The Standing Stones:
An Craoibhín Aoibhinn
(The Pleasant Little Branch)

CD description

An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (The Pleasant Little Branch) is the second CD by the Standing Stones. The name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn refers to more than the title of a song on the CD. It was the pen name of Dr. Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, author, collector of traditional song , and first president of Ireland. He played a leading part in the intellectual movement of the early 20th century that led not only to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, but also to the collection and preservation of much of the body of traditional music that was coming under stress from modern mass culture at this time. Many of the pieces on the CD were preserved by collectors inspired by this philosophy.

One of these, Francis O'Neill, police chief of Chicago, quotes the following account of Douglas Hyde's visit to Chicago in 1905:
    It is doubtful if anything in Dr. Douglas Hyde's experience while in America was so thoroughly enjoyed by him as the "Night in Ireland" arranged by Father Fielding and Chief O'Neill a few days before he left Chicago. ... There was no formality observed at that meeting. It was an Irish meeting pure and simple. The priests were there, as they used to be in olden times in Ireland, encouraging the national music, songs and dances of their country ...

    In the midst of this unconventional Irish hospitality, the "Craoibhin Aoibhinn" sat for hours listening to those men of Erin pouring forth an inexhaustible flood of music, songs and melodies of the motherland. On several occasions he was visibly affected ...

    Dr. Douglas Hyde enjoyed that "Night in Ireland" and expressed himself as delighted with what he had seen and heard. He thanked all present, particularly Father Fielding, for arranging such a pleasant meeting, and also Chief O'Neill, whom he complimented on his great efforts in keeping alive in a foreign land the jewels of our fathers which were inherited from them beyond the dawn of history and are still entwined with our very heart strings.

Vicki Parrish and Michael Robinson decided on the Standing Stones as their performing name to emphasize their commitment to the ancient musical tradition that these dedicated collectors of a century ago preserved and handed down to today. But the pleasant little branch is also a symbol of springtime and the rebirth of nature. The selections chosen for the recording explore the more lyrical and romantic side of traditional music. Both Vicki and Michael have been fascinated by this music since childhood, and several of the songs they sing here were learned at an early age.

The song An Craoibhín Aoibhinn describes three young girls sitting under an apple tree, discussing the kind of man they would like to marry, as birds fly above their heads. The words of My Lagan Love were composed by Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil (Joseph Campbell), a Belfast poet and artist whose own art was firmly rooted in the traditional. It is presented in an austere arrangement that emphasizes the unusual and haunting melody. Young love is also represented by Are You Sleeping Maggie?, a so-called "night-visiting" song in which a young man attempts to get his girlfriend to let him in the house by extravagant and dramatic descriptions of the weather outside. The Irish song Ainnir Dheas na gCiabhfholt Donn (The Beautiful Lass with the Brown Hair) is a reflection back to the love of youth from the perspective of old age, an unusual and philosophical consideration of the varied paths of life. Vicki and Michael learned both Ainnir Dheas na gCiabhfholt Donn and An Craoibhín Aoibhinn from Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh, a talented singer they meet in Donegal.

Life is not all serious, however, and the lighter side is also represented. Knickers of Corduroy takes a humourous look at migrant farmwork in Scotland and out of fashion clothing. The Australian swagman's song Four Little Johnnycakes celebrates the culinary delights of a life on the road. There is also a lively set of Gaelic mouth music, vocal dance tunes learned by Vicki on the Isle of Skye from the noted Gaelic singer Catherine Anne MacPhee.

Several of the instrumental pieces feature Vicki's harp playing, on the modern nylon-strung Celtic harp and also on the wire-strung Gaelic harp which was the traditional instrument of the ancient harpers of Scotland and Ireland. Michael joins in on fiddle, flute or other traditional instruments. Two of the greatest traditional musicians of the 18th century are represented, Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin (Turlough O'Carolan) and Niel Gow, who is depicted playing fiddle in the picture below.

Highland Wedding David Allan (1744-1796)
Although Michael's accomplished guitar playing can be heard on two of the songs, the modern practice of guitar accompaniment to dance tunes has been avoided, as it tends to obscure the subtle interplay among the melodic instruments. It also imposes modern harmonic structures on music that is based on the musical modes that date back to medieval times. Instead, the accompaniments look to 18th and 19th century Scotland, where the cello was the instrument of choice. Scholars have recently uncovered references to the use of the cello in 18th century Ireland also. Vicki's cello adds harmony and countermelody, supporting the tune without interfering with it. One tune, The Yellow Haired Laddie, features a cello accompaniment originally published in the early 18th century. The cello parts to other tunes derive from a long study of this tradition. (Michael recently published an article on Scottish cello accompaniment in Strings magazine.)

In addition to Scotland and Ireland, there also tunes from two other Celtic lands, the Isle of Man and Wales. These exhibit a related but slightly different approach to modal structure.

The Standing Stones demonstrate a versatility that is not uncommon in the world of Celtic music. Vicki plays both harps and cello. Michael contributes fiddle, mandola or Irish flute on most tracks, as well as feadóg (whistle), guitar, baritone violin, accordion and even, in a few places, bodhran and fretless bass.

The CD insert of An Craoibhín Aoibhinn contains translations of all the Irish and Gaelic texts, plus extensive background and historical information on all the music.

The Standing Stones' An Craoibhín Aoibhinn shows a musical approach based on looking to the past, and emphasizing the relationship of music to the culture from which it sprang. This is music that carries its history with it. The delightful results show that it can speak just as well to the modern world.

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