Jimmy Power

Go home and have your dinner

Favourite Records, No number

1. REELS: Bonnie Annie / Miss Johnson;  2. JIG: The Gold Ring;  3. HORNPIPE: The Home Brew;  4. REELS (Half-5et): Miss Johnson / The Mountain Road / the Heather Breeze / The Boy in the Boat;  5. REEL: The 5tar of Munster;  6. JIG: The Crying Jig;  7. MARCH: Down the Glen;  8.5ET-DANCE: Planxty Davis;  9. REEL; Mother's Delight;  10. REEL: The Lads of Laois;  11. JIG: Tatter Jack Walsh;  12. REEL; The Yellow Tinker;  13. JIGS: Old Man Dillon / Mag Long's;  14. REELS: The Bunch of Keys / The Boys of Ballisadare;  15. REELS: Paddy Malynn's / The Green Groves of Erin;  16. MCKENNA'S REELS: Colonel Roger's / Happy Days of Youth;  17. REEL: John Morrison;  18. SET DANCE: The Garden of Daisies;  19. REEL: Hugh Gillespie's;  20. REELS: Farewell to Connaught / The Sligo Maid;  21. PIPE MARCH: Unidentified;  22. REEL: The Galtee;  23. REELS: Jenny Picking Cockles / Kitty in the Lan;  24. STORY;  25. REEL: The Lady on the Island;  26. REEL: The Bunch of Keys;  27. MICHAEL GORMAN'S REELS: The Pride of Ballymote / The Maid of Ballymote;  28. SLIP-JIG: The Irish Girl;  29. JIGS: Statia Donnelly's / Mick Gorman's Fancy;  30. REEL: Cooley's / The Golden Keyboard / The Pinch of Snuff;  31. REEL: The Bunch of Keys;  32. HORNPIPE: Chief O'Neill's/ REELS: The Sligo Maid / Molloy's;  33. SLOW AIR: An Droimeann Donn Dilis;  34. REEL: Roland's College Grove;  35. BONUS TRACK: Radio Broadcast.
This new CD dedicated to the fiddle playing of Jimmy Power (1918-1985), eminent for many years among Irish traditional musicians in London, is fitting in at least two respects: the publication date (2018) marks the centenary of his birth; and it potentially helps keep his memory alive among future generations of enthusiasts.  To an unusual degree, Jimmy's achievements as musician are bound up with the niche he carved out within his own constituency of willing emigrés in London, the contours of which are authoritatively set out by Reg Hall in his work A Few Good Tunes of Music: A History of Irish Music and Dance in London, 1800 to 1980 & Beyond (2016, downloadable from Topic's site), especially Chapter 34.  These few comments on the man and his music are offered as footnotes, based on a long savouring of his playing and some passing personal acquaintance during the last eight years of his life.  Remarkable as this microcosm was at the time, it feels even more so in the revisiting.

It is a long way from Crosses of Annagh or Doocastle to a pub in a cul-de-sac in north London, but Jimmy Power's commitment to, and standing within, the great post-war flourishing of emigrant music-making in the capital made of it a home from home.  Yet there was nothing predestined about his epic musical residency – September 1966 to June 1980 – at The Favourite off Holloway Road, which he turned into a Mecca for devotees and on which his renown within the story of Irish traditional music chiefly rests.

Jimmy's path to this fortuitous prestige was circuitous and arduous: from his youth in Ballyduff, Co.  Waterford, where he caught the fiddler's itch, he passed through Co.  Fermanagh, Sheffield and Glasgow before setting off for London in 1947.  Stepping off the train into the rubble of a bombed out city, not quite thirty and with his wife Kathleen in tow, the omens cannot have seemed good.  In the event, for a migrant musician ambitious to engage with his fellows the moment could scarcely have been more propitious, as he wandered into a historically unique conjuncture by which London boasted a greater concentration of unadulterated music-making from rural districts than was to be found in parts of the old country itself.

