The folk tradition does not revive the past so much as it keeps a spirit alive over the course of decades and centuries. Preservation is integral to the art. As such, performers might be frowned upon for altering a song or story that has been passed from generation to generation. A purist might go as far as to call this sacrilege.
Still, we are beyond the times of Edward Bunting. Gone are the days of a depending on word of mouth or a collection book to keep these songs from vanishing. From Alan Lomax’s life spent gathering field recordings to file sharing online, folk songs became immune to the threat of being forgotten. Now we have the opportunity to admire the Rashomon-like effect of hearing how successive voices interpreted what they heard.
That ability to map these changes offers a certain leeway today, which invites artists to experiment further. In the end, it leads to such gems as Ye Vagabonds’ ‘The Hare’s Lament’.
The second LP from Carlow brothers Brian and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn, ‘The Hare’s Lament’ brings together ten traditional songs gathered by the pair from sources as wide as archival recordings of their grandfather, the works of Arranmore singer Roise na nAmhran and the contemporary Dublin folk community. When taken in whole, the result is a loving tribute to the process of learning these melodies, while also seeking to add their own distinctive voices into the mix. They are not regurgitating the music, but letting their imaginations wander slightly by merging ballads, laments, rebel tunes and love songs with fresh, near-tangible ambient soundscapes.
As they sing about the unjust hunting of a hare on the titular track or about love lost on I Courted a Wee Girl, the audible experience is enough to trick listeners into feeling as if present on the scene. Equally this is a testament to the production value of the record. Each note struck is heard. Each breath is felt. The silence between chords is emphasised. The raw droning of its fiddle pierces you in the same way that John Cale’s viola did on the first two Velvet Underground records.
‘The Hare’s Lament’ is a chilling and heartbreaking work that pulls at your heartstrings through the rich texture of the instrumentation. Even when the lyrics are delivered in Gaelic, the emotive punch in tracks such as Da mBeinn I mo Bhadoir is not lost on those who forgot the language immediately after leaving school. The meaning is embedded within the grooves to the extent that it takes a greater effort to feel nothing at all. Start by waxing the hairs on the back of your neck, and even at that, best of luck.
Whether you are a lifelong lover of Irish trad or a latecomer who gained a taste for the culture through the likes of Lankum or Seamus Fogarty, ‘The Hare’s Lament’ is a rewarding listen that strengthens with each play. If it were mediocre, this would be a covers album. However, the means through which the Mac Gloinns consumed each song renders ‘The Hare’s Lament’ an immensely personal set of tales they just so happened not to write.