Celtic Songbirds

Doores O'Riordan

By Ian Warpole, Contributor
December/ January 2007

Bringing to life the music we love

Here’s a moderately interesting question: Do women lean towards male singers, and men towards women singers? Based on a sample poll of myself and my partner, the answer is a resounding yes, Van Morrison being the exception to the rule. Hence this month’s column, “Celtic Songbirds,” a glance at some of the best chanteuses out there.

Of course, I use the term Celtic loosely — the to and fro across the Atlantic works many ways, the likes of Nanci Griffith, an all-American gal hugely popular in Ireland for example, or Maura O’Connell of County Clare, long resident in Nashville. As Gaelic singer Catherine-Ann Macphee once remarked, “I know as many country-and-western songs as I do Gaelic songs.”

Indeed, embracing all forms of cross-breeding and hybridization of Irish music and American country music would need a space far larger than this column — from 19th-century “Waulking” songs sung exclusively by women as they worked the wool, to Patsy Cline to Sinéad O’Connor, Jean Ritchie to Emmylou Harris; common threads can be found throughout. So I’ll focus on my personal favorites, many of whom fall into the category of singer fronting a traditional band followed by a successful solo career.

No better example to start with than Irish band De Dannan. The early 1970s saw an outpouring of traditional Irish music made hip by the introduction of long-haired lads and lasses playing bouzoukis, guitars, and bodhrans along with the more traditional instruments, with a powerful female voice up front. In De Dannan’s case, Dolores Keane, a Galway lass from a traditional singing family, provided the vocals.

Dolores set the standard that to this day is emulated by many of the best Irish bands, a rich voice belting out the likes of “Rambling Irishman” but just as comfortable with delicate airs and laments. She moved on to a solo career that embraced American song including a raucous collaboration with John Prine on In Spite of Ourselves, and covering classics such as the McGarrigles “Heart Like a Wheel.”

De Dannan, which still performs, has fronted such luminary singers as Mary Black, who, like Keane, is also from a musical family. Mary’s sister Frances had a stint with Irish band Arcady before joining her on the A Woman’s Heart albums which propelled them both to stellar, albeit uneven, solo careers. Mary, in particular, has seen an arc of traditional through pop, and back, in more recent times, to traditional roots, but she remains one of Ireland’s most successful and much-loved singers.

De Dannan also introduced the flame-haired, powerhouse singer Maura O’Connell who moved quickly into the orbit of American musicians such as Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck and took up residence in Nashville, where she evolved an Irish-Country style all her own. Also featured on the A Woman’s Heart albums, Maura continues to weave from one style to another, without ever losing sight of her roots.

Other traditional bands have also embraced female singers as an integral part of their sound. Altan is fronted by co-founder Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, a fiery singer and fiddler, and Dervish has Cathy Jordan on vocals and bodhran. Blessed with a powerful and traditional sean-nos sounding voice, Cathy can belt out a hilarious “Red-Haired Mary” or a soulful Gaelic air such as “Erin Gra mo Chroi” effortlessly. Meanwhile, Anan has Aimee Leonard, a fine vocalist and bodhran player, and Grada has Anne Marie O’Malley, who also plays bodhran. (Presumably, in these days of multi-tasking, idle hands are frowned upon).

Cathie Ryan, a seven-year alumni of Cherish the Ladies, is another fine singer/bodhran player. Born in Detroit, Cathie developed an early passion for Irish sean-nos singing and has three fine CDs to her credit. And no singer on today’s circuit has less idle hands than Muireann Nic Amlaoibh, singer, flutist and whistle player for state-of-the-art traditional band Danú.

Muireann, who was brought in as a replacement for Danú’s (amicably) departing male singer Ciarán O Gealbháin, has a beautiful, rich voice, and is comfortable with either Gaelic or English songs. (I’ve discovered that singers with Gaelic names tend to sing in Gaelic). As a guest vocal teacher at this year’s East Durham Arts Week in upstate New York, her talent, energy and enthusiasm made her an enormous favorite with the crowd as she held her own in music sessions with the likes of Joanie Madden and Jackie Daly.

