By Sean Smith
The recordings that Bridget Fitzgerald kept from her unreleased album with Carol Barney were deeply loved treasures – reminders of a partnership, and friendship, that ended far too soon when Barney died 14 years ago this month.
But Fitzgerald, a founding member of Cherish the Ladies and a widely recognized wellspring of traditional Irish song from Connemara who has lived in New England for 50 years, never let go of her desire to finish the project. And now, thanks to the assistance and encouragement of a group of friends, the album will finally see the light of day.
“Two Sides of a Coyne” (Coyne is Fitzgerald’s maiden name) contains 17 tracks, all but one based on the original recording sessions Fitzgerald and Barney did in the late 1990s. In several cases, the existing recordings of Fitzgerald singing alonea or with Barney’s guitar accompaniment have been supplemented by contributions, recorded during the past year, by Boston area musicians John Coyne (bouzouki, guitar), Shannon Heaton (flute), Hanneke Cassel (fiddle), Mike Block (cello) and Liz Simmons (vocal harmony). Also appearing on the album are Eoghan O’Sullivan (accordion, guitar), Pat O’Connor (fiddle) and Máirtín de Cógáin (vocals, bodhran).
The project was supported through a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $1,500 above its $5,000 goal.
For Fitzgerald, the imminent release of “Two Sides of a Coyne” – officially scheduled for May 15 – represents in many ways an intertwining of past and present lives that portends a pretty good-looking future.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me,” says Fitzgerald. “These recordings have been very special to me: Carol and I would listen to them when we were on our road trips, and always meant to do something with them. And now, after all this time, they’ll live on.”
Two of the key players in the “Two Sides of a Coyne” project are Barbara Cassidy, who studies with Fitzgerald through the Boston Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann School of Music, and her husband Eric Chasalow, a musician, composer and producer. Inspired by listening to the “lost” tracks, they offered to work with Fitzgerald to help her realize her goal, doing the additional recordings in their home studio and running the Kickstarter campaign, and are releasing the album on their record label Suspicious Motives.
“I think of this CD as a way to honor Carol, and her relationship with Bridget,” says Cassidy. “But it also shows something of where Bridget is now, and the relationships she’s formed in the years since these recordings were made.”
It would seem challenging to add musical accompaniment to a recording project more than a decade after the fact, but Fitzgerald’s colleagues fit snugly into the mix, and at the same time leave a respectful space for Fitzgerald and Barney. Heaton’s flute, for example, brings a winsome quality to Pete St. John’s bittersweetly nostalgic “Dublin the Rare Old Times”; Simmons’ harmony vocals make for an enchanting “As I Roved Out”; O’Sullivan and O’Connor lend an exquisitely delicate touch on accordion and fiddle to “Bonny Light Horseman”: on “Sile Ni Eidhir,” Block alternates gentle plucking and bowing, as becomes this song of love and praise; and Coyne and Cassel provide an elegiac setting for the venerable Easter Uprising ballad “The Foggy Dew.”
The all-new track, “Peigin Letir Mor,” meanwhile, features a jaunty bouzouki and bodhran backing, with de Cógáin singing duet on the chorus.
Ultimately, of course, “Two Sides of a Coyne” is all about spotlighting Fitzgerald’s matchless voice – especially on the tracks where she sings unaccompanied – and its complement in Barney’s superb fingerstyle guitar (she worked with the late Tony Cuffe, another master of the art), which gives a lyrical, softly but faithfully rhythmic enrichment to the songs. Listening to her weave arpeggios or shifting chord patterns around “As I Roved Out,” “Carrick Down,” or that long-revered Gaelic-English lament “Suil A Ruin,” you can understand why this album was begging to be made.
“Doing anything with Carol was a great achievement,” says Fitzgerald. “She was so good at following me, and filling in the spaces without being distractive. Her playing fit in so well with what I do; it was just a natural fit.”
When it comes to natural fits, “Bridget Fitzgerald” with “singing” is high on the list. At a glance, she would seem to have traveled the paradigmatic Irish singer’s path, her family’s home a regular site for parties and gatherings where there were songs, poetry and perhaps “an accordion player from up the road.” As Fitzgerald notes, since most of the people in her community couldn’t afford musical instruments, it was the voice that was most often heard, whether to serve as accompaniment for dancing or as a way to help pass the time during one’s work.
