Irish in America


Frémeaux & Associés FA 5061; 2 CDs; 122 minutes; 2004


So here we are again with yet another collection of remastered recordings of Irish emigrants to the USA, this time released by the French label Frémeaux & Associés and oh, dearie, dearie me, music apart, it’s terrible. Prestigious winners though the label might be of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros “pour la défense du patrimoine sonore”, said defence does not include hiring either a writer who actually seems to understand Ireland’s traditional music or a translator with greater than a rather lax grasp of the English language and even less knowledge of Irish music than the aforementioned writer.


But let’s start with the liner’s cover. I might be wrong, but the picture scanned here looks rather a lot like the shores of Connemara, although it might just be anywhere on the West coast of Ireland. Whatever the case, it’s certainly an odd choice for a collection which is supposed to be focusing on the music recorded in the USA between 1910 and 1942 (unless it is supposed to be some kind of reference to the islands said musicians left behind).


It also seems as though the compiler of this collection is almost as clueless as the writer of the liner notes (more of the latter anon) since the opening track on the first CD is credited to one ‘Irish Bill’ Andrews and its title given as Ask My Father When He Came from Ireland. Our writer tells us that:


William Andrews dit ‘Irish Bill’ a enregistré à Chicago une poignée de chefs-d’oeuvre à la cornemuse. On ne sait que peu de choses de ce musicien qui semble avoir disparu au milieu des années 20.


The translator’s version reduces this simply to “William Andrews, alias ‘Irish Bill’ recorded a handful of masterpieces on the bagpipes in Chicago.” This notably omits to include the writer’s claim that nobody knows much about ‘Irish Bill’, but the translation repeats the claim that he seems to have disappeared in the middle of the 1920s.


The simple reason why nobody knows much about him is that ‘Irish Bill’ never existed. The piper in question is called William Andrews, but, according to Seán Reid’s sleeve notes for the Topic LP Classics of Irish Piping, Volume 2, he was “generally known to his friends as Billy Andrews”. Born in Dublin in 1873, Billy won the first prize in the uilleann pipes competition at the 1911 Oireachtas and set up a shop on Essex Quay making and repairing pipes around 1919. According to Seán Reid, Billy would often smoke a pipe when playing “and when excited would bite hard on the stem” and made his first records for London’s HMV company in 1923. The tracks on Classics of Irish Piping were recorded in London in 1928 and Dublin in 1930 and, lo and behold, include a set of two single jigs, Ask My Father and The Mountain Lark. This recording is identical to the one with featured on Globestyle’s compilation The Gentleman Pipers and the Proper compilation The Irish Music Anthology.


So from where on Earth did Gérard Herzhaft, the author of Irish in America’s liner notes, dredge up the notion of this ‘Irish Bill’ character, since his compilation’s opening track is quite plainly Ask My Father and The Mountain Lark? Why does Gérard believe that the tunes were recorded in Chicago and from which fantasy world did he derive the somewhat bizarre title Ask My Father When He Came from Ireland? Lastly, why does he (and his translator) insist that Andrews and the other uilleann pipers featured on Irish in America all played the bagpipes when the words ‘uilleann pipes’ are used in France, albeit as ‘Franglais’ (or should that be Franglo-gaelic?)


In fact, Herzhaft does not seem to be particularly fond of  ‘bagpipes’ players at all. Elsewhere, despite noting that Tom Ennis lived from 1899 to 1931 (he was actually born in 1889) Gérard contrives to have the poor Ennis dying on the Western Front in 1917. The fact is that Tom suffered gas poisoning and had to be shipped home for treatment.


However, it was in double-checking this information (though I did not really need to) that I began to realize where the hapless Herzhaft had cribbed much of his information. Here is Ron Kavana’s note on the singer John Griffin, taken from the liner booklet contained in the Proper Farewell to Ireland boxed set:


Born in Ballaghdareen, Co. Roscommon, he emigrated to New York in 1917. Griffin worked on the Manhattan bus system and on some of his recordings was credited as “The 5th Avenue Busman”.


Now here is what Herzhaft has to say on the same subject:


Venu du Comté de Roscommon à New York en 1917, John Griffin a essentiellement travaillé comme conducteur de bus à Manhattan et était une figure très populaire des milieux irlandais new-yorkais. Nombre de ses disques ont parus sous le soubriquet “The 5th Avenue Busman”.


Many other entries bear such similarities, but the reader will not find Ron Kavana’s name mentioned in the Frémeaux package. Others simply seem to have derived from Gérard’s fertile imagination. Take this example, referring to Delia Murphy.


Cette chanteuse et guitariste a fair de nombreux allers-retours entre l’Amérique et l’Irlande, enregistrant des disques sure les deux continents où elle était également populaire. Elle apparait trés influencée par plusieurs groupes de Country Music dont la Carter Family. Son style vocal comme un peut l’entendre sur ”Irish Girl’s Lament” marquera beaucoup les chanteuses folk américaines, notamment Joan Baez.


Frankly, I could say that this is the biggest load of bilge I have ever read (but, not quite, as you will later learn). Firstly, Delia played the piano and violin, not the guitar. Secondly, she did not make numerous return trips between America and Ireland since she was married to a diplomat who was based at various times in London, Rome, Canberra, Bonn and Ottawa. Thirdly, Delia recorded in London and Dublin  (and the guitarist was often Arthur Darley). Next, there is no evidence that she was ever influenced by the Carter Family (either aurally or via documentation). Lastly, though her final performance was at a folk concert in Canada, her highly individualistic and passionate ballad-singing certainly never influenced many American folk-singers. If Herzhaft had bothered to check The Companion to Irish Traditional Music he might have saved himself and his wee brain a lot of effort.


However, it is time to turn to the music. While two of the thirty-six tracks on Irish in America (William Andrews and Delia Murphy) were definitely not recorded in the USA, the remainder were (bar one, but more on this anon) and most will be very familiar to anyone who owns the two Proper releases mentioned earlier or the Rounder collections. Virtually everything has appeared elsewhere, though Frémeaux’s compiler has decided to change the sex of the John McKenna/James Morrison version of The Red-Haired Lass to Red haired boy (that is exactly how it is printed) and repeated the error contained in Proper’s The Irish Music Anthology by insisting that Paddy Killoran played The Grease in the Bog. So the album consists of tracks such as Ed Reavy’s (not ‘Reevy’, M. Herzhaft) Tom Clarke’s Fancy, Hugh Gillespie’s Finnea Lasses and John Griffin’s The Real Old Mountain Dew amidst many others already available as part of other packages.


However, there are two oddities worth reporting, one unusual item and one very dubious track. The first oddity is the decision to order the tracks alphabetically by the name of the singer or musician(s). This strikes me as a cop-out. There are many ways by which these two CDs might have been organised. For Fréameaux chronology is not a possibility since none of the tracks are dated in this collection (despite the reference to 1910-1942). The company might have followed its geographical headlining of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, except only one track was actually recorded in the last named city (and presumably Camden, New Jersey, where another was recorded, does not have the same romantic qualities as the locations of the other studios).


Alternatively, since Gérard Herzhaft makes such a great play of the matter, the tracks might have been organised along the lines of his assertion that Irish music recordings published by American companies fell into four categories: dance music; sentimental songs; comic songs; and something called Iricana (a term which, frankly, this reviewer has never heard previously, but, according to Herzhaft, contained a mixture of the previous three elements mentioned and American popular music). However, none of these methods was chosen and the listener is left with a package clearly designed by a librarian.


The second peculiarity is the decision to make a rather clumsy segue in the same track between Michael Coleman’s Lord McDonald/Ballinasloe Fair recorded for Columbia in December 1927 and Tarbolton/The Longford Collector/The Sailor’s Bonnet made for Decca in November 1934. This leaves the rather odd impression that pianist Ed Geoghegan, who plays on the first recording, has suddenly leapt out of his chair and been replaced by guitarist ‘Whitey’ Andrews for the subsequent tunes. The next track takes us back with Coleman to March 1927 and a recording made by the fiddler with pianist Ed Lee for the Victor label which succeeds Lord McDonald for alphabetical reasons. For some reason this second track is listed as Tell Her I Am/Trip to Sligo, yet, according to the comprehensive discography compiled by Dick Spottswood and Philippe Varlet which is published in the booklet accompanying the Gael Linn/Viva Voce release Michael Coleman 1891-1945, Coleman never recorded Trip to Sligo (and I know whom I would rather believe).


