Irish Folk, Trad & Blues – A Secret History


Colin Harper and Trevor Hodgett


The Collins Press; 422 pages; 2004


Attempting to tell the stories behind the headlines and offer an alternative account of certain facets of Ireland’s musical development over the last few decades, Irish Folk, Trad & Blues has all the potential to be a wonderful book. Unfortunately, it is not.


History cannot be written via the crafty pasting together of a series of magazine articles (albeit with updated prologues and revisions), the method utilized by these authors, since a contextual backdrop is essential and such is sadly lacking here. Similarly, magazine articles often assume that the readership might know little about subject, whereas a book should allow a story to unfold and credit its readers’ memory with being somewhat longer than an amoeba’s. Thus poor editing does not take into account, for instance, that Alexis Korner has already been revealed as ‘the godfather of British blues’ several pages earlier and presumes that amnesiac readers are unable to remember just which band so-and-so had played in previously.


The next problem simply rests in the fact that Trevor Hodgett’s seemingly interminable account of Them post-Van Morrison’s departure becomes so turgidly bogged down in irrelevant detail as to render that part of the book an ideal aid for insomniacs (and, of course, drill a very gaping textual hole via Van’s very obvious absence).


Contrastingly, Colin Harper’s sections (particularly those on Sweeney’s Men, Gay and Terry Woods and Altan) are incisively written and imbue the reader with the desire to explore the music of his subjects. However, even he is far too profligate in his use of adjectives such as ‘legendary’ and ‘classic’ (again, something which a decent editor might have eradicated).


Though IFT&B does focus attention on a number of ‘lost’ musicians, not least Ottilie Patterson and the enigmatic Johnny Moynihan (and, if you’ve never met him, then you won’t understand the term ‘enigma’), it also includes sections on the very Irish John McLaughlin, Townes Van Zandt and Ornette Coleman which seem thoroughly redundant in this context. The list of rather more relevant figures that might have been included is too long to recite, though the skimpy coverage of De Dannan and the sheer absence of Mary Coughlan and the band Spud is completely astonishing.


This review by Geoff Wallis was originally written for Songlines


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