CD & DVD Review:
Fil Campbell – SONGBIRDS (CD and companion DVD) (Glenshee Records)
The Fermanagh-born singer/songwriter has changed tack for her latest project (and fourth album release), on which she looks back at the music of her childhood and pays tribute to the songs of the past and the women singers who performed them. Its genesis lies in Fil’s desire to make a CD of folk songs that she had grown up with and that had first been recorded in the 1930s by Delia Murphy, but that basic idea has since evolved further to also embrace the lives of four other women who had also recorded this material (Ruby Murray, Bridie Gallagher, Mary O’Hara and Margaret Barry), eventually blossoming into a six-part series for Irish Television – entitled Songbirds: The First Ladies Of Irish Song – which was first shown in autumn 2005.
The DVD (which is available separately from the CD) presents the actual TV programmes in their entirety. What comes across more than anything else is that the project has been a real labour of love for Fil: her unreserved affection for her subjects and their songs, and her ability to get to the heart of the singers’ stories and communicate it lovingly to her audience. The series is also strongly unified both in style and format and in terms of design and presentation, and looks and sounds extremely attractive, with archive film extracts and interviews sensibly balanced and integrated. Each programme seems just about the right length, and no individual element outstays its welcome – and yet I also felt I learned a significant amount about the ladies and their personalities from these brief portraits. The basic biographical information is fleshed out by reminiscences from an array of respected and experienced musicians, writers and broadcasters (these including Mick Moloney, Colum and Tommy Sands, Phil Coulter, Reg Hall, Steve Cooney and Ron Kavana), all of whom display an evident warmth, regard and admiration for the ladies (and a keen appreciation of their talents) and a relevant depth of informed knowledge with often some very interesting stories to tell. Finally, a number of excerpts from the recording-studio sessions (where Fil and a select few master musician friends performed key songs associated with the singers discussed) set the actual biographical studies into relief and give them an interpretive context.
The first programme introduces the series’ concept and rationale, while presenting a thoughtful overview: its tempting and plausible central thesis is that women singers weren’t recognised as important in the performance of Irish repertoire (and moreover, all Irish singers were almost ashamed of their own heritage) until the emergence and subsequent popularity of these five singers; each in her own way has been deemed to contribute significantly to the ongoing folk revival while defining a specifically Irish repertoire that nevertheless encompassed both indigenous songs from the true tradition and songs from the music-hall or even Tin Pan Alley that idealised “the motherland” for the benefit of emigrants exiled in other countries (especially the USA). Each of the remaining five programmes is then in turn seen to concentrate exclusively on the life and work of one of the “first ladies of Irish song”. Some or most of the five singers may at times have had songs which were common to their individual repertoires, but it’s important to note that they performed in often diametrically opposed styles. While noting that all five ladies were in their own way popularisers of Irish song (and their semi-traditional way of singing even non-traditional material ensured that this got fed back into the tradition almost by default), the series also points up the contrasts between them, from the raw, but completely natural street-singer Maggie to the soaring, classically sweet bel-canto soprano and elegant harpistry of Mary; the wild, unbridled charm of Delia to the lift-the-stage persona and come-all-ye inclusiveness of Bridie and the all-pervading purity of tone and Hollywood-style artistry of Ruby.
Now, one may initially be disappointed that the series (and therefore the DVD too) contains no complete performances of individual songs, either by the original artists or by Fil herself – although it’s perfectly understandable in view of the programmes’ remit and the necessary time constraints of the format. The companion Songbirds CD, being available separately, should thus by rights be the answer to one’s prayers, and to a large extent it is. The first thing to note is that it is indeed both entirely complementary to, and a logical development from, the DVD. To be sure, even if you’ve not viewed the DVD it stands alone as a totally lovely collection of songs, affectionately performed by Fil in her characteristically warm, sensitive yet commanding vocal style (someone once dubbed Fil “a third McGarrigle”, and not without some justification). The songs all suit her down to the ground, and she luxuriates mildly in the expression of these old-fashioned sentiments (the DVD extracts show just how much she revels in singing them, but you can hear it on the audio tracks too). Fil also benefits enormously from the gently-conceived and ultra-sympathetic musical accompaniment courtesy of a worthy crew that includes her percussionist-husband Tom McFarland, James Blennerhassett (bass), Brendan Emmett (guitars, mandolin, banjo), Seamus Brett (keyboards) and Brendan Monaghan (uilleann pipes, whistles). There are some special guests too, notably Sean Keane who duets with Fil on Love’s Old Sweet Song (Just A Song At Twilight) and Tommy Sands on What Would You Do Love?, with star instrumentalists Steve Cooney, Finbar Furey and Laoise Kelly providing key contributions to individual songs. I might well single out Steve’s embellishments for special mention, but truth to tell they’re all exemplary in their taste and ambience. Fil can through her own masterful reinterpretations justifiably lay claim to being a contemporary equivalent of the celebrated “first ladies”, you might say.
However – and here’s the rub – although all of the 15 songs on the CD occur in brief snippet form during the course of the six TV programmes, there are several more songs (including My Lagan Love, The Bonny Boy, Johnny The Daisy-O, Farewell But Whenever and Seoladh Na nGamhna) of which extracts are tantalisingly performed on the DVD, but which don’t appear on the CD at all. I realise that the CD is over an hour long already, but it’s a glorious length and I for one would easily have welcomed extra tracks. More in the way of a missed opportunity though, surely the bonus-material space on the DVD could better have been used for these additional songs (instead it presents five audio-only tracks taken from two of Fil’s previous studio albums and unrelated to the Songbirds project).
One other, more minor point regarding the CD: although all the songs included therein are taken from the repertoires of the various singers portrayed, the booklet notes don’t always specify which singer is primarily associated with which song. We all know of Delia’s recordings of If I Were A Blackbird, What Would You Do, Love?, The Connemara Cradle Song and The Moonshiner; some of us will remember Mary’s recording of The Castle Of Dromore; The Spinning Wheel was recorded by both Delia and Mary; and Ruby’s Softly, Softly was but one of her five Top 20 hits in just one week in 1955! But as for the remainder, well without having seen either the TV series or the DVD we’re left guessing just a bit (tho’ you won’t necessarily think that matters a lot when several of the songs were common to more than one of the singers). In any case though, Fil’s own lovingly-turned performances are likely to inspire listeners to investigate the original recordings of the “first ladies”.
The above reservations notwithstanding, the whole project (DVD and CD) has proved immensely worthwhile; the discs are great value as they stand, and all credit to Fil and Tom for their initiative and skill in producing what amounts to such an intensely rewarding and treasurable experience: both highly charming and uniquely comforting, and perfect fireside entertainment on all counts, I’d say.
© David Kidman – reprinted in Living Tradition Magazine and NetRhythms.com