One of the aspects of folk music that makes it so different from any other variety is the connection it has to history and tradition. Normally this connection is expressed in the playing of the music itself, or perhaps a brief explanation of a song’s origins before a tune is begun. In ‘The Irish in Scotland: Songs of Robert Tannahill’ this process was taken one step further, interspersing tunes with longer explanations of their origins, meanings, and relationship to the Irish/Scottish relationship in general.
Tannahill is a more obscure contemporary of Burn’s who lived in Paisley. For this show Dr. Fred Freeman, an honorary fellow in English at the University of Edinburgh, has compiled a collection of songs showing Tannahill’s defense of the Irish then migrating to Scotland. In between the songs Freeman’s speaks about the songs themselves, the events of the period in which they were written, and specifically about they show about the relationship between the Scottish and Irish peoples at the time.
Playing Freeman’s chosen selection of Tannahill songs were John Moran on Guitar, Marc Duff on flute, bodhrán and mandolin, Wendy Weatherby singing, and Sandy Brechin on accordion. The band performed well, easily switching from rousing, toe-tapping beats to slow, mournful tunes. The songs, including “O Are Ye Sleeping Maggie”, “Peggy O’Rafferty” “Sweet Kitty More” and Tannahill’s most famous song “The Braes of Balquhidder”, do much to show off the skill and versatility of the performers. However, the songs also do much to show Tannahill’s breadth not only as a poet, but as a human being.
The pieces chosen for the show are well-selected to give a comprehensive overview of the relationship between the Irish and Scots in the time in which Tannahill lived. There are songs in which Irish immigrants long for their homeland, songs in which Irish immigrants are abused, but also songs in which the Irish are praised for their beauty and kindness. In between the songs Dr. Freeman provides detailed explanations about the symbolism within the poems, the use of language, and the piece’s meaning. It is an incredibly informative and enjoyable evening. As well-selected as the songs are for their intended purpose, however, Dr. Freeman could have easily explained a bit less, and allowed the songs to speak for themselves.