Fiery reels, complex jigs, and jaunty hornpipes typify the indigenous music of the British Isles, yet it is the gorgeous ballads from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland that are the real heart of the music. These songs bravely examines the entire spectrum of love; from the first blush of infatuation and romance, to it’s passionate realization, through to the sadness of betrayal, and the resignation of parting; be it to another country, or the final farewell.
For Valentines Day, I have chosen fourteen of the greatest love songs, both traditional, and contemporary. Of course, any such list is subjective, both in song choice, and in favorite rendition and performer. Celtic music is part of a living tradition, for almost any given song there are multiple (sometimes multitudinous) renditions, but for what it worth, these are my personal favorites in no particular order.
1. If I Were A Blackbird – Silly Wizard on The Wild and Beautiful,
Perhaps one of the most unashamedly romantic songs ever written, it came from the pen of Delia Murphy, the legendary “Queen of Irish Folk Singers.” Murphy lived a very full life, balancing writing, recording, and performing her songs, along with the duties associated with being the wife of one of Ireland’s most celebrated ambassadors, T.J. Kiernan. Sherman made records in London, Dublin and New York, performed regularly on radio, and even appeared in the film The Island Man. Well loved for her songs such as “The Spinning Wheel” and “Three Lovely Lassies,” she is best remembered for “If I Were a Blackbird.” It is based on the classic motif of a maid waiting on the shore for her sailor to return, and perfectly captures the innate sense of longing, so associated with the Celtic soul. Told originally from perspective of the woman, in its well-known chorus she sings: “Oh, if I was a blackbird, could whistle and sing, I'd follow the vessel my true love sails in, and in the top rigging, I would there build my nest, and I'd flutter my wings over his lily-white breast.” Though the melody is thought to be traditional, the lyrics are attributed to Sherman, who may have based them on a much older ballad. Many versions of this have been recorded, from Sherman’s poplar rendition, to a lovely interpretation by Maggie Boyle, Sussex gypsy singer Mary Ann Haynes’ possibly more ancient variant, and Ronnie Ronalde's popular 1950s recording, complete with actual recorded bird song. The version on Silly Wizard’s The Wild and Beautiful album is a relative latecomer, but stands as one of the most beautiful. Singer Andy M. Stewart changed the perspective of the song to the man’s, and transformed it into a song about immigration. Sung in his exquisite tenor, it is easy to imagine a young Scottish lad, pining on the shore for his love, having set sail to new lands after the Highland Clearances.
2. Anachie Gordon – Mary Black on Mary Black,
Blix Street Records
Perhaps one of the saddest love stories ever written, rivaling Romeo and Juliet for tragedy, it is catalogued as “Lord Saltoun and Auchanachie” (Child 239, Roud 102). Beloved, equally by the Scots and the Irish, it’s original author is unknown, and so it is ultimately deemed as being traditional. The singer, Jeannie, is to be married off by her father to a wealthy man, Lord Saltoun, but she is in love with the young Anachie Gordon. Her objections to marriage are ignored, and she is eventually dragged to the church. Jeannie refuses to sleep in her marriage bed, until her father comes and tells her maids to undo her gown. Jeannie collapses at her father's feet and dies for love of Anachie. Upon returning from the sea, Anachie learns of Jeannie’s fate and also dies of a broken heart. English singer Nic Jones recorded the song as “Annachie Gordon” on his 1977 album The Noah's Ark Trap, as has June Tabor, Loreena McKennitt, Sinéad O'Connor, and the Unthanks. The definitive rendition must go to Irish singer Mary Black on her 1983 debut album. Her version is so heartbreaking, that only the most stoic listener can keep from welling up upon hearing it for the first time. She inhabits the song, and when she sings; “The day that Jeannie married, was the day that Jeannie died, and the day that young Anachie came home on the tide,” the sadness in her voice is unparalleled.
3. Star of the County Down – Van Morrison and the Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat,
Not all Celtic love songs are sad. Something of a standard in Irish music for sometime now, “Star of the CountyDown” is an old ballad, set near Banbridge in CountyDown, in Northern Ireland. The words are by Cathal McGarvey (1866–1927) from CountyDonegal. The tune is similar to that of several other works, including the almost identical English tune “Kingsfold.” The song is sung from the point of view of a young man delighted to see a beautiful woman by the name of Rosie McCann, known far and wide as the “Star of the CountyDown”. The song is light and playful, with a whimsical set of lyrics, typical of Ireland verse. The singer, in his enchantment, sees her almost as a vision: “Oh she looked so sweet from her two bare feet, to the sheen of her nut brown hair, such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself to be sure I was really there.” He confesses his total devotion to her above all else, including work, when he sings; “No pipe I'll smoke, no horse I'll yoke, till my plough turns rust coloured brown. Till a smiling bride by my own fireside, sits the star of the CountyDown.” It’s all in good fun, and the song has been covered by the likes of The Pogues, Loreena McKennitt, The Irish Rovers, The High Kings, and the Orthodox Celts, as well as practically ever Irish bar or pub band on the planet. It was an inspired choice that Van Morrison included it as the opening song for his one and only album with The Chieftains Irish Heartbeat. Both the band and Morrison are clearly having so much fun, you can hear them smiling. Isn’t that what love is all about?
4. As I Roved Out – Kate Rusby on Hour Glass,
“As I Roved Out” is one of the most popular songs of “false love” ever written, variants of it are plentiful from Ireland, Scotland, England and even Appalachia. Certainly, many of Celtic music’s greatest singers have done their own versions, including variants by June Tabor, Loreena McKennitt, and Martyn Wyndham-Read. Planxty recorded the song on their seminal The Well Below the Valley album. Andy Irvine commented: “We learned this sad and beautiful song from the singing of Paddy Tunney, who lives in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. He has described it as dating back to the days of the famine, when any bit of property at all, was enough to tempt a man to jilt his true love in favour of the lassie with the land.” In the song, two lovers have exchange tokens of gold rings, but the man leaves his love for a woman who has more land. He explains: “If I wed the lassie who has the land, my love, it's that, I'll rue 'till the day I die. When misfortune falls, sure the man my shun it, it was my fault, that I'll not deny.” The singer sleeps restlessly and sings the wonderful line; “As I turn around to embrace my darling, instead of gold, sure 'tis brass I find.” She laments the wages of war and prays for every true man to return home safely to their wives. Of all singers, Yorkshire musician Kate Rusby sings the song in a beautiful, fragile voice, which perfectly captures the mood and emotion of the tale.
5. Lord Baker – Planxty – on Words and Music,
“Lord Baker” is the name of a traditional folk song (Roud 40), sung in English and recorded and collected by Tom Munnelly from the singing of John Reilly. Few have attempted this very long ballad, but Christy Moore sings the definitive version, on Planxty’s sixth and final album Words and Music. It tells the tale of a lord of “high degree,” who leaves Ireland in search of strange countries. He finds himself in Turkey, where he is taken prison and left to rot. The daughter of an unnamed Turkish lord visits him, and he offers her houses, land and timber to set him free. She does so, and arranges a ship for him to escape in. She expresses that the only payment she desires is Lord Baker himself. The couple drink a toast and declare a vow; “They made a vow for seven years and seven more for to keep it strong. Saying ‘if you don't wed with no other woman, I'm sure I'll wed with no other man.'” Seven years pass, and seven more, and “Turkey’s daughter” goes in search of Lord Baker. She finds him back home in Ireland on the very day he is to be married. Upon being told this by one of the lord’s servants, she asks him to bring her back a cut of his wedding cake and a glass of his wine, and “to remember the brave young lady, who did release him in Turkey land.” Upon hearing of her arrival, Lord Baker, cuts the cake in three, hands a piece to his new bride, promising her father riches as atonement for calling off the wedding. Then Lord Baker, “ran to his darling, of twenty-one steps, he made but three. He put his arms around Turkey's daughter, and kissed his true love, most tenderly.” Moore’s tells the tale in a soft gentle, near whisper of a voice, instilling an enchanting mood for nearly nine minutes. Sparse instrumentation backs him on the track, and when performed live, Moore usually scales this down to just himself and a lightly strummed bodhran. You will not find a more captivating tale of a promised love, long kept.
6. I Know My Love – Maura O'Connell on Naked,
“I Know My Love” is a traditional Irish song, which has been a session standard since at least 1922.
