Album Review - Smithsonian Folkways / Classic Celtic Music

I've got to give big kudos to elder record label Smithsonian Folkways for putting out this eclectic and somewhat daring release of Celtic music from their huge archives. They've gotten some flack from other people about whether or not every track on this release is truly Celtic (the British folk and French-Canadian folk sections seem to piss some people off), but folks, you gotta remember that Celtic's an invented term. It works fine for what it is, but there's really no point in trying to cut people or traditions out of the pie.

What's interesting about this album is not only the performers or the performances, but also the field agents and the recording sessions that got the music down on acetate. Folkways Records in the 50s and 60s was an adventurous venue, with leader Moe Asch sucking in all kinds of cutting-edge folklorists and ethnomusicologists to record artists during their trips. So we hear Northumberland fiddler Bob Hobkirk recorded in Scotland by the great blues scholar Samuel Charters, who was vacationing with his wife. Charters also recorded another Irish legend: uilleann piper Willie Clancy, here performing a beautiful air "Trip O'er the Mountain" and really showing off his stature on the pipes. We hear the folk singer Jean Ritchie recording Sarah Makem, the mother of the great Tommy Makem, singing "As I Roved Out" in her home in Ireland's County Armagh. Ritchie was in Ireland and Scotland in 1950 to trace the roots of Appalachian music. Or we have the great old-time/bluegrass organizer Ralph Rinzler–the man who "discovered" Doc Watson–recording the legendary Irish sean-nos singer Joe Heaney in a London pub in 1958. Rinzler was one of the first people to record the London Irish session scene, and Heaney's singing here of "The Rocks of Bawn" is pure classic. Plenty of other classic Celtic artists appear here, like Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Scottish singers Isla Cameron and Lucy Stewart, and Irish fiddler Denis Murphy.

I, of course, love this album for including Jean Carignan, in my opinion the greatest fiddler of the 20th century. A taxi cab driver in Montréal, Carignan is a somewhat controversial figure today in Québec and among Québécois artists, where his music is sometimes seen as old-fashioned, or overly virtuosic. But that snobbery ignores his amazingly charismatic playing and his huge contribution to the music. As a traditional Québécois fiddler he was without peer, but what makes Carignan interesting is his uncanny ability to learn other traditions purely from listening to 78rpm records. He listened extensively to Irish fiddle great Michael Coleman and Scottish fiddle great J. Scott Skinner, and could play their music effortlessly, though both were among the most technically brilliant fiddlers of their age. Folkways' could have made 4 albums of cool obscure artists from Ireland and Scotland, but props to them for including an artist like Jean Carignan who truly shows the polymath nature of today's Celtic music world.

Various Artists. Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways.
2013. Smithsonian Folkways.

Pete Seeger Interviews Jean Carignan


Classic Celtic Music is likely not intended for casual listening. But with the extensive liner notes, and the huge back catalogue of classic LPs (all of which are now available digitally) which each track references, this is the perfect stepping off point for a much larger exploration of what exactly Celtic music really means.

 

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