Margaret Bennett,
In the Sunny Long Ago
(Foot Stompin', 2001)

Margaret Bennett is a jewel among traditional Scottish singers, with a voice as clear as crystal that caresses you with its liquid tones. Her vocals are so expressive it seems she reaches down to the depths of her soul and brings her emotions forth for display. Raised in a family of traditional singers, pipers and storytellers, listeners cannot miss her total immersion in the cultural background of her people and the nuances of the native music.

I've heard Margaret Bennett perform live, and it is a sight to behold. She absolutely glows as she sings, blooming forth with an ageless beauty despite her years of experience. Her love of the music echoes with every note she sings, and her lilting voice and gentle ornaments give the music life and vitality. In the performance I attended, she sang most things without accompaniment, which allowed her voice to shine to its fullest.

It was with this memory that I approached her long-awaited debut recording, In the Sunny Long Ago. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The recording doesn't quite capture the spirit and vitality Bennett brings to the music live. A large part of that is the instrumental accompaniment to most of the songs. The instruments have a U.S. southern-country edge to them that doesn't fit with my preconceived image of Bennett's vocals. Furthermore, her gentle voice is easily overpowered by an often overly active guitar.

The opening track probably had a lot to do with my initial disappointment, being characterized by Bennett herself in the liner notes as a song that "might sound as if it came from a Country and Western '78 disc, but it's a 19th century 'weepy'." "Go and Leave Me" fits this description to a T. From the opening guitar rhythm to the chord progression choices, the country-western aspect is emphasized.

I'm quite sure that my initial assessment of the recording is not entirely fair, since it is so largely based on my initial reaction to the first track.

The a cappella songs come much closer to capturing the essence of Margaret Bennett. "An t-Oighre Og" (The Young Heir) is sung without instrumental accompaniment, but with accompanying harmony vocals on the chorus. The lyrics tell of a girl being seduced by a young man's musicianship on the pipes. Bennett's gently persuasive voice convinces the listener of the remorse this girl feels upon learning that the musician did not return her affection. The recording is worth getting for this track alone.

"Ailean, Ailean," another a cappella song in Gaelic, is a short song. This cry to war demonstrates the passion with which early Jacobites greeted their enemies. The singer urges her husband up and away to war, ending by stating "If I could meet your torturer ... I myself would draw the keen, slender blade and I'd leave him lying lifeless."

There's also a chilling rendition of "Oran Chaluim Sgaire," where the song is not overpowered by the guitar, whistle and fiddle, which add texture and mood to the tragic tale behind the gentle love song. (A synopsis of the tale is included in the liner notes.)

Outside of the Gaelic songs, there are several Newfoundland songs, including "Connemara," with an odd, music-box like background on flute or whistle, "The Rocks of Merasheen," passed on from the oral tradition of a St. John's poet, "Sonny's Dream," which features a wonderful accordion part, and "Pat Murphy's Meadow," from which the title of the recording comes.

There are also several excellent representations of Scots songs, including the well-known and brilliantly performed "Plooman Laddies." Again, this song is a cappella, although the harmony vocals on the chorus are perhaps a bit overbalanced.

"Jock o Hazeldean" has a slightly overpowering guitar part, but Bennett's joyfully sung lyrics shine through with the story. There's a delightful whistle accompaniment behind the melody of this one. The familiar Robert Burns song "Aye Waulkin O" receives quite a favorable treatment, with a gentle guitar background and a thoughtful viol interlude after the first verse that gently weaves through the rest of the song.

The recording closes with "Bonnie Bunch o Thyme," including a delightful closing a cappella chorus.

Overall, the recording certainly doesn't capture the glowing spirit I heard from Margaret Bennett live, but if it is the only way to hear her magical vocals, it is well worth having. Should you ever have the chance to hear her live, however, don't miss it!

[ by Jo Morrison ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001