Fil Campbell, |
Songbirds: The First Ladies of Irish Song
A good friend recently invited me to a Wood Stove House Concert. I was somewhat reluctant to accept because I never heard of the featured artist, but I will be eternally grateful for the invitation and the fact that I attended.
The performer was Fil Campbell, a singer/songwriter from the Northern Ireland village of Belleek, who was touring in several Northeastern states. That evening she sang many of the songs from her 2005 CD Songbirds: The First Ladies of Irish Song. The five ladies (Delia Murphy, Ruby Murray, Bridie Gallagher, Margaret Barry and Mary O'Hara) were featured in an RTE television series of the same name. This series "documents the lives of 5 women through their music" who played a major role in Ireland's folk song scene in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Campbell credits these early songbirds with having a direct influence on her singing style.
Of course, I brought the CD home and glad I am that I did. Songbirds is not the typical collection of songs you might hear in pubs and Irish festivals today. Instead, they are mostly the type of songs that would have been heard in Irish homes and other more intimate settings years ago. It's packed with lullabies and laments that so poignantly marked the troubled Irish experience.
Opinions differ, of course, but to me no country has a more beautiful and varied musical heritage than Ireland. Songbirds has done nothing but add to my appreciation of that heritage. There are a number of songs on this recording that I have never heard before, and that is my loss. For the most part they are not toe-tapping melodies, but rather they evoke a serene and reflective mood.
Campbell's voice is the perfect instrument to illustrate and preserve the spirit of that important part of Ireland's folk era. Her voice is at once gentle but full of emotion and passion. You know at once she did not learn these songs recently; they are a part of her upbringing. Dublin's Evening Herald wrote that Campbell's "voice was eminently suited to these old gems and she has a knack of making every song sound brand new."
Songbirds, a 15-track album, is indeed a treasure chest filled with sparkling gems. It's nearly impossible to pick a favorite, and each time I listen, I hear another facet I missed earlier. Forced to choose, I'd have to go with "The Connemara Cradle Song," an Irish lullaby popularized by Delia Murphy, or possibly "The Spinning Wheel," a traditional Irish folk song.
"Softly, Softly," a tender love song, was the No. 1 single on the U.K. chart in 1955. That recording was by Ruby Murray, one of the Five Ladies that so influenced Campbell.
James Joyce, the famous Irish novelist and poet, frequently used musical references in his writing. Campbell does a haunting rendition of "Love's Old Sweet Song," which plays a semi-central role in Joyce's Ulysses.
Songbirds does contain two upbeat songs guaranteed to bring the listener out of the reverie so skillfully woven by Campbell. "Goodbye Mick, Goodbye Pat" puts a somewhat cheerful spin on the Irish immigration. "The Moonshiner," which is believed to have its origins in America, was later made famous in Ireland. Murphy began singing this song in Ireland in the 1930s. "If I Were a Blackbird," an early 20th century lament sung often by Murphy, is given an updated but melancholy treatment by Campbell.
Margaret Barry, another of the Five Ladies, was a traveling banjo-playing street singer (read tinker). Campbell treats her audiences with one of Barry's songs, "Farewell, My Own Dear Native Land."
For anyone who appreciates Irish music, Songbirds is a well-deserved addition to their collection. Fil Campbell's rich and beautiful voice brings an important part of Irish musical heritage to life. Listening to it over and over is a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
music review by
9 October 2010
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