Monday, October 30, 2006

A Planxty Page



One

The Humours of Planxty, Leagues O'Toole's collective biography of the Irish trad quartet has finally been released, a year after it was originally promised. Not that you can buy a copy of the book in the US, mind you. For reasons that escape me the US seems to be behind a wall for the group these days; the excellent live CD and DVD of their reunion two years ago have never officially distributed here at all, which really is mystifying given the reverence in which Planxty is held throughout Europe and elsewhere. All this while every kind of insipid pseudo-Celtic treacle is in every gift shop and New Age store — but don't get me started ...

In any case, I ordered my copy from Eason's in Ireland and it arrived with exemplary swiftness. I did so with a bit of trepidation, given that the last book to be published in which Planxty played a major part, Colin Harper's Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, was pretty much of a shapeless mess. I needn't have worried; The Humours of Planxty is a solid job. O'Toole lets the band members and their associates do most of the talking, but he weaves their recollections nicely together into a coherent narrative and makes judicious and largely on-the-mark observations throughout.

The book is admirably thorough, particularly for the early years; it takes more than 125 pages to reach the release of the the “black album,” the group's 1972 debut LP. It's an “official” biography, to be sure. Leagues O'Toole is not just the narrator but a minor character as well, since he was in part responsible for getting the band back together in 2004. He's not afraid, though, to let on when he thinks the lads were having a bit of an off day — usually as a result of too much bending the elbow. My only major quibble (other than the lack of color illustrations) is that the book has relatively little to say about the personal lives and later careers of the four founding members.

There are rumors that the book was delayed because of a legal squabble. Founding member Christy Moore seems to be alluding to this on his website when he says:
Leagues went to great lengths to get it right. Sadly, one key component is missing. One vital cog in the Planxty wheel denied Leagues the use of some brilliant insights and stories. For whatever reason the wonderful interview was quashed. (We still love you).
Not sure what that's all about, but I hope it's nothing that will keep the band from working together again in the future, if the spirit moves them.

Two


Reading O'Toole's book seemed to provide an opportune moment to catch up with one of the later Planxty records I'd never heard in full, so I've lately been enjoying making the acquaintance of After the Break, the record the group released in 1979 during their first reunion. The first cut, “The Good Ship Kangaroo,” I already knew from Planxty Live 2004. Though the studio recording isn't as confident and rousing as the later live version — Christy Moore's signing isn't quite as inspired — it's still a treasure.

According to the liner notes, the song was collected “from the singing of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Cronin of Macroom, Co. Cork.” Whether that implies that she had anything to do with its composition I don't know. One thing's for sure, though, the song is way too clever to be casually filed away as yet another chance relic of “oral tradition.” Somebody wrote these lyrics, from beginning to end, and had a good larf doing it:
(...)

Our ship was homeward bound from many a foreign shore,
Manys the foreign present unto my love I bore.
I brought tortoises from Tenerife and ties from Timbuctoo,
A China rat, a Bengal cat, and a Bombay cockatoo.

Paid off I sought her dwelling in a street above the town,
Where an ancient dame upon a line was hanging out her gown.
“Where is my love?” “She's married, sir, about six months ago,
To a smart young man that drives the van for Chapplin, Son and Co.”

Oh, I never thought she would prove false,
Or either prove untrue,
As we sailed away from Milford Bay,
On board the Kangaroo.

Here's a health to dreams of married life, to soap, to suds, and blue,
Hearts, true lovers, patent starch and washing soda too.
I will go unto some for shore, no longer can I stay,
With some China Hottentot I'll throw myself away.

(...)

Oh, I never thought she would prove false,
Or either prove untrue,
As we sailed away from Milford Bay,
On board the Kangaroo.
There's some disagreement about exactly what “China Hottentot” means. The liner notes say that Hottentot (a name once applied to the Khoikhoi people of South Africa) was a slang term for opium. Leagues O'Toole doesn't buy this explanation and rather pointlessly adds that “the word 'hottentot' is nowadays considered offensive by the Oxford Dictionary of South African English.”

The song's verses and chorus are melodically identical, but Lunny's arrangement disguises that fact so cleverly that, according to Leagues, Christy Moore himself was never aware of it until recently.

Off the top of my head I'd guess the song dates from 1900-1940. Here's a health to its forgotten creator.

Three

Another highlight of After the Break is a song called “The Rambling Siúler.” Sung by Andy Irvine, the song has a good deal in common with “The Jolly Beggar” from the black album. Both are about a man of high station who dresses up as a beggar and gains a night's shelter in a farmhouse, where like every good traveller he naturally takes advantage of the hospitality to win the charms of the farmer's daughter. In this case the beggar is really a colonel, who has donned rags as part of a bet with his commanding officer. The beggar first makes a show of flirting with a servant girl, but everyone just laughs that off. Then the daughter comes downstairs and ends up alone in the room with the beggar. She repulses his first advance, but later that night shows that she's not a bit shy:
When supper it was over
They made his bed in the barn
Between two sacks and a winnow cloth
for fear that he take harm
At twelve o'clock that very night
She came to the barn,
She was dressed in white
The beggar rose in great delight,
"She's mine," says the rambling siúler.
In the Anglo-Irish tradition this kind of thing generally ends with the girl ruined and the “beggar” riding away in triumph, but in this happier instance, after the colonel reveals all (in more ways than one), he and the girl both head for the general's house to collect on the wager and ride off together.