The cohort of fully-formed country musicians which Ireland had exported along with its surplus labour was on the point of finding, in late 1940s London, an outlet in a twilight warren of spartan pubs and proletarian dance halls.  (These developments are also extensively detailed in Hall's study.) This meant the music had become seek-out-able and Jimmy, with a knack for making his own luck, stumbled early on the venerable Sligo fiddle-player Michael Gorman, a liaison which furthered his development as musician and enhanced his standing among the emergent fraternity.  Over the following period he performed extensively for Irish dancing competitions, a self-imposed grind through which he built up playing prowess and range of repertory few could match (Hall page 790); and fronted The Four Courts Ceili Band for a number of years ('the first such band in London unattached to a Gaelic association or a dance hall' – Hall page 882).

By the mid-1960s, Jimmy had been a familiar figure on the London circuit for twenty years without having left any very conspicuous imprint: he had served a fiddler's probation, unprogrammed but thoroughgoing; he had made himself well connected among his fellows; and he had recognised himself in the guise of gaffer.  The element that still lacked was a settled and suitably inviting home base.  A series of sessions in the East End, part of a drift back to pub music, proved less than satisfactory until in the autumn of 1966, at just short of fifty and by chance rather than design, a move from Bow to Holloway promising to be one more routine pub job conjured one of those unaccountable comings-together which can be neither engineered nor re-enacted.  Starting with a few acoustic tunes in the corner of The Favourite, Jimmy seized his moment to establish a convivial power base (sic), destined to become unmatched in its ambiance and in the distinction of its musical habitués.  Perhaps rarer still was his sheer staying power (sic) in a world where sessions would drift from one down-at-heel pub to another, sometimes lasting no more than a few weeks.

In enabling him to assume the mantle of charismatic backstair impresario, ascendancy at The Favourite ratified Jimmy's stature as personality as much as musician, no mere figurehead but a fulcrum for easy-going sessions which drew musicians together with the appreciative and discerning following that had been wanting in previous locations.  This micro-tribal musicking served as a lingua franca of the uprooted and Jimmy's fluency in it was to prove unexpectedly reassuring: 'knowing that he was there was a comfort' was Paddy Boyle's verdict (quoted in Hall page 899).  Clubbable by disposition and supremely dependable, there was just enough of an authoritarian streak in him to keep things focused.  This was a role he relished but had to grow into, gradually evolving in The Favourite a minimum of stage management without stifling the informality of the occasions.  An essential part of this was developing confidence at the microphone.  His patter became, at length, an indispensable feature of the session, especially the emblematic catchphrase he always used at the close and which fittingly forms the title of this volume.

Yet if Jimmy Power was without peer as session anchorman, he was far from being, in terms strictly of technique, the pre-eminent fiddle player of his day, so that to make exaggerated claims about his stylistic prowess is to do him a disservice.  Importantly, there is an aura of unsophistication about this playing, where 'unsophisticated' is intended as a compliment.  To those who like their traditional music-making to come with a few rough edges, these technical warts create an old-fashioned allure malgré lui (the indications being that he aspired to greater virtuosity than his talent allowed).  There is sometimes a harshness to his sound, the bow tending to stick to the strings, the result of undue downward pressure.  (This is probably traceable to an over-zealous applying of the instruction he received as a youth to 'lean on the bow!'  A case of less Power to your elbow, perhaps.)  Sometimes snatching at a phrase, or letting the tune run away with him, he patently could not command the startling artistry of the best of his contemporaries, such as Bobby Casey or Martin Byrnes.  His great virtues lay in other directions, founded more on graft than gift.

If Jimmy could not manage the controlled rolling of a Casey, he made up for it with trademark clean bowing trebles; if his playing could have a bit of a tense quality, he knew how to invest a long note with a plaintive tinge (as for instance in the first part of Mother's Delight, track 9); if he occasionally fudged a phrase, the great strength he exhibited above all others was rhythmic solidity.  The best of the playing included here has about it an unselfconscious vitality which drives the music forward without becoming merely wild.  A fine example of this is track 20 recorded in The Favourite, where he plays the once standard reels Farewell to Connaught and The Sligo Maid in duet with veteran expat fiddle player Jimmy Dunleavy: the real old stuff.

