Here is what Van Morrison has been saying recently. “As you know, we are doing socially distanced gigs at Newcastle Upon Tyne’s Gosforth Park, Electric Ballroom and The London Palladium. This is not a sign of compliance or acceptance of the current state of affairs, this is to get my band up and running and out of the doldrums. This is also not the answer going forward. We need to be playing to full capacity audiences going forward.” The price of a ticket at The London Palladium was £156. Presumably, at these gigs, Van Morrison will be socially distanced from all the people at the gig whilst he would like a full capacity audience, all crowded together. Coincidentally, this will allow him to make a huge some of money. Obviously, I’m lucky that the pandemic isn’t affecting me financially so I can be pious about these things but the naked self interest at the expense of others’ health is a little hard to take.
I don’t have to like or respect an artist to enjoy their music. Steve Earle and Arthur Lee ended up in prison, many artists’ attitudes to women don’t really bear scrutiny and drug taking has led to misery and early death for many musicians I admire. None of these artists care one smallest iota what I think about them so I’m left to either continue loving their music or ending up liking only, er, liking only those musicians with no flaws, like, er, um, only those artists who lead perfect lives, like er, um, … If only everyone was as perfect as me. Oh dear. What a ridiculous paragraph. Shall I delete it?
Yesterday’s byline was “traditional Irish music” which got me to thinking about this album which contains some of the most beautiful music imaginable. Van Morrison has combined with many musicians in his career – he has duetted with John Lee Hooker and Brian Kennedy, he made an album with Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee’s brother) called “You Win Again”, he recorded an album called “Skiffle Sessions” with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber and he made an album called “How Long Has This Been Going On” with Georgie Fame. Best of all, he made “Irish Heartbeat” with The Chieftans.
The Chieftans are a traditional Irish band, formed in 1962. Last year, they embarked on an “Irish Goodbye Tour” in which they played (or planned to play in) Ireland, the European mainland, USA and Canada although the pandemic has forced some of these gigs to be postponed. They have released over forty albums. “Irish Heartbeat” was released in 1988, twenty six years after the band was formed. Original members Paddy Moloney, Kevin Conneef, Matt Molloy and Martin Fay played on the album and the first three of these are still in the band. Derek Bell and Sean Keane also play on the album, having joined the band in 1975 and 1968 respectively.
In 1986, Van Morrison met Paddy Moloney and during a walk they planned to record an album together consisting of two Van Morrison songs alongside traditional Irish tunes. Paddy Moloney said “I think at that time Van was searching for his Irish roots. It was this man of blues, of rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and more importantly soul, coming home to his Irishness with The Chieftains and the music we’d been playing for so many years. Musically we were going to meet each other half way.”
The words to “Star Of The County Down” were written by Cathal McGarvey who was an actor, producer and song writer from County Donegal. The singer meets Rosie McCann by chance and develops an infatuation for her. This is not my favourite song on the album as the instrumentation is a bit diddly-dee. Nevertheless, the playing and singing are both superb.
“Irish Heartbeat” was one of the standout tracks from Van Morrison’s “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart”, released in 1983. The song includes the lines “I’m going back to my own ones. Back to talk awhile with my own ones” and leads me to think that the sentiments behind this song chime with Paddy Moloney’s quote concerning Van Morrison returning to his ancestral roots. His vocals on this track are very strong, the scat singing at the end is brilliant and the fiddle playing is especially sympathetic.
“Ta Mo Chleamhnas Deanta” is a traditional song with vocal duties shared between Kevin Conneef (who sings in Gaelic) and Van Morrison(who sings in English). Mary Black sings backup vocals.
The highlight of the album is “Raglan Road” which consists of i) a tune which was first published by Edward Walsh in 1847 and ii) words by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. The words and the melody were put together when Patrick Kavanagh met Luke Kelly of The Dubliners. I love a lot of Van Morrison’s work and I particularly love his vocal delivery – his phrasing – his mastery of the dynamics of a song – his emotion – and I think that this song is one of the very best in his entire career. At times he seems to be completely carried away with the power of his own voice, at times he delivers a pastiche of his own style, repeating “my reason, my reason, my reason must allow”. At other times he shushes the band to bring the intensity down before building it all up to a great climax. The video of them performing on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988 features the best singing by a drummer since “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Levon Helm at “The Last Waltz”. Listen to him sing “a creature” at 3:50. It’s fantastic.
“She Moved Through The Fair” is nearly as good. The lyrics were first published in “Irish Country Songs” by Herbert Hughes in 1909. Padraic Colum, an Irish writer, poet and playwright may or may not have written the words. The story in the song has a hugely interesting history and many different versions of the song have been recorded.
Van Morrison’s version is beautiful. He sings with emotion, as I would expect, but I particularly love the ending of the song where his voice quietens, the instrumentation dissipates and all that’s left is the haunting and unresolved nature of the final words “It will not be long now till our wedding day.” The song starts after 18:00 on this video and the section from 21:00 is utterly remarkable.
“I’ll Tell Me Ma” starts side two and is definitely in the style of traditional Irish music that anyone visiting a Dublin tourist bar would expect to hear. It’s not my sort of thing at all.
“Carrickfergus”, on the other hand is fantastic. The melody of this song is attributed to Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, who died in 1756. The first recorded version of the song, with lyrics, was by Dominic Beehan in 1965 when it was called “The Kerry Boatman.” The Chieftans, having diddle-deed their way through the previous song, provide an amazingly beautiful and atmospheric instrumentation. Van Morrison’s vocals are as strong as any he has ever recorded and in the final verse, when the singer has given up and has turned to drink are heartbreaking. The song is performed in the previous YouTube clip at 28:30.
“Celtic Ray” is from Van Morrison’s 1982 album “Beautiful Vision”. Lyrically, it fits the idea of Van Morrison returning to his Celtic roots. “Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales. I can hear those ancient voices calling ‘Children, children'” It’s a beautiful song, his vocals are great but I think I prefer the original version. The scat singing seems a bit contrived at time.
The lyrics of “My Lagan Love” are credited to Joseph Campbell (1879 – 1944) who collected songs with Herbert Hughes (see “She Moved Through The Fair”) who had been taught the song by Proinseas mac Suibhne, whose father Seaghan mac Suibhne had learned the song from a worker with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The hand-me-down history of some of these songs is fascinating. It’s another slow song, beautifully played and magnificently sung. The improvised section at the end of this clip is unbelievable.
Finally, “Marie’s Wedding” which is probably very good but because I was made to engage in “country dancing” at school in 1964 and this song was very often used, I can’t bring myself to listen to it. Irrational and unfair, I realise. Peter was a much better country dancer than I was so he almost certainly jigs around the house to this on a daily basis.
Two posts in two days. The Chieftans and Lankum. Two brilliant bands immersed in traditional Irish music. I think I prefer Lankum’s dark take on their history but as much as I love Radie Peat’s voice, I’m afraid she can’t compete with Van Morrison.