Reviews of VT137CD 'The Girls Along the Road''
John Kennedy is something of "a legend" in traditional circles in Northern Ireland, known as a singer, musician, writer of songs and tunes and music teacher, but was a name previously unfamiliar to me. Consequently this CD, subtitled "traditional songs, ballads and whistle tunes from Co. Antrim", came as something of a revelation. Kennedy was born in 1928, and his voice, though weathered by age and cigarettes, still carries a song with excellent pitch and precision, along with an indefinable "sparkle" that transmits a sense of a performer with genuine charisma to the listener. The majority of the songs are traditional, sourced from either his mother or other singers from his locality. Almost all of them are unfamiliar (to me, at least), and the titles alone are enough to beg further investigation by anyone with a love of traditional song. Who could resist the promise inherent in such tracks as "The Corncrake among the Whinny Knowes," "The shipcarpenter's wife," "The Lass with the Bonny Brown Hair" or "The Cloghmills Factory Girls?" The whistle tunes, meanwhile come largely from the largely overlooked Ulster marching fife band traditions, with an original reel thrown in for good measure. His playing is solid, rather than flashy, and his timing and phrasing are spot-on. Since the release of this CD, Kennedy has recorded a further album of his instrumental compositions, and his music is now the subject of a book by Fintan Vallely. 'The girls along the road', meanwhile, captures a performer recorded, perhaps, in "the nick-of-time" and serves as both a demonstration of Kennedy's considerable talents and a valuable source of repertoire and inspiration for any singers up to the task of tackling these fine songs and tunes.
This is not a review that seeks to dissect the work track by track but rather takes the opportunity to introduce the work of John Kennedy to those who might not have heard him or even of him. Until I chanced upon him in a singaround during the Enistymon Festival in Clare earlier this year I numbered among the latter. About 1am in a crowded pub packed with singers ranging from the comical to the aspiring sean nos, I became aware of a soft spoken, elderly and quite formally dressed man who had that gift of not having to turn up the vocal volume to command attention but rather reverse the process so that the softer he sang the more attentive the pub became - that was my intro to John Kennedy.
This C.D. is a selection of songs from one of the great voices of Irish traditional song, along with some pieces from his repertoire of traditional fifing tunes played on tin whistle. The "greatness" is not borne of technical ability or powerful vocal pyrotechnics - the man is in his seventies after all - but of a certain way with a song. He has a directness and honesty wedded to some highly individual mannerisms such as the occasional unexpected breaking of a sung word into two, sometimes by means of something akin to a sob. "Sob" is misleading but is the nearest I can get to describing that particular something that he does which is so natural rather than a thought out thing that would serve to distract.
John comes from Co. Antrim, from an unusual area where due to a proliferation of mills, the people's experience has been both industrial and rural. This comes across in his material which includes "The Cloghmill Factory Girls", nestling alongside the more well-known "The Lass with the Bonny Brown Hair" and " The Corncrake", a song whose language is familiar to speakers of Ulster-Scots. There are marches, reels, polkas and hornpipes interspersed with the songs; all recorded during two Saturday sessions in Dublin where John apparently began his day with a "heart stopping" fried breakfast before recording, continuing through the day on a diet of cigarettes and white wine. Rock n' Roll lifestyle? - this man could give lessons.
An unmistakably Irish piece of drollery, "The Missus, Her Mother, the Bulldog and Me" completes an 18 track marathon of a record which was made for the Irish Traditional Music Archive. At the beginning of September this year, the Loughshore Traditional Group devoted a unique night of music to honour John Kennedy. Deservedly so, and I hope this recording brings him to a wider audience - I can't wait to see him again, but till then these recordings will help, so a sincere "thank you" to all those concerned.
The Living Tradition
Meeting John Kennedy is something of an 'Event' and
a breathless one at that. He will almost assault you with a non-stop mixture of
friendly spoofing, asides and comment, allowing you little input and even less
chance of verification. This is entertainment enough in itself before he even
begins to sing and is a phenomenom that the notes here and some additional
information from Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music
Archives (which supported the recording project), agree on. 'A marathon session
of songs, tunes, anecdotes, jokes, conversation and good company …' writes
Nicholas of the actual recording sessions. 'My God, Kennedy! Do you never
cease?' is the introduction. John's own contribution to the picture gives a
smidgin of flavour:
…I had started work in Cullybackey, which is a village about three or four miles from my home, at The Maine Works, on the banks of the River Maine. I was 14 years of age on a Friday in 1942 and started on the 4th September, 4 days later, from eight in the morning until six at night, and to 12.30 on Saturday, for one pound and eight pennies per week old money. It was a bleaching and dying works …
The photographs here also underline the ambience: two which, as example, show, first, a relatively restrained Kennedy, fag in hand, with a clearly engaged audience which, in the second photograph, bursts into approval and laughter. Kennedy is bowing cheekily.
