Ian Gallagher,
My Ireland
(Rego, 2002)

Ian Gallagher has to know the reaction he'll get from Irish music snobs.

Purists -- those who worry more about the specifics of tradition, rather than its spirit -- will sniff disdainfully at My Ireland, Gallagher's tribute to a younger, but equally valid, Irish tradition. Other folks will likely enjoy the album for what it is: fun, and more than a little nostalgic.

No, Gallagher isn't singing traditional pub songs. If that's what you're looking for, there are plenty of CDs out there to sate your desire. Rather, Gallagher is recalling the not-too-distant past when Irish music of a different color flooded lounges and ballrooms, employing to great effect the talented Irish showbands and those strong, tenor voices while giving couples a chance to dance close and sigh about the long ago and an Ireland that never really existed.

Anyone familiar with Irish music history knows that its contemporary revival owes a lot to the lounge and dance-hall singers in the early and mid-20th century, particularly in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. While the music there was far from the traditional songs and ballads being sung in Ireland at the time, this new form of "Irish" music opened the door for the great flood of Irish traditions available to us today.

Truth be told, by the 1950s and '60s, many native Irish (emigrants as well as the stay-at-home variety) had come to disdain those plain old songs, and they readily embraced the new styles. Anyone who's visited Ireland today knows you can still find lounge singers entertaining locals and tourists alike with those "old standards" such as "Sing Me an Old Irish Song," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra" and, yes, even "Danny Boy," all of which appear on Gallagher's new recording. (I've seen Irish pubs come to a standstill as music-lovers strained to hear a lone singer crooning "Danny Boy," which is not despised there, as many believe, despite the English origins of the lyrics.)

Those Irish-American dance halls didn't limit themselves to pseudo-Irish songs. They catered to a dancing crowd, and dance music of many varieties, including swing, found enthusiastic audiences. So Gallagher recreated the mood by blending in a few apt pieces, my favorite of which is a medley of "In the Mood," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Take the A Train," "American Patrol" and "Chatanooga Choo Choo" that had my girlfriend and me dancing around her living room in utter delight.

Irish? No. Authentic to the period? Absolutely.

I'll be honest, I too am far fonder of real Irish traditional music, the tunes and songs that stretch back into the more distant past. But my focus is not so narrow that I'll ignore other aspects of Irish culture, even those that wandered far afield in the Irish people's quest for a new identity and a new place in the world.

I fear too many people will write Gallagher's CD off without considering its historical and cultural contexts. That's a shame, because he has cleverly brought to life a time in Irish-American history when Irish music was making its first big splash -- a time that opened the doors for the Irish music renaissance of more recent years.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 7 September 2002