Laoise O’Brien: The Child Ballads review – New take shows boundless imagination

The Child Ballads
    
Artist: Laoise O'Brien
Genre: Traditional
Label: Independent Release

Some tales weather well. They travel through generations and captivate their listeners as much now as they did when they were first conjured. Romeo and Juliet. Sleeping Beauty. Homer's Odyssey. And the Child Ballads. This was a compendium of 205 English and Scottish folk songs collected by Harvard's first Professor of English, Francis James Child, and published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898.

Child’s primary interest was in their literary value, and he rated them alongside the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer and the prose of Shakespeare. Later, American musicologist Bertrand Harris Bronson cocked his ear to the tunes that carried these ballads, and their variant forms.

He published his four-volume The Traditional Tunes Of The Child Ballads between 1959 and 1972, introducing the Child Ballads to a vastly diverse audience. Willie of Winsbury, Scarbarough Fair and so many others have fuelled the repertoires of everyone from Martin Carthy, to Simon and Garfunkel, Fairport Convention and Fleet Foxes, not to mention singers in Dublin's An Góilín Singing Club.

Now, it’s the turn of composer, producer and recorder player Laoise O’Brien, who was propelled by a curiosity to see how the Child Ballads had woven their way into the fabric of the Irish folk tradition. A new take on that old trope of bringing it all back home, she’s re-imagined a selection of 14 songs, in the company of musicians whose backgrounds straddle classical, jazz, bluegrass and Irish traditional music.The results are a joy to listen.


Choosing her musicians for their skills of improvisation and imagination, O’Brien takes brave and bold liberties in sometimes melding the text from one song in Child’s collection with a melody from Bronson’s, and in others still, improvising to breathe fresh life into a song. The results find the songs gaining fresh purchase in the 21st century.

Double bassist Malachy Robinson – known for his work as a chamber musician with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Crash Ensemble and, a few years ago, with Ariel Hernandez in Lunfardia – reveals a whole new side of himself as he sings with a gorgeous high lonesome sound on the very first Child Ballad, The Devil's Nine Questions. Duetting with O'Brien, the pair revel in the absurdity of the lyrics, brushing the ballad with playful strokes that re-ignite its magic as if it were a Hans Christian Anderson fairy-tale.

Oisín Walsh-Peelo is a harper and singer with a voice made for these songs: rich and deep, it wallows gloriously in the minor chords which afford songs such as The Wee Wee Man, a childlike delight. Aoife Doyle's crystalline voice brings another defining influence to this collection, her ramrod straight lines a perfect foil to Eamon Sweeney's gorgeous baroque guitar and Malachy Robinson's viol.

Shades of Jordi Savall’s spare treatment of the score for Tous Les Matins Du Monde are tangible here, underscoring the indelible ties that bind folk and classical music forms that pay no heed to such fickle concepts as national borders.

Elsewhere, Johnny Cock sounds like a first cousin thrice removed from Little Musgrave, and the tune Beer and Ale and Brandy, originally the melody for The Wee Wee Man, flourishes in the hands of Fionn Ó hAlmhain’s tin whistle and O’Brien’s canny use of the soprano recorder to conjure the exploits of fairy folk.

This is a work of boundless imagination from Laoise O’Brien, and one that’ll fuel many an emerging musician and singer in pursuit of songs with both backbone and brio.

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts