December 2014 Update

The Piping Book

 After an eight month process, a tranche of Arts Council funding – for which I applied in April with piper John McSherry and publishers Jawbone Press – was delivered last week. It will make The Wheels Of The World, our book on the history of uilleann piping, possible. It has not been a process which I would be in a hurry to repeat, but the result will be a book which I hope will be not only a major contribution to the literature of Irish traditional music but a fascinating and accessible read for anyone interested in music biography and music history.

The structure of The Wheels Of The World is such that the book will progress backwards from the present. Chapters on John McSherry, the Belfast piping maestro of the present era, will book-end the volume: a chapter on his career at the start; a chapter on a year in the life of a 21st Century professional Irish trad musician at the end. Following the first chapter on John, there will then be detailed chapters on his three piping heroes when he was growing up: Finbar Furey, Paddy Keenan (The Bothy Band) and Liam O’Flynn (Planxty); then huge chapters on three of the giants of the generation before them – Séamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy. Beyond that, we go back to a chapter looking at the whole history of the instrument from its origins (c.1000BC as wind-blown pipes, c.1700 as elbow-blown distinctly Irish pipes) up to Johnny Doran, the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ of the instrument whose sole 1948 recording is still the benchmark, and including the era of Patsy Touhey, the remarkable New York vaudevillian who was releasing wax cylinders of his piping years before the first jazz or blues records.

There will also be a chapter on ‘Piping In Ulster’, simply because that’s where John and I come from and it seems intriguing – to try and pull together disparate threads from across 300-odd years to show that while Ulster, in uilleann piping lore, may have been the runt of the four provinces of Ireland it’s never been totally barren. Dublin has been the world centre for piping since the days of Leo Rowsome – whose dedication as a Dublin-based teacher, performer and pipe-maker basically saved the instrument from extinction – in the first decades of the 20th Century, but some of the most interesting characters in the instrument’s past and present have still happened to have been Northern. The book will also include a couple of substantial Melody Maker features from the 1970s on The Bothy Band and Liam O’Flynn, with the generous permission of their author, Colin Irwin – plus a colossal appendix on the discographies, sessionographies and broadcasts of the artists profiled (plus one or two others).

I aim to deliver the manuscript by the end of March 2015, or at worst a month later. Publication will be in Autumn 2015. I can promise a massive amount of new documentary research and interviews and hopefully a tale well told. In the back of my mind, I can almost already read the reviews by traddie die-hards lambasting me for not being ‘in the tradition’ or for the structural concept (which means, for instance, no stand-alone chapters on well-known pipers Davy Spillane or Paddy Moloney). But I might be wrong. I worried a little that I would be similarly lambasted by die-hard jazzers for Bathed In Lighting: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond (published in March 2014), because I’m not a died-in-the-wool jazz writer and because I chose a structure for that book which saw the narrative end in 1975. I was, however, surprised and delighted to find that reviewers very largely understood the parameters of the book and were not at all precious about my ‘outsider’ status – in fact, it was never mentioned. I couldn’t have asked for more.

With all of the books and CD notes I take on – be they around British folk, British jazz, Irish trad, classic rock, progressive rock or whatever else – I come at them all as a fascinated outsider. If I’m interested myself in finding out things I don’t already know, then there’s a fair chance I can convey the subject with enthusiasm to the reader. Certainly, that’s always the aim. It should always be an adventure, with new discoveries along the way – for both a reader unfamiliar with the music/musicians in question and a reader who thinks they know it all backwards.

There are, curiously, very few substantial biographical books on Irish traditional musicians. There are any number of detailed and often brilliant biographical and historical tomes on the great names in pop, rock, jazz, blues, reggae and so on, with tremendous portraiture on the contexts they worked in, but books on Irish trad seem to be either academic/musicological or coffee-table/pictorial. Exceptions would be the autobiographies of Maire Brennan and Christy Moore and biographies of The Chieftains and Planxty. Offhand, I can’t think of any others. When Trevor Hodgett and I compiled Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History in 2004, creating a patchwork of essays around the subject either specially written or adapted from journalistic pieces, I was hoping it might prompt others to write more detailed books on some of the artists included. While that hasn’t happened (yet), there have certainly been a few more similarly thematic books surveying the history of what might very broadly be termed ‘Irish rock’. There’s time yet. In terms of traditional music artists, I’m delighted Leo Rowsome’s daughter Helena Grimes has been working on a full biography of her father, delighted that Andy Irvine is finally working towards a memoir of some sort and I believe that Finbar Furey is also working on an assisted memoir.  

The Wheels Of The World will be loosely similar in terms of its depth and breadth of research to Dazzling Stanger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival (2000) and Bathed In Lightning (2014). In other words, it will be rigorously assembled with full citations but readable and accessible. There are incredible characters in the history of piping, and if I can bring them alive to some extent on the page it will open up, I think, a whole world of new or renewed musical appreciation of their works.

The Andy Powell book

 I’ve also been working, off and on since March, on assisting ‘classic rock’ legend Andy Powell, keeper of the flame for 45 years with Wishbone Ash, with an autobiography, to be titled Last Man Standing. I’m delighted to say that Nigel and Tom at Jawbone Press have come on board with this one too. Although the piping book is a special case, being almost fully subsidised in a run of 2000 with Jawbone very generously offering a not-for-profit distribution platform, this will be the third book I’ve written that will appear on the Jawbone imprint. I couldn’t be happier about this. I have tremendous respect for Nigel and Tom both as people and as publishers: I love their ethos, their sense of humour and I admire many of the other titles they’ve published. Their Bill Bruford autobiography is one of the finest books on music in the rock era. With regard to Jawbone, I’m always reminded of something English traditional singer Anne Briggs once said about signing to Topic Records in the 1960s when she had offers from other labels: ‘They never had any money, but you felt they had integrity.’

At the time of writing (mid December 2014), I’d say this book is two thirds complete and we aim to enhance that by the end of the month. At present, we’re working on it simultaneously and in collaboration: Andy in Connecticut, me in Belfast. Some chapters are initially generated by me, from extensive interviews with Andy; others are generated by Andy. Between the two of us we then work on these drafts. My key role is providing structure, both in terms of the concept of the book and the shape of each chapter. The content is very much a hands-on reflection of Andy Powell and we’re both delighted with the way it’s progressing.

It’s a new approach for me, helping someone else with what is essentially their book. I’ve taken the view that it’s Andy’s memoir, therefore its content has to be largely driven by what he remembers – what is, in other words, important enough to him to be instantly remembered. That’s the starting point. It’s not exactly a ‘Wishbone Ash book’, it’s an ‘Andy Powell book’ – although the prime focus of Andy’s career has of course been Wishbone Ash and Wishbone Ash is the heart of the book. That difference, though, frees us from writing the biography of a band; rather, it is impressions from a life.

Here and there, we’ve delved a little into secondary research to pull out additional recollection if it seems necessary. What is presented will be accurate but not slavish. In drafting the content we’ve not been working through a 45 year gig list and adding commentary, although where events or situations are mentioned I’ve checked all the dates. Consequently, the book will not be strictly an album/tour/album/tour narrative, although the backbone of it is chronologically linear and accurate. Every second chapter will be thematic – Andy exploring a theme, unencumbered by time. It’ll be published in Autumn 2015, in time for Wishbone Ash’s UK tour.

Other News

I’ve contributed an 8000 word note to The Eve Folk Recordings – a 2CD set from RPM, released in November. The set compiles three albums (by Mick Softley, Bob Davenport & The Rakes and Vernon Haddock’s Jubilee Lovelies) produced in 1965 for EMI by Peter Eden and Geoff Stephens, on the back of their management success with Donovan. Two Donovan singles, two Donovan covers of Mick Softley songs plus a Mick Softley single and two rare Bob Davenport live tracks are also included. In a month or two I’ll probably be contributing a 10,000 word booklet to RPM’s next Peter Eden related project – The Turtle Records Story. This will be a 3CD set including the three ridiculously rare British jazz LPs released by Peter on his own label, Turtle, in 1970/71.

Hopefully, this month I will complete the instrumental EP Blues For The End Of Time, which I’ve been chipping away at off and on for the past couple of years, when time has allowed (more a case of studio legend Cormac ‘Wizard Of Sound’ O’Kane’s time allowing than mine). It’s stretched into the realms of a ‘mini album’, I suspect. I went into Cormac’s studio a few weeks back with bass maestro Ali McKenzie, quirky drummer Louise ‘Cardiff Lou’ Potter and harmonica whiz Lee Hedley and we recorded the basis of one new piece and overdubbed new parts for a second, existing piece.

Guitar legend Chris Spedding very kindly lent me his skills on one track recently, which I look forward to mixing next week. Andy Powell and John McSherry will also be contributing parts, to a different piece, inspired by the Hebridean adventures of piping icon and maverick Séamus Ennis. The EP, as previously mentioned, also includes fabulous contributions from Premik Russell Tubbs, Shane Pacey and Steven Kindler.


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