Aggie Whyte's playing was “was ahead of its time,” Seamus Connolly writes in the liner notes.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Folks, I have a great one for you. This week, I’ve been listening to the just-released "Aggie Whyte,” a two CD, 51-track retrospective look at the playing of fiddler AggieWhyte, someone whose name is ubiquitous but whose story is less well known than it should be. This glorious collection changes all that by shining incredible light on Whyte the musician, the legendary musicians she played with, and her most talented family. Fans of traditional music – and lovers of fiddle music, especially – should consider this collection absolutely essential.
Whyte was born in 1920 in Ballinakill, Co. Galway, with music all around her. A founding member of the Ballinakill Céilí Band, her father Tommy was her first music teacher. The famous fiddler and teacher Jack Mulkere was another important formative influence. With this background, Whyte’s star rose quickly. Known widely through radio broadcasts, she won the Senior All-Ireland Fiddle competition 1954 and the Gold Medal at the Oireachtas in 1958. She also played in some of the era’s most important groups, like the Ballinakill Band, the Tulla Céilí Band, and the Loch Lurgan Céilí Band, to name a few. She was just a stunning musician with impeccable rhythm, phrasing, and taste.
The collection shows this in spades. The sources here are fairly narrow. Some tracks have been taken from RTÉ’s Archives and some from Alan Lomax Collection (Lomax made recordings of her in 1951). However, the majority of the recordings in the collection were taken from a group of homemade reel-to-reel recordings that provide a stunning and intimate portrait of Whyte’s music. Many of these are purely solo recordings, but many include other musicians, including Fr. PJ Kelly, Eddie Moloney, Peadar O’Loughlin, Joe Burke, Elizabeth Crotty, Micho Russell, Paddy Carty, Séamus Connolly, Paddy Fahey, Jack Coughlan, and Áine Hynes. They’re breathtakingly good.
In a way, it’s hard to write about a collection like this. Not only is there a lot of content – nearly two hours worth – but something could be said about virtually every track. Her take on Ed Reavy’s “Maudabawn Chapel,” for example, is both nimble and bold and a superb take on the tune. Tracks like “Master Crowley’s / …” (with. Maureen Ryan on the spoons), “The Chattering Magpie / …,” “Fr. Kelly’s Ben Hill / …,” and “Fiji Jig” are each powerful, electric performances as well. Her take on the slow air “Sé Fáth mo Bhuartha” is plaintive and beautiful and a highlight here.
Duet tracks – of which there are many – such as “Pride of the West / …” with Paddy Carty (flute), “The Bird in the Bush with Elizabeth Crotty (concertina), and “McDermott’s Reel / …” with Peadar Ó Lochlainn (Flute) reveal further the depth of Whyte’s music. They show a musician of great distinction and sensitivity, and someone very much, as Seamus Connolly writes in the liner notes, “[whose] playing was ahead of its time.”
There are also a few tracks on which Whyte doesn’t appear but that feature her family, which makes the album feel very personal. “The Wild Mountain Time,” performed by her twin daughters Maureen and Kathleen, and her husband Séamus Ryan is splendid (and a great way to rehabilitate the song if you’ve just seen the recent movie of the same name). Séamus’s performance of “Iníon an Phailitínigh” is another engaging track that rounds out Whyte’s story in a lovely way.
The album was produced by Michael Harrison, a three time All-Ireland fiddle champion (who also happens to be Whyte’s grandson), who did an excellent job. The selection of tunes is great, as are the restorations. The music here sounds just fantastic, but in putting this collection together, he ensured it wouldn’t be mere idle remembrance: the proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Croi (www.croi.ie), a charity devoted to heart disease and stroke. (Whyte passed away in 1979 of a heart issue.) It’s great stuff all around.
“Aggie Whyte” is a gorgeous album. It’s as “pure” an album of traditional musicking as you’ll find and an important documentation of one of the great fiddlers of the twentieth century. I’d consider this album a must have if there ever was one – very highly recommended. To purchase (physical and as a download), visit aggiewhyte.bandcamp.com.