Bringing It All Back Home

Hot Press Magazine by Liam Fay (1991-04-04)

U2, Elvis Costello, The Pogues, The Waterboys, Emmylou Harris, Hothouse Flowers, The Everly Brothers, Christy Moore just some of the dozens of artists who contribute to an adventurous new five part TV series which traces the extraordinary return journey that Irish traditional music has made to America and beyond. Here, Liam Fay previews the programmes, talks to Philip King who originated and nurtured the project and hears many of the participants explain how they discovered the importance and influence of Irish music.

It s like something out of the last half-hour of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind . Those closing scenes when the aliens and earthlings finally make contact and open up a dialogue with each other by means of primitive blasts of light and melody.The setting is a concert hall in Huddersfield in November 1989. Banks of speakers, about sixty in all, are located in carefully chosen positions throughout the auditorium. On one side, a couple of computer terminals hum contentedly, while on the other, a giant multi-track sound desk is pumping out a strange cacophony of chaos: beeps, squawks, whooshes, creaks, thumps, moans, all sorts of aural junk. Everywhere, a TV crew s undergrowth of cables and wires adds to the general atmosphere of clutter while the half dozen musicians who ve been invited here shake their heads in bafflement and indignation.

None of this, however, seems to impinge in any way on the man at the centre of the whole thing. Dressed in a crisply creased white suit, this rather eccentric-looking old gent is lying down on the floor, flicking through some sort of oddly-shaped book. Somebody asks him what he s doing. I am proceeding by chance operations, he replies in his genteel but high-pitched San Francisco accent. The man s name is John Cage and he s doing what he does before he embarks on most of his orchestrations he s throwing the I Ching.

Now in his late seventies, John Cage is one of America s most controversial avant-garde composers. Derided by many as a sham and hailed by others as a deconstructuralist genius, Cage studied under the father of modern classicism , Arnold Schoenberg, and has devoted his life to breaking down the barriers between music and the impositions (as he sees them) placed on it by formalities such as harmony and metre.

Some of his most infamous compositions include a recital on a drawer of knives and forks, a piece made up entirely of two electronic notes played over and over at varying speeds and a symphony featuring twelve randomly tuned radios, all playing at once.

To help in his rejection of all the fundamental precepts of musical composition, Cage is an impassioned advocate of the importance of chance and disorder. His I Ching is as integral to him as a baton is to an orchestra conductor.

The work that he intends performing today is called Roaratorio , a soundscape based on James Joyce s Finnegan s Wake , in which music, text and tape-recordings are interwoven. The recordings are of sounds which are mentioned in the book and which Cage himself taped during a visit to Ireland. He then chopped and spliced the tape with all the abandon of a sushi chef, and multi-tracked the results so as to give the effect of a splashing river of sound which runs continually through the performance. Cage himself, meanwhile, intones mesotics or word formations which he has constructed from the text of Finnegan s Wake.

Intro this alphabet soup is poured the input of the musicians. And it is here that I probably should reveal just who exactly they are. Not surprisingly, they re Irish but they are not people usually associated with avant-garde deconstructuralism. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to find a more incongruous milieu for these players, normally more at home with ceilms than with the I Ching. Liam O Flynn (pipes), Paddy Glackin (fiddle), Seamus Tansey (flute), Peadar and Mel Mercier (bodhrans) and Nsirmn Nm Riain it s far from it they were reared.

The performance of Roaratorio is to last precisely one hour. The six musicians are placed in separate, strategic locations around the hall and are instructed that they can each play what they like provided the sum total of their individual contributions does not exceed twenty minutes. They are still more than a little bemused and there a lot of winking and grimacing going on behind John Cage s back as he shuffles around offering final words of advice.

