Music Travel Monday
by Kerry Dexter
Destination: Ireland and Appalachia
As she was working on her album Through Wind & Rain, Cathie Ryan turned to library research to spark ideas for a song. “I wanted to look at Appalachian songs, songs that came through Ireland, or songs that came from Appalachia to Ireland. I wanted that whole Appalachian Celtic connection,” Ryan says.
Ryan is first generation Irish American, daughter of parents who came to Michigan from Kerry and Tipperary. She is deeply rooted in the landscape and life of both countries of her heritage, and honors that in the songs she writes, the ones she searches out, the albums she makes, and in her concerts. Looking for the right song with Appalachian and Celtic connections for her album, she went to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Jennifer Cutting, who works as a folklife specialist there,is a musician too. Ryan spoke with her about what she was seeking.
“Jennifer had stacks of reel-to-reel tapes ready for me when I walked in — I was such a happy girl!” Ryan says. “I sat there with my headphones on all day long listening, and then when my ears were a bit burnt I’d read manuscripts, look at lyrics — I loved it. I know it’s a great thing to go on Google and get information it used to take years to find, but I love being in a room with other people who love music and who can point me to what I’m looking for, and to listen to all these archival recordings, recordings of people sitting in their kitchens singing the songs they grew up with, the songs their parents taught them.”
What Ryan found on this trip was the bones of a song she’d adapt and rewrite and write new verses for, a sort of lover’s lament called Dink’s Song. On Through Wind and Rain the song she made from it is called Fare Thee Well. The song spoke to her but “some of the verses didn’t scan, so I re-wrote them, I wrote another verse — I wanted to keep the roots of Dink’s Song, but it’s not Dink’s Song any more, it’s a very different song now. I wanted to say things that meant something to me. I love the way it came out,” she says. When the verses were done, she brought it to guitarist Patsy O’Brien to work on the arrangement, “and he played this very rootsy backing to it, sparse, almost bluesy, like the landscape of Appalachia and the hard, flinty lives people lived coming over here — he brought that to bear on the arrangement .” It proves a song powerful in its restraint, with Ryan’s words and verses connecting gracefully with the spirit of the song and O’Brien’s guitar lines and spare fiddle backing by Matt Mancuso.
Grace might be said to illuminate the album, as Ryan offers stories that tell of heartbreak, sorrow, laughter, love, courage, and through all of that, hope and resilience. Ryan’s clear soprano and thoughtful phrasing, along with the arrangements she’s chosen offer a story teller’s way into the songs, and they are set in a sequence you’ll do well to let unfold as laid out before you. From the lively melody with a deep story at heart of it on In the Wishing Well to encouragement and hope for a child in Mo Nion O to the power of friendship and faith in Walk the Road to consideration of what it may have been like for emigrants sailing to a new life in Liberty’s Sweet Shore to an evocation of loss and healing in Rock Me to Sleep. Mother to the blessing of May the Road Rise to Meet You — “I think it’s always important to offer a blessing,” Ryan says — the whole of Through Wind and Rain makes a journey well worth the taking.
You may find familiar companions along the road too. Ryan has chosen songs written by Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, Laura Smith, Kate Rusby, John Doyle, and Roger and Camiila McGuinn, along with her own work and songs from the tradition. In addition to her regular band members O’Brien and Mancuso, you’ll also hear contributions from guitarist Doyle, fiddler John McCusker, singer Aoife O’Donovan, Joanie Madden on flute, and Michael McGoldrick on pipes and whistles, among others.
Note: It is the policy of A Traveler’s Library to let you know about affiliate links. There are links in this article to Amazon, where you can listen to bits of the album, and do your shopping if you wish. It does not cost you any more, and you will be benefiting Music Road and A Traveler’s Library.