Reissued and revised Book/CD set hails a legendary female Irish singer

“The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, Irish Traditional Singer” • Elizabeth Cronin (1879-1956) – familiarly known as “Bess” – was easily one of the foremost traditional Irish singers of her time, or arguably any time, and an important figure in the run-up to the Irish folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s. Born and raised in Cork, she began performing in public at age 19 – an account from around that time reported that her songs and recitation “were much admired for their beauty and the naïve simplicity with which they were rendered” – and her vast repertoire of songs, in Irish and English, drew the attention of many eminent folk singers and folklorists, notably Seamus Ennis, who famously called her “the Muskerry Queen of Song.” Her singing was the earliest such recordings made by the Irish Folklore Commission, in 1947; she also recorded songs for Ennis (on behalf of the BBC), Alan Lomax and other folklorists.

Her legacy has scarcely gone unnoted. Many songs associated with her became staples of the subsequent Irish folk revival, recorded by artists such as Planxty, Andy Irvine, Clannad and, later on, Celtic Woman: “Dance for Your Daddy-o,” “Cucanandy,” “Níl Sé ’Na Lá,” “On Board the Kangaroo,” “What Would You Do If You Married a Soldier?” and “Bold Jack Donohue,” to name a few. In 2000, Cronin’s grandson Dáibhí Ó Cróinín authored/edited “The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, Irish Traditional Singer,” with texts and analysis of what was then believed to be the comprehensive collection of her songs, a biographical essay, a description of the historical background behind the song-collecting, and a two-CD set of original and remastered recordings from public and private collections.

Now, Four Courts Press has released a revised and updated version of the book/CD set, and among its most significant features are six additional songs from Cronin’s repertoire, which came into Ó Cróinín’s possession through charmingly improbable means: At a launch event of the first edition, he explains, a retired schoolteacher approached him with an old school copybook that had been loaned decades ago to his grandmother, who filled its last few pages with lyrics to the six songs. But the copybook had been presumably lost and forgotten until the schoolteacher had somehow discovered it; good man, he, for appreciating its significance and value.  

Ó Cróinín’s book contains transcripts to nearly 200 songs in Cronin’s repertoire, many of them including musical notation, and accompanied by notes on sources and other related information; some are accompanied by photos of her handwritten lyrics. You can browse the likes of her most familiar material, such as “Lord Gregory” and “Siúl, a Rúin” and perhaps lesser known, but no less intriguing, songs and ballads: “The Banks of Sullane” and “Good Night, Molly Darling.” And then there are fragments and little oddities, e.g. “She’s at the bar, selling soap, soda and blue/And things too superfluous to mention to you! Rally-ra-fol-the-da/Rally-rights-fol-the-dee.”

Of course, the CDs – which clock in at more than an hour apiece – offer the most compelling and direct way to experience Cronin. You can appreciate her distinctive intonation and idiosyncratic phrasing – like on “On Board the Kangaroo” or the delightful “Little Pack of Tailors,” a baby-jiggling song set to the reel “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” – the gravitas she brings to ballads such as “Lord Gregory” and the Napoleonic “Sweet Boney, Will I E’er See You More?” (also known as “The Bonny Bunch of Roses”) and sense of fun to “Pussycat’s Party.” Her performance of Gaelic songs such as “Seoithín Seó” and “An Bínsín Luachra” is likewise riveting, although in the book there are summaries of the songs’ narratives or themes instead of literal translations of the lyrics.

(With a little perspective, it’s fun to wonder what she would’ve made of Planxty’s version of “On Board the Kangaroo,” and Christy Moore’s rakishly mellow delivery, or Clannad’s jazz-tinged take on “Níl Sé ’Na Lá.”)

Also included are some rare gems, like a shorter, somewhat brisker version of “Barbara Allen” than what you might be used to, and “The Braes of Balquidder,” the song by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill and composer Robert Archibald Smith that became the basis for Francis McPeake’s anthemic “Wild Mountain Thyme.” You’ll likely end up wishing Cronin had recorded everything that’s in the book, especially her rendition of that James Thornton/Charles Lawler masterpiece of absurdity and word play, “The Irish Jubilee.”

Although widely praised, the original edition was not without its detractors, and in the preface to the new edition Ó Cróinín addresses one in particular: Fred McCormick, who in Musical Traditions among other criticisms questioned the accuracy of the song transcriptions related to the CDs. Generally respectful to McCormick, more or less, Ó Cróinín goes into great detail to explain the process by which the CDs and transcriptions were done – which may or may not be of interest to the reader, but it’s there for those so inclined.

Still, one other shortcoming McCormick mentioned in his review remains relevant: The purely biographical aspect of Cronin’s life feels insubstantial. To be sure, there are plenty of anecdotes related to her singing activities and recordings, including visits with estimable traditional music luminaries like Ennis (he described her as “a stocky little woman who radiated jollity in her face and had a glint of humour in her eyes and sweetness in her mouth”) and American singer Jean Ritchie, correspondence between her and Ó Cróinín’s father, interview transcripts, and her recollections of how she learned some of her songs. But while this portion of the book starts out with a short section titled “The Early Years” – containing her date of birth, the names of her parents and siblings, and noting that as a teenager Cronin was sent to work for her childless uncle and aunt – there is no similar section to act as (literally) a bookend to the first. True, the end of the section on Cronin’s relationship with song collectors contains a fleeting reference to Cronin’s declining health and a parenthetical mention of her death. Just seems a curiously anti-climactic way to remark on the passing of such a memorable person.

Nonetheless, “The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin” is a valuable resource and, in many respects, enjoyable to both the reading eye and listening ear. Timing is everything, even when it’s perhaps coincidental, and in a period that has seen issues surrounding gender inclusivity and sexist behavior confront Ireland’s folk/trad community, the re-release of a project devoted to a pioneering female singer seems a fitting development.

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