Inside the Songs: John Doyle and the Irish Experience

Irish guitarist, singer, and songwriter John Doyle is one of the foremost traditional musicians of his generation. He first made his name as the guitarist for the much-loved ensemble Solas, where his particularly percussive style of guitar became one of the prime inspirations for other Irish guitarists, and gave rise to many imitators. He's also known for his work with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll; their duo album, Double Play, was justly nominated for a Grammy in 2010. Recently he's been showing himself as a deft interpreter of Irish songs and a soloist of great note. With his new album, Shadow and Light, Doyle is also proving himself as a songwriter. He's usually been content to plumb the depths of the Irish tradition for material, but most of the songs on Shadow and Light are ones he's written. And these songs reach into his life and history for their inspiration. "Little Sparrow" is a crowd favorite song he wrote to his daughter, and it's great to have it recorded finally. It's a softly sweet ode to childhood that should lend itself well to being covered (*hint to folk singers looking for new material).

What I found most interesting about Doyle's album were the songs about the Irish experience in America. Of course, emigration to America (or Canada for that matter) has always been one of the main topics in Irish traditional song, and Doyle includes some fascinating variations on these songs. In fact, I found his liner notes about these songs to be compelling enough that I got permission to share them online in this edition of Inside the Songs. The first song (co-written with his wife Cathy), "Liberty's Sweet Shore," deals with the most-known Irish emigration, that of the Great Famine, but from the lesser known perspective of Irish immigration to Québec, the second-most important port after New York for Irish fleeing starvation and depredation in the mid-19th century. The second song, "The Arabic," shines a light on Doyle's own history and the later (attempted) emigration of his grandfather during WWI.


Liberty's Sweet Shore

"Gross Île, a way station close to Québec, has a mass grave of over thirty thousand victims of the famine and the brutal voyage over from Ireland. In the height of the Famine in 1847/48 certain landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate as it was the most financially expedient thing to do. Their tenants were starving to death and could not work nor pay their rents. Buying the cheapest passage for two pounds a head, men women and children, most in dire condition clothed in rags, no money nor food found their way on board. Some were luck and had a quick voyage over, a good captain and a ship's surgeon, but others had rancid meat, meager hard tack, if any, and a lack of drinking water. Many were infected with typhus or Cholera and were either thrown overboard or kept in Gross Île until their ultimate demise. Still, the overall outlook was hope as they were going to a different country and perhaps a life free from starvation, privation and domination."

John Doyle: Liberty's Sweet Shore



The Arabic

"In August of 1916 Martin Lohan, my great-grandfather on my mother's side, decided to join his brother and immigrate to the United States. He walked from Baile na Hamhna, close to Creggs, Lisduff in Co. Roscommon, to Cobh in County Cork, which was then called Queenstown, and embarked on the S.S. Arabic to New York. They were 50 miles south of Kinsale when U24, a German U-boat on maneuvers, discovered the ship and fired two torpedoes into The Arabic. The ship went down in ten minutes killing 44 people. Martin was one of the lucky ones who survived. He jumped into the sea shortly before the ship sunk and swam to a life raft, but was beaten away with oars by the men on board as they were afraid he would topple the small raft. Luckily for him (and for my grandfather, Mother and I) the hand of providence came in the form of a woman who grabbed him before he sank and hauled him into the life raft. He spent a few months in an infirmary on Spike Island and eventually walked back to Roscommon. Apparently the only words he mentioned of the event for many years was 'Ah sure, I wasn't meant to go to America.'"
John Doyle: The Arabic


Other songs on the album also deal with Irish and Irish-American history through the poetic lens of Doyle's songwriting. "Farewell to That" examines the bitter disappointment of Irish fighting for England in WWI, torn between the home hatred of the British and their hopes that their service would help gain Home Rule (it didn't). "Bound for Botany Bay" looks at an Irishman bound for the Australian penal colony following the 1798 Rebellion. "Clear the Way" documents the Irish Volunteers, a regiment in the American Civil War. It's a fascinating journey through Doyle's clear love of Irish history, and through the mind of a songwriter who recognizes the impact history has on us today. Buy the album and discover Doyle's songwriting for yourself!

PS: If you need more convincing, check out the lineup of guest musicians on the album: Tim O'Brien (vocals, mandolin), Alison Brown (banjo), Kenny Malone (percussion), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Todd Phillips (bass), John Williams (accordion), Pete Grant (lap steel) and Michael McGoldrick (uillean pipes and flute).
Thanks to John Doyle and Compass Records for permission to stream his songs and post the liner notes!

blog date 03/05/2012  | comments comments (0)

HearthPR: Pharis & Jason Romero's Fretboard Journal Documentary

Pharis & Jason Romero's recent album, A Passing Glimpse, has been blowing up all over the US and Canada (and now the buzz is moving to the UK/Europe). It's not hard to see why, the album is a stunningly beautiful set of new and old songs, performed in with an effortless mastery of the tradition.