Throughout, Jimmy displays a sure grasp of how these snappy tunes are built from interconnected melodic segments which need to be crisply distinguished, not produced as an uninterrupted stream of notes.  This understanding is most evident in the widely acknowledged quality of his jig (6/8) playing.  Figures expediently expressed in conventional script as groups of three equal notes need to be rendered with microscopic shifts in length and emphasis, quantities too fine to be adequately capturable in notation.  (As a rule of thumb, all the rhythmic nuances your smart phone is unable to reproduce from digital notation.)  The tune he associated with Mag Long, an old-time musician from back home, is a case in point Mag Long's (track 13).  In all time signatures, Jimmy consistently, and presumably intuitively, finds off-beat, which means his performances are always (up)lifting.  These are the sophistications of oral-aural tradition osmosed within a way of life, distinct from practices instilled by formal instruction.

A further determining strand in the saga is more contentious.  Jimmy's resolute passage through Irish music in London crossed with a smattering of refugees from the domestic folk revival, disparate parties pursuing a shared object – love of music-making dubbed, perhaps not very helpfully, 'traditional' – with divergent ends: Hibernians cultivating the self-protections of solidarity in exile through their native music, and the culturally disaffected within the host populace in search of alternative paradise.  Extra-Hibernian elements of this kind, those with the effrontery but also the perspicuity to value and respect – and after their fashion to impersonate – this migrated idiom (mea culpa), were drawn to Jimmy at The Favourite in a way which did not apply to equivalent gatherings such as The White Hart at Fulham Broadway.  The twin effects, negative and positive, of this intersection were that the ambiance if not the music-making itself became diluted, but also that a valuable body of audio, written and photographic record was in the process created.  Does observation alter?  Do recordists alter by recording?  Seventy per cent of the recordings included here are extra-tribal in origin, in the sense that they derive from a studied hunting down of exotic quarry by lay musical ethnographers hailing from outside the target musical group.  Closer inspection would identify a gatecrashers' veneer, but the upside is that without these outsider-driven documents the repute of both Jimmy Power and The Favourite would, for better or worse, not have been as far-reaching.  (To pose the question the other way round: what manner of portrait would we have of this subject if the Irish-in-London labyrinth had remained hermetic – as it might easily have, and as some migrant associations in the capital potentially do remain?)

The most prominent of these questers after musical curiosities was Reg Hall, Jimmy's long-time piano vamp and confidant (an esteemed backer in several senses).  He has contributed significantly to this subject through the uniquely sympathetic accompaniments which can be heard throughout this compilation, but also by making or fostering sound recordings, his collection of which forms the core of the material presented here and only a few of which have previously been made public.

The timespan of these recordings, something over twenty years, belongs to the period of Jimmy's musical maturity – from the age of around forty – so that we cannot know either the stage of development of his playing at the point of arrival in London or how far the first ten years of exposure to the prodigious array of talent he found there may have helped form the style posterity is familiar with.  Yet if this selection is unable give any clue to Jimmy's progress as fiddle player, it very effectively showcases his versatility, rounding out the profile of the self-assured soloist with the gamut of his musical offices: mature disciple (with Gorman), feis specialist, band leader, responsive accommodating duettist.  The array of contexts and occasions is similarly varied, with only eight tracks from thirty-five drawing on Bill Leader's extensive recordings in The Favourite, thus avoiding what might easily have been Paddy in the Smoke volume two.  All this serves usefully to remind us that there was more to Jimmy than the assertive orchestrator (sic) of pub sessions.

Tunes included offer a mixture of staples of the period, some traceable to classic early recordings, interspersed with a few rarities such as Planxty Davis (O'Neill 973), one of the many specialist set-dance tunes Jimmy laboriously acquired from associates (he was unable to read music notation).  Of the classics, the reels Colonel Roger's Favourite and The Happy Days of Youth, a coupling made famous by McKenna and Gaffney's 1934 recording (track 16), are executed with great control and brio in duet with old-style flute player Johnny Gorman – truly a bit of Auld Erin transplanted to the big city.  Arguably the most impressive duos on the disc are the sets Jimmy plays with Michael Gorman (recorded by Jimmy himself).  As soloist he could not hope to emulate Gorman's eloquence, but their very tight duetting shows how respectful he could be towards a musician he rated.  A notable instance is The Lady on the Island (track 25), pitched lower than usual to allow some exciting octave playing in the first part.  This particular partnership also helps to explain how Jimmy assembled some of his stock of tunes.  (The duettist in him repays close listening, perhaps especially in partnership with accordion player Tony Ledwith, captured on Leader's 1973 LP Irish Music from the Favourite from which Paddy Malynn's / The Green Groves of Erin (track 15) here is drawn.  Their playing is exceptionally tight, right down to micro silences and rhetorical slurs.)

What now remains from the receding days when Jimmy Power determinedly made his mark among Irish music lovers in London?  To characterise this obscure tale as ethnic music Dick Whittington would be fanciful – no crock of gold had awaited him in the Great Wen – and yet the undeniable distinction he carved out on his expat patch would have been unachievable had he defied the priest's advice and stayed put in his native Ballyduff (Hall page 877).  The dwindling number of those who spent time with him will have their enduring memories of a man of forceful, plain-spoken character.  Behind the sharp tongue and the blunt manner (until you got used to it) lay an honest esteem for people, especially fellow musicians, and a definite turn of humour.  There was a genuineness in the music-maker, as there was in the man.  Lacking the power (sic) of imitation to produce a mere copy of his models – Coleman and Killoran on the gramophone, Gorman in the flesh – he succeeded in forging an inimitable musical persona, warts and all.  As talker and as fiddle player, he always sounded just like himself, the surest sign of authenticity in a person as in a musician.

Some of the most poignant impressions date from his final months, during which he plotted a musical comeback from a succession of hospital beds.  On 12 June 1985, a Wednesday, an event was arranged in The Victoria (his last venue, a stone's throw from The Favourite) to launch a farewell LP, Fifty-Odd Years, which had been recorded the previous year with Josephine Keegan at the piano, and produced by his son Tom.  Clad uncharacteristically in suit and tie (his preference had long been for casual dress), Jimmy sat at a table set up in front of the stage and signed copies of the record for loyal followers of his long incumbency within Irish music.  He died a month later.

What, of course, endures beyond transient memory is the substantial corpus of sound recording arising within the altered conditions created by migration, ensuring that Jimmy was more extensively chronicled than those who were arguably in narrowly musical terms his seniors.  Ultimately, none of this trove of analogue audio could be liberated from the dusty drawers of enthusiasts and offered to a wider audience without the form of cottage industry modern digital technology makes possible.  There is, it should be emphasised, nothing homespun about this issue, the work of Lamond Gillespie who is himself a fiddle player and seasoned participant in Irish pub sessions in London.  (See page 82 of the booklet to Topic's CD set 'It Was Great Altogether!' (TSCD680T) for a summary of Lamond's background in this milieu.) Production values are high, with good design and audio quality, doing full justice to a ragbag of ageing domestic recordings not made with any particular audience in mind, and complemented by heart-felt notes and atmospheric period photographs.  Importantly, the wide-ranging programming of this CD gives a sense of the several strains identified above in Jimmy's musical odyssey in a way that LPs released in his lifetime do not.

Alongside the pleasure to be had from careful listening to this uninhibited, inspiriting, down-to-earth playing there is also much to be learnt from it, an object lesson in how a musical job of work was once carried on by one of its most dedicated craftsmen.  Jimmy's hallmark was not, to any marked degree, virtuosity but rather forthrightness, at its best a positively channelled aggression ensuring that the endeavours of the musician, like those of the man, were never less than whole-hearted.  If there was no especial sense at the time of his being overtaken by developments, he was in retrospect among the last of the immediate post-war musical migrants into London, rough around the edges but ethnically skilled after his uncontrivable fashion, a type of uncomplicated country musician now all but extinct.  What, finally, we savour here is more musical job of journeywork than wandering minstrel, and the more instructive for it.  More than thirty years since his death, when his legacy is in danger of fading from the consciousness of the traditional music fraternity, productions such as this help to keep Jimmy Power's idiosyncratic contribution in the public ear.  The proud Irishman musically chez lui.

Go home and play your CD!  It's available from Lamond Gillespie's website http://www.lamondgillespie.co.uk/jimmy-power-cd/ or Custy's https://custysmusic.com/products/jimmy-power-h3-go-home-and-have-your-dinner

Andrew Bathe - 5.5.19

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