Album Review: Various Artists - The Flax in Bloom

Album Review: Various Artists - The Flax in Bloom

Various Artists
The Flax in Bloom

Topic Records

ONE definition of traditional music describes it as songs and tunes which have been performed, by custom, over a long period – usually several generations.

These songs/tunes would have been learned by ear and generally handed down by the same method.

Traditional and contemporary folk label Topic Records have just released a three-CD set entitled The Flax In Bloom as part of their Voice of the People series.

The first 20 volumes of the series were issued in 1998 and called on about 120 albums of English, Irish and Scottish traditional music from Topic’s catalogue. This particular release relates to the traditional songs, airs and dance music in the Provence of Ulster and is a fantastic piece of work selected and presented by Dr Reg Hall.

Melodion/fiddle player and folk music collector Hall has worked with Topic records since the early 1960s. Over five decades, Reg played with many traditional musicians, singers and dancers in the immigrant Irish community in London and in 2009 he was awarded the Gradam na gCeoltoiri at Ireland’s TG4 Awards for his contribution to Irish music.

This series includes recordings made on location, often in the homes of the performers, by Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle, plus some from old 78rpm records now in the public domain. There is a fantastic 100 page booklet that comes with the package. It has an excellent informative introduction by Reg Hall plus biographies of the players and the lyrics of the songs.

The first disc deals with Fermanagh and Donegal and it’s wonderful to hear Joe Tunney on accordion playing a great set of tunes at the family home near Belleek, Co.Fermanagh in 1952.

brigid and paddy tunney-n Brigid and Paddy Tunney

The Tunney name features heavily on the first disc with Paddy, Joe, Annie (Tunney) Lunny, Brigid and Maureen (Tunny) Melly all making fine contributions. There is a great unaccompanied version of The Rollicking Boys around Tandragee by Mick Gallagher – an uncle of Paddy Tunny – recorded in July 1952 at Garrison, Co. Fermanagh.

Disc one is 72 minutes long with 38 tracks but many of them are very short with the tunes running just once through while the songs are the full version.

Fans of the fiery Donegal style of fiddle playing will be delighted that John Doherty – who did not take up the fiddle until he was age 16 – features on a number of tracks. Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle recorded a vast amount of material from John Doherty over the course of a few days in 1953. It was only years later that Doherty’s reputation was established among students and lovers of traditional music.

Traditional instrumental music and dance in Ulster, like the rest of Ireland belonged to a rural population and are rooted way back in time. Disc two – 63 minutes long – is devoted to dance music and features people like Johnny Pickering on fiddle.

Pickering, who came from Markethill, Co.Armagh, played with Malachy Sweeney’s Ceili Band before starting his own band in which he usually played accordion. The McCusker Brothers Ceili Band came from Kilcreevy in Co. Armagh. The nine brothers, who despite holding down day jobs, still managed to build a considerable reputation in the North and were broadcast on both sides of the border.

John Maguire was born on a farm in Cavan where he was part of the rural house-party set but eventually moved to Belfast where his son Sean was born in 1927. Father and son played in Malachy Sweeney’s Ceili Band for a time. On this recording John plays tin whistle.

Sean was taught violin by a conventional teacher and his classical technique dominated his fiddle playing. He won the fiddle championship at the Oireachtas in Dublin in 1949 and one of the tunes he plays on this CD is The Flax in Bloom.

Travellers, the third and final disc in the set, is a great compilation piece, although little is known of the individual performers. In July 1952, Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle were taken late at night to the outskirts of Belfast, near the Belfast Mountain where there was an encampment of travellers from Wexford, Kerry, Galway and England. The recordings were made in the open air around a camp fire with the tape recorder powered by the car battery.

The atmosphere was brilliantly described by Peter Kennedy who said: “By the early hours of the morning, the men were under the spell of the Guinness, leaving the younger girls, some breast-feeding as they sang, tightly grasping the microphone one-by-one, and competing with each other in their display of vocal decorations in the love songs”.

Disc three is all solo vocals and a fine collection it certainly is. It features some great traditional singing from Christy Purcell and Mary Connors, both from Wexford; husband and wife Paddy and Mary Doran, both aged 21 at the time and from Newross, Co Wexford; Lal Smith from Cahersiveen, Co Kerry and Winnie Ryan from Galway.

Winnie Ryan told Sean O’Boyle that her father had plenty of old songs which prompted the question, “When did he sing them?” She said “When he’d be drunk Sir”. Sean asked: “Would that be on a Saturday night?” Winnie replied “Every night Sir”.

In many ways this disc is the most moving. The pleasure that these people obviously got from singing, and their willingness to share their songs with a couple of strangers in the early hours of the morning, is quite touching.

These are songs that have been handed down through family, friends or even strangers that crossed their paths somewhere along the way, and now, thanks to Tony Engle MD at Topic Records and Reg Hall, they are now preserved in a way that we can all share.

The Flax In The Bloom is out now on Topic Records