Rosie Stewart has something of this perpetual energy and the late George Maisey (from Watchfield) comes to mind. So does Hubert Green in Suffolk. It can be exhilirating though, in prolonged bouts, side-splittingly exhausting but you never either forget the impact. The two aforementioned photographs, taken at the Geordie Hannah Memorial Singing Weekend, are most appropriate in this as they confirm JK's pedigree. Geordie had a way of fixing you with his eyes and daring any form of contradiction: 'Honnah's yer mon!'. You can't, by a different but similarly effective token, escape JK.
The word 'performance' is, perhaps, relevant and the danger might be that this could be coupled with the word 'act': both, it seems to me, currently used indiscriminately in publicity for gigs and festivals and giving an awful impression both of the ego of singer (or musician or whatever) and the gullibility of a passive audience. Nothing could be more inappropriate in respect of JK. Certainly, though, the imprint of style and personality operates. So that, in one way, the CD invited participation and one listened out for signs of response: the indisputable 'crack' that JK generates. The choice was evidently made not to accommodate this - always a dilemma in recording - and, whatever the possible loss, what we have here is a beautifully clean job (given the odd noises attendant on venue, acknowledged on the cover of the notes) which allows untrammelled concentration on the songs and music. Here and there, though, there is a strong urge to speak out and twit JK with the absolute conviction that he'd give better than got. His version of The Shipcarpenter's Wife (compare Eddie Butcher's: both singers measure their material exquisitely) provides such an occasion. Inevitably, JK's party piece,The Missus, her Mother, the Bulldog and Me, offers another: the kind of song that milks listeners.
With this in mind it comes as a surprise that one of the two overwhelming characteristics of this CD is to do with the lyrical tenderness of many of the songs - seven out of ten of them. JK's way of singing is quite light with just the merest touch of that high edge of apparent strain which Len Graham, as an example, also employs. Given the lovely melodic movement of the songs this creates a plangency akin to the 'high, lonesome' sound of the best fiddling. The 'shiver' on certain notes, which becomes almost a stabbing break in the voice in Reilly the Fisherman, thus never becomes mannered but is always appropriate, not just an ornament but integral to the line of the song. In fact, in this song, with a tune which is not the most obviously comfortable one, JK's way of singing, with a very slight lingering effect, actually reinforces the import of the song. Stylistically, then, JK is able to turn from comic to serious with no disruption of his overall approach, the hallmark of which is a clear elegance. The tickling humour of The Girls Along the Road, which opens the CD is, in this respect, followed easily by the gentle wooing of The Lass With the Bonny Brown Hair. The Flower of Corby Mill is balanced airily and the movement of the song made satisfying. A highish key and that sense of 'strain' already noted above as they appear in Glenarm Bay (three syllables) are contrasted by bottom voice register influx on words such as 'innocent'. Overall, the way in which JK can make a song his own by the impact of style and personality can be found in The Corncrake … a widely-known song where the by now familiar 'strain' appears and, at the extreme edges, almost squeezes words out, but where also timing is paramount and there is, ultimately, a palpable invitation of sympathy for the narrative line. (sound clip) If you want to hear another singer who has this ability and a similarly distinguishable approach to songs, listen to Jim McFarland, one of the finer of a relatively younger generation in Ireland.
I appreciate that this is something of a hobby horse, but it is necessary for singers to sing through and beyond their influences in order to find their own voices. This could never be better illustrated than by someone like Jim and, most particularly, by Kennedy. He's is so utterly at home with his songs in a way which is yet understated - and this contrasts vividly with the big sound, made prominent by some over here who, whatever the intrinsic quality of voice, boom out in unrelieved monotony, seemingly much more in love with their own voices than with the songs. It's a kind of 'shanty effect' hardly appropriate in other circumstances, I'd have thought, and it leads, amongst other things, to a great surge in sound in comfortable registers and a virtual disappearance of voice at top and bottom, a sign of poor pitching (and, even, inappropriate choice of song) in the first place and an even more poor appreciation of the span of one's voice. The impulse in these two general cases is not just a question of kind and purpose: the former is mindful, while the latter is merely indicative of someone who sings songs but is not, as JK is, a singer. It should be said that this is neither an overtly, nor exclusively, English fault.
One of the grosser developments at the Willie Clancy school over the years has been the takeover of Marrinan's pub by those who have two songs and, therefore, fancy themselves as singers and who not only monopolise but have the temerity to announce that Marrinan's is, by some kind of perverse definition, only a singers' pub: a manifest contradiction in all ways. The claim would also come as a surprise to many including Jim and Noirin Marrinan. To finish this plaint, I find such an attitude even worse in the context of playing tunes, where the excitement of managing simply to caper at speed converts to rash and characterless lack of judgement.
