Where the heart is
For a country with a shrinking pOpulation, Ireland’s music remains a vital way of retaining a sense of national identity and history. A new series, Bringing ItAll Back Home traces the music’s spread across the Atlantic and back again. Tom Lappin spoke to writer/producer Philip King.
For a nation of four and a half million and falling. Ireland‘s contribution to popular music of late has been extraordinary. As an artistic movement. it has few parallels. as an exportable commodity. we are beginning to talk an Abba/Sweden-style scenario. What is more extraordinary is the way in which stars on a worldwide scale like U2. Van Morrison or Sincad O‘Connor can still be loosely connected to an established core of Irish music dating back centuries, although maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. This is a music that has retained umbilical ties with the homeland after waves of emigration and assimilation into foreign lands.
Philip King is the man whose self-appointed mission it was to track down Irish music where it had strayed across the Atlantic. look at the directions in which it had developed and how it had kept a sense of Ireland. In the process he interviewed a host of musicians. famous and unknown. including (take a deep breath) Mary Black. Bono, John Cage. The Clancy Brothers. Clannad. Elvis Costello, The Everly Brothers. Emmylou Harris. Christy Moore. The Pogues, Pete Seeger. The Waterboys and countless others. The series is called Bringing It All Back Home beinning on BBC2 on 29 June.
‘We called it Bringing ItAlI Back Home. not because of Bob Dylan’s album. but because the one thing that Irish immigrants brought with them to the USA was the music.‘ says King. ‘They brought song and story and a lot of imagination
the beginnings of popular music in the USA. Irish music changed in the States. It came from a rural background, but found itself in the cities — Boston. Chicago, Philadelphia. New York. In that sort of atmosphere it became faster and louder. but importantly it was shipped back to Ireland. Everything that was sent back was copied. There was almost a cyclic situation occurring. the music
was being brought back home.’
The series is essentially made up of a collection 3 ofthoughts and opinions. and above all songs from musicians and artists. King‘s desire to capture the sessions for posterity caused him plenty of agony
in the making of the series. ‘What we set out to do was to record the music to the highest standard possible. To do that we had to bring a multi-track recording facility everywhere we went. You don’t want to upset the spontaneity. so we were always treading a thin and dangerous line between a complete set-up, and making it appear natural. In most cases we got away with it.‘
Some of the results are remarkable, and King is still slightly bemused by the wealth ofbig names who agreed to participate. ‘When I began to talk to musicians there was a great enthusiasm and interest from the artists.‘ he says. Looking back. the series seems like a collection of personal highlights. ‘I was very taken with the fact that Bono wrote a song for the series. ‘Wild Irish Rose‘. I was impressed that somebody like Bono, in the vanguard of rock music. where you expect performers to find traditional music uncool, could look back and find a value in the traditions that exist here. It was interesting to hear him say Liam Clancy was a great singer. . . going on with the Clancy Brothers. it was hugely important getting them together for the last time (Tom Clancy died a few months later) to play and talk about their music and their influences. . . to have the most
with them and I suppose had a strong influence on
important songwriter around today. Elvis Costello, write a song for the series. . . to see Rickie Skaggs. Paddy Glackin and Mark O’Connor sit down together in Nashville and play ‘St Ann‘s Reel’ and the ‘Blackberry Blossom‘ was. . . well watch the programme and see the look on their faces. I fell off my chair and thought “Now I know I‘m right." ‘
What emerges from the series is the common ground found in Irish music whether it’s played by Sir Yehudi Menuhin or The Waterboys. There‘s always an element of melancholy wistfulness that King attributes to the effects of emigration. ‘The finality and heartbreak ofemigration is still skin deep here.’ he says. ‘Sixty thousand pe0ple have left Ireland in the last year. so that constantly
‘, _,.._ .- . uq ‘ :.i""'f>:~\:-»k.:~is 443 -. ; L v "" Mike Scott and the Waterboys keep the faith.
strikes a chord. When they describe the music of Kentucky. they use the term. “That high lonesome
l sound". The high lonesome sound is really the
; music remembering where it came from. Even
' dance music. which is ostensibly rhythmic and
, upbeat is inevitably tinged with a certain sadness.
i That has translated into the country lyrics of
l today, the Hank Williams bitter-sweet thing.‘
He stresses that the music is not a historical artefact to be preserved, but an ongoing living thing developed none-too-reverentially by the musicians. ‘I wanted to get to the heart ofthe matter. and show musicians who in the commercial sense of things. wouldn’t appear to be ofany significance, but in the musical influence side. are the people who carry the music with them, constantly maintaining and developing it. The relationship between that and what has become popular is extremely important. Talking to the Waterboys. seeing how Mike Scott was taken with aspects of the music was particularly revealing. in seeing how the traditional elements could cross over into being something with a mass appeaL‘
What we end up with is a fascinating picture ofan ethnic music that has retained an independence both from classical and popular strictures. ‘Our music still remains a folk music, not having been subsumed by classical music.‘ says King. ‘With classical music. musical literacy becomes the tool that one uses to learn and play music. whereas with traditional music. the music is passed on orally and so is still a living thing in a sense, and that‘s one of the most important aspects of the series. I‘m just overjoyed to have made this co-production. an All-Ireland get-together. a document of actual music on the road, a document of where our music is now.‘
Bringing It All Back Home is on BBC2 Saturday 29 June at 8.20pm. The triple album or double CD are available on BBC Records and the book is published by BBC Enterprises ([10. 99paperback)
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“The List 28June— I 1 July 1991