The other part of the story is that in addition to being great musicians, the two are also some of the best banjo makers in the world. The Fretboard Journal, a wonderful magazine dedicated to fine instruments and instrument builders, recognized this and sent up a documentary film crew to capture some of the magic in and around their home in the remote town of Horsefly, British Columbia. Led by young filmmaker Matt Miles, the resulting short documentary is truly inspiring. Matt managed to capture the natural beauty of their home, the easy grace of their marriage, and some of the spirit they pour into their music. 

Check it out:


And if you're running short on time, here's a quick music video from Matt's documentary. A deft interpretation of the classic song, "Wild Bill Jones."

blog date 03/01/2012  | comments comments (0)

Hearth Recommends: Festival du Bois, March 3-4, Coquitlam BC


A French-Canadian Festival for the Northwest

March 3-4

Maillardville, Coquitlam, British Columbia

ROAD TRIP! Hearth Music is heading up to Coquitlam, BC, to the tiny community of Maillardville, just outside Vancouver. It's one of our favorite festivals, partly because of our French-Canadian heritage, but mainly for the warm, cozy community vibe and world-class artists this festival attracts. Maillardville has been home to a lively community of French-Canadians for about a hundred years now. They first began arriving around the turn of the century to work the lumber mills of the Fraser River, and further immigrations led to a thriving community in the heart of the Greater Vancouver area. Now this community has diminished a bit, but for Festival du Bois, families come out in force. French is the main language spoken and the tents of the festival echo with accordions, fiddles, guitars, old voyageur songs, and the wonderful smells of French-Canadian home cooking. Women and men gather in the tent kitchens to cook tourtière (Acadian meat pie), poutine, tarte à sucre (sugar pie), and to spread maple syrup over ice for a delicious taffy.

Here are some things we're looking forward to at Festival du Bois:

Quinn & Qristina Bachand: British Columbia has long been a hotbed of young fiddlers, from the Duhks' Tania Elizabeth to any of the fiddlers coming up through the ranks of the Paperboys (Shona Le Mottée, Shannon Saunders, Kendel Carson), and youngsters Quinn & Qristina Bachand are proving once again how vibrant BC's fiddle scene really is. Quinn plays guitar with a youthful fury and a very mature sense of rhythm and accuracy. He's recently been featured as famed fiddler Ashley MacIsaac's guitarist. Qristina draws from a broad base of Celtic fiddle traditions, notably the rhythms of Cape Breton and the lyricism of Ireland. Together these two siblings have been carving out powerful tunes together.

Bon Débarass: Festival du Bois is known for bringing many of the best young Québécois bands out to the West Coast. We've made plenty of friends this way, and this year we're looking forward to the trio Bon Débarras (Good Riddance). Multi-instrumentalists, they remix the rhythms of traditional French-Canadian music with a more cosmopolitan approach. A romping Québécois tune suddenly gives way to a cafe musette, and a Cajun song finds it way back to its ancestral roots. They'll be good fun!

Dejah Leger: OK, so yes this is a bit self-referential since Dejah works for HearthPR, but dang the work she's doing on French-Canadian Crankies ("tournilles" en français) is wonderful. Crankies are hand-sewn/hand-illustrated rolls of fabric or paper that tell a story through shadows as they are unrolled. Much like an old-fashioned movie. Dejah will play and tell the story of each Crankie as it unfurls. She was inspired by the recent visit to Seattle of Anna & Elizabeth, two traditional artists from Virginia. They used the Crankies to tell the stories of old Appalachian ballads, and now Dejah is using the Crankies for French-Canadian ballads. It's so wonderful to be able to see handmade artwork unfold while listening to the music being made at the same time. Dejah will also be playing music from her album, Hand-Sewn Lullabies, an all acoustic set of sleepy time songs.

Jocelyn Pettit: We've written about Jocelyn's fiddle playing before, and how astounding it is that someone so young can have such a mature talent. Here's what we said: "Originally inspired by Cape Breton fiddling (the most rhythmic and powerful form of Celtic fiddling), Jocelyn Pettit has branched far from these roots to embrace not only other Celtic styles (Irish, Scottish), but to write her own compositions... Unlike many fiddlers her age, she controls the tempo of every tune, able to draw emotion out of a slow, grumbling aire and control the high-wire fiddling required of a Scots dance reel. To have made such a daring debut at 15, we will expect many more great tunes from this young woman in the future." And she's only gotten better since then!


