As anybody in the business can tell you, St. Patrick's Day is to Irish music what Christmas is to carols. This is when the kiss-me-I'm-Irish crowd gets in the mood for the hearing of the green, and the record industry is more than happy to oblige, pumping out Irish music as eagerly as bars serve green beer.
But what, precisely, is Irish music?
Is it the pipes-and-fiddles purism of the Chieftains? The rowdy jokes and folk songs merriment of the Clancy Brothers? The rock-oriented eclecticism of Luka Bloom? Or the Tin Pan Alley sentiment of "My Wild Irish Rose" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"?
Clearly, each has a claim on the term "Irish music," as do the sonatas of John Field or the rock recordings of U2 and Sinead O'Connor. It's just that some songs or performers seem more Irish than others to the average American, and it's worth taking a look at why.
Let's start with the seasonally marketed "St. Patrick's Day Celebration" (Legacy 48694), an album clearly intended to catch the eye of the shamrocks and leprechauns contingent. In it, we find all manner of music, from the Dubliners singing "Croppy Boy" to the Chieftains ripping through "March from Oscar and Malvina," to Kate Smith's version of "Molly Malone."
It's Irish music, all right, as sure as the album art is green -- but such a confusing catch-all that it's unlikely to completely please any listener. Take, for example, the selections by Morton Downey and Kate Smith. Although Downey is today known mostly for having sired obnoxious talk-show host Morton Downey Jr., the elder Downey was one of the most popular Irish tenors of his time, with a wonderful, lyric tone and an easy, mellifluous delivery.
Lovely as his voice was, however, his taste in material ranged from the maudlin to the cartoonish. This album includes examples of both. Still, as sickeningly sentimental as Downey's performance is, Kate Smith's lachrymose rendition of "Mother Machree" is even worse, a paean to motherhood that would make even greeting card writers blush.
This, though, was for years the sort of music most Americans thought of when St. Patrick's Day rolled around. Most of that was simply a matter of lyrical references, for there was little intrinsically Irish about the music itself. Indeed, Mitch Miller's recently re-issued "Favorite Irish Sing-A-Longs" (Legacy 48674) packs "Mother Machree" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" alongside such obviously non-Hibernian compositions as "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "School Days" with no discernable stylistic strain. (Then again, Miller-ized material was nothing if not homogenous; this remember, is a man who made "Give Peace a Chance" sound like "The Yellow Rose of Texas.")
Still, the American notion of what Irish music sounded like didn't really begin to change until the late '50s, when the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem began making their mark. Although there was no disputing the genuineness of the group's material, which mixed traditional folk songs with rousing rebel songs (up-the-English tunes left over from the Irish Rebellion) and witty novelty numbers, the group's sound was anything but purely Irish. In truth, it was solidly American, owing much to banjo-and-guitar groups like the Weavers or the Kingston Trio, but that hardly hurt the group with the Irish market.
The Clancys and Makem were wildly popular together, and if their three songs on the "St. Patrick's Day Celebration" collection aren't enough, there's plenty more on the newly digitized "Luck of the Irish" (Legacy 47900). A concert recording, it offers a fair sampling of the group's stylistic range, from light-hearted comic stuff like "The Old Orange Flute" and "Mr. Moses Ri-Tooral-I-Ay" to powerfully political songs along the lines of "Gallant Forty Twa" and "Four Green Fields." If only Sony Music, Legacy's parent company, had seen fit to issue a more comprehensive collection than this 33-minute trifle -- that'd really be something to celebrate.
Another aspect of Irish music included on the "St. Pat's" album is instrumental dance music, represented here by the Gallowglass Cieli Band and the Chieftains, two very different sides of the same coin.
Ireland has a rich tradition of instrumental music, from the court harpers of the royal age to the flute and fiddle virtuosos of today, but perhaps the most enduring instrumental tradition of all is the ceili (pronounced kay-lee) band. These are mixed instrument combos which play jigs, reels, marches and slides for step-dancers, and though the Gallowglass Ceili Band, with its accordion and tenor sax front line, isn't terribly traditional, its strictly functional rendering of tunes like "Haste to the Wedding" and "St. Anne's Reel" is typical of the way such music is played at dances even today.