Jimmy Crowley began writing the "Songs of Cork" column in Evening Echo in 2002.
By Daniel Neely
I imagine there isn’t a music lover from Ireland who doesn’t recognize the name of the great Corkman Jimmy Crowley. From his work with Stokers Lodge to his own solo projects, Crowley has forged a reputation over the past 50 or so years as one of the legendary balladeers. Earlier this year he launched “Songs for the Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads,” a magnum opus that contains nearly 150 songs and tells an unparalleled story of place and history. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly realized, it’s a collection for the ages.
This book has been years in the making. A student of song his whole life, Crowley has shared his vast knowledge publicly since 2002 when he first began writing the “Songs Of Cork” column published in Cork’s Evening Echo newspaper. All of the songs that appear in this new book were carefully curated from Crowley’s Echo column and together form a select group that thoroughly represents the humanity of the Cork people. There are age-old ballads, songs of more recent vintage, songs to which Crowley given a melody, and a small number of Crowley originals (including his beautiful “Queen of the White Star Line,” which is a personal favorite) – it’s a stunning selection. This is a work that stands in the grand tradition of books like “Songs of the People,” the seminal collection Sam Henry put together for his own weekly newspaper column in Coleraine’s the Northern Constitution newspaper, 1923-1939, and is a wonderful parallel.
The songs here are arranged in a series of categories organized by theme. These include “Calendar Feasts and Urban Occasions,” “Children’s Songs, Skipping Songs and Some Cork Cants,” “Skipping Songs,” “The Comic Muse,” “Cork Harbour, The Lee and Beyond,” “Early Songs,” “Emigration and Urban Attachments,” “Love Songs,” “Nationalist, Subaltern and Didactic Songs,” “Parallel Ballads,” “Portraits,” “The Sound of History,” and “The Sporting Muse.” Each of these sections is led by a short essay which includes basic information about the song type as well as a small bit of lead commentary about the songs contained therein.
The songs are presented on facing pages to allow easy reading and include basic notation (without harmony), lyrics, commentary and in some cases, photographs. The songs themselves are truly wonderful. Crowley’s notes about each one are romantic and engaged, communicate his deeply felt passion for the subject matter, present little bits of Cork-specific folklore and tale, and signal his deep historical understanding of their cultural context. There is a wonderful ease in Crowley’s prose that communicates his wit and humor, and which makes the commentary that accompanies the songs come alive.
Don’t read music? Not a problem. Included in the book’s purchase is the “balladcard,” which is stuck inside its front cover with a bit of sticky rubber. The balladcard looks like a credit card, carries a unique download code and includes instructions on how to download the tracks directly to your computer. The download itself consists of Crowley singing each song once though without accompaniment or ornamentation – strictly the bare bones. These tracks have the feel of old field recordings, but Crowley’s voice is magical and helps make them easy to listen to and learn from. It’s a wonderful addition and should be a standard approach for any songbook like this.
Crowley has done something remarkable here. “Songs for the Beautiful City” is a brilliant collection and a must have not only for singers but for any person who has an affinity toward or a nostalgia for Cork. Given the scope of its contents and the years of research it represents, this book is an indispensable scholarly document and will certainly go down as one of the classic song collections. However, it’s also full of soul. Crowley is an engaging writer and the songs and stories he tells here are the sort that reach people in visceral ways. I can’t recommended this one highly enough. Visit www.jimmycrowley.com for information about purchasing.
Daniel Neely writes about traditional music for the Irish Echo each week. His website is www.danieltneely.com.