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WILLIAM LAMB (EDITOR) - Keith Norman Macdonald’s Puirt- à -Beul: The Vocal Dance Music Of The Scottish Gaels

WILLIAM LAMB (EDITOR) - Keith Norman Macdonald’s Puirt- à -Beul: The Vocal Dance Music Of The Scottish Gaels
Taigh na Teud ISBN 9781906804107

If twists of the tongue, verbal dexterity, and sheer phonic joy are what you’re after, you need look no further than puirt-à-beul (‘mouth music’). Quite when the Scots Gaels began singing these songs for dancing is uncertain, but nowadays you’re more likely to see a well-kent face trilling them in a peacock-display of glottal galloping before a breathless – albeit seated – audience. Oft-beset by thoughtless dismissals as ‘mere nonsense words’, puirt-à-beul was nevertheless established as a vernacular art form worthy of study and attention by Keith Norman Macdonald’s 1901 volume. The two printings have long been elusive and sought-after creatures, but happily, William Lamb’s deft editorial hand has now set it dancing once more.

The volume makes a sparkling companion for both singers and researchers. For those who wish to sing the songs, the words appear in a more consistent, eye-friendly format, while the music is unfussily transposed from the occasionally unreliable sol-fa of Macdonald’s original into standard notation. For those approaching the songs purely as texts, there is much to delight in Lamb’s comprehensive and witty introduction and vigorous historical notes. Lamb traces the earliest printed examples of the tunes, provides missing or alternative verses and, invaluably, directs the reader to relevant recordings of the songs on the Tobar an Dualchais website. All in all, the book places puirt-à-beul squarely in context, deservedly among Gaelic’s richest musical traditions. I recommend this to anyone who knows anything at all about puirt-à-beul; and for those who don’t, for heaven’s sake make sure you go and listen to some…and then buy this book.

Clare Button

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This album was reviewed in Issue 93 of The Living Tradition magazine.