Sweet-voiced folk singers are as ladies of Shalott – their gift is their curse. The vogue is for the folk singer to have that bit of grit in the voice, with the late Ronnie Drew being primus inter pares of the species. Sweet-voiced folkies are viewed with suspicion, like opera singers slumming it until they get the call from La Scala.
All nonsense, of course. All musical terms are hard to pin down in prose, and to explain what it is that makes a voice sweet is a task beyond your correspondent. A sweet voice is something that you know when you hear it, and you heard it every time Jim McCann stepped up to the mike.
McCann, the man who replaced the unreplaceable Ronnie Drew in the Dubliners from 1974 to 1979, is the latest of that iconic ballad group on whom time has been called by the Great Barman in the Sky. He will be a footnote in today’s papers, and that’s a pity. His talent and artistry deserve more than that.
All their talent and artistry deserved more than that. John Sheahan’s son is an enthusiastic archiver of the band’s work, and there are a small, devoted gallant band of posters to YouTube who post some of the most glorious clips, many not seen since first broadcast all over the world over twenty-five years, each one a treasure in its own particular way. God bless them in their mission.
Hard-line folkies didn’t believe in recorded music, as such. Frank Harte, the great singer of Chapelizod, believed a song only existed at the moment of its being sung. It’s likely that McCann, and Ronnie, and Luke, and the rest believed that too, or else simply believed that singing was something you did to pace your drinking. It’s hard to imagine Coldplay or some other bunch of Gawd-help-us musos noodling around in the studio if the Dubliners were waiting outside, looking at their watches.
You can hear this disregard for the process on McCann’s version of Spancil Hill on the Fifteen Years On record – he fails to hold the notes on “dreaming” in his gorgeous cover of that gorgeous song. Why didn’t they just record it again? Too close to closing time is the most likely answer.
Is this neglect a bad thing? Is neglect even the correct word? Records by the ’sixties folkies like the Dubliners or the Clancys, or even the obscure records by the Grehan Sisters or the great Anne Byrne, should be thought of more as artefacts than things to stand with Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds. Besides; what does an album mean anymore in the Age of the Download?
In their recordings, we can get a glimpse of what Jim McCann and the rest of the Dubliners were like in their pomp, but it is only that. A glimpse. A fleeting moment.
Katy Perry, God bless her, does her thing for the telly. In real life, she might not make the same impression. With the Dubliners, it’s different. The recordings confine them in a way they were not meant to be a confined. A song is a song when it’s sung. Not before, not after. Katy Perry does the same show in Berlin, in Bali or in Birmingham. With the Dubliners in their prime, anything could happen from the first strum on the guitar.
So what, then, was Jim McCann like? He was a funny man – that’s clear from his appearance on the legendary Late Late Show Tribute to the Dubliners. He was a patriot – he always made a point of telling the story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett before singing his greatest hit.
McCann had a successful solo career before and after the Dubliners, so his time with the Dubliners never fully defined him. But it is a reasonable argument to make that the five-year match between the Dubliners and Jim McCann brought out the best in each. He slowed them down a little, and let the music breathe. For their part, the Dubliners' artistry and virtuosity added embellishments to McCann’s voice and guitar that session musicians never could.
As a singer, Jim McCann will be remembered for the sweetness of his voice in songs like Carrickfergus, Boulavogue and Four Green Fields. But his Spanish Lady is the definitive recording of that liveliest of songs and McCann also recorded as blood-curdling a rendition of Follow Me Up to Carlow, a very ensanguined song to begin with, as was ever put on record. There was more to him than that soft cooing in the heather.
McCann’s greatest song, in your correspondent’s opinion, was Easy and Slow. It was another considerable hit for him, showcasing the true beauty, subtlety, sweetness and colour of McCann’s extraordinary voice.
I remember him singing it on an RTÉ series of the very early 1980s, strolling down along Thomas Street, down to the Liffey, and the impression it made has stayed with me in the thirty years since. I hope, in honour of his spirit, that clip appears on YouTube soon.
And in that thought, here’s another recently discovered classic, McCann singing Carrickfergus with the Dubliners in their prime from 1977. Ag moladh Dé leis na n-aingil go raibh Jim McCann, seisean agus a ghuth binn galánta.