But what is a siúler? Though the word (which is pronounced shooler) wasn't in any of my dictionaries, an appeal to the forums at wordreference.com quickly brought some answers. It apparently derives from the Irish verbs siúil or siubhail with the meaning to go or to travel, the agentive form siúlóir meaning a rambler.

The interplay of Andy Irvine's mandolin and Dónal Lunny's bouzouki is particularly fine on this recording. Lunny's bouzouki (if that's in fact what it is) has a beautifully rich tone; after you've heard the song a few times try ignoring the words and listen for it.

Four

Not a Planxty song, strictly speaking, but one of Andy Irvine's best, “Forgotten Hero” relates the story of Michael Davitt, the 19th-century Irish nationalist and founder of the Irish Land League. It's a highly polemical song, and one that provides an enormous amount of information about Davitt's life and political activities — more than you would think could be accomodated into a six-minute song. Here are the last few verses and the chorus:
(...)

With Parnell as its leader the land war held his course
Hold the rent and hold the harvest they can't evict us all
And Davitt crossed the ocean saying give what you can spare
And the Irish in Amerikay they paid up their full share

But not for the first time and neither for the last
The Dublin Castle bishops nailed their colours to the mast
And the altars rang with warnings, respect the law we say
For these Fenians and these Socialists are leading you astray

With the laws of private property and the army at his back
Buckshot Forster then arrested all the leaders of the pack
In the hallowed House of Commons the Gents did cheer and howl
When they heard that Michael Davitt was safely back in jail

And the treaty of Kilmainham Parnell threw it all away
It was the turning point in his career and he turned the wrong way
And the revolution missed its chance with victory in its sight
And fell down like a house of cards collapsing overnight

Davitt saw the Land War as the first step down the track
And he hoped to see the end of the Queen and the end of Union Jack
And I hope some tremor reached him where he lies in bleak Mayo
When they raised the Harp without the Crown above the GPO

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest
Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed
A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed
Forgotten hero never vanquished in the struggle
The song piqued my interest in Davitt, so I got a hold of a copy of T. W. Moody's Davitt and Irish Revolution, 1846-82, considered the definitive biography of the man. Andy departs from Moody in his assessment of Parnell, and never mentions the pivotal fact that Davitt as a youth lost an arm in an industrial accident. But he otherwise follows Moody's narrative in its general outline, and here and there even in language. (“His heart was always with [the cause of] the poor and the oppressed” was apparently picked up from Moody (p. 556), and “the turning point of his career” is a phrase Moody uses (p. xvii), though he applies it to Davitt rather than Parnell.)

“Forgotten Hero” can be found both on Andy's excellent solo CD Rain on the Roof and on Irish Times, the 1990 record by one of his other musical projects, Patrick Street. I recommend the former as the better version.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

How to Change a Flat Tire



This was the unlikely name of a Celtic music ensemble that came together in 1975 at the California Institute of Arts, relocated to the East Coast, and was active at least through the summer of 1980. They released two very listenable LPs, both on Front Hall Records. On the first, Point of Departure, which was released in 1977, the band members were Jim Cowdery (recorders, mandolin, banjo, and guitar), Bo Hinrichs (flutes, fife, and whistles), Ginny Phelps (vocals, guitar, mandolin, etc.), Jim Martin (mandolin, guitar, banjo), and Dean Kuth (bodhran, spoons, bones, concertina, mandolin). If you're keeping score, that's four mandolin players, though I suspect some of those instruments were actually bouzoukis or something along that line.

By the time of their second record, Traditional Music of Ireland and Shetland, which was issued in 1978, Hinrichs and Phelps had moved on and fiddler Maggie Holtzberg had joined the band. Except for some tin whistle (credited to Cowdery) there are no winds on this second album, nor did anyone take over on vocals in the absence of Ginny Phelps. The credits for Martin and Cowdery now include “tenor mandolin.” The photo above shows the revised lineup.

I've been told that the group later issued a third recording that was only available on cassette, but I've never seen a copy. They appear live on at least one compilation, a locally produced LP called Fiddling Celebration: Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Cross River, N.Y. This was issued by Soarin' Hawk Records in 1980 or shortly thereafter as SH-002. I saw the group live once or twice, at the (now long defunct) annual fiddle festival where that LP was recorded, though I didn't happen to be there that particular year.

As far as I can tell none of the group's music was ever issued on CD, and I suppose it's not very likely that it ever will. I think the group must have disbanded in the early eighties. Jim Cowdery, who seems to have been the arranger and band leader, became a musicologist and has compiled an instruction book on playing the Irish bouzouki. Maggie Holtzberg became a folklorist and the author of several books but has also remained active as a performer, with a group called the Flexible Flyers String Band. I haven't been able to find any record of the subsequent activities of the other band members.