Letters - Dec 2000
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of reviewing a work is not to tell its originator whether a good job has been done, nor to dictate what shall and shall not be published.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
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.
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín - 12.12.00
Earlier today, I was surfing the web and tried a search for "Traditional Music Magazines". One of the results showed up as Rambles - a cultural arts review magazine covering folk music and speculative fiction. Well, thinks I, there ought to be something for me here. Hmmm - not as much of interest as I'd thought. Wait a minute, what's this? A review of the album of the Lomax/Kennedy recordings of Harry Cox. Let's have a look at it. You could find it at http//www.rambles.net/cox_england.html but, to save you the trouble, here's what it says:
At last! That croaky old bore, Harry Cox has been exposed for the fraud that he was! There's far too much of this terrible old guff featuring tuneless old farts coming out on CD at the moment. It is giving folk music a bad name. Let's all of us who agree with these statements contact the Rambles website (firstname.lastname@example.org) and congratulate them on choosing such an informed, knowledgeable and incisive expert on traditional singing as Mr Williamson to review this album.
Harry Cox, What Will Become of England? (Rounder, 2000)Imagine yourself in one of the circles of Dante's hell, say, the one reserved for the garrulous. Now picture yourself sitting on a stool (an uncomfortable one, of course) across from a man who looks like a much older version of John Cleese on Monty Python playing the chap who had his pants pulled half way up and wore the white handkerchief over his head and spoke with such a growl of a dialect that you could hardly understand him. [Editor's note I believe the character in question was called D.P. Gumby, but don't quote me on that.] Now hoarsen his voice even further with decades of pipe tobacco and probably whisky and ale.
Now ... let him sing for you. Songs with many, many verses. Unaccompanied. Having fun yet?
Now ... give him a cheap accordion and an out-of-tune violin so that he can continue to entertain you while he rests up his voice for the next onslaught. Make sure that he sings most of the songs out of his range so that he has to strain to hit the high notes and loses the pitch on the low notes. Have him phlegmatically clear his throat a lot during and between the songs. Have him transpose words and correct himself and then talk about how good his memory is.
In between songs, have him talk to you in an accent thicker than cement gruel with raisins, telling you long, tedious stories about his youth and how rough it was and how his father had a hard life and his mother had a hard life and he had a hard life, until it becomes, again, like the Monty Python routine where one bloke says, "Oh, my family was so poor we lived in a packing crate," and the other bloke says, "Oh, a packing crate would have been luxury to us!"
Have him criticize any songs that were written since he was a boy, and tell you that none of them are worth singin', learnin' or listenin' to.
Now, put a guy in the other room that you can hear, but can't see, a guy who loves everything the old man does and makes unending comments about how wonderful it all is. Call him Alan Lomax. Have him record all this. Now put it on a 78:02 endless loop and repeat ad infinitum.
If you haven't figured it out yet, this entry in the "Portraits" series of the Alan Lomax Collection is pretty damn painful to sit through. It serves its purpose by giving a portrait of Harry Cox, a Norfolk "bearer and interpreter of the English folk song tradition," with these songs, tunes, and recollections recorded in 1953, but the presentation is as raw and bare-bones as you can get. This is a historical musical document, and little more.
Do these performances deserve to be preserved? Of course they do. Is it a good thing that they are released on CD? Yes, it probably is. Should you listen to it?
by Chet Williamson
Vic Smith - 1.12.00
P.S. Wait a minute ... I've just had a look at the review of this album that I wrote in fROOTS (June 2000 No. 204 p. 53) and at the two reviews on this website, one by Mike Yates and another by Steve Winick, and these all seem to be expressing an entirely different account of Harry Cox's talent. What is going on?
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