Ellen O'Byrne DeWitt established Columbia Records' Irish catalog.
By Daniel Neely
Women in the early days of recorded Irish music is the focus of “If There Weren’t Any Women In The World,” a fascinating new CD reissue project from OldTime Records. In it, the compilers have presented a number of recordings from the period 1916-1945 which show that there were more women recording in this era than is commonly assumed. More than being a mere exercise in butterfly collecting, however, this CD is a well-curated selection of tracks that provide a thoughtful and important perspective on traditional music in the early 20th century.
It probably goes without saying that there is a male bias in the written history of traditional Irish music. One need only look at Francis O’Neill’s seminal 1913 work “Minstrels and Musicians” to see how well documented both exceptional and merely great male musicians were at the turn of the century. However, a close look at O’Neill’s work also reveals a very small number of highly regarded female musicians, including uilleann piper May McCarthy and fiddler Bridget Kenny, whose exceptional abilities were cause for note. But were they the extent of the truly exceptional women playing Irish music? And surely, there had to have been “merely great” female musicians around who also could have been documented – who were they?
It’s possible O’Neill didn’t care, or maybe it was that he and his later ilk simply weren’t looking hard enough. Few probably realize, for example, that a woman, Ellen O’Byrne DeWitt, was central to the very emergence of the Irish record industry. O’Byrne DeWitt established Columbia Records’ Irish catalogue, the first of its kind, in 1916. She sold these records from her shop, went on to produce records under her own imprint, and became a very successful business person. Indeed, a period trade publication reveals that not only was the O'Byrne DeWitt Music House an international concern that shipped records and phonographs overseas from her small NYC shop for a decade, but at the time of her passing in 1926 the company was grossing approximately $100,000 annually, 75 percent of which came from its Irish record department. Certainly, her contribution should be more widely known.
O’Byrne DeWitt’s success is a powerful statement about the strength of the Irish community in those days, but it also suggests that women contributed to Irish culture in myriad, important, and sometimes overlooked ways. This CD helps us better understand their musical contributions. Some of the women here are featured performers, while others blend in as members of larger ensembles. And while there are some truly outstanding performances to be heard on this album, there are others that are just merely great. But presenting them all together tells a far more compelling story.
This is a brilliant album. Treasa Ni Ailpin’s playing on the air “Mo Buchail Gael-Dubh,” for example, is spectacular. Her beautiful phrasing and strong tone make this one of the album’s great highlights. Other tracks stand out as well and reveal an array of active, talented women at the time who all played with impressive lift, including Redie Johnston (“Scotchman Over the Border”), Mary Ellen Conlon (“Rory O’More”), Stella Seaver (“The Joker / …”), and Selena O’Neill (“The Job of Journeywork / ….”). Based on what’s included here, all of these musicians would likely have recorded more and been better documented were they making music in a different time.
The ensemble tracks are lovely as well and further demonstrate the ways women contributed to the era’s music. Eleanor Kane’s piano playing on the Pat Roche's Harp And Shamrock Orchestra track stands out as being particularly wonderful, but the tracks by the Siamsa Gaedheal Band, the Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band, and the Lough Gill Quartette are all wonderful as well.
Considering how poorly documented the featured performers here have been, the booklet, which was written by researcher and uilleann piper Emmett Gill, represents a formidable amount of investigative work and sheds wonderful new light. To his credit, Gill writes closely to fact and leaves deeper analysis up to others, something I feel will surely draw others into this important research area. (Incidentally, for those interested in some high-level reading about gender in Irish music, I would recommend the outstanding academic work of Tes Slominski of Beloit College.)
Fans of the old music will revel in this reissue. The individual tracks are extremely well chosen, represent a bunch of different takes on the music, and showcase a number of very interesting musicians who have been almost universally overlooked. However, this album is an absolute must-have for anyone interested knowing more about the history of women in Irish music. Today, we take exceptional musicians like Julia Clifford, Lucy Farr, Liz Carroll, Joanie Madden, the Kane sisters, the Mulcahy sisters, and the Nic Gabhann sisters for granted, but they are part of an expansive story that “If There Weren’t Any Women In The World” helps tell. Essential listening! For more information on purchasing this album, visit www.oldtimerecords.com.