HUGHIE GILLESPIE & FRANK KELLY - The Sparkling Dawn
Hughie Gillespie is one of the great names in 20th century Irish fiddle playing. Pupil, friend and recording partner of the mighty Michael Coleman, he started out playing his normal repertoire of Donegal dance music, such as neighbour Frank Kelly later described: “It was mostly for dancing at that time – highlands, germans, waltzes, lancers, polkas, sets, more or less.” Coleman changed all that, producing a new breed of music based on dance music, but moving away from the single bow-stroke technique (“using slurs and that” as a London-based musician described it) to a long-bow style primarily aimed at the listener – and the sales of his 78s showed the impact he had. Under Coleman’s tutelage, Gillespie also mainly dropped the “dance” element in order to master Coleman’s fluid ‘Sligo Style’ of playing. His early recordings are well documented, and he also prospered by using a guitarist as his accompanist, rather than suffering the rather random piano accompaniments inflicted on some of his peers.
When he returned from the USA to Ireland, Gillespie took his young cousin, Frank Kelly, under his wing and in turn, became his mentor, passing on Coleman’s teaching and style. “Hughie was particular about getting things right,” remembered Kelly. They would meet at each other’s houses several times a week for music and conviviality. They travelled to fleadhs together. After Gillespie’s death in 1986, Frank Kelly made a lovely tribute album to him, Memories Of Hughie Gillespie, remembering the tunes they shared and using a similar guitar accompaniment. This cassette was issued in 1996 but was reissued on CD a year or so ago – it’s a lovely piece of work, highly recommended (and available from firstname.lastname@example.org).
This current disc, The Sparkling Dawn, consists of recordings made in 1967 at one of the many evenings that Hugh and Frank spent playing together. As you would expect, the style is Sligo rather than Donegal, with reels predominating, punctuated by a few jigs, Mrs. Kenny’s Waltz, a set of hornpipes and even a couple of songs. Some of the sets of tunes were popularised by Coleman, but there are a number of others which they seem to have imbued with their own characters. As a live rather than a concert recording, there is background noise, bits of chat, a bit of lilting breaks out, but the sound quality is excellent and the sound restoration very impressive. This to me is a plus – it all adds to the atmosphere – consequently the playing is relaxed with a lovely swing to it that comes from players performing to enjoy themselves (and each other) rather than having to be aware of the studio microphone. It’s wonderful to see this material released on CD. And as for its place in Irish traditional fiddle playing – it’s gold dust.
This review appeared in Issue 141 of The Living Tradition magazine