Review in Off the Beaten Track Sing Out!

Review of Còmhla Cruinn – Gathered Together (CD), from Off the Beaten Track Sing Out! Vol. 47 #1. Spring 2003

Every now and then a recording comes along which, although not groundbreaking in its musical direction, nor commercially destined for Grammy greatness, is so important to the discussion of folk music in North America and to the function of our industry as a carrier of culture, that it deserve special attention. This CBC CD of traditional Cape Breton work songs is such a recording.

The participants/performers on Gathered Together were gathered in the Fire Hall on Christmas Island to recreate an old-time “milling frolic,” at which village residents have met for hundreds of years in the town hall to “mill” or “waulk” woolen fabric.

Waulking is a tedious, but necessary step in the production of wool in which a length of wet fabric is continually pounded and kneaded on a hard surface. As is common in most tedious activities performed by hand, thousands of rhythmic, repetitive,(and in some cases naughty) songs have been composed for the process.

The singers and musicians – pipes and fiddle are included – range in age from seventeen to eighty. Some are professional, some academics who have studied Gaelic language and folkways in Cape Breton, some just singers-for-the-love-of-it; but all are drawn to these old songs and committed to their preservation.

Unlike the Scots waulking song, with its two line verse and three line chorus, the Cape Breton variant can be a four line verse – often borrowing from the sea songs and other typed of work lyrics. Many of the songs included here are newer ones, written after 1990, some with the teasing, ribald imagery inherent in small-town life. In the various Gaelic speaking communities around Cape Breton (where there are still some 600 fluent speakers!) the listening can detect the accent of Uist, Barra, or Harris, both in the daily speech and in the songs. Singers like Rod Mac Neil and Allen MacLeod remember the songs sung by parents and grandparents, and have passed them on to younger singers like Colin Watson. My only complaint about this recording and its accompanying (and very informative) liner notes is that translations of the lyrics are not included.

What’s most striking to me about this remarkable recording is that the songs are alive. They are in daily use still, not just trotted out for tourists. Fiddler Alisdair Fraser has called Cape Breton music and song the “missing link” in Scots-Gaelic music, revealing what was lost with the industrialization of the 19th century and subsequent Anglicization of the culture. Gathered Together forges that link more strongly into the chain of culture spanning two continents and 300 years.