Trad / Roots: weaving music and song through WB Yeats’ tapestry of poetry

I heard in the night air

Airy and wandering music;

And moiré in this trap

A man suddenly gets lost,

In this sweet wandering trap.

As the above lines from The Musicians show, William Butler Yeats throughout his life was always interested in music and song.

Indeed, he wrote the lyrics for many songs, some of which were sung in his plays and he even wrote walking songs for Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts when he was drawn to authoritarianism. European in the 1930s.

There are Seven that Pull the Thread is a song where Yeats wrote the lyrics and English composer Edward Elgar wrote the music.

In return, there have always been musicians, from Joni Mitchell to Christy Moore, the Waterboys, Lou Reed and Carla Bruni, the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who were inspired by the poems of the Irish poet winner of the Nobel Prize for their work.

Someone else who has taken Yeats’ poems to his chest is former renowned illustrator and cartoonist, Raymond Driver.

For Driver, “Yeats wanted his poetry to be sung. His poems lend themselves to music.

Driver himself had never composed music until one day, as he was walking in the woods near his Maryland home and trying to recall a poem by Yeats, “A melody came to me” , he said.

“Where it came from is a mystery,” says Driver. “It’s like someone gave me a present.”

The now full-fledged composer has finally set over 100 Yeats poems to music and nearly a quarter of these appear on the new album, I Am of Ireland, in which 32 musicians and singers from three continents gathered. to perform Driver’s adaptations of Thoor Ballylee’s best-known resident’s work.

Driver had previously produced two Yeats poetry albums with soprano Laura Whittenberger and pianist Peyson Moss, but he decided it would really do him justice to have traditional musicians as singers.

The composer asked his longtime friend Paul Marsteller to find a group of musicians who would do justice to the work and the poems – and what line-up he referred to outside of lockdown.

Fittingly, WB’s Sligonian Seamie O’Dowd was first on the list and wherever you have Seamie, Cathy Jordan is probably there too, to add her awesome voice.

Bothy Band’s Kevin Burke appears, as does harpist Cormac De Barra, Tyrone’s Niall Hanna, pipers Mick O’Brien and Leonard Barry are also joined by three Lúnasa members – Cillian Vallely, Trevor Hutchinson and Colin Farrell, as well as the newcomer Bríd O’Riordan, a traditional singer from West Cork.

“Brid’s voice is rich and powerful, a really traditional sound and on Ephemera her clear and fresh voice is supported by the deep and haunting whistle of Mick O’Brien,” says Marsteller.

Another standout track is Mick McAuley, formerly of Solas and who recently performed in Sting’s play The Last Ship, singing Folly of Being Comforted, an unrequited love song, McAuley’s emotional voice almost breaks alongside. from the gently painful violin of New Yorker Dana Lyn.

Fergal McAloon, lead singer of Whistlin ‘Donkeys, a popular folk-rock group from Tyrone, came on board for four songs.

“Fergal was a discovery for me,” recalls Marsteller.

“I found YouTube videos of him at the top of his group and the videos had a few hundred thousand views, but I had never heard of him. He has a very loud voice, he sounds like the real one Yeats songs take him out of his normal, slightly more traditional style. “

McAloon’s rich and fiery voice shines across four songs, including the uptempo Ballad of the Foxhunter.

Christine Collister, a singer-songwriter from the Isle of Man, is perhaps best known for her work with Richard Thompson on a previous Marsteller project.

His three songs here include The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats’s desire for rural Sligo, with his deep vocals accompanied by Canadian fiddler Joel Zifkin and American guitarist Gabriel Rhodes, son of Kimmie Rhodes.

It was Raymond Driver who introduced Marsteller to Yeats’ poetry.

“I was in shock when he told me what he was doing and didn’t tell me anything at all until he produced the whole art song,” recalls Marsteller.

“I’ve known him since the early 1970s and we talk all the time. He’s good at keeping things to himself (the opposite of me.).

While I Am of Ireland is largely Ray Driver’s project, Marsteller was the album’s executive producer, something that involved, he told me from his home in San Diego, “paying for that, to oversee and lead in part all aspects, from concept to release and Distribution ”.

However, Paul had a lot of experience in the music business, although he started out in real estate.

“I’ve written and released four albums over the past decade, and in 2013 I produced The Beautiful Old – Turn of the Century Songs, a multi-artist album on salon-era music, with Richard Thompson, Dave Davies of The Kinks, Garth Hudson of The Band and a bunch of great folk rock artists, ”he says.

Marsteller used the same type of network to find artists for the Yeats album.

“Of course, I was inspired by my experience with The Beautiful Old, so it was fun to get into that again, in a genre that I hardly knew anything about,” he admits.

“We never intended to do 24 songs – maybe just half of that. But, once we started, we went for it and had a really hard time stopping, because we had to. got to appreciate a lot of artists and we wanted to continue.

“And Ray had written a whole bunch of parameters – maybe 100?”

It must have been quite a business, spanning two years with all 32 artists on three continents working remotely during the pandemic. Was it all hard work or did Paul find the time to have a little fun with him too?

“For me that was a lot of fun. I hope there’s another one somewhere. If you have any ideas let me know,” he laughs.

:: I Am of Ireland: Yeats in Song will be released on July 23 and can be pre-ordered at

About Lillian Coomer

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