Eventually, everybody takes their places and the performance begins. Seamus Tansey rolls up his sleeves, puts his watch on the stand in front of him, and plays a tentative toot on the flute, Paddy Glackin follows with a twiddle on the fiddle, then Liam O Flynn unleashes a blast of uileann, and so on. Before long, the gestalt of words, sounds and music is in full torrent, gushing out of the speakers and flooding the hall with a manic energy.

The whole experience is like standing by an open door in a Dublin put at eleven-thirty at night someone shouts for three pints, someone else sings a snatch of a song and is told to shut up, an ambulance screeches down the street, an argument breaks out and quickly turns to tears…

At first I thought it was dreadful utterly dreadful, balderdash, says Peadar Mercier after the performance. But as time went on, I began to listen and I gradually fell in love with the thing. Everyone in life has something to look forward to: their holidays or to go fishing or whatever, and what I now look forward to most is another Roaratario . It s marvellous to think that something that to me was ugly at the outset now stands as a little joy in my life.

Irish traditional music has clashed head on with the American avant-garde and survived to tell the tale.

The foregoing is just one of the many compelling encounters that go to make up Bringing It All Back Home, an ambitious new television documentary series that traces the influence which Irish music has had on forms as diverse as country, rock and even as we ve seen, the avant-garde, and then brings these descendant genres together with their forebears for some fascinating re-unions.

The man who originated and nurtured this project is Philip King. Together with Nuala O Connor, a former RTE researcher, he formed a production company called Hummingbird, and has spent the last four years financing, creating and selling the programme.

I’ve wanted to make this programme for a long time, he explains, and to see it finally complete really is the fulfilment of a dream for me. From an early age, a fascination with both rock music and traditional music has been a very important element in my whole make-up. It s part and parcel of the way I grew up and it s informed the work I ve done with Scullion and with my own song-writing. And so for me, the series is a sort of affirmation of things I ve believed all my life.

This morning, in one of Windmill Lane s video rooms, Philip King is watching the final cut of the series for over the twentieth time. He s like a kid in a sweet shop: lunging at the controls, fast-forwarding, rewinding, pausing, singling out dozens of personal highlights from the programmes and talking a mile-a-minute at the same time.

You ve got to see this, he says and he means it. This is great! Frankie Gavin and Yehudi Menuhin playing together in New York.

This is great too, he emphasises again, fast-forwarding to another part of the series. It s one of the best sessions we have. You ve Alex Finn on bouzouki, Sean Ryan on whistle, Steve Wickham on fiddle, Adam Clayton on bass, Martin O Connor on accordion and Gerry O Connor on whistle. Absolutely brilliant. We got it on one take too.

Another highlight. The Everly Brothers singing Rose Connolly with Liam O Flynn accompanying them on pipes. That was a song that Don and Phil learned from their father. They assumed then that it was an old Kentucky song but it had actually been collected in Ireland in 1810 by Edward Bunting.

The tapes roll on again. This is the song Bono wrote especially for the series. It s called Wild Irish Rose , which is the name of a really cheap type of liquor which Bono saw some bums drinking behind a hotel in Los Angeles. It s written in a ballad style and it s very, very powerful. We recorded that in a house down in the midlands with The Edge on guitar and Donal Lunny on whistle. Again it was very spontaneous just one take.

More frantic whirring of tape.

And this is another central piece, says King. It s a special instrumental piece written for the series called April 3rd . Its melodic structure is based on Irish traditional music but there s a particular emphasis on rhythm. It s played by Donal Lunny and The Blue Jumpers, a makeshift combo with The Edge on guitar and effects and Peter Gabriel s Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzey and a combination of electric and acoustic musicians pipes, fiddle, keyboards, electric guitars, bouzouki, bodhrans, timpani and all sorts of drums. It s a remarkable session.

Each new clip reminds Philip King of something else and he s off again, skipping and jumping through the series, prising out other exceptional moments and cherished memories. Emmylou Harris in Nashville with Dolores Keane and Mary Black, Christy Moore singing The Pogues Fairytale Of New York , Liam O Maonlam s sean-nss rendition of the old Irish love song Inmon An Fhaoit On Ghleann , Paul Brady with Donal Lunny doing Nothing But The Same Old Story , Paddy Glackin playing fiddle with Ricky Scaggs, The Clancys final filmed performance as a foursome before the death of Tom the list really is endless.

But Philip King is also quick to point out that Bringing It All Back Home is a lot more than just a series of performances strung together. It is a celebration and an affirmation of a nation s musical history and, of course, to do that effectively, it has to tell the story of the people who made the music.

First the facts and figures: Bringing It All Back Home is an audacious #1 million series in five hourly parts which was made by Hummingbird Productions for BBC television in association with RTE. It attempts to trace the extraordinary and far-flung journeys which Irish traditional music has undertaken over the past couple of centuries, to go to some of the places that it reached and to tell the story of how it inevitably wound its way back home again. Besides the TV documentaries, there is an accompanying book, triple album, double CD, cassette soundtrack and, for all I know, a T-shirt and bumper sticker too.

It may take only a short paragraph to outline the project s manifesto but, in reality, it took almost four years of dogged determination, back-breaking work and exhaustive research to bring the whole thing to fruition. The series itself visits Chicago, Nashville, New York, Appalachia, Manchester, London, parts of Australia and Canada and virtually every corner of Ireland but the series makers travelled even further afield in what amounted to their massive archaeological dig of the intercontinental layers of sedimentary Irish cultural history.

Then there s the vast number of musicians who participated in the programmes Philip King has lost track of the final tally of individual performers who take part in BIABH but he does remember that near the end it took a sheet of cardboard the size of a table-cloth to list all their names.

For the record, the dust-jacket of the BIABH book boasts a line-up of ninety-five separate acts but they are only the main players.

The scope may be expansive but the central theme of the series could probably be expressed on the back of an envelope or, more fittingly, a beer-mat. BIABH is not one of those documentaries that draws itself up to its full height and wags a lecturing finger at the viewer. In fact, the programmes editorialise very little.

Rather, it sets out in a clear and engaging fashion an historical and cultural framework through which the music is allowed to wander unescorted, acting as its own curator and guide.

We didn t want to just link a handful of performances together with some Bord Failte footage nor did we want to deliver a heavy thesis that would only be of interest to musicologists and historians, explains Philip King. We wanted to tell a story, several stories and allow people to follow certain threads themselves throughout the series. The performances speak for themselves, they are their own rhetoric and their own theory put into practice while the interviews act as signposts and a means of keeping up with the story threads. The one complements the other so there was certainly no need for the narration to blunder in and spell everything out through a megaphone. The viewers can make up their own minds.

Indeed, stories do run through BIABH like an elaborate system of overlapping underground cables. Small stories about families and people, musicians and songs and large stories about culture, history, politics, even religion. But, of course, given its subject matter, the pivotal story has to be about emigration. It goes something like this. During the past one hundred and fifty years, Ireland has had more of its people leave the country than remain in it. Being Irish outside Ireland is central to the Irish experience. And, for the most part, the impoverished Irish emigrant had no cultural crutches with which to learn how to walk in their new homes other than intangibles like memory, imagination and traditional music.

The single significant social upheaval that s constant in the last two centuries has been emigration, asserts King. That is the environment in which our music has grown. America was the place where most of our emigrants went and that s probably the single most important strand in the series. When the Irish went to America, they didn t become tailors or businessmen. They didn t settle down as such. They became builders and they travelled with the railroads and brought story and song right across the continent. They infiltrated a whole section of society and so did their music.

Feverishly, blindly, and by night, Irish traditional music made its way across the United States so that by the end of the last century, it had already completely infused itself into the nation s own bloodstream. Irish ballads started turning up in American song books, dance tunes picked up new accents and rhythms, songs in Irish lost their original lyrics and grew new sets (or alternately had their Gaelic words turned into nonsense, approximations as happened with Sizil A Rzn , which is known in the States as Shule, Shule I Rue ).

