For the Sake of the Song, Malinky to play Somerville
BMS talks with the members of Malinky before show on Saturday
When we think of traditional Scottish and Irish music today, we usually think of the dance music – the fiddles and flutes, the reels and jigs – and much less of the songs. Since the advent of the big bands in trad music, most notably the Bothy Band, the instrumental side of the music has been the workhorse, with the song relegated to the status of showpiece or afterthought, depending on your point of view. It was not always this way, of course. Until groups like the Bothies and Planxty achieved a sort of rock star status playing in this way, the song was king in the hands of folk revivalists like the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners and the tunes were mostly kept out of view. This Saturday, a young Scottish band will come to Somerville to put the focus back on the songs for the night.
Malinky came together in the pub sessions of Edinburgh to back a singer at a gig. The gig worked, and the band drew some attention, so they kept at it, and now eleven years and several personnel changes later, they’ve released their fourth album and hit on a strong ensemble sound which emphasizes collaboration and blend over individual showmanship. The band’s current lineup includes two of the players on that first gig, Steve Byrne and Mark Dunlop, as well as Fiona Hunter, Mike Vass& and Dave Wood, all of whom joined at different times over the years. Although the membership has changed, the focus of the band has remained constant. “The guiding principle has always been the furthering of traditional song” says founding member Steve Byrne in a recent interview. “Bands going around Scotland in the late nineties who were concentrating on instrumental music – with a few token songs – but there were no bands concentrating fully on songs”.
And Malinky certainly concentrates on songs. Their métier is the ‘English and Scottish popular ballads’ collected during the periodic folk revivals that have come along over the last few hundred years. When he is not touring with the band, Byrne has as perfect a day job as one could imagine. “My background is in ethnology, in folksong study, folksong collecting, and I work in an archive that’s attached to the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh”, he said in a recent interview with Boston Music Spotlight. This is a little like putting the young Bob Dylan to work assembling rhyming dictionaries, or hiring Nick Cave out as a contract killer: seldom does a singer’s day job& consist precisely of the act of assembling their material. Fiona Hunter, who plays cello and sings with the band, also has a background in the study of traditional song, having studied with well-known tradition bearers in the course of her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and Mark Dunlop draws on the material of his home turf in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland.
The band draws on this abundance of material to bring lesser-known songs to the stage, as well as intriguing variations on well-known ones. They incline towards the local, to the particular, recording well-known ballads in less-known versions that have a particular resonance for a member of the band. The centerpiece of the band’s recent release, “Fire and Iron”, is a song known on both sides of the Atlantic, here recorded under the title of “Sweet Willie and Fair Annie”, but also known in the Appalachian region as “The Brown Girl”. Byrne was drawn to this particular version because it was collected in the late 1700s from a woman in Arbroath, near where he grew up. “We always try to have that kind of a connection to the songs to give us an extra reason to do them, as well as the fact that they’re great songs”, says Byrne. (Guitarist Dave Wood points out that there’s a local connection to Boston as well: the tune the band use is taken from Tim Eriksen’s recording of a song called “Boston”.)
Attendees on Saturday will hear a lot of singing from Fiona Hunter, the band’s cellist. This is a fine thing, to judge from the band’s recordings. Hunter’s voice is an excellent instrument all around, whether she’s singing in a dance tempo, as on “The Broomfield Hill” (a variation on a story which might be classified as “the maiden’s escape from seduction”)& in which she shows her grasp of the puirt a beul (“mouth music”) tradition, or on slower, more lyrically oriented songs like Archie Fisher’s “The Shipyard Apprentice”. This song, a modern composition with a lyric by the great Scottish writer Archie Fisher, is perhaps the best-known of the songs on this album, with its carefully painted scenes from a child’s view of life in Glasgow, “in the shadow of the Fairfield Crane”, during and after the second World War. Hearing it sung by someone who grew up close to where the Fairfield Crane once stood gives some idea of what Byrne means when he speaks of “trying to maintain the relationship and the intimacy of the song… there has to be more than a technical side of singing the song, somebody has to be involved with it.” While this is a fine song in anybody’s hands, the local connection is a vivid reminder that this is a song by someone, and about someone, and not simply a set of words that sound good together. With a bright and brash tone, unabashed but not abrasive, Hunter has the voice to handle this song and the wistful “Road tae Drumleman” as well as “Why Should I?”, which again hearkens to the dance music tradition.
Byrne is also a fine singer as well as being a song collector and scholar, and his contributions to the band’s repertoire, in addition to the old traditionals, include some fine new songs, such as Pete St. John’s& “When Margaret Was Eleven”, a song which can stand next to “Willie McBride” by the Australian Eric Bogle and Lester Simpson’s “Standing in Line”, and indeed with “The Shipyard Apprentice” in the long and noble list of songs deriving from the experience of the two World Wars of the last century.
The band is able to bring all of this disparate material – modern and traditional songs from Scotland, Ireland, and England, with the occasional American tune, sung by three singers – into a cohesive whole due to their fine and sensitive arrangements, which are devised to underscore the lyrics. The band use fiddle, flute, and cello to “follow the moods and dynamics” of the song, to “make complementary statements with the music and the words”, as Byrne put it, “rather than just singing five verses with choruses in between”. The band also allow themselves to make changes to the songs, as every singer has before them. “Quite a lot of alterations”, says fiddler Vass.& Among the changes is the addition of a number of new verses to an old ballad, “Pad the Road Wi’ Me”. The new verses are by Byrne, and it’s a measure of his skill as a writer and his understanding of the tradition that it’s not by any means obvious which are the new verses and which are the old.
Says Byrne, “Ever since the publication of things like the Child ballads, in the 1960s in the Dover edition, people have done all of those songs in various ways, there are landmark recordings by any number of wonderful artists of some of the big ballads, so we try and do something a bit different”. Something different is certainly what they do. What you can expect from the night is a range of songs from throughout a long and rich tradition of ballads, from the seventeenth century up to sometime last week, sung, as the great American writer put it, “for the sake of the song”.
Malinky will perform at the Unity Church of Somerville (6 William Street) on Saturday. Tickets are $17 at the door and more information on the show can be found here. For information on the band, please visit their official website.