Since the occasion's fresh in my memory I'd cite Éamonn Ó Bróithe's playing at the National as kindness itself to tune, to companion players and to emotional satisfaction, and his intense, passionate but not overblown singing as a tasty example of one who can use the 'big' sound - and a pertinent contrast to that of JK. Consider above all, as example, basic good manners, thoughtfulness for the parameters of a song, necessary sense of timing and, finally, intrinsicality in nuance and effect. Big words, maybe - so, naturally, pick your own fruit in this respect.
To come back to earth, however, but also to do exactly as I've suggested, it is worth taking special account on this CD of JK's management of rhythm where, for example, the tunes of the two songs The Girls Along the Road and The Cloghmills Factory Girls are similar in construction and melodic phrasing but where JK pushes them along with individually relevant control and discernment to produce a marked jauntiness, shared in the whistle tunes.
If I had a slight quibble it might just be that these tunes are all bar one in march or virtually march time though not necessarily labelled so. On the other hand, only one is at all familiar - to me. Clearly, one has a lot to learn about the spectrum of fife-band tunes at the least and this CD is a painless introduction. JK's choice was, apparently, dictated by his own history of learning from such as Hugh Surgenar.
He used to write the music on the whitewashed walls where we worked together and it was whitewashed over again every Summer Holidays and then we could start all over again! Him and I fifed to the Lambeg drums for nearly 30 years together.
JK's whistling is steady rhythmically and very fluid in attack with an admixture of tongued and legato phrasing and subtle cuts and grace-notes. In The Irishman's Hornpipe there's a faint tap of feet but what would you expect? Try, in fact, to resist it. Breath-control and force on particular notes are usually consistently good, if, during the last time round in The Boys of Sandy Row, they catch up with him a mite. This is more than offset by the discreet touches at the beginning and in the last four bars of each B part of the tune. JK's own reel, The Keys of the Kingdom, inspired, it seems, by a Gregory Peck film (Ah! God be with the days), follows and would seem to me to need certain clumsinesses ironed out. Everyone will, no doubt, recognise Babes in the Wood which makes an appearance here as Willie Nichol's Polka and this might encapsulate the ways in which material is disseminated; but the following tune, The Grand Spy (sound clip), which reverts to march measure, exposes some unusual and appealing touches of phrasing in and around what you might take, at first listening, to be part of a tune that you know (Kerry polkas often have this way of lulling and then delighting you).
The second overall characteristic of the CD is a most welcome concentration on what appears to be very local material. This is no mere gesture: an Irish girl, a Scotch lad … but detailed: Butler's Fair, McMullen's Brae and Mrs. Butler's pub in The Flower of Corby Mill; Glenone, with its road to Bellachy and the 'dark foothills of Curraghmore', nonetheless a modern song with space-ships, men on the moon, tractors and 'dozers, a very direct expression, if on the edge still, perhaps, of sentimentality. This concentration on locality is not, of course, an exclusive pattern. Both The Flower … and The Lass With the Bonny Brown Hair, for instance, employ many familiar broadside conventions of expression; but it is a measure of the quality of JK's singing that he can invest them with meaning and emotion and, as it were, draw them into a personal (and local) ambience. Glenarm Bay would seem to be a relatively late reworking of such conventions for local attachment: again - by the way, there's a bottom register 'croak' as part of emphasis in some lines. Further, in terms of the general point, here we have a selection of songs which allow a glimpse of a particular work-setting previously, perhaps, only known in England by comparatively scattered references such as are found in The Factory Girl. The notes underline the 'unusual' face of JK's local culture, straddling rural and industrial experience. This alone would be recommendation for buying the CD. Listen to a few bars of The Cloghmills Factory Girls as illustration (sound clip).
The point is that this kind of local material is not a feature in English song as a rule (references such as are found in As I Was Going to Aylesbury tend to be generic) and whilst songs can be adapted - and have been - to different cultures it is well to be reminded of a specifically Irish tone in both English-language and Irish-language traditions, redolent of land and locality. You can then look at your 'own' songs with an informed enthusiasm and value.
As a final emphasis on the element of locality on this CD: JK got his songs from his mother, his grandmother and his neighbours and friends, though he was aware of such as Paddy Tunney and of music-hall and travelling performers. Some songs were actually put together in his locality - Glenone, for instance. The notes suggest that people were 'obssessed' with music and song and that 'Learning began at home and continued in the factory'.
To finish: take any suggestion as invitation not law and then simply lie back and enjoy Kennedy. For this is an excellent production all round, allowing us the fun and privilege of encountering The Bard of Cullybackey (!), and it follows, excitingly, Veteran's Maggy Murphy CD.
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