One of the most forthright testaments in BIABH comes from American folk maestro, Pete Seeger, who says: The two big strains in American music are from Ireland and Africa, those musics have come together to form what we now call American music. And so the man who provides a direct link in the chain between Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and people like The Byrds (it was Seeger s group The Weavers who first popularised Turn, Turn in the fifties, for example) provides a ringing endorsement to the series central assertion.

To prove his point further, he dismantles the classic American folk song Kisses Sweeter Than Wine to expose its very mixed pedigree. The tune originally came from Ireland, he says. The rhythm came from Africa, and the words from a fellow in Arkansas who met a person from New England in New York city and was told by a commercial agent we gotta get a new song to record .

Elsewhere, BIABH turns up American songs of even stronger Irish lineage. Bob Dylan s With God On Our Side (also covered by The Neville Brothers on 89 s Yellow Moon ) comes from a song he heard The Clancy Brothers sing on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s. That song was called The Patriot Game with lyrics by Dominic Behan and melody from a traditional Appalachian Mountains folk tune called The Bold Grenadier which itself has Irish roots.

A preoccupation with and a love for landscape is a central theme of most of Ireland s traditional music and this too is a feature that has leaked into US folk music. BIABH highlights several American songs and tunes that are heavily seasoned with this pining for land lost or left behind, what Kentucky-born country star Ricky Scraggs identifies as the high lonesome sound . Probably the most poignant of these songs is Kilkelly (performed in the series by Irish/American musicians Mick Moloney, Jimmy Keane and Robbie O Connell) which is written from the actual text of one emigrant family s letters from America to home and vice-versa. Some might dismiss it as just another soppy auld ballad, says King, but they re wrong. There s no romantic imagery in this song, no sentimental artifice, it s just matter-of-fact reality. The fact that it s made up of actual extracts from real emigrant letters also probably makes it unique, in any culture.

But lest we forget, this series is called Bringing It All Back Home. The programmes are often at their most stimulating when they chart the return journey of Irish music and its myriad mongrel offspring.

The effects of this on traditional music itself are probably the most straightforward. Up until about 1950, the most significant developments in Irish trad took place outside of the country. The main reason for this was the emergence in America of the art of putting music onto record, a form as different from live music as film is different from theatre.

Irish music was first recorded in Tin Pan Alley, it grew up in New York. explains Philip King. It had also become a different kind of music. It was played louder and faster because the environment of New York is a loud, noisy, fast environment. These 78s were recorded and sent home, recordings of people like James Morrison, Michael Coleman and Patrick Touhey, and they had a huge effect on the way traditional music subsequently developed here. As BIABH shows, the native dormant tradition was rejuvenated by this new music coming from America (initially though, there was quite a high smash-rate with these discs as some of the older musicians believed them to be the work of the devil perhaps Tipper Gore and the PMRC also have their roots in Ireland).

Meanwhile, the ballad tradition had also found its way back to Ireland. {I was affected by Guthrie and Dylan but particularly Woody Guthrie, says Christy Moore who also cites The Clancy Brothers as an early influence. The Tipperary-born Clancys together with their Armagh friend Tommy Makem moved to America in the early 50s and formed a folk group singing ballads they had learned as children. Following an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, they were catapulted from their Greenwich Village coffee shop haunts on to a national stage. They were, recalls Mick Moloney, the first Irish-born entertainers since Count John McCormack to achieve international recognition.

Their impact back home was enormous. During the sixties and seventies, Irish music underwent a root-and-branch renaissance that spawned such seminal outfits as The Dubliners, Sweeney s Men, The Johnstons and, of course, Planxty and The Bothy Band. Together with the work that the classically trained Sean O Riada was doing in orchestration and composition, these groups helped to popularise Irish traditional music and to infuse it with a renewed impetus. As Christy Moore says in BIABH: People like me were now being more excited by Irish music than they had been previously by American and British rock n roll.

Another person who also got caught up in this excitement was Alec Finn, later to become one of the lynchpins of De Danann. During the late sixties, he shared a flat in Dublin with a young rock musician called Phil Lynott and he remembers that traditional music was played every bit as often as rock on their rickety stereo. It didn t matter, Finn says of that time, whether you were a traditional musician or a rock musician. They all sort of drank in the same bars to a great extent and had jams together and what have you. Everyone blended in very well together.

Any history of Irish music, but especially one that attempts to gauge the influence of traditional elements on rock, must focus on the contribution of Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy and indeed Horslips. However, BIABH really only manages to gloss over this particular area. Primarily, say the producers, because of the legal disarray that surrounds the estates of both these acts. But given that The South Bank Show s recent Cool Clear Crystal Streams programme virtually revised Irish musical history to erase the whole Celtic Rock era out of the picture, isn t it important now that its legacy and particularly Lynott s legacy are recognised?

Cool Clear Crystal Streams was only scratching the surface, says Philip King. It was a one-off, one hour programme so it didn t pay an awful lot of attention to the aspects that we can go into in more detail. Instead, it hopped aboard a popular notion of Irish music and focused on all of the major personalities Morrison, Geldof, Siniad, Bono etc. What we hoped to do was to instigate new performances, to spawn new collaborations and to have new music written. If Philip Lynott was still around, he would ve been integral to that process but his spirit is still very much alive in the programme, many of the artists talk about him and acknowledge his contribution. We did try to get our hands on footage of Thin Lizzy playing Whiskey In The Jar on Top Of The Pops but all the red tape that involved proved too much, unfortunately. Anyway, to do justice to Lynott and all of that would probably need a whole documentary in itself. And yes, perhaps it s time that was done.

Inevitably, given their position in the pantheon of Irish rock, much attention is bound to be focused on U2 s contribution to BIABH. Once the staunchly independent purveyors of no-strings attached rock, the band have latterly been seduced by the call of their wild Hibernian roots. Curiously, it was Bono s exploratory odyssey into the heartland of American rock n roll which, he says, led him back to his own front door.

In 1984, Bono was set the task of interviewing Bob Dylan backstage at Slane for Hot Press. Irish music has always been a great part of my life, Dylan told an incredulous Bono, because I used to hang out with The Clancy Brothers. They influenced me tremendously. Dylan went on to cite Liam Clancy as one of the greatest singers he had ever heard. Bono, shocked by this revelation confessed his envy for Dylan: My music and the music of U2 is like, it s in space somewhere. There is no particular musical heritage that we plug into . . .

As a young teenager, Bono had rejected all aspects of Irish music and culture. We had this idea of Ireland rammed down our throats. So we threw it up, he recalls. I rebelled against being Irish. I rebelled against speaking the Irish language, Irish culture . . . Batman, Robin, Superman that was more part of my experience than Finn McCool and the legends and mythology of Ireland.

Something of Irish culture did, however, manage to penetrate his indifference. One of his teachers introduced him to the music of Sean O Riada which, despite himself, he liked. Then in 1973, when Thin Lizzy had a hit with the old Clancy Brother s song Whiskey In The Jar , he found something else to identify with. In fact, I think it was one of the first things I ever played on acoustic guitar, he says, but that was before the electric version came out.

In the Hot Press interview, Dylan told Bono: You have to reach back. He seems to have taken him at his word and for the past number of years, Bono says he s been on a voyage of self-discovery through Irish music. On BIABH he says he now finds himself drawn to the pure, poetic spirit of an instrument like the uileann pipes. He also finds that he has as much in common with as many Irish traditional performers as rock performers. The Irish are less uptight about what s inside them, he says, therefore they let it out easier and it comes out in a raw way and that s very like the spirit of black music and gospel music.

