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RITA GALLAGHER - The May Morning Dew

RITA GALLAGHER - The May Morning Dew

It’s a brave singer who tackles The Blackbird; the air is the same as the famous set dance with all that that entails. The range is great and there’s no margin for error; you either hit it right at the start or you’re in trouble. Start too low, and you finish up grunting the low notes; start too high and you sound like a castrato (if you’re male). I only ever sang it in public once and all the way through it I was in fear of making a mess of it and a fool of myself. It never got a public airing since. Rita Gallagher hits it right on the button, that sweet note that lets you know you have the song right. It’s a good long song, with many chances of error, but she carries it off magnificently.

Gallagher’s first recording, Easter Snow, in 1997, should have been followed by many more; the quality of her singing is outstanding. The May Morning Dew rectifies the omission. Twenty songs on a CD is exceptional; when you get another fourteen on another disc, you’re getting something extra special. This second disc is a re-mastering of Easter Snow. As she says on the insert, “these 34 tracks are the total of my recorded singing”. These are some of the biggest of the ‘big’ songs from the tradition; if you have these as a repertoire, you’re in good company. When you record them without accompaniment, in spite of the temptation to use it on a few tracks at least, you have to be good.

Originally from Ballymacahill, Co. Donegal, Gallagher now lives in Crossroads, near Ballybofey. Though not traditional, her parents were both singers; her mother sang in local concerts in her youth. “I always sang and played music, but only came to traditional singing in my twenties when I attended a Donegal County Fleadh in 1978.” She won her first All Ireland Fleadh for traditional singing in English in 1979, then again in 1981 and 1982 – missing out on a hat-trick by coming second in 1980. “Pauline Sweeney and Bridín Doherty were my initial sources of songs, when we were members of Donegal Séisiún Group together. I began listening to and recording other singers from then on. Between 1978 and now, I’ve collected a number of songs from many sources. I find that the older I get, the more interested I become in the songs, and how complex and diverse the songs and singers are. I realise how little I really know about the wealth of talent out there.”

With Gallagher’s background, it’s not surprising that there is a weighting towards Ulster songs. She had many of the songs from the late Paddy Tunney and later from members of his family. Many of the song airs are different; others have different lyrics, which is always refreshing.  But all are great songs from a long tradition. There are songs of love and of loss, of fickle-hearted sweethearts and brash suitors. There are bitter songs of cold-hearted landlords, like John Adair, who was ‘one of our own’ rather than the usual incomer, and transportation, like Edward on Lough Erne Shore.  The latter isn’t to be confused with Lough Erne Shore, which is a courting song with a successful outcome. It’s not all doom and gloom though; Oh The Marriage is a warning against that institution; The Rambling Irishman (not the De Danannversion) has a light-hearted bodhrán accompaniment. And that’s the only accompaniment you get on any of the songs.

The May Morning Dew, the title song, is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the regrets at the passing of time. Who could fail to be moved by the lines about the birthplace being “but a stone on a stone”? Gallagher’s version is slightly different from mine but I got mine from three different family sources so long ago that I can’t recall which is which. This is the beauty of traditional singing; to make a song your own yet keep within the spirit of the original. Out of the Window is often said to be a variant of She Moved Through the Fair; the reverse is probably true. So far as I know, Pádraic Colum never laid claim to being composer of the air; although those lyrics are his for sure. Similarly, Rambling Boys of Pleasure is older than WB Yeats’ Down by the Sally Gardens. That’s not to imply any base motive; there was a theme, so he borrowed it. Gallagher has a different air for it that’s a pleasant change from the more usual one.

Few female singers’ voices really mature until they reach their thirties. Though I wouldn’t dare ask their ages, I’ve noticed this in quite a few singers I’ve heard. I kept switching between the two discs and there’s a marked change in Gallagher’s voice. As good and strong as it was in 1997, it’s become even richer and mellower on the later recording. There’s no question of which is best, just a difference. Thirty-four fine songs from a fine singer; what more could anyone want?

In his introduction my old friend Séamus MacMathúna, who knows more about songs and singers than anyone else I know of, predicts: “ will be a valued source and inspiration for singers of all ages...” Séamus doesn’t give praise lightly so that’s a real and deserved tribute. I’ll give him the last word for I value his judgement on all things musical: “Only a singer of exceptionable ability would have the courage to take on the challenge of maintaining momentum, tuning and concentration through the four, five or six demanding verses of so many songs. Rita Gallagher has done it in great style, and these recordings will stand as a testament to her ability.”

Mick Furey

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This album was reviewed in Issue 86 of The Living Tradition magazine.