Celtic Mouth Music


Ellipsis Arts CD 4070; 61 minutes; 1997


Few record companies can ever have emulated the sheer presentational quality of the publications released by the Roslyn, New York-based company Ellipsis Arts. Its releases are a world removed from the standard jewel-case and liner model adopted by its competitors and arrive in the format of a hardback book, jam-packed with photographs, enlivened by innovative use of graphics and colour contrasts, and replete with subject notes, biographies and informative anecdotes.


The considerable care paid to such packaging is usually reflected by the contents of the compact disc found tucked neatly away inside the back cover. In this case the subject is lilting, ‘diddling’ or ‘puss music’ and tracks are drawn from as far afield as the Outer Hebrides, others Scottish islands, Brittany, New Brunswick and, of course, Ireland is very well represented.


The compilers, Jonathan Pickow and Matthew Kopka, certainly know their source material and have tracked down some wonderful photographs, including, not least, shots of the late Tommy Gunn step-dancing outside his Fermanagh home, evocative Jim Maginn photographs of Dolores Keane and Josie McDermott, a young Paddy Tunney, Elizabeth Cronin sat beside her hearth, and that very famous picture of Séamus Ennis being recorded by Jean Ritchie. Best of all, however, is a wondrous wide-angle close of evening shot of participants in a musical evening at Sarah Makem’s house taken by George Pickow (presumably Jonathan is his and Jean Ritchie’s son).


Tracks themselves reveal the extensive range of the Irish diddler’s skills and include Dolores Keane and John Faulkner’s renowned Mouth Music (from Dolores’s self-titled Round Tower album) as well as a riveting rendition of Within a Mile of Dublin by Tim Lyons, recorded in Washington in 1978 during his De Dannan days. The latter runs immediately into Paddy Tunney’s bagpipes impersonation, which is followed in turn by a sumptuous harmonized version of The Girl That Broke My Heart from Joe Holmes and Len Graham’s After Dawning LP.


Elsewhere the listener will encounter Sligo’s Colm O’Donnell in prize-winning form on Molly Brannigan, Tommy Gunn lilting while simultaneously playing the bones, Elizabeth Cronin diddling The Little Pack of Tailors and Séamus Ennis diddling What Would You Do? to the background of his own pipes’ drones. Later on there’s Sarah Makem, the Waterford Traveller Paddy Doran diddling The Roving Journeyman and, according to Philippe Varlet the longest section of lilting to appear on a 78rpm record, Frank Quinn recorded back in 1924 diddling part of The Four Courts Reel,


All are splendid examples of the lilter’s art and thoroughly engrossing, but there’s plenty more to enthral and delight, including not least Jean Redford’s Children’s Songs in Lallan Scots  and the Quebec group Les Charbonniers de l’Enfer (‘Hell’s Coalmen’) whose rendition of La Luette en Colère seems a harbinger for Ronan Ó Snodaigh’s raps with Kíla.


Geoff Wallis


11th April, 2006



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