Juan Sebastian Larobina: I know little about this artist, but his story is utterly intriguing. Here's the press blurb: Mexican in his heart, Argentinean in his soul and Gaspésien by adoption, Juan Sebastian Larobina’s music brilliantly melds all three traditions to create flamboyant fresh roots music he calls “Latino-Gaspésien.” From Latin rhythms to foot percussion, this accomplished musician sails leisurely between cumbia and jigs, reels and salsa, a La Bolduc song to tango and funk." I can't think of two places more opposed than Mexico and the Gaspé Peninsula. Gaspé is the rocky coastline along the NE of the province of Québec, home to a rugged bunch of Acadian and Québécois settlers. I'm totally intrigued to hear how Juan Sebastian melds these disparate influences.





blog date 02/28/2012  | comments comments (0)

Hearth Music Interview with Laura Viers

We were lucky enough to score an interview with one our favorite indie roots artists, Portland songsmith Laura Veirs. She's just released a wonderful album of folk songs for kids, Tumble Bee. We talked about the darkness inherent in children's music and literature, and how music has affected her own family. She had some pretty interesting things to say! 

A few quotes from Laura:

"We didn’t want to make a dark children’s record, but we didn’t want to avoid darkness altogether."

"Pete Seeger had... a really cool version of “All the Pretty Little Horses” that we kind of used as a model for our version, and that song has some freaky imagery of a lamb dying in a field. Bees and butterflies eating its eyes. Why would you put that on a kids’ record? Well, because that actually happened. Back in the day, we were a farm culture…"

"We’re aiming at a pretty young audience. We’re aiming at the 0 to 6 set. I think that 8-year-olds would think we’re completely dorky and that’s fine by me."

Our interview is posted over in Tiny Mix Tapes:



And here's a neat little sample of Tumble Bee to get your interest up!

Laura Veirs: All the Pretty Little Horses


blog date 02/10/2012  | comments comments (0)

CD Review: Bua's Irish-American Masterpiece

Bua. Down the Green Fields.
2011. self-released.

Sometimes all you really need to say in a review is “Damn, they killed it.”

So I’m happy to say about the new album, Down the Green Fields, from Irish-American traditionalists Bua: Damn, they killed it. Seriously. If you have any interest in the traditional music of Ireland, an emerald sound born of fiddles, pipes, whistles, and a clarity of voice that sounds like the musical equivalent of a crystal clear mountain stream and refreshes just as much, buy this album.

Now, for those of you who have a deep love of Irish trad like I do, here’s a more in-depth review:

From the opening track, a set of two reels (Eddie Moloney’s/Micho Russell’s), the boys in Bua show that they have impeccable taste. Whereas most other young Irish bands would ramp the needle up to 11 [this one goes to 78? -ed], burning through these old reels like a gas guzzling SUV, Bua have the taste to know that by slowing the music down and playing at a relaxed pace they can actually have more of an effect. That’s rare in Irish music today, and shows that these players are totally attuned to the true roots of the music. For how could you dance to Irish music when the meter tops out? The frenetic insanity of a band like Dervish only works because those guys are living gods dropped from Mount Olympus to walk among us and demonstrate the powers of musical perfection. Bua would rather play the music right than show off, and that is something that makes me want to stand up and applaud.

Let me take a moment here to commend Bua’s new fiddler Devin Shepherd. I’m incredibly picky about my Irish fiddlers, and was appalled at the use of crappy unornamented Irish fiddling in the new Sherlock Holmes movie almost to the point of walking out. I don’t want to listen to some classical jackass noodle with Irish tunes. True Irish fiddling is as mercurial as the Irish themselves. It doesn’t trust you, doesn’t welcome you, and won’t be your friend unless you put the time in to truly understand. It’s the kind of music that lulls you into a false sense of security with a seemingly regular sense of rhythm, then shanks you in the back when you’re not looking. Don’t believe me? Go to an Irish trad concert and listen to the audience try to clap along. I guarantee you the clapping will fall apart and become arrhythmic in about 10 seconds. That’s because the Irish are pure geniuses at disguising the true heartbeat of the music. Bua’s fiddler Devin Shepherd understands this, but doesn’t overdo it like Martin Hayes. Instead, he strips the show-off ornaments to a bare minimum and focuses on nailing the perfect rhythm and lilt. His fiddling is everything I wanted to be in an Irish fiddler and I’m now a most devoted fan of his.

