It's of my Rambles

Songs and Tunes from Ulster, collected by Len Graham

Arts Council Of Northern Ireland: Harvest Home No. 2 double cassette

This is the second in this series, the first being the anthology of songs from North Tyrone reviewed in Musical Traditions 11.  This release differs from its predecessor in three main respects: it covers the whole of Ulster, the recordings were made a decade or more earlier (mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s), and they were made by Len Graham, at least partly for his own purposes - apparently as much to acquire songs for his own repertoire as to preserve the singers for posterity.  This last point is not made in any way disparagingly - it is an entirely laudable motive - and in any case the results are at least as gratifying as those in the previous release.

It will probably also have a wider appeal, for here are the original performances that must have been responsible for bringing songs like The Banks of Sweet Lough Erne or Farewell Lovely Nancy, to name two in particular, into such broad currency in the folk revival.  Graham presumably learnt them from his own private recordings, sang them, passed them to people like Cathal McConnell of The Boys of the Lough, and after that there was no stopping them.  I've long lost count of the number of people I've heard singing the former of these two, but you'd go a long way to hear a version as good as Mary McQuestan's included here.

Some great names of Ulster traditional singing and playing are here - Joe Holmes (of course), Eddie Butcher, John Rea, John Doherty, all on splendid form - but some of the most striking songs come from names I had never heard before.  Johnny and Paddy Loughran's The Orphan Girl has a high and lonesome sound about it that recalls (as Graham himself notes) singing from the Appalachians rather than Tyrone.  The same thing occurred to me listening to Mary Magill's The Shamrock Sod; perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, given the strong North of Ireland presence among the early pioneers in the south-eastern United States.  The Loughrans are also notable for their unison singing - an Ulster speciality - which is to be heard, too, in Pat and Sarah Friel's beautiful rendition of Belfast Town and Paddy and Jimmy Halpin's excellent Willie Rambler.

Of the instrumentalists, the pick is probably Mickey Doherty, John's brother and a very fine fiddle player if his two tracks here are anything to go by.  I would also single out Willie Johnson's The Little Drummer, with its lovely refrain line, and in light-hearted vein John Loughran's Taglioni, but there is honestly nothing here that is less than superb.

The sound on some of these recordings is not as sharp as on the previous release - evidence surely of the fact that Graham himself has played his tapes for his own and his friends' pleasure for many years before he got the opportunity to share that pleasure with the rest of us.  But now he has, and it is an important addition to the documentation of traditional music in Ulster, something I would recommend all lovers of Irish music to grab with both hands.  Like the first in the series, it is beautifully put together, with a 100-page book, packed with photographs, transcriptions, annotations, biographical information and Graham's own insights into the songs and tunes.

Ray Templeton - 18.8.98

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