W. B. Yeats in 1933.
[Pirie MacDonald/Library of Congress]
By Daniel Neely
In the media player this week is a very interesting album that I teased back in March called “I Am Of Ireland: Yeats in Song.” A collection of 23 poems by W.B. Yeats set to music and arranged by Raymond Driver, it’s an interesting idea that has been brought to great fruition and works quite well.
Driver, a composer, arranger, and renown illustrator, is no stranger to the Yeats concept. He has, in fact, arranged two prior albums of his poetry, “Words That Sing in the Night” and “Never Give All The Heart,” both of which featured classically-trained soprano singer Laura Whittenberger (www.laurawhittenberger.com). The wrinkle here is that the music here is built on a more traditionally-oriented foundation and the musicians taking part are a who’s who of contemporary traditional artists.
Lovers of Yeats’s work will understand why this concept works, but it’s an idea that seems to have originated with Yeats himself. “William Butler Yeats wrote,” Driver writes in the album’s liner notes, “that he wanted his poetry to be spoken on a stage or sung. Much of his poetry is inherently musical with its hauntingly beautiful words and simple rhyme schemes.” This is precisely what the album offers, with a very “Irish” feel.
This album is full of excellent performances which makes it difficult to single out standout tracks. However, there are a few that immediately drew my ear. For example, I quite like the album’s opener “I Am Of Ireland,” which features Cathy Jordan (www.dervish.ie) and Seamie O’Dowd (www.seamieodowd.net). It was used to promote the album earlier this year for good reason – the arrangement is lush and dramatic, and really suits Yeats’s verse. Jordan and O’Dowd deliver terrifically here.
“The Lake of Innisfree” by Christine Collister (www.christinecollister.com) is another really lovely track. Collister grew up on the Isle of Man and in addition to several solo albums she was a member of the Richard Thompson Band. She has a captivating voice and does Yeats’s verse and the arrangement well.
I was completely drawn to “The Cradle Song” and “The White Birds,” both of which feature the singing of Jackie Oates (www.jackieoates.co.uk). Oates, an English folk singer, has a wonderful touch with the material and while her delivery on “Birds” is outstanding, there’s something otherworldly about “The Cradle Song.” It’s beautiful, but challenging to listen to because it hits in a unique, haunting way.
However, I think my favorite tracks are a pair that feature John Doyle (www.johndoylemusic.com) and Cillian Vallely (www.cillianvallely.com), “An Irish Airman Foresees his own Death” and “September 1913.” Doyle delivers on both songs brilliantly and has a perfect partner in Vallely, who uses the pipes in the former and the low whistle in both to really communicates the nuance not only in Doyle’s singing but in Yeats’s verse. These are outstanding tracks from a great couple of musicians.
The full roster of musicians is noteworthy and a testament to the quality of this project. It includes Leonard Barry, Kevin Burke, Christine Collister, Dave Curley , Ashley Davis, Cormac De Barra, John Doyle , Colin Farrell, David Gossage, Natalie Haas, Niall Hanna, Trevor Hutchinson, Cathy Jordan, Danny Levin, Dana Lyn, Fergal McAloon, Mick McAuley, Mick O’Brien, Seamie O’Dowd, Bríd O’Riordan, Derek O’Sullivan, Jackie Oates, Gabriel Rhodes, Rick Richards, Jack Rutter, Eleanor Shanley, John Spiers, Cillian Vallely, Laura Zaerr and Joel Zifkin.
“I Am Of Ireland: Yeats in Song” is a fine, fine album that will delight traditional music listeners, especially fans of the artists on the album. (And I should add that my choices here might not be yours – everything here is worth a close listen.) However, this album will also draw listeners with an interest not just in Yeats’s work, but in poetry in general. Driver’s arrangements have a fine feel for the prosody in Yeats’s verse, something I think that not only helps to “open up” the poetry here, but that helped facilitate the album’s fine performances. The execution and presentation of this material in a way reminds me of a day-long Irish festival in that there is great variety in terms of the performers, the material is generally unfamiliar, and it’s easy to get lost in how the music sounds. Definitely one to check out! “I Am Of Ireland: Yeats in Song” will be available for pre-order on June 11, it will be released July 23. To learn more visit yeatsinsong.com.
Like many archives, the Ward Irish Music Archive in Milwaukee has a wonderful habit of posting gems from their collection to the internet. This past weekend, it was a recording from the late 1940s/early 1950s of Tommy Potts playing “Bonnie Kate/Jennie's Chicken,” a set of tunes made famous by the great fiddle player Michael Coleman. It’s a marvelous bit of music that seems to have been a test pressing for the “Irish Recording Company” and it’s definitely something cool to check out.
WIMA, the largest public collection of Irish music in America, posts material like this with frequency, and this Potts recording, like so many of the tracks the post, is must-hear material for traditional music lovers. You can keep up with WIMA (and their posts) through their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WardIrishMusicArchives, but you can also browse their online collection of audio files at soundcloud.com/ward-irish-music-archives, it’s all incredibly interesting.