Sean Gavin brings a subtle beauty to his fluting, piping, and whistling on the album, and Brian Miller shows himself to be a sensitive and beautiful guitarist as well. I have stacks of albums of purely instrumental Irish music, and these guys could hold their own with the best.

But, for me, the heart of Bua is the traditional singing of Brían Ó hAirt, who has dedicated himself to the sean-nós (old style) Irish song tradition, as well as the Irish sean-nós stepdancing tradition. This old style of stepdance is intimately tied to the tune itself, and this means that O’Hairt has a touch with the old songs that just can’t be faked. His voice has the beautiful fragility of the great Irish singers, and his knowledge of the sources of the tune shows his great respect for the tradition. He’s won awards in sean-nós singing (one of the last bastions of old Irish culture), and is a dedicated teacher as well. Sean-nós singing is an arcane style, almost a spiritual ritual at times, that is judged on the singer’s ability to convey the message of a song and to transfix an audience. It’s something that’s not easy to develop a taste for (believe me, I’ve tried), but when it touches you, it touches you deep. By blending the hypnotic, transcendent elements of sean-nós with a full band, O’Hairt has made this old tradition much more accessible. His singing on “Baba ‘Con Raoi” and “Bó na LeathAdhairce” is one of the album’s highlights. It reminds me at times of the seminal 1989 Dé Danann album The Mist Covered Mountains, which married the fire of five young bucks with the wisdom of some of the sean-nós tradition’s elder statesmen. Honestly, I can think of no higher praise than saying that Bua’s new album, Down the Green Fields, compares favorably with Dé Danann’s The Mist Covered Mountains.

Bua’s rendition of the song “Soldier, Soldier” is another album highlight. The song is based loosely on the melody to the old chesnut tune “Flowers of Edinburgh,” a song I’ve heard way too often in my lifetime. Not only do the instrumentalists in Bua totally redefine this old tune, but Ó hAirt’s singing literally brings tears to my eyes …

Damn, this is a great album.

For any fans of traditional Irish music, Bua’s Down the Green Fields is not only the kind of album that should place the band in the highest echelon of Irish groups, but also a truly admirable example of taste and restraint in a tradition that sometimes loses sight of both. Hat’s off!

Bua: Eddie Moloney's/Micho Russell's

Bua: Baba 'Con Raoi/Bó na Leath-Adhairce


Bua: Down the Green Fields



NOTE: This review first appeared in Driftwood Magazine. Be sure to visit their excellent website to find more great bands. They've taken up the torch left with the passing of Dirty Linen and are doing a marvelous job.

blog date 02/07/2012  | comments comments (1)

HearthPR: Portland Bluegrass Kings Jackstraw

We're pleased as punch to announce that we're currently promoting the new album from Portland bluegrass kings Jackstraw. These guys developed the Northwest old-time roots sound and their new album is a magnificent return to form. Check 'em out:

The muddy Willamette River that runs through Portland, Oregon, may not be as famous as the mighty Mississippi, but it forms the border of a new form of American roots music, informed both by the traditions of the American South and the rainy woods of the Northwest. Portland bluegrass band Jackstraw has been the flagship of this movement since they formed in 1997. They know their bluegrass history and don’t hesitate to pay homage to their heroes, like the Stanley Brothers, but this ain’t your standard bluegrass band. These boys have a cutting edge take on bluegrass picking that they’ve developed over years of touring the United States, and their original songs can sound as much country as old-time.

Jackstraw are currently celebrating the release of their brand-new sixth album, Sunday Never Comes. The album features brand-new member Cory Goldman (Water Tower Bucket Boys) on banjo, and all original material. Principal songwriters Darrin Craig and David Pugh have built new songs drenched in history and dusty nostalgia, and honed from fifteen years of making music together. Jackstraw formed in 1997 when rhythm guitarist Darrin Craig and lead player Jon Neufeld (who also plays in the Decemberists’ side project Black Prairie), met mandolin picker David Pugh and bassist Jesse Withers at Artichoke Music, a Portland guitar store. Six records and 15 years later, the band has toured throughout the United States, playing roadhouses, clubs, listening rooms and festivals. They’ve picked up a reputation over the years for their impeccable musicianship and hard-driving original songs. This is bluegrass that belongs in a dusty honky-tonk, country twang as rooted in Bill Monroe as George Jones, an old sound for a new age.

Jackstraw: Come On Back To Me

Jackstraw: Poor Man



Jackstraw: Sunday Never Comes


blog date 01/27/2012  | comments comments (0)