Thursday, 29 August 2019

Notes towards a performance of Patrick Kavanagh, On Raglan Road

...this could be turned into a properly referenced research article, whose title might be...

'Towards a performance of Patrick Kavanagh, On Raglan Road'...

But here we are...

Notes towards a performance of Patrick Kavanagh, On Raglan Road

Practical people, like lyricists, musicians and singers, are reluctant to concede that there is such an entity as the 'folk' as envisaged by a variety of theorists - but we do acknowledge that there is a folk process, by which lyric and melody become common property.  This is a process of forgetting, half remembering, simplifying and reconstructing - perhaps best described by the Opies, in their study of Nursery Rhymes.

The story of how Patrick Kavanagh came to write a new lyric to a familiar melody, and how that song became part of the repertoire of the Dubliners, has entered the folk process - and typically of our world and its web, various versions of that story float around.  The history of the melody and the earlier lyric, Dawning of the Day, Fainne Geal an Lae, and that lyric's place in Irish traditions, can be established - for example, the song was recorded by John McCormack.  

Kavanagh's lyric is therefore what the musicologists call a contrafactum.   And his lyric is technically interesting, in its use of rhythm and rhyme to point the structure of the melody - in a way that the earlier lyric did not - and in its placing of itself in a relationship with that older lyric's vision poem tradition.

For a performer, the phrasing of Kavanagh's lyric can be difficult.  It is noteworthy that, in his version, Luke Kelly, of The Dubliners, at some points simply abandons Kavanagh's structured phrasing.  And it tends to be Luke Kelly's version that enters the folk process - unless performers make a conscious decision to return to the published version of Kavanagh's lyric, as established by Antoinette Quinn.  However, the web now allows us to track further changes, in text and in performance - and in some cases it can be argued that, for performance decisions, these half-remembered lines are better than the lines enshrined by Quinn.

Since the death of Luke Kelly the performance of the song by The Dubliners has acquired a reverential, hymn-like quality.  Two recent outings of the song, by Tradfest and in the Martin McDonagh movie, In Bruges, have located the song in a church.  This hymn-like approach, arguably, ignores the story behind the lyric, the story within the lyric, and the detail of Kavanagh's text - which is, after all, a song about a middle aged man falling for a beautiful young woman, a tale that we might today regard as a bit creepy.  

But which is, of course, a major theme in world literature.  In is a theme that scholars of literature find themselves having to defend, and transcend - as Ted Gioia does in his study of Love Songs.

So, as a performer approaches this song, there is much to consider...  In 2019, as a birthday present to myself, I spent some time in the recording studio, with guitarist Danny Yates, working on Kavanagh's song.  I now offer - not a performance of the song - but further Notes towards a performance...

The recording can be found here, on my Soundcloud...

I acknowledge the friendly support of Bent Sørensen, Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University...
Sørensen, Bent. 2014. “True Gods of Sound and Stone - The Many Crossings of Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road.” In The Crossings of Art in Ireland, edited by Ruben Moi, Brynhildur Boyce, and Charles Armstrong, 65–79. Bern: Peter Lang.

...and of Danny Yates, City Sound Studios...

Bent Sørensen commented on 'the complete avoidance of melisma...' in my performance.  I had to look it up.  Think, Whitney Houston and the 6 second first 'I' of I Will Always Love You...


Bent Sørensen is making an interesting point about Patrick Kavanagh, the lyricist.  And I Will Always...  sing like a writer...

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