The true history in the music
Ron Kavana's new collection is an attempt to encapsulate Irish musical history, writes Martin Doyle, and he hasn't let historiography, thieves or contemporary music get in his way.
To encapsulate on a set of CDs the entire history of Ireland through its music and songs is an epic enough undertaking without having to do it twice.
But that is the task musician and songwriter Ron Kavana was faced with after his home in Fermoy was burgled over Christmas in 2001 and most of his instruments and his digital mixer were stolen, consigning to oblivion two years' work, five hours of specially recorded songs, music, poetry and narration.
History is littered with tragic tales of creative artists crushed by the weight of their own ambition. Kavana almost suffered the same fate. "I'd already been suffering health-wise as a diabetic but with the stress of having to start the thing from scratch again I came unglued. I had Bell's palsy, which meant for over a year I couldn't speak, never mind sing. I was paralysed down one side of my face. When I got it first I thought it was a stroke. My vision and hearing were impaired, my balance was gone. I was like an old man overnight.
"The worst of it is the mixer was probably dumped in a river because it was password-protected." In the 150-page booklet accompanying Irish Ways, his four-CD set, Kavana quotes: the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, which prohibited the patronage of bards and musicians; Henry VIII's decrees ordering the suppression of musicians and destruction of their instruments; and Elizabeth I's order to hang all the harpers.
The image of Kavana's electronic treasury of Irish musical history at the bottom of a stream, like the minstrel boy's harp, strings all torn asunder, is a bitterly ironic coda to the list. But just as Ireland's musical heritage could not be suppressed by mere English laws, so too did Kavana rise again, recovering first his health, then his sense of mission, though second time around it took him far longer to complete because many of the original musicians were no longer available.
"I re-recorded every single word and note," Kavana says. "The only thing that still existed was stuff other people had mixes of, but that was just nine tracks out of 103. It was a tough time.
"For a while I was tearing my hair out trying to recreate what had been done before but then I realised I couldn't put that limitation on these new musicians' talents." As well as a first-class honours degree in Irish studies from the University of North London (now the London Metropolitan University), Kavana brings to his project the authority of a veteran Irish musician, whose Alias Ron Kavana band won the Folk Rootsmagazine (now called fRoots) award for best live band for three consecutive years. His Home Firealbum is the top Irish trad CD in Mojo's1,000 Essential CDs and his songs have been covered by The Pogues, Eileen Ivers, Dick Gaughan, Sean Keane and Niamh Parsons.
Dismissing much Irish historiography as discredited and partial, Kavana makes a powerful case for the validity of folk songs and ballads as historical sources, the people's archives. "Short simple lines in song lyrics," he writes, "often offer a rare insight into what may be the 'real' truth of a particular story." While admitting that the objectivity of the songwriters is open to question, he insists, "in many instances, what is written in those songs is closer to the perception of the people of the time than the interpretations of the writers of the history books". He paraphrases his mentor, the late singer and song collector Frank Harte, who declared that the rulers may write the history but the people write the songs. He also quotes Thomas Moore: "Our music is the truest of all comments on our history." Kavana argues that music and song helped forge a sense of national identity and pride that confounded centuries of colonisation, emigration and later a post-colonial inferiority complex.
Irish Waysis the culmination of Kavana's lifelong fascination with Ireland's cultural history, an affinity brought into sharp focus by the emigrant's sense of dispossession.
"The culture is the one thing that kept the people of Ireland together, especially the diaspora, because when they were forced to leave they didn't have anything else to take with them. The only thing they had of value was the culture to preserve their national identity." Kavana moved to London in 1969 ("I was there for the rock'n'roll, sex and drugs and sausage rolls") but found the city was a fantastic place for Irish music. "I got to know a lot of the great characters, Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Joe Cooley, Margaret Barry, Felix Doran, Michael Gorman."
MORE THAN 20years later, while producing an album for Topic Records, he discovered its Aladdin's cave of classic Irish traditional music recordings by many of the artists he had known in Camden. He single-mindedly and single-handedly championed the idea of a comprehensive CD series based on Topic's 80 Irish albums, personally transferring the tracks from vinyl to CD.
Topic started out life as an offshoot of the British Communist Party, "fostering an appreciation of ideologically sound, egalitarian music". Such words may sound as scratchy as an old 78 today, but Kavana believes they still have meaning. You sense he hankers after the halcyon days of the Brehon laws, when musicians were properly respected and "Ireland was a kind of prototype communist society with principles of common ownership".
His next grand project came in 1998. Proper Records approached him to do an album of rebel songs to mark the bicentenary of 1798, which he parlayed into Songs of Rebellion, Resistance and Reconciliation, Kavana's spin on 200 years of fighting but also peacemaking.
"They sold the living shite out of that," says Kavana, "100,000 records. They were looking for a follow-up. I said: 'Well, I said from the start I'd rather do the whole thing than just 200 years.'
Of course, one of the challenges of telling Ireland's story through song is the fact that the earliest recorded Irish lyric is less than 500 years old. Kavana fills the gap with narration, poetry and his own compositions.
"I was going to have an instrumental album to cover prehistoric Ireland but when I presented it to the record company they thought it would be too confusing so they vetoed it.
"This was a kind of an exorcism, I needed to get these ideas, a lot of them angry ideas, out. I don't like the direction Irish music has gone in, it's all clinically aimed at perfection. Today you can easily correct every mistake, every wrong note, but that sucks the humanity, the soul out of it as far as I'm concerned." Kavana is quite happy, however, to correct the flaws in the lyrics of several of the songs he collects in Irish Ways, but this, he says, is an integral part of the tradition.
But in the context of telling Ireland's history through its songs, it seems to undermine the thesis a bit if you have to rewrite them or write them from scratch.
The omission of Irish Ways and Irish Lawsor The Táinby Horslips from a work of this kind seems glaring, as they fit perfectly with the subject matter.
"That's their interpretation, this is mine," explains Kavana. "I was looking for songs that people knew from their childhood and school days rather than songs that had been popularised by contemporary people. Songs like Boolavogueand Roddy MacCorley, so often these songs have been murdered. Like The Foggy Dew, most people sing it as a big rousing march, with no relevance whatsoever to the words which to me are some of the saddest, a really poignant capturing of that moment.
"When I sang the vocal I crumbled, I cried at one point. I could have delivered it again but the emotion would have been lost.
"Big characters very often didn't have songs telling their story properly: Emmet, Wolfe Tone, Brian Boru. You could do a whole album on Daniel O'Connell songs, Tim Dennehy has put them together, but when I had to edit it down, I only had five minutes for one character, no one song covered it all, that's why I ended up writing them myself."
There would have been room for more songs if Kavana had dispensed with his narration, but he doesn't regret it and only a couple of critics share my view.
This is Ireland's history from a nationalist perspective, and Kavana acknowledges this candidly, explaining that he was unfamiliar with the Orange tradition.
"At best it's an overview. It's not definitive but hopefully, like any process of learning, it gets people interested and looking forward, that's why I put in a bibliography and discography. Paddy Tunney did a great album on the 1690s in poetry, music and song with Peader Kearney's brother; that was my template."
KAVANA IS UNHAPPYat the current state of Irish music. "I regard the Tin Pan Alley era as one of the great eras of Irish music. That music is so vital, so inventive, much more so than what is going on now. To me the great musicians are the ones who could play as fast as bejaysus but choose not to, they play the tempo that suits the tune or song. Who plays slow airs now?"
Kavana harks back to happier times when bards and musicians were properly honoured. "I think it's a disgrace in contemporary Ireland that the best musicians I know are living hand to mouth, they're not properly paid. You can get your publishing royalties tax free, but you need to use expensive accountants and lawyers. If Seamus Heaney was subject to the same kind of hassles the country would be in an uproar."
Irish Waysis a personal, idiosyncratic, polemical piece. Kavana segues from his account of Elizabethan depredations to a lament for the state of modern Ireland, briefly wondering if it would be better off still under British rule before remembering that life under Blair would be worse.
For Kavana, the glass is not just half-empty, it's chipped, cracked and will probably break and cut a child's foot any day now. Not content with bemoaning the undeniable downside of economic growth, he identifies unemployment as a problem and worries about a racist backlash against immigrants in an economic downturn.
"We have become such a greedy nation, it seems to me, whereas most people had the impression we were the antithesis of that. I find shocking the lack of the critical, dissenting voice because Ireland was always a place where people spoke out. It is only the very rich who have benefited from the Celtic Tiger. We have an underclass today that we never had before. Damien Dempsey is the glowing exception, but when it was a lot easier we had Luke Kelly, Christy Moore and Dominic Behan all ranting against the system."
•Irish Ways is out now on Proper Records. Ron Kavana plays the Cork Folk Festival on Aug 30.