Around the Turf Fire at Coen’s by the Coen family
Released in 1976, The Branch Line is one of those classics of Irish traditional music that, in its own quiet way, never stops feeling like a classic.
Brothers Charlie (on, mainly, concertina) and Jack (on flute) were from Woodford in east County Galway and had emigrated to America in the 1940s and 1950s; by the time the LP was cut for Topic Records, Charlie had become a priest. The pair’s playing, mainly on such well-known tunes such as Scatter the Mud and The Tongs by the Fire, was lovely; more music should have followed, but it didn’t: Jack died and Charlie only released one more nearly-impossible-to-find record a few years later.
All of which made the announcement of the new Around the Turf Fire at Coen’s one of the more pleasant surprises in Irish trad in several years. It’s the music, though, that really makes the CD special, and a must-buy: recorded in New York, Around features Charlie (concertina, flute and vocals) with his brother and sister Tony and Margaret on fiddle, as well as Jack’s son Jimmy on guitar
The music includes trad classics such as The Green Castle and Down the Back Lane, several tunes by well-known Loughrea flute player/composer Vincent Broderick, and a number of tunes by or handed down by various family members, including Tony’s Caithlin’s Fancy Jack’s Move in Decency.
There is singing, too, mainly by Charlie, including stirring versions of The Old Turf Fire and The Galtee Mountain Boy. And there are surprises: the recording is bookended by Charlie’s concertina accompanying a children’s choir’s versions of the Irish national anthem and The Star-Spangled Banner.
This is altogether lovely stuff, as they say in Ireland, a CD that really does sound like, as the title suggests, a family of musicians who have been playing together all their lives sitting around a turf fire on a cold night, playing for fun and the simple joy of making familiar music together. The sound is unvarnished, pace is relaxed – many of the tracks feature just Charlie’s concertina and Jimmy on guitar – and, with the inclusion of so many family-composed tunes, the music here feels both familiar and unique.
This is their music, done in their time, without, seemingly, a care in the world for impressing anybody else. This music, made by these people, sounds rugged and timeless – one feels that, 20 or 30 or even 50 years from now, there will still be Coens playing this music, content in the easy familiarity of their bonds of family and love and experience.
And as such, Around feels like a small miracle, a glimpse into the core of how Irish music, in the hands of loving practitioners, renews itself and those who make it in their own little corner of the world. The sturdy old tunes are played. An ageless song is sung. The tradition is passed down.