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Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson reviews one show looking at the life and music of Margaret Barry

This article first appeared in Common Space https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/10265/anni-donaldson-century-apart-art-margaret-barry-and-karine-polwart

THE gulf separating the lived experience of singers Margaret Barry and Karine Polwart could hardly be wider. 

Margaret, born into a family of street musicians in Cork in 1917, and Karine, a 40-something from Edinburgh, show the distance women have travelled in the world of traditional music and song.

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ by Colin Irwin and Mary McPartlan, which played at the Tron Theatre as part of Celtic Connections, gave us a funny, poignant and honestly tuneful evocation of Barry’s colourful life.

Karine Polwart

Finding herself homeless at 16, she took her chances on the road with just her bicycle and her ‘banji’, as she called it. Living rough at times and singing for bed and board, she traipsed around Ireland’s cities and country fairs singing on street corners, in pubs or wherever she could earn her keep.

Although she learned the hard way how to command an audience and compete with the clatter of street and stall, her powerfully sweet and melodic tones gave voice to Ireland’s eternal longing for itself in ballads of migration, of loves lost and found, of failed rebellion and roving in the years after the failed Easter Rising.

The self-styled ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was strong in the face of the Irish Catholic Church’s view of independently-minded single mothers like herself, of a male-dominated culture and general prejudice against travellers – she held her own and had the last laugh.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: James Kelman on the Dirt Road to Lafayette

Bumping into tradition-hunters Robin Roberts and Alan Lomax in 1951, Barry’s gifts were recognised and she went on to become the centre of the growing Irish community in London, taking up residence at sessions in the famous Bedford Arms with her new musical partner, fiddler Michael Gorman.

Caring little at all for her appearance, lack of front teeth and more for stout, Margaret went on to a colourful career touring the US. Mary McPartlan (main picture) lovingly rendered Margaret’s signature songs like the Galway Shawl, The Factory Girl, My Laggan Love, the Wild Colonial Boy and others including the exquisite title song.

Larne-born actor Ruby Campbell’s fine portrayal of Margaret through her life gave a real sense of this huge character and the size of the toss she never gave for convention or sobriety.

Polwart’s play, Wind Resistance, by contrast, expressed more 20th century concerns for land, nature, community, birth and motherhood. Centred on her beloved Falla Moss, Polwart’s multi-dimensional performance combined songs and stories old and new, chat, audio interviews and wondrous back projections of geese in flight.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

Polwart drew the connections and cooperation between bird, land, people, history and agriculture, weaving her tale around the love story of Roberta and Will who settled in Falla Moor in 1919. This deeply moving musical essay shared one highly creative woman’s art through reminiscence, via football, medieval medicine, peat bogs, moss and birth.

That Polwart had the funding and freedom to do what Barry could only do by force of will shows how far we have come in recognising the art women can make given half a chance.

We must thank Celtic Connections for reminding us of those uproarious foremothers like Margaret Barry who carved those first paths through the peat bog of centuries of tradition and silt and ended up on the boards of the Tron Theatre.

Pictures courtesy of Celtic Connections

tlinseyandken

This review first appeared in The Lennox Herald 29 January 2016

Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell pull off a musical world tour at their first Celtic Connections gig.

Like the wild geese taking off above Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell’s home in Gartocharn on Loch Lomondside, a full house at the Glasgow Art Club on Friday 22 January caught the thermals of their fine opener Northern Winds and were transported on a musical round-the-world-tour. In the art nouveau splendour of the Art Club’s recently refurbished Gallery with its Charles Rennie Mackintosh frieze, panelled walls and breathtaking fireplaces, the accomplished couple created a comfortable and easy feel for this, their first Celtic Connections gig.

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Linsey knows her way around a cello and the rich resonant tones of her arrangements brought the violin’s often shy big sister centre stage to lead and cavort with open bowing, slap base licks and melancholy harmonics. With Ken’s twelve string guitar, Northumbrian pipes and Spanish laud accompaniments and their friendly incidental chat, the pair’s many self-penned songs offered a glimpse of what they do on their holidays.

Whether taking inspiration from local archives for the rousing whaling song Dundee Bound and Ellis Island for Land of Hope, re-imagining a Pushkin poem and a Russian folk tune in Silent and Shy or recreating a day in the life of a Tuscan café owner in the ‘world premiere’ of the distinctly Czardas-esque instrumental Giovanni, Linsey and Ken offer a syncretic repertoire which never strayed far from its Scottish musical roots. This was never more effective than Linsey’s exquisite Achachrome, an instrumental inspired by the croft in Kilmartin Glen from whence Ken’s family were cleared in the 19th century. The duet melted Linsey’s cello at its harmonic and melancholic best with Ken’s Northumbrian pipes which took up the melody to create an ‘droney’ (Linsey’s words) and atmospheric combination evoking the wrench from kith and kin.

With some covers thrown in for excellent measure: their tribute to the late Michael Marra, Take me out drinking tonight, Mick West’s favourite The hills are clad in purple and a sparklingly original arrangement of Wild Rover the crowd were well pleased.  Clearly well-loved and active in Gartocharn with a large local and family contingent there present, Linsey and Ken pulled off the right amount of community singing with their clever chorus handout sheets and managed easily to stay this side of sentimental with their finale Red is the Rose, the beautiful and not often heard Irish version of Loch Lomond.   With that they were back on home turf at the south end of Loch Lomond and all seemed to agree that their Celtic Connections debut was a winner.

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