The Music Of What Happens
Artist: Cathie Ryan
There is an old folk tale from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology in which the Fianna-Finn are talking of music. “What is the finest music in the world?” asked Fionn of his son Oisín. “The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,” he answered. They went around the room and each told what music they believed to be finest. One said the belling of a stag across the water, another the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, and others believed the finest music to be the song of a lark, the laughter of a happy girl, or the whisper of a moved one.
“They are good sounds all,” said Fionn
“Tell us,” one of them asked him, “What do you think?”
“The music of what happens,” said Fionn, “that is the finest music in the world.”
With her second Shanachie recording, The Music of What Happens, Irish American singer Cathie Ryan emerges from the shadows of all she has been, offering a spellbinding set of original and traditional songs. The title of Ryan’s CD, based on a story from the Fenian cycle of ancient Irish legend, displays her gift for plumbing ancient tradition for things it can say to us in our noisome, quick, and stressful times. “The songs represent the music of what happens to all of us,” she said, “from great happiness to great loss and everything in between. Just the way we experience our lives.”
The Music of What Happens begins with Ryan’s bold, windswept journey to the top of Knocknarea, a mountain in Sligo said to hold the tomb of legendary warrior queen Maeve. For centuries, people have taken a stone from the bottom of Knocknarea and carried it to the top to place on Maeve’s cairn, in the belief it would lessen their troubles. As she made the climb herself, Ryan said she felt the old power.
“Anytime I’ve been up to the top of Knocknarea, the wind has been blustery and wild; and I always feel Maeve is up there with her indomitable spirit. It can be a source of strength to think about her.”
While her climb to the summit of Knocknarea is an ancient ritual, her song about it examines very modern themes, the struggles many women have reconciling the fierce pull between family and career, mother and woman. “I didn’t learn about Maeve as a young girl,” she said, “She wasn’t held out to me as a role model; she was too hungry, had too much appetite. And that wasn’t seen as a good thing. I was taught to care for others first, to put them before myself. Caring for others is important, and I don’t want to lose that, but too much of it makes for a very unbalanced woman. For me, it ‘s been a wondrous thing to re-discover these women characters of ancient Irish myth and see the legacies they left behind, legacies of strength and wisdom and passion. It’s been a great inspiration to me in my writing and thinking as an Irish American woman.”
Ryan’s self-titled first solo CD on Shanachie firmly established her as a singular writing and singing talent. With The Music of What Happens, she presents herself as wife, mother and career woman, struggling with the old expectations and modern conflicts. In the winsomely reflective “I’m Going Back,” she recalls girlhood memories of visiting Ireland. It is at once personal memoir and universal reflection; sweetly and wisely considering the mystical place Ireland occupies in the consciousness of Irish emigrants and Irish Americans.
“Ireland is often an idealized place in the psyche of the Irish American and the Irish immigrant,” she said. “It is a multi-dimensional country with real problems and real people. But because of the Irish diaspora, this other Ireland, this idealized, magical place that has been created in our heads, sometimes keeps us from seeing the real place and the real history of how we got here.”
Ryan pays wrenching tribute to that history in her brilliantly austere singing of the traditional lament “Erin’s Lovely Home,” which tells of the terrible poverty and famine that forced families apart in the 1800’s, and of the “cofffin ships” that carried the unfortunate emigrants to Canda and America.
Spencer Tracey liked to say the secret of great acting was to never get caught at it. Ryan sings like that. As she tells the sad emigrant’s tale, her voice seems almost conversational; yet listen closer, and you’ll hear a vast command of both modern and sean nos vocal techniques. Her voice softly ornaments the spare melody, with subtle dips and trills lifting it the way slow winds fill a slack sail.
“I try to think about the song, not about how I want my voice to sound,” she said. “I hold tight to the voice of the song. With the ornaments, I want to give the lyrical line a pulse. That’s essentially what sean nos ornamentation was for, to give the melody motion and variety, because it was an unaccompanied style.” Always her singing technique is brought to the service of the song. Never does her voice sound showy or strained, whether on impossibly quick, tongue-twisty Gaelic children’s songs like the merry “A Mhaithrin A’ Leigfa ‘Un An Aonaigh Me?” or sweet old love songs like “We Dreamed Our Dreams” and the mischevious “Home by Bearna.”
Even in her traditional arrangements, her modern poet’s heart is evident. In “Coaineadh na dTri Muire (Lament of the Three Marys),” she combines verses from two ancient laments to create a tender epic that speaks to the sad beauty of the Biblical story of the Virgin Mary.
“I chose to end the song with Mary wanting to help or save her son from the pain he was going through, and him telling her, “You can’t. This is my cross.” There is great wisdom in this ancient verse for all of us parents today, mothers and fathers alike. We’re raised to believe that our kids are a reflection of us; that they are who they are because of us. As a mother I have learned that I don’t have that kind of power. Children have their own spirit and fate.”
Her writing, like her singing, follows the best instincts of tradition: the desire to create songs with enough room inside for listeners to find their lives reflected. In the deceptively simple “Understanding Love,” Ryan turns personal loss into an anthem for all of us in troubled times.
In this era of crafty songs, of disposable hooks meant to tweak but not to enrich, to tease but not teach, Ryan’s songs are carved from firmer stuff; as timeless and sturdy as the stones she carried to the top of Knocknarea. She draws from the ancient culture of Ireland the interior culture of her own experience to tell stories of strong women, hard times, and human joys.
|01. At The Foot Of Knocknarea||Listen||Lyrics|
|02. Home By Bearna||Listen||Lyrics|
|03. I’m Going Back||Listen||Lyrics|
|04. We Dreamed Our Dreams||Listen||Lyrics|
|05. Love And Freedom||Listen||Lyrics|
|06. Understanding Love||Listen||Lyrics|
|07. Caoineadh Na dTrí Muire||Listen||Lyrics|
|08. The Lights Of San Francisco||Listen||Lyrics|
|09. A Mháithrín, a’ Leigfeá ‘un Aonaigh Mé?||Listen||Lyrics|
|10. Erin’s Lovely Home||Listen||Lyrics|
|11. Lovely Willie||Listen||Lyrics|
|12. An Seanduine Dóite||Listen||Lyrics|
|13. The Yellow Bittern (An Bunnan Buí)||Listen||Lyrics|
Produced by Séamus Egan
Featuring Seamus Egan, Michael Aharon, Jamshied Sharifi, Greg Anderson, Chico Huff, Gerry O’Beirne, Steve Holloway, John Anthony, and Win Horan.
Recorded & mixed by John Anthony at Sigma Sound Services, Philadelphia
Cover Photo: Larry Kosson/Deja View, Inc.
“The CD opens with a spirited original…and everything that follows is a keeper.” — The New York Times
“The Music of What Happens is a showcase of impeccable musicianship.” — The Irish Echo, New York
“With The Music of What Happens, Ryan should rightly take her place as a folk superstar. Two great records have proven conclusively that she has what it takes.” — Scene, Cleveland
“All in all an album that you want to listen to slowly. I tried to zip through it the first time, and couldn’t – it grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.” — The Atlanta Celtic Quarterly