Jim Carroll has used it as the subject of various attacks, both public and private. Some of his disparagements were purely derogatory, but others would justify action in a court of law. I am not the only person whom he has maligned, as other correspondents involved in the present controversy alone will testify. Therefore, this letter is in part a public warning to Jim Carroll to pay due heed to Ireland's stringent laws on defamation, and moderate his rhetoric before he lands in serious trouble.
Regarding the current dispute; even allowing for the deplorable standard of much that is written on Irish music and song, Jim Carroll's and Pat Mackenzie's booklet is the biggest waste of forty pages I can ever recall seeing. It is atrociously written; it is riddled with factual errors and unfortunate typographical mistakes; and its attempts at scholarship are nothing short of ludicrous.
There is little point in my raking over ground which Geoff has already furrowed well, but one or two points do require further analysis. First of all, there is the question of whether emigration dominated Irish social life 'Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries', as Carroll/Mackenzie claim. Do the people who found such hilarity in Geoff's reply, not know that mass emigration from the west of Ireland did not get under way until the great famine of the mid 1840s; in other words, not until the nineteenth century was almost half over? Moreover, are Mackenzie/Carroll not aware of the effects which the American civil war, two world wars, the depression of the 1930s, and the boom years of the Celtic tiger economy had on contemporary emigration figures?
Then there is the spectre of Gershon Legman and those notes to the Ball of Yarn. Anyone reading these could be forgiven for not realising that Carroll/Mackenzie were uncontextually quoting a long and fascinating discourse, by Legman, on the sexual significance of the song's primary motif. Clearly, it would not have been feasible for Pat and Jim to précis Legman's text in the space provided by the booklet. Indeed, even in the sexual climate of modern Ireland, I doubt it would have been wise to do so. But I would have expected them to specifically draw attention to the existence of Legman's argument, rather than simply referencing the book it appeared in.
There is also the matter of the unnamed individuals. Failing to identify the Bishop of Derry is bad enough, although it is typical of the sloppiness with which this whole debacle has been put together. But failing to acknowledge the Director of the Department of Irish Folklore by name is just downright bad manners.2
On the score of folklorists, and vis a vis the Battle of Billingsgate, I can assure Geoff that Ríonach Uí Ógáin knows a folkloristic aardvark when she sees one. What puzzles me though is why Mackenzie/Carroll should decide to accept her word over this particular piece. The story behind my puzzlement is a long one, but I'll try and condense it as best I can.
A couple of generations ago, inspired by other branches of social investigation, and faced with the realisation that traditional concepts of folklore did not fit with what they were finding on the ground, folklorists generally took a good long value-free look at what they were about. In effect, they decided that, if folklore constitutes the informal social culture of the informally constituted social group (putting it very crudely), then the only feasible approach is to collect and evaluate whatever the constituent elements of that culture may be, irrespective of their sources of origin. In effect, the study of folklore shifted from a materials based discipline to a contextual one.
To translate that into practical terms; where, for example, previous generations were insistent on collecting only 'genuine' folksongs, most folklorists nowadays focus on music hall songs, Jimmie Rodgers songs, Yorkshire carols or whatever the folk decide they want to sing.
However, this inclusive approach passed Mackenzie/Carroll by, presumably because what is left of the strand of folklore study, to which they belong, is so deeply rooted in the European romantic tradition that it never found its way out. As a result, they continue to eschew music hall songs, Jimmie Rodgers numbers, Yorkshire carols and, one would have expected, sub-literary recitations like the Battle of Billingsgate. Needless to say, whenever I have tried to discuss alternative approaches to folklore, they have shown themselves to be deeply at odds with all other shades of opinion.
Therefore, instead of their announcing that this piece was acceptable to another folklorist, surely it would been more appropriate for them to present a cogent argument as to why they regard it as acceptable.
As far as their reply to Geoff's review is concerned, the lack of any argument, coupled with their refusal to discuss the bulk of his criticisms in public, just stuns the senses. This is all the more so in the light of the supposed grounds which they offer for their refusal - ie, that they want to avoid this controversy descending into a slanging match! How strange. I would have expected their unsupported allegations to have exactly the opposite effect. But the silence doesn't stop with non-refutation of Geoff's reprehensions. We are told of mistakes in Geoff's own script, but hardly any evidence is produced. We are told that Geoff's piece is 'peppered' with grammatical errors, but all they can produce is one very minor misprint.
