WVIA-FM: The Graham Weekly Album Review - George Graham

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Sarah McQuaid
I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning

When you mention traditional folk music to audiences on this side of the Atlantic, people naturally think of American folk music. But there is, of course, a healthy folk music scene in the British Isles. Back in the 1960s, there was the rise of the English folk scene with groups like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Pentangle which found audiences in the US. In recent decades, Celtic music from Ireland and Scotland has been enjoying considerable popularity. But there has not been a whole lot of mixing of folk from the America and the British Isles. This week’s album is all about combining American and Celtic folk music from an artist whose life has embodied that transatlantic fusion. It’s Sarah McQuaid, whose second CD is called I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning.

The mixing of traditions comes naturally to the peripatetic, 43-year-old Ms. McQuaid, who was born in Madrid, Spain, grew up in Chicago, holds dual American and Irish citizenship, and is currently residing in the West of England. At age 11, she was touring nationally with the Chicago Children’s Choir. At age 18, she spent a year in France studying philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where she also did some performing.

Sarah McQuaid learned folk music from her mother, to whom she dedicates her CD, who sang her traditional Appalachian folk songs. Ms. McQuaid’s mother was a Chicago native, who volunteered with the Quakers in poverty projects in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia, and there learned of the music of Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger and others who helped to popularize the music of the region back in the traditional folk music boom of the late 1950s and 1960s. Later, Sarah became enchanted with Irish music, and lived and performed in Ireland from the mid 1990s until 2007. There she also served as a newspaper columnist on music and also wrote a tutorial book on Irish guitar technique.

But when her mother passed away in 2004, Ms. McQuaid began to revisit the songs her mother introduced her to, and the result is I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning, a collection of well-annotated mostly-traditional American folk songs recorded in Ireland with Irish musicians. It’s a delightful set that shows some of the transatlantic connections that have always existed, with many of the old American folk songs having their genesis in very old songs that came over from England and Ireland.

Ms. McQuaid is a fine guitarist, and her vocals evoke the classic English folk alto of people like Sandy Denny or June Tabor. The accompaniment on the CD is quite spare, mainly with Ms. McQuaid’s guitar and a little bass or percussion. There are also some a cappella tracks and one instrumental. Joining her on the CD are Gerry O’Beirne on various string instruments, Trevor Hutchinson on bass, fiddle player Maire Breatnach, and vocalist and percussionist Liam Bradley, though rarely do more than one or two appear at the same time.

The CD leads off with an excellent example of Ms. McQuaid’s transatlantic folk fusion, The Chickens They Are Crowing. The musical setting is very British Isles, with Ms. McQuaid’s vocals evoking the style of June Tabor or Sandy Denny, in this decidedly American folk song, from which the CD’s title comes.

One of the more distinctive tracks is West Virginia Boys, whose sole accompaniment is percussion that hints more at jazz or blues than traditional folk. Ms. McQuaid’s liner notes talk about the different forms and variations the lyrics have taken.

Ms. McQuaid said that in college, she heard Rory Block, the folk and blues musician, play a concert and Ms. McQuaid said she was taken by Ms. Block’s guitar style. One of the songs Ms. McQuaid remembered from that concert is Uncloudy Day, which she performs on the album, and then includes the results of her research into the song in her CD booklet.

There are a couple of original songs. One of them is Only an Emotion, a song inspired by the sadness of brought on by events in her life, and her realization that people are trying to cure the sadness, rather than letting it run its course. It doesn’t make an attempt to sound like a traditional song.

In thinking about the Appalachian roots of the songs on this CD, Ms. McQuaid was inspired to take up a somewhat more contemporary song, Bobby Gentry’s classic Southern musical tale, Ode to Billie Joe. It’s a kind of odd man out on the CD, but it works well, in a kind of laid-back acoustic version of the song that is not too far from the original.

On the other hand, In the Pines is a classic traditional Appalachian song that dates back to the 1870s or so, in various versions. Ms. McQuaid’s treatment here sounds more American than Celtic.

The more striking of the a cappella tracks is The Wagoner's Lad, another classic traditional piece – one of the songs that Ms. McQuaid’s late mother taught her.

The CD ends with an original composition, a kind of elegy to her mother, Last Song, in which she reminisces on being sung to sleep by the traditional songs.

Sarah McQuaid's second CD, I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning – her first one appeared back in 1997 – was actually released late in 2008 in the UK, but apparently there is now an effort to bring her music to audiences here in the country where she grew up. It’s an all-around fine album, that mixes good elements from American and British Isles folk. The musicianship is outstanding, Ms. McQuaid’s vocals are impressive, and the CD is annotated like an old Folkways album of old – a 24 page booklet with explanations of the sources of the songs, and sets of alternate lyrics from the different variations she has found.

We’l give the CD a grade A for audio quality. The recording has a warm intimate sound, there are minimal studio effects, and the dynamic range is much better than is typical for pop albums these days.

If you like both American and British Isles folk, but realized that it was hard to find something that effectively and tastefully mixes both, then Sarah McQuaid’s I Won't Go Home 'til Morning may be just the ticket.