Kali or an octopus

The uilleann pipes is a musical instrument of such extraordinary complexity it could only have been invented by the Irish.

pipesIt is related to the bagpipes, but you don’t blow into it. The uilleann pipes is inflated with a small set of bellows, strapped around the waist and the right arm. It has three sorts of pipe: the chanter (on which you play the melody) , drones, and also regulators. There are three of these (tenor, baritone and bass), and each one has a set of keys to play chords accompanying the melody. It is astonishing that this instrument can be played by anything short of the many-armed Indian god Kali. Or maybe an octopus.

2060 sleeve full

But played it is, and it is a beautiful instrument, quieter and more subtle than the bagpipes. Among the bands which kept is use alive was the Gallowglass Ceili Band, part of the Irish cultural revival. This track comes from an LP released in 1968, the same year as The Beatles’ “White Album” and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet. It was, in short, irredeemably square even at the time of its release. Just look at the bloke playing the pipes on the album sleeve.

2060 sleeve Pot-smoking flower child on the Summer of Love? Not so much.

Ah, but we respect all music here on Planet Vinyl, and we have a special place in our hearts for those dedicated souls who keep alive ancient traditions by playing impossible instruments. And Gallowglass could pump out a mighty tune. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Gallowglass Ceili Band
  • LP Title: Irish Night
  • Side 1, Track 4 “McDermott’s Reel”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, mono
  • Label: Hallmark
  • Catalogue number: Hallmark
  • Manufactured in: UK
  • Year: 1968

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The wheel turns

“Majella has a very bright future” declares the sleeve note on this LP. There are lots of quotes from the papers, too. “Majella will be a recording star of international fame,” says one. “Majella Brady is currently tipped to be Ireland’s top pop export for many years,” opines another. On it goes: “A new star will shine in the North- Greatest hope of a top line singer since Ruby Murray.” So, no pressure.

Majella front cover

Majella Brady is a native of Country Derry, in Northern Ireland. And for a time she was the Next Big Thing in Irish music, the Republic as well as Ulster. She had a few top ten singles in the mid-1960s, when still a teenager. But here’s the thing. Ireland is a pretty small place. Its population in 1969, when this album was released, was just over three million people. This is about the same as Mongolia now, and fewer than Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Majella back detailNot a big market, which is why all the talk about being an “export”. Majella got exported and had some success, especially in the country and western scene, but never quite broke through into the mainstream. Just guessing, but inflated expectations from a parochial homeland may not have helped.

She lives in Scotland now, and is still about, and still performs and releases music. She returned to Derry in 2014 for her first performance there in nearly 40 years, and she told the local paper: “I feel I am the forgotten singer of Derry”. But there is no bitterness: she comes across as a cheerful, kind, vivacious woman. She makes a good living playing music she loves, and who could ask for more?

In “The Spinning Wheel”, the title track of this album, is in this spirit. A young woman grabs the chance to sneak out to meet her lover in the moonlight. The wheel turns, but live life to the full.

  • Artist: Majella, with Don Lowes and his Orchestra,
  • LP Title: The Spinning Wheel & Other Irish Favourites
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Piano Trio In B Flat, Op. 99, D.898, Second Movement, Andante Un Poco Mosso”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Hallmark SHM 699
  • Manufactured in: England
  • Year: 1969

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Tangled-up and confused and sad

Now here’s an album which my inner folk purist can enjoy, free of guilt. It was recorded by the Chieftains, heavyweights of the Celtic revival from the 1960s on, master instrumentalists of traditional Irish folk. The only stain on its purity is that it was not actually manufactured in Dublin – this is an Australian pressing.

Bonaparte’s Retreat is a concept album, no less. The theme is Ireland and its ambivalent relationship with the French Revolution and later Napoleon. Exiled Irish soldiers, the “Wild Geese”, fought for Napoleon. Lots of Irishmen fought against him. Some nationalists hoped a French victory would help them win independence, which it may have done. Just as likely, though, that Napoleon would have installed one his cousins in Dublin Castle as a despot.retreat

Like anything to do with Ireland, it is all tangled-up and confused and sad. That is just how they roll in the Emerald Isle. But they make lovely music about it, and this album is a good example.

Most of it is instrumental, though the centrepiece, the 14-minute title track, has some short, well-chosen selections from old songs. Dolores Keane sings a beautiful lament:

Did he die in Waterloo or on the banks of the Rhine
Or did he die on St Helena’s bleak shore?

2023 Chiefs 1976 sleeveThe track I have chosen to play is shorter and cheerier. It is a hornpipe, dedicated to Thomas Paine and his defence of the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. The sleeve notes explain: “The tune reflects the respect felt by defeated Ireland for the aspirations to freedom embodied in Paine’s treatise,” but in case that is too positive add, “aspirations not to be realised in Ireland for another 120 years”.

Ah, but without centuries of tangled-up, confused, sad history, what would we write music about?

  • Artist: The Chieftains
  • LP Title: Bonaparte’s Retreat
  • Track: Side 2, Track 4: “The Rights of Man”
  • Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Interfusion  L 36025
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1976

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What matters is the jam

Folk music is my first love. Like a lot of first loves, we have had our ups and downs.

Folk music, you see, has a scene, and with a scene comes purists. Tedious people. I was at the more liberal and inclusive end of earnest debates about what could or should be labelled “folk music”, but still I was sucked into those pointless arguments, and didn’t see the core truth. Labels are what you stick onto a jam jar. What matters is the jam.

0028It was this song which got me into folk. I first heard it when I was maybe four.

It is a convict ballad, about a young man who is lead astray by a femme fatale. Sometimes the action is set in London, sometimes (as in this version) in Belfast. Always the singer is an honest lad doing an apprenticeship whose head is turned by the lovely young women described in the chorus.

Her eyes they shone like diamonds
You’d think she was queen of the land
And the hair that hung over her shoulders
Tied up with a black velvet band

The lyrics fascinated and puzzled me. What exactly was a black velvet band? I imagined it as something like the thick rubber bands that the postman put around letters. I also didn’t get the bit about “queen of the land”, and asked my Mum what it meant. She thought a bit, a settled with “it means they’re going to get married”. I still didn’t get it, but let it go.

Hearing the song, more than 40 years on, it is a bit hard to get excited. I know the song over-well – it is sung a lot in Australia, because the girl plants a stolen watch on the singer and he ends up being sent as a convict to Van Diemen’s Land, what is now Tasmania. This version is pretty stock standard, and full of the hearty roar which Irish folk bands felt obliged to deliver in those days.

Ah, but once I loved it, and ran around singing it in what I imagined to be an Irish accent. I even sang it in church, quietly and under the cover of the hymns, a small act of cultural rebellion on my part. Like the singer, I don’t think so highly of the girl with the black Velvet Band as once I did, but like the singer I will never forget her.

  • Artist: The Irish Rovers
  • Single Title: The Unicorn / Black Velvet Band
  • Track: Side B “Black Velvet Band ”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Festival DK-2208
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs