I’m afraid Éilís Kennedy is a new name to me, but on the strength of her new CD So Ends This Day I will certainly be looking into her previous releases. The songs are generally linked by a maritime theme, some as a result of her research into 19th century whaling. Several are originals, and some are from other sources but thematically somewhat related.
The first thing to note is that Eilís Kennedy is a very engaging singer: born and raised in West Kerry, she has a subtle regional lilt without undue use of extravagant sean-nós ornamentation: her voice is true and her singing accomplished, but she emphasises the song and the story rather than in-yer-ear vocal technique, even when singing acapella. The second is that she’s actually an excellent songwriter: she has a knack for extracting an interesting story and genuine emotion from her historical and literary research. She’s also working here with some excellent musicians who clearly understand how to show off a song to its best advantage: they include guitarist Gerry O’Beirne (who also produced), Trevor Hutchinson on bass, Eamon McElholm on keyboards, Caroline Keane on concertina, and Laura Kerr on fiddle, while Shaun Davey and Rita Connolly provide perfect vocal support.
Here’s the track list.
- ‘When I Sleep’ (Words & Music Éilís Kennedy) uses the device of the “whaleman’s post office” on Charles Island in the Pacific to give a voice to the “wives at home“. The delicate restraint of the lyric is counterpointed by piano and 12-string guitar.
- ‘Petticoat Whalers’ (Words and Music : Eilís Kennedy) tells the story of Martha Smith Brewer Brown, who sailed around the world with her husband, whaler captain Edwin Brown between 1847 and 1849. Quite a folky tune, carried by ukulele and 4-string guitar.
- The poem ‘Ciúmhais Charraig Aonair’ (Words : Caoímhín Ó Cinnéide; Music : Shaun Davey Bucks Music Group Limited) was written by Eilís’s father, and set to music by Shaun Davey as part of a song cycle, and describes Fastnet Rock in relation to historical events, including the sinking of the Lusitania. It makes for a lovely piece.
- ‘Love Aas True to Me’ (John Boyle O’Reilly; Music : Éilís Kennedy): this sad poem was found among O’Reilly’s papers after his death in 1890. A beautiful tune and arrangement.
- ‘The Emily Anna (A Greenhand’s Tale)’ (Words and Music: Eilís Kennedy) is an account of an adventurous lad’s venture into whaling with a very singable tune.
- ‘Franklin’s Crew’ is a version of the broadside ballad ‘Lord Franklin’, about Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. The words are taken from Joanna C. Colcord’s book Songs Of American Sailormen and uses the tune Cailín Óg a Stór usually associated with the song, though Eilís’s phrasing and timing here seems to my ear more ‘Irish’ (unsurprisingly) than most recorded versions of ‘Lord Franklin’. But that does it no harm at all: indeed, it’s rekindled my interest in a song I was beginning to feel I’d heard too often.
- ‘A Sailor’s Trade’ is already well known and widely sung as ‘A Sailor’s Life’, but the lyric here comes from Gale Huntingdon’s book Songs The Whalermen Sang. Again, the tune is essentially the same as that used in earlier versions by Martin Carthy and Sandy Denny, among many others, but Eilís succeeds in making it very much her own, partly by giving it more pace than those earlier versions.
- ‘The Catalpa Rescue, 1876’ (Words: Eilís Kennedy; Air : Traditional) tells an astonishing story of the rescue of six Fenians from Fremantle prison on board a New Bedford
- The lyric to ‘Row On, Row On’ also comes from Gale Huntingdon’s book: the CD notes don’t mention it, but I’m pretty sure the tune was written by Tim Laycock. In any case, it’s a lovely tune, beautifully sung by Eilís with gorgeous harmonies from Shaun Davey and Rita Connolly on the chorus.
I’ve reviewed many CDs here that I liked a lot, but never played again once the review was finished. This one, though, is certainly going to visit my ears again. In its own understated way, So Ends This Day is one of the best folk(-ish) recordings I’ve heard in a long time. Highly recommended.
Artist’s website: www.eiliskennedymusic.com
‘When I Sleep’ – live: