Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Book Review: The Otherworld

Following on from my post a few weeks ago, here's my review of The Otherworld. To summarise: Yay. Now can we have a Scottish one of these, please?

The Otherworld: Music and Song from Irish Tradition
Ríonach ui Ógáin and Tom Sherlock (Eds.)

This is a compilation of forty songs, lilts, tales, and instrumental pieces from the Irish Folklore Collection, spanning from the early 1920s up until 2010, presented on two CDs with an accompanying book. It's all beautifully done, it has to be said - not just in how the book looks, but in the over all quality of writing and the tracks that have been selected as well, and I think there's just the right amount of discussion and detail given for each track. It doesn't assume the audience has in-depth knowledge of the subject, but it doesn't over-simplify, either, and it's not one of those dry, dense, academic volumes that so many have come to dread. It gives enough to cover the basics and give a solid footing, and provides a bibliography for further reading for those who might want to explore further.

As far as the book itself goes, we start with a good introduction to the project and its development, and some background about the Otherworld in Irish folk belief, before going on to deal with the CDs themselves. Each track has its own chapter, with a transcription of any spoken word or lyrics given clearly in bold at the start, followed by further details and explanation of the major themes and plot points found. While most of the tracks are in English, or without lyrics at all, some of the tracks are recorded in Irish. Any Irish is always provided with an English translation straight after it, with exactly the same formatting, so it's easy to compare, and easy to figure out what's being said if you don't happen to have any Irish while you're listening to a song or whatever.

There's a good variety of themes covered - the good people, of course, but also songs, jigs and tales relating to mermaids, the púca, banshees and revenants (the dead returned), as well as tragic tales of loves lost to witchcraft or being taken into the hills, and so on. Incidental bits of folklore about the festival calendar, lone bushes and trees, building new houses and going out at night (safely) are weaved into the chapters here and there, as they come up and while there isn't much to learn if you've already read a fair few books about this kind of thing, there are surely some bits and pieces that will be new, and there are the songs themselves. I was particularly interested in the chapter discussing the song about the púca, seeing as there's not usually much said about it beyond its reputation for pissing on brambles at Samhain...

There are contributors from almost every part of Ireland (only three counties aren't included here, though I didn't see anything that said why this was the case), from people living in the city or the countryside, and from all walks of life - farmers, housewives, musicians, and Travellers. Some information about where and when the track was recorded, who is speaking and who is recording, who wrote or composed the piece (if known), or if there are any similar songs or stories in other countries, is also discussed. Photographs of the people and places involved are given, too, with examples of things like fairy bushes, May bushes, boys dressed in girl's clothing to protect them from the good people, and more are given. The only downside to this is that some of the photographs are a little too dark to make out any real detail - I'm fairly sure that's mostly because they're much older than the ones that are a bit clearer, but I think it would have been good to try and clean some of the worst examples up a little (I assume time and/or budget constraints prevented this). But on the plus side, with the occasional bit of squinting at the pictures, this all helps to provide a good bit of context to each track you hear.

While the subject matter is very much Otherworldly and many of the songs are kind of hypnotic to listen to, the book helps to anchor it all in a more tangible reality - something that some books on the same kind of subject tend to lack. A lot of the time, when you read a book about the songs or tunes of Ireland and so on, you just see the songs - the lyrics, the music laid out for you to practice - and it's very plain, just words on paper, really. Here you get to see the people the voices or instruments belong to, bringing a more tangible feel to a body of tradition that's often divorced from its context.

With brief biographies of the folklorists who went out collecting the material included as well, the book is almost as much about the processing of collecting and recording as much as the traditions that have been preserved on tape as well. Anyone who's done a bit of reading on the subject will recognise a few names mentioned - Caomhín Ó Danachair (Kevin Danaher), in particular - and it's good to put some faces to the names. This might not be as interesting to most people unless you're especially keen on everything folklore, but I think it's an important addition to the book, for their contribution to preserving tradition as much as the tradition bearers themselves, in some ways.

I'm not especially musical myself but the recordings are clear and the songs that have been chosen are beautifully sung. The incidental background noises on some of the recordings - a dog yapping, people talking - also adds to the atmosphere. In most cases the songs are simply sung, perhaps accompanied by a fiddle, maybe even a piano. There are a couple of pieces on the uilleann pipes and flute as well, and the simplicity of the recordings let the arrangements speak for themselves. There really isn't anything in the book that you could call unnecessary padding - the chapters are very concise and repetition is kept at a minimum so all in all it makes for a good introduction to the subject.

Aside from my gripe about some of the photos being too dark, my only other real quibble is that the CDs are situated right at the back of the book, stuck on two rubbery, nobbly bits attached to the back cover (marvel at my technical description!). It's a bit fiddly to put the CDs back on securely, but it's hardly the end of the world.

All in all, this is a good, solid book and it's a very welcome addition to the bookshelf. Considering the low price, what you get is very good mileage for your money, too.