Songs of the Lark: Folk Sounds from the Past

Author: Patty-Lynne Herlevi

The Lark in the Morning (field recording, 1955),
folk songs and dance from the Irish countryside (Tradition Records)

The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (1959), Irish Drinking Songs (Come Fill Your Glass With Us) (Tradition Records)

Mrs. Etta Baker Family and Friends (1956), Instrumental music of the Southern Appalachians
(Tradition Records)

Thracian Rhapsody (1999), The New Wedding Music of Bulgaria, Volume 1
(Labor Records)

I’m one of those music journalists and musicians who loves field recordings.
Usually these recordings are made by musicologists passionate about the roots of
music and who enjoy sharing their discoveries with the rest of us.

The field recordings featured on the two CDs released by Tradition Records,

Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians

The Lark in the Morning
not only sound like field recordings with
all sorts of other worldly static, but you can feel the excitement of the
musicologists as they capture the musicians on tape and record a piece of
history that otherwise would have been lost in the haze of time. No doubt the
musicians most likely donned their best clothes and sung in their best voice or
played their best fiddle.

The Clancy Brother’s

Irish Drinking Songs
features traditional songs collected by the
musicians that perform them. The songs that appear on

Thracian Rhapsody
are original compositions written by Bulgarians
steeped in gypsy, Klezmer, jazz, pop and Bulgarian wedding music.

The Lark in the Morning was recorded by folk musician and
collector, Diane Hamilton from August to December of 1955. She had already made
extensive collecting trips throughout New England, the Southern Appalachians,
Nova Scotia, England, Ireland and Scotland. As a folk singer herself, she must
have been delighted to discover the rich gems that appear on this recording, in
which many of the songs were recorded at the Makem family home in Keady County.

There we gathered for many an evening, often starting with just a few
singers, mostly family, and ending around 2 AM., the house packed to overflowing
with neighbors and friends from all over the surrounding countryside…Out of this
atmosphere of freshness and beauty, the happy mornings, the winter evenings, the
love and the tragedies of the people has come a great wealth of songs and music
(Diane Hamilton, 1955).

That great wealth of songs includes reels, a jig, hornpipes and plenty of sung
tales performed on solo fiddle, solo voice or duets and songs sung by both men
and women. I especially enjoyed listening to the rollicking The Little Beggarman
which is sung in a duet with Mrs. Sarah Makem and Tommy Makem. Peg Powers brings
her beautiful vocal talents to the lament, Druiman Donn Dilis, Sean Mac
Donnchadha shows off his expressive voice on My Bonny Boy and Paddy Tunney who
lends his voice to several tracks, sings in a style I like to call Irish skat
(rhythmic vocables). The power of the old Irish bards are present on many of
these tracks and the tales here are as enchanting as the musical performances.

These songs played by the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem and Jack Keenan are not
field recordings. However, the musicians perform traditional public domain songs
that they had collected from relatives and other sources. Their 1959 recording,

Irish Drinking Songs
(Come Fill Your Glass With Us) features 14 Irish drinking
songs, some which are high stepping, jolly tunes and others sorrowful laments.
As you would expect, there is a lot of Irish humor and pathos on this recording
sung by vocalists who also had some theatrical acting under their belts. The
vocalists are accompanied by harmonica, tin whistle warpipes, a piccolo, guitar
and banjo.

I thought I had heard accordion on one of the tracks, but accordion is not
listed in the credits. However, it is the intricate rhythms sung by the
vocalists that get your feet tapping.

For instance, take a listen to Johnny McEldoo with its tongue twisters and
rhythms that will also tie the tongue in knots. Tommy Makem couldn’t have been
drunk when he recorded this song since it could only be sung well by a sober
vocalist. The melodies here are catchy and even have the ability to delight
someone like myself who doesn’t drink alcohol.

Some of the laments, although I prefer the melodies over the lyrics, (which are
often depressing), remind me of old country western tunes I heard when I was
growing up in the 1960’s. The slow lament, Jug of Punch reminds me of scenes
from old Hollywood westerns where a drunken singer is accompanied by a howling
dog. The howling dog is missing from this recording.

It’s obvious that the musicians relished this collection of songs because they
sang each song with gusto or when needed, sadness. In 1959, Patrick Clancy had
mentioned that the songs were not just curiosity pieces or antiques, “they
are still very much alive and are as popular as the drink that inspires them
Perhaps if you visited an Irish pub today, you would still here drinkers belting
out these old tunes.

Although I live in an urban setting and have no emotional
connection to the American South, my heart resonated with Mrs. Etta Baker, her
family and friends who played traditional music of the Southern Appalachians. In
fact, of the four recordings mentioned in this review,

Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians
is my favorite.
It’s Appalachian music without the twang factor. All the musicians are virtuoso
on their instruments and some of the songs, especially the play-party tunes are
familiar to my ears. I had heard those songs in one form or another when I was a
child. I can’t imagine that there are many Americans who haven’t heard Skip to
My Lou or the spiritual hymn, Amazing Grace.

All the selections were collected and recorded in Virginia and North Carolina by
Diane Hamilton, Liam Clancy and Paul Clayton, (who wrote the liner notes) during
the summer of 1956. The instruments which include dulcimer, harmonica, fretless
banjo, 5-string banjo, fiddle and guitar were instruments traditionally passed
down in families and have been played the longest in the American South. The
performances here are all solo and as the CD title mentions, all instrumental,
played by virtuosos who will cause anyone’s heart to race and feet to tap. From
the first track, a rousing fiddle tune, Cripple Creek played by Hobart Smith to
the final track, Skip to My Lou, which features Mr. Richard Chase on a spirited
harmonica, this is one of those field recordings that should be on every
musician’s shelf and preferably in their CD player.

African-American and Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker brings her guitar
picking style out on 5 of the 20 tracks. I would have loved to have heard more
of her playing. The award-winning musician, born in North Carolina in 1913,
began playing guitar at the age of 3. She was in her 40’s by the time this
recording was made and I believe she’s still alive today. All the songs except
Etta Baker’s versions of John Henry and Railroad Bill, both based on popular
characters of the American South are public domain. On John Henry, Etta plays an
open chord and uses a jack-knife blade as a pick. It is unclear from the liner
notes if Etta penned these songs or just performed her own versions of them.

Etta’s father, Boone Reid (who was 79-years old at the time of this recording),
plays two banjo solos, Sourwood Mountain and Johnson Boys. As mentioned earlier
some of these songs will be familiar to most people’s ears, although the lyrics
might differ. The instruments, performers, and songs are all covered in the
liner notes, but it’s the music that will stop you in your tracks and ask you to
hit replay.

Released in 1999,

Thracian Rhapsody
, The New Wedding Music of Bulgaria, Volume 1
features Yildiz Ibrahimova on vocals, Ivo Papazov on clarinet and several other
musicians. The liner notes are as chaotic as the music, a marriage of
performance art jazz and traditional sounds of Eastern Europe, mainly klezmer
and gypsy music. I believe this is a compilation album featuring 2 or 3 separate
groups, but it’s hard to say because the cover art is confusing.

However, there are extensive liner notes provided which mention the history of
Bulgarian wedding music, its origins, its instruments and the influences of the
artists on the recording. The musicians introduce a variety of instruments from
accordion, the Balkan bagpipes, an end-blown flute called a caval, clarinet,
saxophone, various percussion, drums and otherworldly vocals. Sometimes the
music sounds like traditional Eastern European wedding music and other times,
the music dives off the deep end.

I know musicians who would relish this recording, but it’s too experimental for
my taste. While there are many instruments I enjoy on this recording, long
clarinet runs, accordion and traditional instruments playing intricate rhythms,
I find myself exasperated by long jazz drum solos and Ibrahimova’s art jazz
vocals. However, listeners who enjoy Frank Zappa’s fare might feel at home with
this disc. The late musician-composer is quoted in the liner notes.

Ivo’s album of wedding music played first thing in the morning, provides
thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive

by Patty-Lynne Herlevi