Jimmy MacBeath
& Davie Stewart,
Two Gentlemen of the Road
(Rounder, 2002)

This is not a party album, unless you plan exceptionally dull parties. Two Gentlemen of the Road is more of an audio documentary, an animated listen through folk history that was just barely surviving at the time of its recording. Drawing on the experience of Jimmy MacBeath and Davie Stewart, two very different fiddlers from an old, traveling musician lifestyle, the double album attempts to capture some of a lost way of life while sharing the music of two legends whose works are too easily missed.

Although only MacBeath and Stewart are credited in the title, this is really a trio album. Alan Lomax, the interviewer and recorder, deserves great credit for his foresight and thoroughness in assembling these recordings. His questions are well-crafted to lead the old performers through rambling answers instead of pat, brief affirmatives, and even when his subjects become taciturn Lomax finds a song or story lead that will send them tale-spinning again. Under his gentle prodding, they move from personal anecdotes to inherited fairy tales to tips on the best way to travel Ireland for less than a dollar a day. Both MacBeath and Stewart provide some raw, natural fiddling as far from most "Celtic inspired" fiddling as sugarcane is from Splenda.

This hefty double album of songs, stories and histories is supported by a thick booklet of liner notes and translations, printed small and still so thick it barely fits into the CD case. Even the thick booklet can't hold all the transcription and background that this archive offers, so the extra files on the CD are most welcome. The notes are especially useful since MacBeath and Stewart not only speak with leather-thick accents, but sometimes lapse into Traveler's tongue. The translations and transcriptions allow the two to speak in their own way without losing either meaning or personality.

The history tapers off with Stewart's "The Story Lives Forever," a long fairy tale with an inescapable conclusion. Storytellers find a new venue with every generation, and many of the stories shared here have already been retold and claimed by new voices. But too many others would have been forgotten, and some are unique to the voices on this album. Two Gentlemen of the Road is a long, rambling journey that will leave you glad to be back home, and sorry to end the trip.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 14 February 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.