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VARIOUS ARTISTS - The New Demesne: Field Recordings Made By Alan Lomax In Ireland, 1951 

VARIOUS ARTISTS - The New Demesne: Field Recordings Made By Alan Lomax In Ireland, 1951 

In 1951 Alan Lomax, accompanied by young American singer Robin Roberts and by singer, uilleann piper and professional collector Seamus Ennis, made his first visit to Ireland to record its song and musical traditions. The ultimate ambition was to publish the recordings as part of the projected 30-part Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, an ambitious venture which was, at least in part, ultimately fulfilled. Their activities over a period of less than five weeks centred broadly on the West Coast of Ireland and on Dublin, and the end product was the very first album of the 18 that Columbia eventually released. This double CD package expands on the LP and is bookended by a number of recordings of items performed by Lomax, Ms Roberts and Seamus Ennis, in whose collecting footsteps Lomax largely followed.

A number of tracks include spoken stories and brief interview pieces that not only add context, but also give some insight into the characters and approaches of the collectors towards the artists and their material. Given the almost mythical aura that surrounds Alan Lomax today, it’s good to hear him speaking about his own music as well as posing queries to his informants, and to contrast his approach with that of the more relaxed style of Seamus Ennis – who of course had the advantage of already knowing a number of the informants, as well as knowing he was spending more than a month in Ireland.

The 70-page paperback-sized book that accompanies the CDs is invaluable, and contains most of the answers to the questions that may arise in a listener’s mind, detailing not only the punishing itinerary that the collectors and their bulky equipment subjected themselves to, but also providing 25 pages of fulsome notes on the tracks themselves – exactly the sort of welcome detail that has always characterised author Nicholas Carolan’s work. In addition, there’s a lot of background given to the collectors, the Columbia project, and the aftermath resulting from the trip.

Moving on to the CDs themselves, the cleanliness and overall sound quality are a credit not only to the original 1951 recording machinery, but also to the 21st century cleaning up process that preceded this release. Naturally (given the geographic areas covered) much of the sung content is true Sean nós, and it’s interesting to note how the style has evolved over the intervening years in different parts of Ireland. Many of these songs will be familiar, as is much of the English language repertoire that’s included, and there are some real gems in both languages, such as Seán Jeaic Mac Donncha’s version of An Bonnán Bui or Mickey Cronin’s very complete My Name Is Pat O’Donnell. Some performers are more extensively represented than others – singers Elizabeth Cronin, Meaigi Nic Dhonncha and Mickey Doherty (fiddle) predictably all get several tracks, but so too do one or two less familiar performers like the excellent Beairtle Ó Conaola – who I was not familiar with, and who I found particularly impressive, although there were several others who made an impression. The instrumental aspect is somewhat less represented, but features well-known names like Aggie White and Néillidh Boyle along with enough other musicians to form a welcome counterpoint to the sung and spoken tracks.

There really is something for everyone here, and ITMA is to be congratulated on providing such a treasurehouse of the Irish musical story in such an enjoyable and informative form. The package represents remarkable value for such a panoramic look back into the mid-20th century. Unreservedly recommended.

John Waltham


This review appeared in Issue 143 of The Living Tradition magazine