Isn't it the simple truth, that the only reason Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie refuse to discuss the bulk of Geoff's criticisms, is because they cannot publicly admit that the overwhelming majority are entirely justified?
Even where they acknowledge that Geoff has a point, we are left wondering. For instance, if their claim that Child rejected Bruton Town is correct (and I personally do not think it is), would their letter not have been an ideal opportunity to say where confirmation of this claim may be found?
For the life of me, I do not see how Geoff's review could be considered either destructive or malicious. Are we seriously expected to believe that Geoff has nothing better to do with his time, than write 8,000 words, rubbishing this release, because he once had an Internet debate with one of the producers? Come off it! It is the job of a reviewer to present a rigorous examination of all aspects of the product under review, and to do so honestly and without fear or favour. That applies just as much to its commendable features, as it does to its downsides. That is exactly what Geoff did, and if the present review is so heavily skewed towards the product's failings, that is no fault of the reviewer. Would that other reviewers in other publications approached their craft with similar diligence and honesty.
When I read Geoff's review, it didn't come across to me as being either nasty or unpleasantly aggressive. What I picked up was the exasperation of someone being driven up the wall by an implacable succession of factual errors, dubious contentions and trite assertions. Believe me, I know what it's like, because I have been there. I also know that Geoff's review and subsequent letter, searching as they were, stopped short of highlighting all the shortcomings of this production.
By the way, where do Mackenzie/Carroll get the idea from that it's Irish subjects who are under attack? Unlike previous adverse MT reviews3 - namely those relating to Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Frank Harte and Ann Mulqueen and her daughters (strange how that last one never gets mentioned) - the people who are solely responsible for this shambles are English. Nobody is denigrating the artists on these discs, although I agree, one or two shouldn't have been included, and nobody is blaming the Góilín. I have a very high regard for the Góilín, both for the club and for its individual members, and I hope this travesty does not put them off working with other collaborators in future.
Had that booklet emanated from some novice or other, we could have dismissed the whole matter as just another example of shabby scholarship. However, Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie do not consider themselves novices. They claim to be among the leading authorities on British and Irish traditional song. And anyone who knows them will be excruciatingly aware of how often that claim is made. On the present evidence, their pretensions towards any kind of expertise or authority strongly resemble reports of Mark Twain's death. The emperor has no clothing.
It is true that they have deposited a large number of their field recordings with the National Sound Archive in London, and with Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann in Dublin. However clumsy their scholarship, one cannot deny their magnanimity in acts such as these. Neither can one dispute the artistic and cultural value of those recordings which they have made commercially available; and needless to say, I am including Around the Hills of Clare in that statement. What's more, I would not wish to challenge the sincerity of their beliefs, even though Jim Carroll has seen fit to erroneously challenge mine, and those of an awful lot of other people. Pot? Kettle? Methinks Mackenzie/Carroll protest too much.
The bottom line is this. Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie lack the discernment and scholarship, and plain ability, to generate the calibre of work, which they so intolerantly demand of others. It is a pity moreover, that such an attitude undermines their incontrovertible enthusiasm for traditional song, and diminishes their otherwise valuable work. I would not like to have to count the number of singers, musicians, folklorists, academics, writers and ordinary punters, whom Carroll/Mackenzie have sneered at in my presence. If this booklet is the best that they can do, they owe all the people they've criticized in the past a sincere and humble apology.4
To put that another way, if you can't hack it, don't sling it.
Fred McCormick - 5.5.05
2. The Department of Irish Folklore is presently under the directorship of Séamus Ó Catháin, Professor of Folklore at University College, Dublin.
3. The publications cited are as follows:
Rod pointed out that he was considering asking me to do the review but I declined because of my involvement in the project. Not quite correct, Rod. True, I am involved in Clare singing in that it is the reason why I came to live here all those decades ago. I was delighted when I heard that Jim and Pat had embarked on the Musical Traditions/Góilín project, but I had no hand, act or part in it at any stage in its production. My reason for declining the offer to do the review was that I felt I was too close to the material, (yes, material) and the singers, to be truly objective. I felt that it would have been a foregone conclusion that I would give it a rave review. (And when I listened to it, I would have.) I would have forgiven anyone who read such a review by me and said: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" I was trying to be fair. Fair. Got that, Geoff? Got that, Fred?
