Ireland. Music. Books. Culture.

Where the soul never dies: Micho Russell’s story, definitively told

Rarities & Old Favorites 1949-1993 by Micho Russell

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was once asked to describe his reaction to the first time he heard seminal bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.

“This is for me – this is where the soul of man never dies,” Phillips said.

I think of that quote sometimes when listening to the music of one of Ireland’s greatest traditional musicians, Micho Russell.

Micho Russell is for me.

There is something about his music that I cannot put a name to but that I know is there, something about it that is so intimate, so inviting, so full of life and personality. Plenty of people play the tin whistle – the instrument Russell is known best for, although he also played flute and sang in both Irish and English – very well, but there is a quality to Russell’s music that defies the confines of notes and descriptive language: call it soul, I guess, or call it a sound that feels as warm and homey as a turf fire and good conversation with people you love in a small Irish house on a cold night with the rain pouring down outside.

Whatever it is, it is rare and precious; it goes beyond what many people measure music by – speed and technical ability and hitting all the correct notes – and into the heart’s core. You hear it or you don’t. But if you do, the music he made – scattered over decades, all manner of recording sessions, and innumerable house dances in and near his home in Doolin, County Clare – becomes a standard for how traditional Irish music should sound. And he has achieved and holds his legendary status for exactly this reason: he’s one of the guys that makes the music what it is, why it is so loved around the world.

By any reasonable standard, then, the new two-CD, 49-track, 92-minute Rarities & Old Favorites 1949-1993 will stand for the foreseeable future as one of seminal and definitive traditional Irish recordings. Rarities offers exactly what it says: tunes and songs we’ve never heard before, and definitive versions of tunes that have long been associated with Russell (who was born 100 years ago this spring) and his recorded legacy. The former include a number of songs – see The Barber and Old Ballymoe – and tunes – see The Boys of the Lake and the lovely Joe Byrne’s Jig. The latter include a bunch of previously unheard versions of tunes long associated with Russell and/or well known to fans of traditional Irish music. These range from The Little Black Pig to The Cliffs of Moher to The Rocky Road to Dublin to Boil the Breakfast Early, the last being Russell’s first recording (on piccolo, no less), made for Seamus Ennis in 1949.

I am not going to go track by track to describe what is here. Suffice to say that if you know Russell’s music, you will encounter a bounty of glorious and often surprising music that enormously enriches your understanding of just what made him so special. If you love Irish music in general, the two CDs are a chance to hear a ton of tunes – and some songs – that you already know, done with Russell’s seemingly endless inventiveness and boundless good spirit. Either way, there is a lifetime of wonderful listening here for you, from his craggy sweet voice to the earthy suppleness of his (for me, anyway) all too rare flute playing to the seemingly endless number of tunes in which his tin whistle sparkles and dances in the air.

This is, as some Irish people call the very best of the best of the music, the thing itself, and the best of it, to me, are the tunes that were recorded in the 1960s, back home in Doolin during house dances, the music at one with the sounds of the shoes of the dancers hitting the floor and people talking and laughing.

I’m talking here about The Boys of the Lake and The Ten-Penny Bit and The Four Posts of the Bed and a couple of others. This is the music in its natural setting, made for people who want to throw away their cares for a few hours and sweat and dance and catch up with their friends and share a joke, and it’s the best music of all, Irish music done when and where it’s supposed to be, the tunes going on and on, urging the dancers to not stop, to keep going – and you can hear people who knew and loved Micho Russell yell and laugh and live their lives.

And if I had one wish, it would be to go back there to see and hear it all, the smiles and the voices and the laughter and the tunes of a vanished time.