Treasure of My Heart – ORBCD 081; 75 minutes; 1993
I’m Leaving Tipperary – ORBCD 082; 76 minutes; 1994
The Gentleman Pipers – CDORB 084; 79 minutes; 1994
The Rushy Mountain – ORBCD 085; 78 minutes; 1994
In the Smoke – ORBCD 088; 75 minutes; 1995
Hurry the Jug – ORBCD 090; 78 minutes; 1996
Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part – ORBCD 092; 68 minutes; 1996
The Coolin’ – ORBCD 093; 67 minutes; 1996
Between 1958 and 1981 the London-based Topic label issued over seventy LPs of traditional Irish music, commencing with Street Songs and Fiddle Tunes of Ireland by Margaret Barrie (sic) and Michael Gorman and culminating with In the Tradition by Boys of the Lough. It was an extraordinary achievement for a label which had originated as an activity of the Workers’ Music Association in the 1940s, devoted to fostering “an appreciation of ideologically sound, egalitarian music” (its very first release was the 78rpm I’m the Man Who Waters the Workers’ Beer coupled with The Internationale). Gerry Sharp, who’d been working for the WMA, took over in the 1950s and oversaw the development of a substantial traditional music catalogue, focussing upon, predominantly, the music of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales (although there were also releases covering such exotica as Albanian music). After Gerry’s death in 1973 Tony Engle assumed the directorial reins and is still at the helm more than thirty years later.
Many of Topic’s Irish releases were produced by Bill Leader (who later set up his own eponymous label) and some involved Reg Hall who remains actively involved in Topic’s activities, compiling issues of remastered 78s such as Round the House and Mind the Dresser and the Michael Gorman retrospective, The Sligo Champion. Surprisingly few of those seventy albums have reappeared in CD format. Leo Rowsome’s two vinyl albums reappeared on one disc as Classics of Irish Piping and the Séamus Ennis recording of Pádraig O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford saw the light once more as Kerry Fiddles, though nowadays its released under licence by Ossian (a label which licensed several other albums, the majority of which were only released in cassette format). Some releases (such as John Doherty’s Bundle and Go) remain licensed, but the overwhelming majority are unavailable to those unwilling to scour the second-hand shops or bid in the increasingly frenzied auctions on eBay (collecting all of Topic’s vinyl output seems to have become a new consumer sport).
So those of us who missed some, many or all of those classic Irish releases were extremely grateful when the Globestyle label, an offshoot of Ted Carroll’s re-issue specialists, Ace Records, decided to compile a massive Topic-based retrospective of traditional music in the early 1990s and employed Ron Kavana to undertake the work.
The first release, Treasure of My Heart, appeared in 1993 and offered a tantalising glimpse of what was to come, being, as Ron’s liner notes emphatically asserted, “an across-the-board compilation chosen from the entire Topic catalogue, and is the widest selection of quality Irish music ever made available in one collection”, adding that there were eight more discs to follow. The few pictures in that liner also suggested just how broad that range might be, for they included not only shots of Leo Rowsome and Frank Harte, but scans of the album covers of After Dawning by Joe Holmes and Len Graham, Grand Airs of Connemara and The Russell Family of Doolin, County Clare.
The disc itself proved to be no let down either, largely adopting a chronological approach, beginning with the piping of William Andrews, taking in some remastered 78s on the way, including musicians of the calibre of John Doherty, Josie McDermott and Willie Clancy, while tipping a wink to the new boys in a closing track by Four Men and a Dog. Most importantly, however, the Irish song tradition was emphatically well represented by the likes of John Reilly, Mary Ann Carolan, Sarah Makem and Joe Heaney. Most of those who purchased the CD certainly enjoyed what they found and could barely wait for the promised future releases.
Others, however, wondered whether Ron Kavana was actually the right person to be undertaking this enterprise. His opening notes referred to the RTÉ/BBC series, Bringing It All Back Home as “exemplary”, a controversial comment which was shortly followed by the astonishing claim that “the melodic basis of most Western pop music came from the traditional music of these islands and from Ireland in particular”. No, Ron, the melodic basis of most Western pop music derives from the blues and we should all, by now, know how that musical form evolved.
The first of the planned eight albums, I’m Leaving Tipperary, appeared in 1994 and was drawn largely from five LPs issued by Topic in 1978 and 1979 which compiled remastered 78s by Hugh Gillespie, John McGettigan, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band, Tom Ennis and James Morrison, and John McGettigan.
Now, obviously, it would be difficult to complain about either the quality of the importance of the music on offer, but I’m Leaving Tipperary suggested a deeper problem at the core of the Globestyle series. Topic had never issued anything by Michael Coleman, J.J. Kimmel, Paddy Killoran or Louis. E. Quinn, so while this collection might rightly claim the subtitle ‘Classic Irish Traditional Music Recorded in America in the 20s and 30s’, it could hardly claim to be a truly representative collection.
There was also the fundamental question of the accuracy of Ron’s liner notes which were now promulgating such garbage as this:
“Such was the power of the church at the time that by the dawn of the 20th century, traditional Irish music had almost completely ceased to exist in most areas of Ireland.”
Apart from being distinctly untrue, this lapse into polemic suggested that Mr Kavana might not be fully au fait with his subject. Nevertheless, this was a hugely important release, even if it was pre-empted and perhaps inspired by the far more representative collection of 78s released the previous year by Rounder, From Galway to Dublin, compiled by Dick Spottswood and Philippe Varlet.
Moving on, the next album in the Globestyle series, The Gentleman Pipers, was entirely devoted to the instrument upon which Martin Carthy, seeing Séamus Ennis play, vowed it was akin to watching “a man wrestle with an octopus”. The album drew heavily from the original three volume Classics of Irish Piping series, featuring Liam Walsh, William Andrews and Leo Rowsome, adding selections recorded by Willie Clancy (from The Breeze from Erin), the solo albums from Pat Mitchell and Felix Doran, Séamus Ennis’s The Wandering Minstrel, a couple of tracks recorded by Michael O’Brien extracted from 1980’s The Flags of Dublin (recorded with Paddy Glackin and Mick Gavin) plus two from Seán McAloon from the Drops of Brandy LP.
At the time of its release, The Gentleman Pipers clearly indicated the seriousness of Globestyle’s efforts to revive interest in Irish music, even if the misprints in the liner notes (“Finbar Fury”, “uillean”) suggest that the proof-reader did not share Ron Kavana’s enthusiasm. Of course, there had been earlier collection of uilleann piping, such as Claddagh’s The Drones and the Chanters and Mulligan’s The Piper’s Rock, but Globestyle’s release was the first to bring together archive recordings. For Kavana, however, there was one overwhelming omission and his indication of this suggests that he was not entirely enamoured by the project’s parameters. He notes that attempts to persuade the Irish Folklore Commission to licence its recordings of Johnny Doran were ignored.
The fourth album to roll off the Globestyle production line, The Rushy Mountain, was entirely devoted to the six albums which formed a Topic mini-series in the mid-1970s – Music from Sliabh Luachra – although one of these, by Billy Clifford, also covered Tipperary and, arguably, his own music and that of his parents, Julia and John, was heavily influenced by their time in London.
The other featured musicians were Johnny O’Leary, Jackie Daly, Denis Murphy and the great teacher, Pádraig O’Keeffe (mysteriously referred to as ‘Padraig O’Keefe’ throughout the package). In many ways it is perhaps the most engrossing release in the whole series, not least because of the strength of musicianship on show here, but because of the sheer vitality of the tunes played.
Ron’s notes bemoan the movement “further and further away from regional styles and repertoires towards a kind of potpourri standardisation”, adding that “almost every traditional flute player tends to sound like Matt Molloy”. Yet, arguably, almost ten years after the release of The Rushy Mountain increasing numbers of young musicians are turning for inspiration towards the older musicians from those regions thought to be at risk. It would be hard to argue, for instance, that the Donegal fiddle tradition is currently under threat.
Next in line came perhaps the second weakest release in the whole series, In the Smoke (the weakest will be eventually revealed!). As I wrote in another review, this Globestyle compilation has always felt like a partial disappointment in comparison to the original Topic album, Paddy in the Smoke (and a slightly amended version of my comments there now follows). Such feeling begins, of course, with the liner’s cover photograph which proudly displays a rather oddly shaped pub called The Favourite. Unfortunately (and I’m reliably informed that this still makes Ron Kavana wake screaming some nights), this particular Favourite – a very dire pub indeed – was a couple of further miles north on Hornsey Rise and had little connection with Irish music. Perhaps to assuage Ron’s nightmares the pub closed some years ago and the site now houses some very upmarket flats.
This isn’t to suggest that In the Smoke should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act, but it lacks much of the authenticity of Paddy in the Smoke, despite offering substantial value for money. On the other hand, Kavana provides astute liner notes and the brief biographies are well worth reading.
In contrast, fewer qualms could be laid at the door of album number six in the series, Hurry the Jug, which concentrated on singing, lilting and storytelling, though with the emphasis placed strongly on the first of these.