I make no claim to be a scholar myself, but I am tired of pseudo-scholarship from armchair scholars who have spent little time out in the field getting their hands dirty and observing living tradition from the inside, rather than wooly speculation emanating from comfortable studies. Have absolutely no fear, lads, about the dangers of anyone defaming you; you are doing a splendid job yourselves. Maybe I mis-judge you, but I would like to see a bibliography of your scholarly writings; all I know of Geoff's oeuvre on Irish music is as a half-writer of a Rough Guide pot-boiler. Of Fred's publications I know little more than opinion pieces like the Musical Traditions reviews. These carry one continuing flaw, many of them being reviews of Irish language and some Scots Gallic CDs. They lack credibility as the reviewer, in my experience, neither speaks the language himself and it would seem he lacks even a middling level of comprehension of it, (e.g. the Mulqueen review.)
One could say "Let them at it, they're doing no harm. All they are doing is deluding themselves!" But harm is being done nevertheless. I know that if a number of the Clare singers in Around the Hills, or their families, were to read the reviews or the following scurrilous correspondence, they would be extremely upset. How good is this? Another spectacular piece of damage: a couple of years ago I met Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín at a reception in Dublin. Dáibhí is a highly respected authority on early Ireland and has published extensively in his field. I knew that he was thinking of following the Bess Cronin book with another one on the vast and largely unknown collection of his uncle, Seán Ó Cróinín. I asked him how the work was progressing. He told me he had abandoned the idea. "Why?" He replied: ''The book on Bess was my only venture into the folksong area, and I won't be going there again. It is a small, nasty, pool filled with piranhas." He told me he was referring particularly to your review, Fred. Do you feel victory? Isn't that a great achievement? My own feeling is that we cannot afford to lose people of the caliber of Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, but reviewers are ten a penny. (Good ones, on the other hand ...)
By the way, I never knew we had a Director in the Department of Irish Folklore. Who is he/she? Why is it bad manners to acknowledge the Department in the formula which they themselves prescribed when asked by Jim and Pat? I was also fascinated to read that "The Department of Irish Folklore is presently under the directorship of Séamus Ó Catháin". Do you mind if I pass this information on to the current Head of the Department, Professor Patricia Lysaght? I am sure she would be delighted to know.
As for Jim and Pat's refusal to rise to the bait, I hope they can continue to do so, as I cannot say that I feel any better having penned the above, but what I say must be said in the service of equity.
Meanwhile, back into your pools, lads.
Tom Munnelly - 6.5.05
However, as Editor, I feel it is legitimate for me to make my own point of view clear - and without any bitchery, I hope!
I consider Geoff Wallis's review to have been that of someone thoroughly disappointed by aspects of a production he had otherwise greatly enjoyed. I don't see anything dishonest or partial in it, and I believe its criticisms were the result of a desire to put the record straight regarding the many inaccuracies and conjectures included in the booklet.
Further, almost all paper and internet 'folk music' magazines seem to eschew critical comment these days; whether this is through concern for their advertising revenues or through simple ignorance, I do not know. One result of this is that a great deal of nonsense is published in CD booklets, and passed off as 'fact' to the general public. This was particularly the case with a couple of recent 'historical' recordings we have had to criticise, where the often ill-informed and sometimes, frankly, racist booklet notes were described as 'a great history lesson' in one magazine!
I also consider that Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie are far too ready to attribute personal motives to criticism. They cite a difference of opinion in the past between Geoff and Jim as the motivation to the negativity of the review. This competely ignores the very positive review Geoff gave to their previous From Puck to Appleby CD in fRoots.
The subsequent correspondence published in the Letters page has not, in my opinion, refuted any of Geoff's claims regarding the booklet's contents to any significant degree - which makes me assume that they were largely correct. If so, I see no reason why Geoff should be pilloried for revealing other peoples' inadequacies - indeed, this is one of his jobs as an MT reviewer (see our Policy page).
Finally, I'd like to do what, perhaps, others should have done - and say "Thank you" to Geoff Wallis for making me a little more knowledgeable than I was before about Irish music.
Rod Stradling - 8.5.05
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