CHARLIE O’BRIEN – The Trackless Wild – Irish Song Of The Pampa (Trouble or Fortune Records)

The Trackless WildArgentina is not, perhaps, a country you might readily associate with Irish balladry. So, its title referring to the South American low grasslands, Killarney ex-pat Charlie O’Brien has put together an album to revise that thinking. Extracting lyrics from a 19th century Argentine newspaper, El Monitor de la Campaña, printed weekly in Capilla del Señor, a town in Buenos Aires, between 1872 and 73, some tied to clear Irish melodies (and where not borrowed by O’Brien), this is a collection of traditional-flavoured songs from an unusual angle, some anonymous, others ascribed to a writer calling himself A Wandering Tip.

Accompanied by various native musicians on the likes of charango, bandoneon, bombo, tar, whistle, fiddle and double bass, the album opens on a drone with ‘Hibernia’ , published on April 15, 1872, an emigrant’s wistful home thoughts from abroad (“When standing at my rancho door/Or riding o’er the pampa plain/I silently long to hear/The sweet voices of her labouring swain/Though the pampas may have fields/As fair and green all o’er,/To me there is no soil that yields/Like my own Hibernia’s shore… Old Erin for thee this heart is weap’d in grief/A heart that’s Irish to the core/Still shall I love the Shamrock Leaf”).

Set to the Irish air “’Lannigan’s Ball’ and in tribute to the Donovan family, ‘Donovan’s Mount’ with its fiddle and percussive rhythm sketches a camp lorded over by the titular Irishman, the youthful narrator fully committing himself to the hedonistic community (“The boys that are on it are full of all devilment/And dance till sun-rise by the light of a lamp/And as for the girls these nymphs of the pampa wild/Sure he never escapes them the victim they count/They always are gay and as bright as the morning dew”), declaring “For sorrow and I are like distant relationships/Since the first day I stepped into Donovan’s mount”.

A lilting waltz,’ Bleak Is The Pampa’, on the other hand, is a lament for things left behind (“Oh! had he ne’er quitted his own island dwelling,/In search of a phantom in lands far awa/He’d ne’er have to grieve at his own bitter telling/He exchanged the truest for the friends of a day”), but still looking on the optimistic side (“Though today’s sun be clouded tomorrow’s shall shine/And hearts that look upward from hope cannot sever, For theirs is the goal at which all is divine”).

Clocking in at over six minute, ‘The Trackless Wild’, penned by A Wandering Tip, first appeared on an earlier similarly-styled album, Hy Brasil, Songs Of The Irish In Latin America (O’Brien has quite a back catalogue, including a single based around a page from Finnegan’s Wake), and in contrast has the narrator riding the plains on his horse and putting thoughts of home behind him and embracing his new home (“Adopted land both wild and grand and I’ll try to love you more/For freedom unadorned holds fast my roving mind/And makes me scarce lament the land and friends I left behind”).

Two more from the Tip follow. ‘Bright Morning Dew’ is a storysong about the narrator carousing with notorious imbiber Jack Shepard and his fellow “followers of Bacchas the God”, and a jealously fuelled drunken brawl at a feast with a doctor named Dan and one Edward, or Ned, over the latter’s intended bride. Then comes ‘The Jolly Shepherd Boy’, a chorus friendly, twinkling fingerpicked ode to the simple life (“all the comfort now I seek/Is in the flowing glass/And stroll to town just once a week/To court a Spanish lass…The shepherd’s is an humble cot/And frugal is his fare/He envies not the rich man’s lot/For he is free from care”).

Etched on minimal piano notes, ‘The Pampa’s My Home’ again speaks of the immigrant braving stormy seas and finding quiet and contentment in a new adopted home while, set to the Irish air ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’, ‘The Pampa’s Fairest Child’, credited to a J. J. M., is, as you might surmise, a love song to a local lass (“My wishes keen have always been/And they still hold out unfailed to love this dame unknown to fame/When I saw her today with her smile so gay/Cupid did me enchain/Perchance ere long if fortune’s strong/Her affections I might gain”).

The only song not of Argentine origin and, paradoxically, the only one sung in Spanish, ‘Tierra Bendita’ was written in 1830 by Gerald Griffin, an Irish novelist from Milltown in Limerick under the title ‘OBrasil, The Land of the Blest’ (an English version appears on Hy Brasil) and translated by Manuelita Pa/avecino and Marcela Acevedo. Set to the Irish air ‘Mo Shlán Beo Soir’ (a faster version of which is used in ‘Star of the County Down’) it ends back among the sheep with ‘The Shepherd And His Cot’ and another celebration of that simple solitary life in “a small humble rustic cot/In which domestic happiness reigns/When contented with his lot… In retirement’s fond embraces/To pleasure’s lure he seldom bends” as the “camp rich decked in a verdant hue/Reminds him of his native Isle” and “Tho’ remote from friends his Native Land/He still breathes hope that he may see/And touch again her distant strand/That Emerald Isle Sweet-Gra-Ma-Cree”.

There are numerous folk songs tracing the stories of Irish migrants from the shores of Ireland to new lives in America, so this (and a forthcoming accompany documentary film of the dame name) is a very welcome new perspective on the far lesser known journeys taken from Galway to gaucho.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Bleak Is The Pampa’: