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THOMAS MCCARTHY - Herself And Myself

THOMAS MCCARTHY - Herself And Myself
Tin Folk Music ITCD002

Irish traveller, singer and storyteller Thomas McCarthy has of late been championed by Sam Lee, who will, by the time you read this, have hosted the launch concert for this, Thomas’s second CD release. The first, the Ron Kavana-produced Round Top Wagon, appeared back in 2011 (under the name Tommy McCarthy) and caused quite a stir, not least for its welcome presentation of what for many listeners was a branch of traveller folk-singing not well represented on record (outside, that is, of the comparatively recent, laudably comprehensive Musical Traditions set From Puck To Appleby, which turned the spotlight on some of Thomas’s relatives and, much earlier, a Topic LP from the 60s featuring John Reilly). Since then, anyone fortunate enough to have experienced Thomas’s singing at first-hand at various festivals this summer (notably Sidmouth, Whitby and Cambridge) will readily bear testament to the force of his personality.

Thomas, born in 1965, is regarded as a last bastion of the oral tradition, an Irish traveller who comes from a long line of singers and musicians. His mother, Mary McCarthy, a fine singer – Herself of the album’s title, naturally – died four years ago and this CD, dedicated to her, also pays direct tribute by appending to the 16 tracks of Thomas’s singing an enchanting (and rare) recording of Mary singing Young Willie, which forms an illuminating postscript – for all that the mother and son’s respective singing styles don’t sound as much alike as you might reasonably expect when considering that Thomas learnt his craft from her. But then, as we learn from Thomas’s memoir (reproduced in the booklet), it was a matter of first “getting it right” and then being entreated to “do your own thing on it”!

The actual quality of Thomas’s own voice, too, stops you in your tracks rather and holds you spellbound thereafter. It’s interestingly decorated and possesses a highly distinctive innate vibrato that can sometimes conceal both the strength of his sense of line (this in spite of his tendency to play around with the length of those lines for dramatic effect) and the intense control in his delivery overall. Idiosyncratic it may initially appear, and it might take some getting used to, but persistence pays dividends (check out his exceptional, captivating renditions of the Lady Margaret ballad, or the poignant famine-era emigration song I Must Away). As far as song sources are concerned, almost all of the selections come from family members – four from mother Mary (including the feel good song that gives the disc its title), and others from grandfather Johnny (the fun favourites Nell Flaherty’s Drake and Little Mary Cassidy), uncle John (the heroic tale of The Escape Of John Mitchel) and even Mary’s first-cousin Jimmy (the sailor’s song My Heart’s In Old Erin). The affectionate nature of She Is My Joy is largely derived from its opening two lines, penned by Johnny and completed by Thomas; but arguably the standout track in this new collection is Thomas’s own composition Moving Us On Again, a powerful depiction of the discrimination faced by travellers, written in direct response to the Dale Farm evictions of autumn 2011.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 104 of The Living Tradition magazine.