The album featured twelve singers, each of whom was allocated two tracks, though there does not seem to be any logic in the running order. Indeed there is perhaps an over-emphasis upon singers from the Ulster province (no fewer than six) and very little sean-nós in evidence (only Joe Heaney and Seán ‘ac Dhonncha). Also, there are some surprising omissions, such as Dominic Behan and Sarah Anne O’Neill, though others (John Lyons, Cathal McConnell and Frank Harte, for instance) were picked up in the final volume of the series.
However, there is still plenty here to enjoy and there’s no better way to begin an album than with a story from Tom Lenihan and, perhaps, equally no better means of closing it than with a set of lilted reels from Josie McDermott. Planxty lovers would also be well reminded of the source of the band’s Raggle Taggle Gypsy, John Reilly.
Almost as a companion to its predecessor, the seventh album in the series, Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part is a compendium of delights for lovers of Ireland’s instrumental tradition, contriving to squeeze thirty tracks into almost seventy minutes of material. Some of these featured the Clare musicians Chris Droney, John Kelly, Bernard O’Sullivan and Tommy McMahon, whose albums were included in the short-lasting collaboration between Topic and the Free Reed label which resulted in six records of concertina music.
Others utilized material from less well-known Topic releases by the likes of Vincent Griffin, Rose Murphy, Terry Teahan and Gene Kelly, as well as the hammer dulcimer virtuoso John Rea, while, naturally, making sure that Séamus Tansey, John Doherty and the duo of Séamus Horan and Packie Duignan were all well represented. Inevitably, there was some overlap with other albums in the series, but it would be difficult to envisage an album of Irish instrumental music which did not include the uilleann pipes. If the album has a weakness, it probably lies in the revelation that Topic actually recorded very few fiddlers other than Doherty, Griffin and Horan and someone might have paid more attention to proofreading. One track, a Doherty solo, is listed as being a duet between the fiddler and Tommy McMahon – an intriguing concept – while another suggests that there is a tune called Gillian’s Apples. However, these minor errors pale into insignificance when compared to the misnamed monstrosity which would form the eighth album in the Globestyle collection.
As its liner scan reveals, this bore the title The Coolin’, leading cynics to question just exactly what was being “cooled”.
Musically, however, this compilation was, in many ways, the most far-reaching and also, perhaps, the most satisfying. Nevertheless, it was the first in the series to be deleted, suggesting that the CD-buying public was not, at that time, entranced by the idea of possessing a collection of slow airs and laments. More’s the pity, because The Coolin’ (apostrophised or not) is a stunning anthology of some of the best slow playing you’ll ever hear.
Anyone who purchased the album, however, was also short-changed by the exceptionally brief liner notes which almost suggest that Mr. Kavana had run out of steam. Take this paragraph as an example:
All the musicians featured on this collection are also to be found on other CDs in this series of compilations from the Topic archives, and it is there you must look for any biographical information as I feel that I should write no more at this point other than to say that the music on this disc will speak for itself to any but the most insensitive soul.
Well, that would be fine for anyone who had purchased other albums in the series, but, those who had bought the previous seven would not be able to find any reference to Festy Conlan (sic), Solus Lillis, Micheal MacAogain or Brian Bailie.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with an album that includes John Doherty’s unsurpassable Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park or Felix Doran’s majestic reading of the actual tune The Coolin.
The concluding album in the series remains the most disappointing. Released in 1997, it claimed to compile “contemporary classics of traditional Irish music”. As previously mentioned, however, Topic ceased issuing Irish vinyl in 1981, so, in order to bolster the subtitle’s claim certain tracks by Patrick Street were licensed from Green Linnet and others, by Four Men and a Dog, came from Cross Border Media, plus two of Ron Kavana’s from his Home Fire album, issued by Topic’s subsidiary, Special Delivery. However, all of these were at least four years old at the time of the collection’s release, somewhat undermining any suggestion of contemporaneousness.
The remainder all date from the1960s and 1970s, and, in 1997, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to argue that The McPeake Family or The Irish County Four could ever possibly be regarded as ‘contemporary’ or, even more so, that the latter’s output might be considered ‘classic’.
In fact, this last album was very much a ragbag. Sure, there was Jackie Daly and Tony Mac Mahon, Len Graham and Joe Holmes, but, unlike the implicit concern of Ron Kavana’s liner notes, it was hardly a collection which suggested a brave new voyage into the 21st century.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the overall value of the Globestyle series nor the fact that its eleven hours of music represents probably the most comprehensive, if not always successful, attempt to recount the history of Irish traditional music during the 20th century. Ultimately, there is probably no better introduction to that music and we remain in debt to Ron, Globestyle and Topic.
All of these albums have now been deleted, but most remain worthy of your attention.
7th June, 2004
Globestyle’s catalogue can be found at www.acerecords.co.uk.