He insists that U2 are a rock group with an indigenous Irish personality. The confusion over my own identity and the group’s identity is part of the reason why I m digging into Irish folk music and the ballad form, he says. I think there s an Irishness to what U2 do. I m not quite sure what it is. I think it s something to do with the romantic spirit of the words I write, but also of the melodies that Edge makes on the guitar. Now the rock n roll elements that come through Larry would hardly be Irish, yet the abandonment in the way he plays the kit is intrinsically Irish.

You tend to put a glass case around folk music but I think U2 are a folk group, an out-and-out folk band we re the loudest folk band you ll ever hear.

Bono also suggests that this feeling for and exploration of Irish balladry is something that is going to become even more prevalent in his own songwriting indeed, as his performance of Wild Irish Rose on BIABH attests, this process has already begun. I think Irish music reminds us of the humanity that we re losing, of a past that we all share, he says. It s a common past and Irish music is a part of it.

Of course, there are those who will dismiss all of this as the garbled pretensions of an ageing rock band who crave some kind of authentic gilt by association with a tradition that they don t really belong to. Philip King anticipates this kind of criticism but adamantly rejects it out of hand.

Fuck the begrudgers, he says. I think that people who come from this country whether they be rock stars, world musical figures or people playing reels and jigs down the country, all have an absolute right to explore and talk and look into where their music comes from. Tony McMahon says in the programme that Irish music comes out of the rocks and the rivers. I couldn t agree more, it belongs to all of us. I think also that people who travel and live in that amazing world that is a rock n roll world certainly have got to come home and ask themselves very hard questions about where it is they come from and what it is they do. That is not alone their right but it is vital that they should do that. Everybody should do that.

I admire the way in which Bono and Adam and Edge and Larry come to a project like this and see it as part of their own musical tradition to which they ve every right to adhere. People can snipe away at them and at Bringing It All Back Home all they like but as far as I m concerned that s their problem. They should ask themselves a few hard questions.

There are, as I ve already said, dozens of other stories grinding away at each other beneath the surface of Bringing It All Back Home. Stories about other journeys that Irish music has made, about how Sean Nss singing has influenced blues singing, about Sean O Riada and how his work is continued today by his son Peadar and by Mmcheal O Szilleabhain, about how in Ireland the church tried to annihilate Irish dancing because of its immorality (sins of the fiis and all that), about how the playing of individual instruments developed or decayed.

Space precludes me from going into any more of them here. And anyway, the TV programmes and the performances make their points far more cogently and eloquently than any written exposition ever could. In this context, considerable praise is due to director Peter Carr, lighting cameraman Tony Cauldwell and editors Brendan McCarthy and Geraldine Creed, all of whom helped create the impressive style and look of the series and paced it with such momentum. Whatever people think of the assertions of the project, few, I think, will deny its attractiveness as television entertainment.

As musical director, Donal Lunny was another essential catalyst, successfully blending all of the different elements that each performance required while still maintaining the individuality of every musician. From the start, his participation was one of the reasons why the series was greeted with such enthusiasm. In some cases, as when the crew were filming in Nashville, dozens of other musicians like John Prine, Richard Thompson, Albert Lee turned up because they heard that a good jamming session was in full throttle.

Back at Windmill Lane, Philip King is still whizzing through the programmes. He concedes one or two disappointments, most notably that he was unable to secure performances from either Van Morrison or Siniad O Connor and that the footage shot with Kate Bush had to be jettisoned for reasons of time. But, in general, he believes that the series as we ll see it is a faithful realisation of his original concept.

This is not the definitive statement, he says. It s not all encompassing. But it does make an attempt to pull together various different strands of music and to chart their development and influences. As we come to the end of the century, we wanted to make a statement about how our music has arrived. Whether it s arrived at a high level or a low level is for someone else to say but this series shows that, whatever you think, it is undeniably there.

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