That Danú is one of the hottest traditional bands around today is due in no small part to Muireann, who has just released her first solo CD, Daybreak: Fáinne an Lae, on the Compass label. It is an album of great beauty and energy, that mixes English and Gaelic songs with a few sets of flute and whistle tunes.

Another former Arts Week teacher, Karan Casey, began her career with Irish-American super-group Solas, and was responsible for some of their greatest songs. With one of the most honeyed voices in the field, and also one of the more politically left-leaning, Karan renders such disparate classics as “Wind that Shakes the Barley” and Billie Holiday’s grim “Strange Fruit” with equal passion. On her latest album Chasing the Sun Karan steps out as a songwriter, penning six of the songs with great flair and commitment to the cause. And on that note, I must tip my hat to a true firebrand, Sinéad O’Connor.

What to make of O’Connor?

With a vocal range beyond most mere mortals, sometimes delivered with a humorless anger, at other times with a child-like grace and happiness, she is both frustrating and a genius. She even fits into the category of having started out in a band, a Celtic-rock outfit named In Tua Nua, at the tender age of fourteen. Some Irish anthologies omit her altogether as being quite indefinable; at her best she is sublime, at her worst, she is somewhat embarrassing. But I think that, along with Shane MacGowan, the world is a much more exciting place with O’Connor in it. The same can certainly be said of Dolores O’Riordan, the elfin, erratic but hugely talented leader of the now-defunct Cranberries, whose first solo album is due out any time now.

So I seem to be drifting towards the more idiosyncratic – the songwriters and loners, of which there are many on both sides of the pond. As a Brit child of the sixties, I must throw in a mention of an early heroine. Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, the seminal English folk-rock band that included Richard Thompson as a young guitar God, had as pure a voice as any that has come since, and was a writer of classic songs such as “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” She died tragically young at the age of 31, but she was the proto-type of much that was to come, including fellowspirits Maddy Pryor, Linda Thompson and Judy Collins.

Denny was slightly preceded by an even more original spirit. Anne Briggs, a stunningly beautiful nomadic collector, singer and writer of folk songs, influenced the likes of The Dubliners, who brought her to Ireland, where she apparently persuaded Christy Moore to ease up on the jigs and sing more. (Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaionaigh also cites her as an influence.)

The lineage of these early pioneers leads directly to the likes of today’s songbirds, Kate Rusby, Eliza Carthy, Niamh Parsons, Pauline Scanlon and Susan McKeown, to name a few.

On this side of the Atlantic possibly the greatest writer of folk-country-rock with a Celtic twist is Nanci Griffith. With over a dozen CDs to her credit, the bulk of which are originals, Nanci spends much time in Ireland, and has collaborated with The Chieftains, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris; her songs have been covered by countless others. I would hazard a guess that she was influenced by the great Joan Baez. Well, duh! what American folk singer wasn’t?

With her stunning voice and interpretations of the Child ballads of the British Isles in particular, Joan Baez was to every American folk singer what Anne Briggs was to British folk. And now I realize that the list is endless. There is the Scottish branch; Jean Redpath as godmother to the likes of Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader and Karine Polwart. The Canadian branch boasts the incredible talents of Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Loreena McKennitt.

A one-woman Celtic whirlwind, McKennitt blends Eastern mysticism with the poems of Tennyson, and Mummers chants with a hurdy-gurdy; above all her own virtuoso harp-playing and vocals. What’s more, she does concerts, and very good ones, too, having released a double live album; indeed when I saw her at Radio City Music Hall the sound more than matched her studio recordings. I mention this in regard to the Enya dilemma.

As I’ve noted in this column before, Enya’s angelic anthems of Celtic and futuristic mythology with soaring layers of vocals, synthesizers and drum tracks, all recorded in her own studio, are quite irresistible and sell in the mega-millions. But she has yet to perform a single concert, and I can’t help but feel this somehow disqualifies her from the ranks of great artists. We want and need to stand in line clutching our tickets, chatting with fellow fans; applaud the entrance, thrill to the live sound, see them in the flesh, interacting with the band and bringing to life the music we love so much. Only true songbirds will give us all that, and with luck, an encore.

One Response to “Celtic Songbirds”

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