Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Allison Krauss & the Chieftains: Molly Bán

Renown for her work as a bluegrass artist with Union Station, Allison Krauss has also crossed the musical spectrum in teaming up with the likes of Robert Plant, Sting, James Taylor, John Waite, and others. She shows a variety of influences in these sometimes unlikely pairings, but it works. In this Traditional Tuesday’s selection, she teams up with the Chieftains for this traditional Irish lament.

While I personally like a majority of Allison Krauss’ music, I am probably not her biggest fan due to her frequent overuse of vibrato while singing. This is the same quality that caused me not to be overly thrilled by the Bee Gees singing style as well. In my book, a little vibrato goes a long way, and I feel that her vibrato often distracts from her exact pitch and pure soprano tone.

With that said, her delivery must be someone’s cup of tea as she has won 26 Grammys and a host of other awards – the like of which no one else can compare. So despite my almost un-American disapproval of her style, the masses love her and I am inclined to believe that I must be in the minority with my views. In today’s selection, “Molly Bán,” her vibrato, while present, is not distracting and she really shines on this tragic love story from Donegal.

The story is of a young hunter who accidentally kills his love interest by mistaking her for a swan. I can’t help but wonder why the heck he was hunting swans in first place. Be that as it may, this song can be traced back to 1799 and, according to Jennifer J. O’Connor (1986), there are 88 distinct versions of this ballad that exist. O’Connor’s article in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music suggests that because of the presence of certain elements in this tune there is the likelihood that it was based on an actual event. While I won’t get into the details, her tome is available online for your perusal. The argument does make sense and it is not unusual for a ballad to have some truth as a basis.

Added to her lovely voice is the haunting sound of Paddy Moloney’s expertise on the Uilleann (pronounced ill-in; rhymes with chillin’) pipes. Unlike Scottish Highland pipes and Irish war pipes that require the player to blow air into the bag, Uilleann pipes (named for the Irish Gaelic word for elbow) are played by pumping air into the bag by wearing bellows under the player’s right arm. The chanter’s construction also can provide the ability to play notes in a staccato fashion, which lends itself to many Irish tunes.


O'Conner, J. J. (1986). The Irish origins and variations of the ballad "Molly Brown." The Canadian Journal of Traditional Music. Available online at http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/14/v14art3.html

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