It is most certainly a wartime song, for its protagonist laments that “bonny boys are few.” Though the object of her affection goes to the dance house every night, often taking a “strange girl on his knee,” and is also an “arrant rover” prone to roam “the wide world over,” she is hopelessly smitten. She endeavors to win him by her more practical skills of washing and weaving. The song has such wonderfully infectious lines as; “I know my love by his way of walking, I know my love by his way of talking, I know my love by his suit of blue, and if my love leaves me, what will I do?” In spite of the singer’s anxiety, the song is set to a sprightly tune, which has been warming up sessions for decades. There are renditions of the song performed by the Chieftains, and Liz Madden, and The Corrs even had a minor hit with it. For my money, the best version can be found on Irish singer Maura O’Connell’s wonderful collaborative album Naked with Friends, on which she sings the song acapella, with Irish singers Mary Black, Mairéad Ni Mhaorigh, and Moya Brennan each taking a verse and sharing the chorus.
7. Heart of Your Home – Bobby Watt on Homeland,
Ontario's Bobby Watt is a balladeer who specializes in the songs of his native Scotland. On his album Homeland, produced by Garnet Rogers, the theme of immigration and longing for home is dominant and wonderfully illustrated by the Andy M. Stewart penned “Heart of Your Home.” The song is a deliciously detailed account of a couple's strong love, in a new land, and the birth of their first child. The chorus echoes their strength in each other, and councils the listener: “When the hard times come around, may you see them through together. Let there be love and laughter in the heart of your home.” Though Stewart's original version is grand, indeed, Watt's soft, accented voice adds a warm tenderness to the tale, which is truly awe-inspiring.
8. Siúil a Rúin – Clannad on Duluman,
“Siúil a Rún” is a traditional song, where a young girl laments the departure of her lover, who has left Ireland to enlist in the French army as a member of the “Wild Geese” of the Irish Brigade. This regiment fought during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries in hopes of gaining French support in driving the English out of Ireland. The song is most commonly sung in English, with an Irish Gaelic chorus, a style known as macaronic. “Siúil a Rún” is one of the most widely sung songs in the Irish repertoire. Covered by a plethora of great musicians, including Altan, Connie Dover, Mary Black and Reel Time; Clannad's version of the song still stands as one of the best. It is found on their third album Duluman, recorded while they were still a young folk band. Lead singer Moya Brennan's, beautiful voice sings the lamented lines; “I would I were on yonder hill, it's there I'd sit and cry my fill, and every tear would turn a mill. Is go dté tu, mo mhuirnín slán” The translation of the Irish chorus is “ Go, go, go, love go smoothly and quietly. Go to the door and escape with me, and may you go safe, my darling.”
9. Black is the Colour – Luka Bloom on Turf,
“Black Is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)” (Roud 3103) is a traditional folk song known in Britain and the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. Its probable origin is in Scotland, because of the reference to the River Clyde in the song's lyrics. Musicologist Alan Lomax supported this Scottish origin, saying that the song was an “American re-make of British materials.” Mrs. Lizzie Roberts made the earliest known recording in 1916 as “Black Is The Colour.” The song gained some fame in the 1950s from a somewhat over-the-top rendition, performed by American singer/interpreter/showman John Jacob Niles. It has also been included in the repertoire of Burl Ives, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, The Smothers Brothers, Hamish Imlach, Mike Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs, Susan McKeown, Nimah Parsons, Christy Moore, Marc Gunn, Arborea, and Gaelic Storm. Certainly, one of the most hauntingly beautiful versions of it is by Irish singer Luka Bloom. Set to a sparse, spectral, acoustic guitar, and sung in Bloom's warm, hushed voice, it is sure to induce shivers, when he sings: “Black is the colour of my true love's hair. Her lips are like some roses fair, she's the sweetest smile, and the gentlest hands. I love the ground, whereon she stands.”
10. John Anderson My Jo – Sileas on Delighted with Harps,
Green Linnet/Compass Records
John Anderson was a Scottish carpenter by trade, and was a close friend of Robert Burns, and is reputed to have built his coffin in 1796. He is also the subject of a famous poem by Burns, later set to music called “John Anderson My Jo.” There are two distinct versions of this song, as envisioned by Burns; the first being a lovely comment on love in one's elder years, which includes the lines; “We clamb the hill thegither, and mony a canty day, John. We've had wi ane anither; now we maun totter down, John. But hand in hand we'll go, and sleep thegither at the foot, John Anderson, my jo.” The more famous and often recorded version is a mildly bawdy variant. In it, his wife not only berates John for his waning sexual prowess, but threatens him with the cuckold's horns if he doesn't deliver; “But 'tis a mickle finer thing to see your hurdies fyke. To see your hurdies fyke, John, and hit the rising blow. ‘Tis then I like your chanter pipe John Anderson, my jo.” One of the finest versions is from the Scottish harp duo Síleas on their 1986 debut album Delighted with Harps. Patsy Seddon, who plays electric and gut-strung harp, and Mary Macmasters who plays electric and metal-strung harp, join vocals on this fun and frisky rendition.
11. Ae Fond Kiss – Dougie MacLean on Indigenous,
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee!
The Scots song “Ae Fond Kiss,” by the poet Robert Burns, is one of the most celebrated and covered songs of love and parting ever recorded. The lines were originally written in a letter to Agnes M'Lehose, or “Clarinda,” (also known as “Nancy” to her friends) in December 1791, when she left Burns, and Scotland, to follow her husband to Jamaica to try to save her marriage. Written in broad Scots, the song has, never the less, been covered by many artists far from Scotland. The song has been recorded by Andy M. Stewart, The Corries, Kim Robertson, American folk musician John Gorka, Karan Casey, once as a lovely duet between Karen Matheson (Capercaille) and Paul Brady on the Transatlantic Sessions TV show, and a recent and stunning rendition by Eddi Reader on her Robert Burns tribute album. The one closest in feel and sentiment to the Bard himself must be by Scottish musician and icon Dougie MacLean on his classic Indigenous album.
12. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Ewan MacColl on Black and White: The Definitive Collection,
Green Linnet/Compass Records
From the pen of the late great folk singer Ewan MacColl who wrote such classic songs as “The Joy of Living,” “DirtyOldTown,” and “The Terror Time,” came one of the single most passionate songs of all time. MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1957, for Peggy Seeger, who was later to become his wife. During the 1960s and 70s, it was recorded by various folk singers and groups, including The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and The Brothers Four. There have been mainstream renditions by Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Harry Connick, Jr., Isaac Hayes, Elvis Presley, Lauryn Hill, Alison Moyet, Engelbert Humperdinck and even The Flaming Lips with Amanda Palmer. The song, of course, became a major international hit for Roberta Flack in 1972. A handful of traditional singers have performed nice renditions of it, including Christy Moore, June Tabor, and Bert Jansch, but here we turn to MacColl himself performing it with Seeger singing the lead on their 1982 collection Black and White: The Definitive Collection. The words speak for themselves: “The first time ever I kissed your mouth, I felt the earth move through my hands, like the trembling heart of a captive bird, that was there at my command my love.”
13. The Snows They Melt the Soonest – Karan Casey on The Winds Begin to Sing,
“The Snows They Melt the Soonest” is a Irish folk song dating back at least as far as 1821. In subsequent years, it has become a well-loved staple among British musicians, from Pentangle's famous version, to fine renditions by Archie Fisher, Anne Briggs, Dick Gaughan, Old Blind Dogs, Horslips, Cara Dillon and even Sting. Its simple, yet poetic lyrics, acquaint the change of seasons with a lover's mood; “O, the snow it melts the soonest when the wind begins to sing. The bee that flew when summer shined, in winter cannot sting. I've seen a woman's anger melt between the night and morn, and it's surely not a harder thing to tame a woman's scorn.” Karan Casey, an Irish folk singer, and a former member of the band Solas, does a stark and downright exquisite rendition of it, on her 2001 recording The Winds Begin To Sing.
14. Glenlogie / Bonnie Jeannie O Bethelnie – Dick Gaughan on Gaughan,
Young Jeannie of the Scottish parish of Bethelnie (known as Meldrum after 1684) sees a bonnie lad named Glenlogie, and falls in love. She is not swayed by various attempts to convince her that he is unsuitable for her, either by offering another match, or by pointing out the disparity of their stations. Sickened by what she perceives as unrequited love, she takes to her bed and is near death, until Glenlogie comes to her side. The song ends happily, as the couple are married and contently living in Bethelnie. Many fine renditions of the song have been recorded, including notable ones by Danny Carnahan, Jim Malcolm, Old Blind Dogs, and Shirley Collins. Dick Gaughan's long rendition on his eponymous 1978 album, sung in broad Scots, and based a variant learned from John Strachan, truly captures the feel of the Highland original. Gaughan's wonderfully earthy voice rings the emotion from the song and makes it truly unique.