About this Recording
8.120640 - SONGS of IRELAND (1916-1950)


Original Recordings 1916-1950

Somewhat defiant of precise definition, the term ‘Irish Song’ is a broad church.  In recent years its meaning has been stretched to include almost anything from folksong (ranging from authentic in the ‘collected’ sense to arranged, or blatant spoof) to Tin Pan Alley hackwork of yesteryear rehashed in C&W mode.  The boundaries within each category may also have become blurred but the devotees of each have in common their susceptibility to a lilting tune, especially if suitably sentimental lyrics are attached. Previously the genres were clearer, although since the advent of commercial popular music publishing (early 19th century) the Irish tradition in song in a commercial sense has been continuous and all-pervading, with a lucrative thread traceable on the one hand from Edward Bunting, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and Samuel Lover (1796-1868) to Percy French (1854-1920) – the three last-named were also entertainers who sang their own compositions in the salons of Britain and America – and, on the other, from George Petrie (1789-1866),  Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931) and Stanford (1852-1924) to Herbert Hughes (1882-1972) among many.  The advent of the gramophone at the turn of the nineteenth century added a further dimension to the tradition and since then Irish song has provided a significant money-spinner to the record companies, particularly in the USA where a captive second – and third, fourth and fifth – generation immigrant Irish audience has remained avid for nostalgic reminders, however dim, of the ‘Ould Country’.

The Scots-Irish tenor John McCormack (1884-1945) was one of the most vigorous popularisers of Irish song, ranging from folksy to stage-Irish.  A native of Athlone, he became a star attraction in London (in opera at Covent Garden and in Boosey and Chappell Ballad Concerts) in 1907.  After 1910 he was to pursue an even bigger career as a recitalist in the USA where, particularly after he took up US citizenship, his regular concert-tours drew massive crowds and his many recordings became a mainstay of Victor’s Red Seal catalogue.  Following without condescension hard upon the scheduled Bach, Brahms and Italian arie antiche, his recital programmes regaled his enraptured audiences with Irish ditties which later ranked among his recorded bestsellers, items such as When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (a once-hackneyed song written and featured by Buffalo-born tenor Chauncey Olcott (1858-1932) in his 1912 Broadway show The Isle Of Dreams, this has music by his Cleveland, Ohio-born collaborator Ernest R. Ball, 1878-1927) and The Garden Where The Praties Grow (a Johnny Patterson (c.1840-1899) setting of an old Irish air, arranged by the English organist Samuel Liddle, 1859-1941).

The examples set by McCormack, Olcott and others sparked a trend soon to be exploited ubiquitously on stage, disc and radio by numerous tenors of similar inspiration but more questionable vocal endowment, and we offer here some samples of a few of the more successful in gramophonic terms.  In the USA the lyrical Colin O’More and Seamus O’Doherty, both heard here in traditional fare, appear to have had substantial careers, as did fiddler John Griffin, heard in The Real Old Mountain Dew.  Across the Atlantic, however, the list seems to be more extensive, if less specialised.  Radio-tenor Danny Malone is heard in A Little Bit Of Heaven (Ball again, with lyrics by San Francisco-born entertainer and writer J. Keirn Brennan (1873-1948), this was first heard in the 1916 Broadway musical The Heart Of Paddy Whack); Cavan O’Connor (1899-1997) the Nottingham-born, half-Irish tenor who made literally thousands of records under more than 40 pseudonyms, had a career in the halls and on radio spanning more than 65 years (Bantry Bay – a song which evokes the exodus from Ireland to America ensuing from various mid-19th century famines, this was the work of Cornolore-born London barrister-turned operetta and songwriter James Lyman Molloy (1837-1909), now best remembered for “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “The Kerry Dance”) and Derry-born star of variety, radio and TV Josef Locke (1917-1999) who closes this programme with a favourite curtain-call, the perennially popular I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.  Not in fact an Irish song at all, but written in 1875 by Thomas Paine Westendorf (1848-1923) of Indiana and first published in March 1876 by one of Tin Pan Alley’s precursors, John Church & Co. of Cincinnati, this song dates from the days when ‘people were unmolested by zealous “song-pluggers” and new compositions were judged in the home.’

By the 1940s judgment at home inevitably came not only via records but also, more immediately still, via radio.  In America sales of beer and other consumer goods were boosted on commercial programmes featuring the American-Irish Morton Downey or such tenor imports as Christopher Lynch or John Feeney (of “When It’s Moonlight In Mayo” fame) who, along with the McNulty Family (heard here in the jaunty Mother’s Silver Bell) was prominent among the ethnic Irish ‘discoveries’ of Decca’s American president Jack Kapp.  And in Ireland itself, as indeed ‘across the Water’, a liking for ‘wandering balladeers’ never diminished.  Mayo-born Delia Murphy (1903-1971), who on one occasion assisted McCormack in his folk-song researches at the home of Herbert Hughes and later won fame on records and radio with The Spinning Wheel, among other favourites, is a case in point, while the Irish penchant for self-mockery continued in the ever-popular comic songs of Mayo-born mathetician, engineer, author, painter and singer Percy French (1854-1920).  French, once a famous entertainer in his own right on both sides of the Pond, is best exemplified by such numbers as “Phil The Fluter’s Ball”, “Abdul Abulbul Ameer”, “Teaching French in Killaloo” and Come Back, Paddy Reilly (published in 1912).

Peter Dempsey, 2003

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