'The Sparkling Dawn' is a must-have

“The Sparkling Dawn” tells a story of tradition and mentorship that spans 60 years.

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

Hey, if you haven’t checked out this month’s episode of “Fire Draw Near,” you might want to – it’s a good one. In it, host Ian Lynch focuses on the ballad “Long Lankin” (Roud 6, Child 93), from which his band Lankum took its name. The song’s about a grizzly murder, sometimes with supernatural overtones – fascinating stuff and the episode includes lots of great versions! Visit campsite.bio/firedrawnear for listening options.

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Down to business: this week I’m writing about “The Sparkling Dawn,” an incredible new CD featuring the fiddle playing of Hughie Gillespie and Frank Kelly. If you’re a lover of traditional Irish music, this is one you’ll definitely want to have.

“The Sparkling Dawn” tells a story of tradition and mentorship that spans 60 years. Born in County Donegal in 1906, Gillespie moved to New York City in 1928. There, he met the legendary Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman, who not only became a close friend but his musical mentor. In those days, the two performed together with regularity. Gillespie became intimately acquainted with Coleman and his music, but instead of being a mere imitator, he found in the master a path to his own musical voice. Indeed, it was Coleman’s apparent pull with Decca Records that led to the 20 well-loved and oft-anthologized sides Gillespie made for them between 1937 and 1939 that let us know what his playing was like as a young man.


Gillespie returned to Donegal in 1964, 19 years after Coleman’s death. There, he struck up a friendship with Kelly, a young fiddler from the area. Kelly came from a musical household and it wasn’t before long that Gillespie became his mentor, giving him the kind of encouragement and guidance that Coleman had provided him. Kelly and Gillespie played together twice weekly, their very special musical bond lasting until Gillespie’s passing in 1986.

“The recordings presented on this CD are from a night in 1967, a gathering in Hughie’s house,” the liner notes state. “You can nearly smell the smoke.” Moments into the album, the truth in this statement is clear. The atmosphere is visceral and the music raw and driving with no real pretense, it seems, for posterity. The two fiddle players, mentor and mentee, share incredible drive and lift, and are clearly on the same wavelength, finding common ground in their expression and phrasing. It’s just magnificent music.

Coleman’s legacy and his direct influence on Gillespie is clearly apparent here, in tunes including (but not limited to) “Mrs. Kenny’s Waltz” and in sets like “Lord McDonald”/“Ballinasloe Fair,” “Tell Her I Am”/“Richard Brennan’s Favourite,” and “Jackson’s Morning Brush”/“Rambling Pitchfork,” all of which Coleman popularized. And yet, while Coleman is very much present in all of this, Gillespie and Kelly share a sound and a bond that are very much their own.


It’s hard to know the substance of Coleman’s influence on Gillespie with any real precision, but there’s a tune here – “Dowd’s Favorite,” which both Coleman and Gillespie recorded before World War II – that I think can begin to shed some light. Although no recordings of Gillespie and Coleman are known to exist, what we do have is a recently discovered recording at ITMA of Coleman playing “Dowd’s Favorite” with a young Andy McGann (tinyurl.com/ColemanITMA). I wonder if Coleman’s approach to McGann’s budding musicianship mirrored that of his approach to Gillespie, and if, in turn, it was reflected in Gillespie’s approach to Kelly’s. It’s something interesting to consider.

“The Sparkling Dawn” is a must-have recording for traditional music fans. The music is perfect, the restoration beautiful (credit to John Blake), and the presentation just right (Jesse Smith’s graphic design is excellent as always). Not much more I can say about this one, other than to tell you to rush in your order. If you’re a fan of pure drop traditional music, you simply will not be disappointed by this absolutely fabulous album. “The Sparkling Dawn” is available through Custy’s Shop in Ennis, tinyurl.com/SparklingDawn.