It’s not very often that a recording comes along that can be properly and inarguably called “classic,” but such is the case with a pair of recently related three-CD sets documenting Irish music in London, “It Was Mighty! The Early Days of Irish Music in London” and “It Was Great Altogether! The Continuing Tradition of Irish Music in London.”  Curated and edited by Reg Hall, these albums present music as it was played between 1952 through 2014.  They cover a breathtaking amount of ground and should be considered must-have albums for anyone who plays or listens to Irish music.

Reg Hall, a musician who has been a player on the London scene since the 1950s, is one of the most meticulous researchers in Irish music.  His work has not only documented Irish music in London for decades – indeed, in 1968 he provided us with the legendary “Paddy in the Smoke” album which captured the music at the Favourite Public House in Holloway and has inspired musicians ever since –he’s been involved in numerous 78rpm reissue projects that have given today’s players insight into the early and often hard-to-access days of recorded Irish music.  For these various and assorted projects, he’s not only earned the gratitude of basically every traditional musician, he was recognized by TG4 in 2009 with a Gradam na gCeoltoiri award.

What can be said about these CDs that the music itself can’t say better?  “It Was Mighty!” provides us with 107 tracks covering the era 1950s-1970s and they’re all spectacular, from start to finish.  The musicians represented include legendary figures, all in top form, such as Bobby Casey, Michael Gorman, Willie Clancy, Paddy Taylor, Julia Clifford, Martin Byrnes, Liam Farrell, Jimmy Power, and Roger Sherlock, but there many, many others who appear as well.  The set comes with an illustrated 98 page booklet that describes each track in great detail, including involved biographical information, extensive contextual information, and background anecdotes about the players involved.

“It Was Great Altogether!” has 89 tracks and covers the music since the late 1960s. The musicians involved include some from the other set, but add many others, including Lucy Farr, Maureen Minogue, Danny Meehan, Marcus Hernon, Brian Rooney, Tommy McGowan, John Carty, Sean Casey, Brendan Mulkere, Sheena Vallely, Karen Ryan and John Blake.  These players are an impressive lot and not only show great strength in their music, but a flexibility in terms of the tradition that not only allows but encourages personal style and innovation.  The booklet, which has 105 pages, goes into the same amount of detail as the other set’s booklet and provides similarly impressive insight into the music that’s been presented.

Ultimately, what these CDs represent is a process in which musicians, who are bound together by place and who speak the same musical language but who represent a range of styles and approaches, find the kind of common ground that allows tradition to take hold and flourish in the face of social, political, and economic challenge.  It’s a story that’s been told in other places – especially New York – but which these CDs show beautifully.

These two sets were released simultaneously with an ebook, “A Few Tunes of Good Music: A History of Irish Music and Dance in London, 1800-1980 & Beyond.”  A revised and significantly expanded version of Hall’s already significant dissertation (Ph.D. University of Sussex, 1994), it tells a very highly detailed and nuanced story of the Irish and London-Irish communities over two centuries.  It is littered with figures, illustrations, and tables, includes a couple of discographies, and is an impressive piece of research altogether.

Here, Hall’s work defines and explores three distinct cultural trajectories in telling the long history of Irish music in London: the “rural tradition,” which belonged mainly to the rural working population, the “Gaelic revival,” which was the product of the late 19th century’s urban and rural lower middle class, and the “Urban tradition,” a response to the more recent social and political conditions of London’s working Irish.  In addressing these different themes, Hall addresses11 subject areas through 37 chapters and tells a story about Irish music in London that balances the ascendance and revival of more familiar traditions with the decline and disappearance of others.  Ultimately, he’s shown how the music perseveres, something that’s clearly apparent in the two CD sets.

“It Was Mighty!” and “It Was Great Altogether!” are absolute must-haves. The music they contain is beautiful and nuanced, and will reward the careful (and even not so careful) listener.  They are also a spectacular value – at the time of this writing, Topic is selling the two sets *together* for £28 (just under US$40) + P&P.  “A Few Tunes of Good Music” is offered as a free download through the Topic Records website, and is an incredible gift to those interested in this music’s history.  Order these CDs, you will be glad you did, as they are spectacular.  To learn more, visit www.topicrecords.co.uk.

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