Sing whatever is well made
Jasper Rees on a new album of Yeats poetry
Monday 03 February 1997
The improbable project was the brainwave of Michael Tuft and Franke Dunne, journalists from Holiday Which magazine. While researching an article on the west coast of Ireland they played one of those time-killing car games, in which they tried to list every Yeats poem set to music: Christy Moore's "The Song of Wandering Aengus", Van Morrison's "Before the World was Made", The Waterboys' "The Stolen Child". (The likes of Peter Warlock's The Curlew and Sir Michael Tippett's Byzantium clearly fall beyond their ken.) The conversation led them all the way to Grapevine Records, and Yeats's son Michael and daughter Anne, who gave the idea of a compilation their blessing. Something of a surprise, perhaps, given their father's notorious hostility to having his poetry set to music - an aversion, Peter Warlock once alleged, "born of his horror at being invited by a certain composer to hear a setting of his `Lake Isle of Innisfree' - a poem which voices a solitary man's desire for greater solitude - sung by a choir of 1000 boy scouts".
For the album, existing tracks have been shuffled in among fresh recordings. The Cranberries chipped in with "Yeats's Grave" (from No Second Troy), Shane MacGowan with "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", as did the various permutations of the Waterboys and World Party, and Grapevine cannily took the chance to showcase a bunch of their own acts. The album is topped and tailed by Richard Harris's mesmeric reading of "Under Ben Bulben", and Yeats himself chips in, like a ghost at his own wake, with a crackly recording of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree". The album is dedicated to Michael Tuft's son Cameron, who died, aged one, of meningitis. The Waterboys' version of "The Stolen Child" was played at his funeral.
It isn't quite the album it wanted to be. While Moore and Morrison, the godfathers of Irish music, were generous with their material, others artists were costive. Joni Mitchell for some reason would not release "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", taken from The Second Coming. WEA refused to licence out Elvis Costello's "A Drunken Man's Praise of Sobriety". Bono's almost mythical version of "Mad as the Mist and Snow", recorded at a Yeats festival in 1989 (the 50th anniversary of the poet's death) but since heard only by a chosen few, proved beyond reach. Morrison's little heard "Crazy Jane on God", recorded for A Sense of Wonder before the 50-year copyright had expired, is also knocking around. There's definitely enough material for Now That's What I Call Yeats 2. Some of the album's contributors explain how they got involved...
Mike Scott, who recorded "A Song of the Rosy-Cross" with Sharon Shannon and remixed the Waterboys' "The Stolen Child"
"Yeats's words lend themselves to musical arrangement. I'm sure many of them were written with music in mind: there's a series in one of his poetry books called "Words For Music Perhaps", written in verse / chorus structure. I'm sure he hoped that some young warriors would come along and put them to tunes one day. It was always an ambition of mine to compile an album like this: to get Van's song and Karl Wallinger's ["Politics"] and Bono's one and my own and put them together. But I never found the time."
Justin Travis, lead singer with Nervous, on recording "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven"
"I wasn't a Yeats reader of any great stature. It all came about when I was sitting in our record company and the guys who were putting the compilation together said, "Do you fancy putting a track on the album?" I looked at a couple of poems, we put down a guitar track and a vocal and, from beginning to end, the track was written and recorded in 27 minutes. It was done by three members of the band, which fluctuates between five and nine members. I'm not actually sure that the whole band has heard it yet. I just liked the idea of the title. I took the words and muddled them up as we went along, and that's what came out. The words were very easy to jumble around."
Tina McSherry, lead singer of Tamalin, on recording a Gaelic version of "Down by the Salley Gardens"
"Every Irish person at some stage in their life becomes aware of Yeats. I did him as part of my degree at Queen's [in Belfast]. I was just very happy to be involved in the project. They wanted to put a version of "Down by the Salley Gardens" on it by Clannad, and Grapevine said it didn't really fit in and asked if we would do one. There are not too many ways that you could do a song like that, so we thought it would be a bit different to do it in Gaelic. The words in the translation are beautiful. I prefer the Gaelic version."
Michael Tuft on recording "Under Ben Bulben" with Richard Harris
"Once we had many of the musicians, we thought we'd have quotes from "Under Ben Bulben" to open and close it, because the opening verse is Yeats giving advice to generations of Irish artists. We needed someone with great presence and stature in Irish cultural life to do it, so we wrote off to Richard Harris's manager, who phoned up and said, `He'll do it.' His saying that Richard Harris would do it and Richard Harris actually doing it - there's a lot of legwork between those two things. Eventually we said, `You tell us where Richard is and we'll go to wherever he is in the world with a tape recorder and do it there.' We assumed Grapevine were going to get all these sound engineers to go along, but they gave us a DAT machine and said, `Here you are boys, go off and do it.' On the Saturday we went to see him at the Savoy he said, `I can't do it today. I'm too tired. Come along tomorrow and have another go.' He was really jokey and full of stories, but on the Sunday morning he'd read a lot of the poems the night before, he was really focused and very professional. It was like a workshop. He just kept on doing it again and again and again. We spent a long time discussing the poems and eking out the meaning. We also got him to record a Yeats poem called `Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad', which we thought was a very good one for him to do. It was a privilege. The best thing about the whole project was that morning with Richard Harris."
Sinead Lohan on recording "The Fish"
"I was a bit apprehensive about doing this because I usually just write songs myself. I looked at a few poems and it didn't really work out for me so I left it alone. Then I found a poem just when I wasn't looking for one, and I thought I was too late. What I liked about it was that I hadn't come across it before. I have all his works in a book and I studied him at school, but `The Fish' is not a very obvious one of his. I just liked the sentiment in it: when you're gone you will be valued. People will remember you for what you did and forget all the things they say about you now"
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