The unusual item referred to above is the penultimate track on the second CD, recorded by one Joseph Tansey (a fiddler) and comprising St Patrick’s Night and something called The Crushen (presumably, this is a misspelling of the word “crusheen”, an Anglicisation of “crúiscín” (jug), later made famous as part of the title of Myles na Gopaleen’s regular column in The Irish Times called Crusheen Lawn). All that Gérard can tell us is that nothing is known about Joseph Tansey other than that he recorded in New York in the 1920s with a pianist and, as far as I am aware, this particular track has not been previously issued elsewhere. The piano accompanist is one Lew Shilkret and the accompaniment also includes an instrument which I have never previously seen listed in Irish musical history – a tuba! However, both tunes did seem remarkably familiar (even though they are credited to Tansey as author) and Philippe Varlet put me out of my misery by identifying them as The Primrose Lass and The Red-Haired Lass while also providing the information that two pages of Séamus Tansey’s book The Bardic Apostles of Innisfree are devoted to Joseph, who also came from Gurteen, Co. Sligo. So, why did the compiler of Irish in America re-title those two tunes?


One other point to raise is that this collection presents Maurice McSweeney’s Bank of Ireland/Wind That Shakes the Barley, first heard on the Farewell to Ireland boxed set, as if it was a real 78rpm recording and not part of an elaborate hoax. Herzhaft has been clearly taken in, even adding extra information to McSweeney’s “biography”, telling us that his wife often played with the non-existent Maurice on the radio and in dancehalls and that she was an accordionist. The translator goes even further and informs us that McSweeney “recorded in quantity for his own label”!


Finally, to return to the “bilge” noted much earlier in this review, Herzhaft is guilty of producing unarguably the most ridiculous couple of paragraphs in the (sometimes very ridiculous) history of writing on Irish traditional music. This is the version supplied by the translator, one Laure Wright:


However, this rich musical tradition in Ireland was curbed by the famine and also the Irish church which had become overly puritanical, condemning all forms of sin. The fanatics attacked pubs, dance halls, ‘crossroads’ and music in general saving religious inspired airs. Thousands of ‘sinful’ venues were closed down and the Sunday services decried dancing and music. Priests burnt pubs and other public places and then attacked private houses, destroying musical instruments and beating, and often hanging musicians.


This terrible campaign lasted until the end of the XIXth century, and traditional Irish music died in Ireland itself. It was hardly played at all and en [sic] entire generation missed out on the imitation of the genre which, as not being written, could only be passed down from teacher to student.


Before anyone raises the objection that these words reveal misinterpretations by the translator, this is a virtually literal translation of Herzhaft’s words. The only real difference is that Wright has spared us Gérard’s list of the sins which presumably the Irish church (whichever one that is) had previously found reasonable forms of behaviour – promiscuity, alcoholism, fornication and debauchery (Gérard adds a few dots after débauche, possibly because he cannot stomach the idea of mentioning even more sins or, perhaps, has simply run out of sins to mention).


Of course, Herzhaft is grossly, even perniciously, exaggerating a situation which occurred in the 1920s and 1930s and led to the enactment of the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, but I would love to know his source for the information that priests were stringing musicians from the nearest gibbet. Then there’s his wonderful reference to ‘crossroads’ – the crossroads dance is a concept he clearly does not appear to understand, but a helpful picture is provided for French readers (and it’s the very familiar picture which has already been used by Farewell to Ireland.) Unfortunately, this will confuse them all the more since the photograph clearly shows couples dancing in the middle of a lane without a junction in sight!


All told, Herzhaft’s liner notes are a disgrace, the overall Frémeaux package is shoddy and ill-serves the French record-buying public, but, above all, constitutes a gross insult to musicians whose achievements are far better recognized elsewhere. Instead of wasting your money on this, check the alternatives mentioned earlier in this review.


Geoff Wallis


18th August, 2004



Irish in America is distributed in the UK by Discovery Records.



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