Few of the Irish traditional albums recorded during Topic’s golden period are currently available in CD format (indeed some have never been reissued at all) so it is always worth trying to track down the label’s compilation albums. These two CDs were part of a series of samplers issued in 1995 and Celtic Voices is by far the more interesting of the pair despite its title and trite cover image.
The reason is twofold. Firstly, its nineteen tracks comprise music and song from the following: Packie Duignan and Séamus Horan; Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman; Paddy Tunney; Willie Clancy; Len Graham; Festy Conlan; Joe Heaney; John Docherty; Arthur Kearney; The McPeake Family; Séamus Tansey and Reg Hall; Geordie Hanna; Pat Mitchell; Sarah Makem; Séamus Ennis; Mary Ann Carolan; and, Seán MacDonnchadha (or ‘ac Dhonncha as he was known in Connemara). That list alone guarantees sheer quality and, despite the familiarity of some of the recordings (Heaney’s The Rocks of Bawn or Séamus Ennis’s The Wandering Minstrel, for example), the compilation provides a wonderful overview of the glorious music recorded by Topic during the 1960s and 1970s.
Secondly, though the author of the line notes, John Crosby, provides little information regarding the singers and musicians themselves, he does give details of the source of each song or tune.
The second album, Irish Voices, is, contrastingly, something of a disappointment. Subtitled, ‘The Best of Traditional Singing’, it does include some singers from Celtic Voices (Graham, Heaney, The McPeakes, MacDonnchadha, Tunney, Makem) and Willie Clancy gets a song here too. Also present are Sarah Ann O’Neill (Geordie Hanna’s sister), Tom Lenihan, Tómas Ó Neachtain, Frank Harte and the wonderful John Reilly, plus the Irish Country Four. However, the album’s emphasis leans somewhat heavily towards songs in the English language which form fifteen of the seventeen tracks compiled here which in itself seriously diminishes its claim to be the ‘best’.
Moreover, despite my own fondness for Ron Kavana’s work he would hardly describe himself as a traditional singer and the same goes for Four Men and a Dog’s countryfied version of High on a Mountain. The jury’s out too on the album’s opening track, Patrick Street’s The Humours of the King of Ballyhooley for the simple reason that it is not traditional singing.
Disappointingly too, this time John Crosby’s liner notes provide a brief overview of the tradition and mention of the singers included on the album but offer no information on the genesis of the songs. One whole page of the liner consists of an enigmatic image with just three lines of text so it’s a shame that the space was not put to better use, particularly as Tómas Ó Neachtain receives no mention at all and sings a song, An Sgeilpín Droighneach (‘The Thorny Ledge’), that I have not been able to track down anywhere else.
Nevertheless, this still contains several valuable recordings, such as John Reilly’s The Raggle Taggle Gypsy and Sarah Ann O’Neill’s (coincidental) John Reilly, making it well worth acquiring should you come across a copy.
This is an original review by Geoff Wallis.
More details about the Topic label and its releases can be found at www.topicrecords.co.uk.