All posts by Kerry Dexter

About Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

Celtic Christmas Journeys


by Kerry Dexter

Destinations: Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Cape Breton, and Celtic communities across the world

Music: Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas [Narada Productions]
by Natalie MacMaster, Cathie Ryan, Kathy Mattea, Altan, The Boys of the Lough, Dordan, Frankie Gavin, and a whole bunch of other musicians


Celtic Christmas star
Snowflake inside/snow flakes outside, Irish lace star in Virginia

In Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries and communities across the world, the four weeks of Advent, the time of Christmas, the turning of the new year on up through Epiphany/Three Kings Day early in January are known as the festive season. This gets to the heart of Celtic Christmas time, a reminder of and invitation to celebration, connection, storytelling, joy, contemplation, and faith. All these things come into play in the music on Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas.

If you might be thinking, wait, Christmas isn’t really my holiday or hey, I’ve heard way too much holiday music — read on. In this musical celebration of Celtic Christmas you will find gems to enjoy even so.

One disc of this two-disc set is music by Dordan, four women based in the west of Ireland. Flute player Mary Bergin, singer Martina Goggin, fiddler and violist Dearbhaill Standun, and harper Kathleen Lougnane draw on backgrounds that include classical music as well as deep immersion in the traditions of Ireland to create a program that invites to the joy, thoughtfulness, and sharing that make up the anticipation of Christmas.

Their clear instrumentation, lively collaboration, and graceful singing and playing enliven songs and tunes you may know by melody if not by title — the Enniscorthy Carol, for example and Don Oiche Ud i mBeithil/ Because of a Night in Bethlehem — along with original music from the band members, including Mary Bergin’s good welcome for travelers in any season and of any faith called Wayfarer’s Welcome and her evocation of winter and mystery in Draiocht na hOiche/ Magic of the Night.

Snowy path
Snowy Path in Virginia

The music of Dordan offers a fine gateway to the music shared on the other disc of The Best of Celtic Christmas. If you’d like music which suggests winter and adds just a hint of jazz to Celtic tradition, then you’ll want to make time to listen The Snowy Path from Altan.

The band members of Altan come from Ireland’s far northwest, in Donegal, where it does indeed often get very snowy in winter. A touch of jazz also flavors Christmastime in Ashland, a tune from whistle master Cormac Breatnach and guitarist Martin Dunlea. Both men hail from Ireland, but they wrote the tune inspired by a winter trip in Virginia.

William Jackson from Glasgow, one of the Celtic world’s most renown harp players, and Mairi MacInnes, a gifted singer from South Uist in Scotland’s Western Isles, join together for a thoughtful exploration of Silent Night, which MacInnes sings in Scottish Gaelic. Nouel is a traditional hymn celebrating the Christ Child, sung in Breton with echoing harmonies by Ensemble Chorale du Bout du Mond from Brittany, a group formed to carry on the strong Celtic traditions of that area of northwestern France.

Celtic Christmas in Cape Breton
View from Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, N.S.

Fiddle player Natalie MacMaster comes from Cape Breton in Atlantic Canada. Here she joins up with country and bluegrass Grammy winter Alison Krauss as the two offer a song for those weary at the holidays called Help Me Make It Through December, which was written by fellow Cape Bretoner Gordie Sampson.

Kathy Mattea often finds inspiration and renewal for her award-winning country and Americana music through time she spends in Scotland, and it is to Scotland’s Western Isles she turns for the traditional song she offers here, Christ Child Lullabye.

Cathie Ryan, first generation Irish American, honors that community with her choice, and her quiet, understated version, of a carol written by two Irish American writers, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.

There are many more gems to discover on Narada Presents the Best of Celtic Christmas, from seasonal jigs and reels to carols to hymns. Whether your travels take you to the lands and communities of Celtic Christmas or not, you may travel there in your imagination with these musicians. Through all of this music you’ll find good and lasting companions for your own travels, during a season with a story of travel at its heart.

Read more about these and other Celtic Musicians in a series at Music road.

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.


Soundtrack for Autumn Travel and Ken Burns’ Civil War

Music Travel



Destination: North America  Autumn Travel

Music: Harvest Home by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason [Angel Records]

Article by Kerry Dexter

Note: Here’s a video of the Ashokan Farewell, the final piece in Harvest Home and the song featured in Ken Burns’ Civil War on PBS.  (If the video does not immediately show, try refreshing the page.)


Traveling down winding roads and watching leaves turn to red and gold; pausing in your travels to sip apple cider and admire earthy pumpkins and crisp apples at roadside stands; planning for autumn celebrations and autumn travel; seeing changes in how light and shadows fall that autumn brings — whether you experience these things while living close to the land or through the produce section at the grocer’s or the signs you see in shop windows, you know it is a time of changing seasons.

Throughout most of human history, man has been very connected with the planet for his basic sustenance,” says musician Jay Ungar, whose father was a grocer in the Bronx in New York. Ungar now lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. “The latest generations seem to have gotten away from farming, hunting, and gathering. Yet, there is still a spiritual need to be connected to creation.”

Would you like a soundtrack for your autumn travel? Ungar and Molly Masonhis musical and life partner,  have that for you. They offer music that ranges from a five part orchestral piece that draws on American folk music and seasonal themes to original music to nineteenth century dance tunes for fiddle. They pair Hoedown by composer Aaron Copland with the folk music piece Bonaparte’s Retreat which inspired his work. Adding in a lively Cajun tune, a sixteenth century Solstice hymn, and a fiddle tune by Ungar which has become a modern day classic, these two musicians travel a lot of territory, geographically and musically, on their album  Harvest Home.

It was the orchestral piece, the Harvest Home Suite, that provided the spark for the album. It happened in a roundabout way. Mason says:

“We were asked to write music for another project, and we worked with a wonderful orchestrator, Conni Ellisor from Nashville, who we had not met or known of before. The push and pull of ideas with her was a great experience, and we had the music done, we were all set, and then this other project didn’t pan out and they weren’t going to use it. So here we were with this piece of music that we really loved by this point.”

It could be the beginning of an album, they thought. To create an album around it that made musical sense turned out to be “a bit of a challenge,” Mason points out, “because we wanted to stick with things that were agriculturally related, that deal with times and season and harvest in particular.

Though the music on Harvest Home comes from diverse points of geography, Ungar and Mason both have strong connections to their home base in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, and they feel this helped them focus on the idea of harvest and seasons.

“We live in an area that is agricultural and partially forest preserve. It gives a connection to the earth and the seasons in a way that I didn’t feel when I was a kid growing up in New York city,” says Ungar. Mason, who lived in Washington State until she followed her music east, feels that connection as well. “When we’re on tour, we’re out in the fast lane world,” she says, “but here at home, just driving by what we drive by to go to the grocer or run errands, I think it definitely impacts our music and how we go about it, “ Mason says.

The Harvest Home Suite, which closes he music on the album, is one of its centerpieces. As the music winds its journey through season and story and travel and landscape, there are two others.

The recording opens with Mason’s original song Bound for Another Harvest Home. It’s a graceful melody, and Mason’s warm voice and style invite ideas of friendly gatherings and returning to well loved places. “As we were pulling the album together, we decided we needed a song to set the ideas of the music in context,” Mason says.

Ashokan Farewell, which evokes the reflective side of autumn, has a story of its own as well. For a number of years, Ungar and Mason have run summer music and dance workshops at a camp in New York State called called Ashokan. One year, sad as the summer session was ending and friends new and old were going their separate ways, Ungar poured his feelings into a piece of music . Several years later, Ashokan Farewell came to the attention of film maker Ken Burns, who chose it as the signature tune for what would become his award winning series on the American Civil War.

As the songs and tunes on Harvest Home travel across the landscapes of North America, so the Harvest Home Suite, which closes the recording, draws the music together in a journey through the seasons. Unlike the path followed in seasonal sets of music by other musicians, though, Ungar and Mason decided to have the trip travel a different rhythm. “Instead of ending in winter, we ended in summer,” Jay Ungar says, “and instead of thinking of it as ending there, we think of it as starting over from there.”

Travel through the seasons which begins anew with autumn and harvest time: that is an idea familiar to First Peoples across North America, in Celtic legend and story, and indeed, part of what is celebrated on the road and at home at Thanksgiving. May the music of Harvest Home make a fine soundtrack for your autumn travel and celebration.

Note: A Traveler’s library reveals affiliate links.  The album cover images and album titles here may be links to Amazon, where you can listen to partial music tracks and shop for albums and books. If you click on the link and make a purchase at Amazon, it will benefit Music Road, for which we thank you.

Musical Trip to Scotland


Destination: Scotland


Ceolbeg Collected by Ceolbeg [Greentrax],
Race the Loser by Lau [Reveal Records],
The Flooers o’ the Forest by various artists [Greentrax],
Flourish by Katie McNally [own label]

Article by Kerry Dexter

Scotland’s varied landscapes, long history, and present day life inspire music that turns out to be as varied as those landscapes and as vibrant as that day-to-day life. Here are recent albums for you to consider as you imagine, plan, or remember your trip to Scotland.
trip to Scotland album

Ceolbeg Collected

The first two tracks of Ceolbeg Collected make a fine opener for any trip to Scotland. The music begins with a march which moves into a highstepping strathspey called the Laddie with the Plaidie. [Note from VMB: The term Strathspey was new to me, and in case you also need a primer on strathspey, take a look at this demonstration by two experts. Kerry explained to me that the strathspey falls rhythmically between the march that precedes it on the album, and the reel that follows. ] The Cup of Tea Reel brings the set to a close, making all told a fine introduction of the fast-paced side of the music of Scotland. Farewell Tae the Haven,  a song of lament for the decline of fishing and the leaving of a fishing town, follows.

Ceolbeg began as a band in the port of Dundee in the late 1970s and through more than three decades (they played their last gig ten years ago) saw many of Scotland’s finest musicians join its lineup, which featured traditional instruments, traditional songs, and innovative takes on tradition as well as original music. The sixteen cuts on Ceolbeg Collected showcase songs and tunes of history, love, politics, landscape, and change, many of the band’s best gathered from across the years.
Trip to Scotland Album

Race the Loser

The opening tracks of Race the Loser may have you thinking in a different direction. Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O’Rourke, the men who make up this trio, have solo careers involving traditional music, but when they get together, they’re known for creating work that takes folk and traditional music up to its boundaries and beyond, and indeed they do so here. Scotland’s traditions remain at the heart of their music though, as they weave O’Rourke’s fiddle, Green’s accordion, and Drever’s guitar and voice through complex and intriguing realms of melody, at times bringing in electronics and at others relying on adventurous melody and counterpoint of their traditional instruments alone.


Trip to Scotland album

The Flooers of the Forest 

The Flooers of the Forest is an iconic song of Scotland, whether performed as a song with words or played as lament on instruments alone. The words were written about those lost at the Battle of Flodden, which took place five hundred years ago near the Scottish Borders area in northern Northumberland in England. The political and historical ramifications may be debated, but there’s no doubt many died in this battle between English and Scottish forces, and that Scotland came out the heavy loser. Not only was King James IV killed, but there was hardly a family in Scotland that went unscathed by the battle.

Legends have grown about the events at Flodden– who took part, what went before, and what came after– but until now the songs and stories had not been gathered together. The Flooers of the Forest is a two disc set, the first comprising fifteen tracks, opening with Dick Gaughan’s rough hewn voice singing the story of the title track and closing with Gary West’s haunting version of it on the pipes. In between there are songs of the battle and its people from Karine Polwart, Rob Bell, Davy Steele, Archie Fisher, and other luminaries of Scotland’s music. The second disc is readings of poetry and prose . All will take you through a trip to Scotland in a particular place and time in Scotland’s history.


Tri[p to Scotland music - Flourish

Katie McNally’s instrument is the fiddle. The Boston based musician has long been immersed in the music of Scotland. She’s studied in Glasgow and in the U. S., and come away with an individual touch and style that mark her as a gifted interpreter of the traditions of the music of Scotland as well as a talent who is taking that music and its intersections with the music of North America into new dimensions. You’ll hear all of this on her album Flourish.

Traditional and original tunes as well as tunes by Scottish composers meet and match, with McNally’s fiddle gracefully leading a dance of traditional instruments including guitar, cello, and harmony fiddle. Standout tracks include Waulking of the Fauld paired with Lillian’s, The Jarvis Waltz, and Da Unst Bridal March, though every track is a keeper, and well worth your returning to time and again.

Take a trip to Scotland through the music of these artists. You’ll discover things you never knew.

Note: A Traveler’s library reveals affiliate links.  The album cover images and album titles here are links to Amazon, where you can listen to partial music tracks and shop for albums and books. If you click on the link and make a purchase at Amazon, it will benefit Music Road, for which we thank you.