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Twenty-One original recordings 1910-1921
Transfers and Production by David Lennick and Graham Newton



Crotchet Budget price

1) Killarney
2) Come Back To Erin
3) The Minstrel Boy
4) My Lagan Love
5) Dear Little Shamrock
6) Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms
7) Mother Machree
8) The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls
9) Where The River Shannon Flows
10) Molly Brannigan
11) The Foggy Dew
12) The Low Backed Car
13) My Wild Irish Rose
14) It’s a Long Way To Tipperary
15) Ireland, My Sireland
16) That Tubledown Shack in Athlone
17) Sweet Peggy O’Neill
18) The Barefoot Trail
19) The Next Market Day
20) A Ballynure Ballad
21) Little Town in The Old County Down


There are certain songs many people never forget and Irish Ballads are some of the most unforgettable. John McCormack reminds us on this disc of how at the beginning of the 20th century they were really sung. John Francis McCormack was of Scots-Irish extraction, born in 1884 in Athlone, his father a wool-mill worker. John was a bright child and in 1902, despite parental opposition, had a burning ambition to become a singer. Through friends he was introduced to his mentor Vincent O’Brian, the conductor of Dublin’s Palestrina Choir. He coached the raw McCormack and in May 1903 he won a Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil Irish Music Festival.

By 1905 funds were raised for this now handsome, dark-haired young man with the heartbreaking eyes to undertake further study in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini. First in London in September 1904 he had made his first recordings. These were cylinders for Edison followed a week later by discs for Fred Gaisbergs’s Gramophone Company. He recorded Irish songs, of course. His first forays into opera were in Italy in 1906 but they offered the young tenor no sure way to stardom. It was in London at Convent Garden that he made his debut and final recognition of his talent came in October 1907 where he was partnered in many shows with famous names of the day. His reputation as an operatic singer tenor was high but his acting was indifferent and his career in opera was virtually over by 1914. He had made his American debut in 1909 and acclimatised quickly to life in the USA having already perceived the concert platform as a more lucrative medium. There was, after all, a vast resident Irish audience wanting to hear songs of the Old Country. From his first recording session for the Victor Company in 1910 John was hailed as a master balladeer.

"Killarney" like so many of these recordings, was made with the ubiquitous "studio orchestra" in Camden in London in 1910. It took me a few minutes before I realised I was going to hear Irish Ballads sang as they have never been since that time and needed to adjust my idea of hearing a familiar song in what is now an unfamiliar way. Once I had done so I started to enjoy the experience and I hope you will too. So many people know "Killarney" and McCormack’s voice is a real delight. He appears to sing in the same measured tone throughout, and yet the distinction is there as he sings of the beautiful Killarney . You will at once appreciate hearing his elegant phrasing, and outstanding diction with remarkable breath support in all the other recordings. No wonder he made his mark so young. What could be more appropriate to follow than the delightful "Come Back To Erin" recorded in February 1910 also in Camden. McCormack sings in the same easy, lazy way but never are you unaware of a lush quality in his delivery, of how he is appealing and yearning for his darling to come back to Erin. I was impressed by the studio orchestra here especially the fine short introduction and then all through this lovely Irish air how they appear to be in complete accord with McCormack, who never time fails to sing in that soothing and velvety voice. Next from these 1910 sessions is "The Minstrel Boy". It was said that McCormack’s secret of his hold on the public was his sincerity. On listening to this I can believe it. Not an easy recording to hear all the words, but that doesn’t matter too much as it is pure joy to hear how McCormack lovingly embraces every note by using every one with a slightly different inflection so making this very lovely Irish ballad sound as it was meant to be. I am sure you will agree this song will never be sung again with such tenderness and feeling.

In March the same year we find McCormack in New York where he records for Victor "My Lagan Love" . This is an old Irish Air from a 1909 cycle of three Ulster Folk songs and arranged by Sir Hamilton Harty. This is one of the few Irish songs I have heard McCormack sing where I found nothing to impress me. I listened several times but I think it lacks some spark that most Irish Ballads have. What a difference his next recording proved to be, though. Back in London in April 1910 he recorded the much-loved "Dear Little Shamrock". I was certainly conscious of a slight lump in my throat as I listened to words so clearly and eloquently sung from the heart. The studio orchestra play admirably and this is one of the gems on the disc.

Back in New York March 1911 he recorded for Victor another sentimental Irish song "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms". Such a lovely old song and as McCormack sings it you know he is passionately asking you to believe in those endearing charms, and you do. His pure clear voice rises and falls and while you listen you wonder how he manages to control his breathing. But he does and every word is pure gold. This is a number that should never be hurried, meant to be sweet and soft, and that’s what you have here. Next from this session is "Mother Machree". He sings of the memory of a Mother who has silvery hair, brown marks and wrinkles of age, and with real emotion in his voice sings "God Bless You and Keep You Mother Machree." He sings this age old song in a voice that never loses its fluency.

Back in London in April 1912 we have "The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls" a delightful old song of ancient Ireland. I loved it and McCormack sings it in a jovial manner as you could imagine a crowd of children would sing it. You know he loves what he is singing, and you hear how he can adjust his voice to whatever type of music it is. Maybe you will have some difficulty making out the words again but McCormack’s voice will be enough. What better to follow than "Where the River Shannon Flows" , another sentimental love song McCormack recorded in London January 1913. He sings of how his heart is breaking as he leaves his little Irish rose down by the River Shannon. He sings a tender, romantic story without effort in the way we have become accustomed to hearing. It never matters if you ignore all the words, because the pleasure is listening to McCormack’s unique voice which will persuade you into thinking he means every word and his voice will tell you how he feels in his heart.

The following three songs are traditional ones recorded in London in January 1913, with Spencer Clay accompanying on the piano and the studio orchestra in the background. The first is "Molly Brannigan " followed by "The Foggy Dew" and "The Low Backed Car". All of these show how versatile and gifted a singer McCormack could be. They are typical Irish comic songs with all the usual humorous lyrics sung as only the true Irish can with style and enjoyment and yet in a subtle way. At times you even feel he is tempting you to stand up and do a jig.

The last recording John McCormack recorded in London before he left for New York in 1914 was "My Wild Irish Rose" and he sings as only he can of the sweetest flower that grows and how nothing could compare. In New York that same year he recorded "It’s A Long Way To Tipperary" to back the war effort and although now aspiring to American citizenship he was still fond of the old country that had given him his first break.

He recorded "Ireland, My Sireland" in New York in April 1917 but this is a song I cannot really decide whether I like or not. McCormack sings as beautifully as ever, but the question for me is what is the song really about? The rest of the songs on the disc were recorded in London at intervals over three years. They are all traditional Irish sung from the heart and you are left in no doubt he means every word and relishes and loves to be singing about Ireland whether it be a sentimental tone, or a humorous one, with every intention of making you want to dance too. It’s a case of listening to a man whose intention is to make you happy.

I do recommend this disc. The voice of John MacCormack is always worth listening to even at this early stage in his career. The pre-electrical 78s have been transferred beautifully.

Joan Duggan


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