Yet Fitzgerald’s musical tastes were not then, nor are they now, exclusive to traditional, or Irish, music at all: “Country-and-western, Cliff Richards, Elvis, Mel Tillis, gospel, rock,” she says. “I just love all kinds of music. I’ve listened to so much. Everything has influenced me in what I sing. If I love the melody, I’ll learn it – as long as the words won’t annoy anyone.”
Still, growing up in Connemara meant considerable exposure to the distinctive, ornamented sean-nos (old style) singing, much of it in Gaelic. “I had a lot of melodies in my head, but it wasn’t until later that I started learning the words,” recalls Fitzgerald. “The first song I remember learning was ‘Moll Dubh a’Ghelanna [Dark Molly of the Glen],’ which I heard my mother singing. When I tried singing it, she said, ‘That’s lovely dear, but it’s not how we do it.’”
Boston, where Fitzgerald settled in early adulthood, was the launch point for her singing career. She would accompany her husband to pub gatherings, where singing was invariably part of the program, and her command of both English and Irish singing brought her to the attention of the wider Boston Irish community. This led to encounters with major figures in the scene like, among others, Larry Reynolds and Seamus Connolly, and later on Brian O’Donovan, who in turn introduced her to Mick Moloney, which resulted in an invitation to perform with him at the Irish Appalachian Festival in North Carolina.
And in 1985, Moloney asked Fitzgerald if she would be interested in a new venture, a showcase for the finest Irish American female musicians that took its name from an Irish jig: Cherish the Ladies. “We were all young, none of us had been in a group before. I was surprised but happy to be part of it. Our first gig was in Dayton, and then we went off to the West Coast – I’d been afraid of flying but I had a good talk with myself – and we were off and running. We had a great four years together.”
The Fitzgerald-Barney collaboration began several years later, as part of the band Fourin A Feire, and continued afterwards when the group split up. Through a student of Fitzgerald’s, they met Jim Wallace, who ran a sound studio, and he offered to record the duo for free. They had made good progress on the project when there came devastating news: Barney was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She died on April 12, 2000, at the age of 51.
But the recordings stayed with Fitzgerald, and she would share them with her students, among them Cassidy, who began taking classes with her in 2012 at the Comhaltas School of Music. Experienced in a variety of music, Cassidy had developed an interest in exploring Irish tradition, and quickly concluded she had found a most dynamic teacher.
“Bridget put the fear of God into us all at first – ‘I don’t want you to listen to any other versions of these songs,’ she’d say,’” recalls Cassidy. “But I was blown away by her singing. I felt it was exactly the sound I wanted, and one that was lacking in a lot of Irish music today. To me, she’s singing the history of Ireland.
“Bridget would keep giving us recordings of the stuff she did, and I just thought they were marvelous. She told us the story behind them, and how she hoped to be able to finish the album they were to be part of.”
Chasalow, struck by the impression Fitzgerald had made on his wife, began looking for recordings by Fitzgerald. “I was surprised at how little I found,” he says, “but I’d understood that Bridget was supposedly making an album, and I didn’t think much about it.”
It was a classmate of Cassidy who first made the suggestion: “‘You should do Bridget’s CD,’ she told me, ‘because you can get things done,’” says Cassidy. “Eric and I talked about it, but we didn’t weren’t going to presume anything, so we offered to help Bridget if that was what she wanted.”
“I just thought it was a shame this amazing work had never been heard,” says Chasalow. “When I think about traditional music, I feel grateful for the people whose shoulders we stand on. And it felt important to capture this music so it would become a legacy, for both Bridget and Carol.”
Fitzgerald talked with Chasalow and Cassidy about her ideas for completing the album, among many conversations that went into “Two Sides of a Coyne.” As Chasalow explains, he and Cassidy were careful “not to approach this as ‘our’ project: I certainly am not going to take credit for recordings I didn’t make – Jim did a great job in providing us with the raw materials that made this possible in the first place.”
Adds Cassidy, “We saw ourselves as facilitators more than anything else. We asked around the circle of friends for advice and guidance as we went along – Shannon [Heaton] in particular was a big help. There are always things that come up in the recording process you don’t necessarily expect, so we were fortunate to have this expertise at hand.”
Fitzgerald lauds Cassidy and Chasalow’s role in making the CD a reality. “Barbara and Eric were the wind beneath my wings,” she says, adding with her characteristic deadpan, “or sometimes the stick nudging me from behind. They helped with so many things.”
With “Two Sides of a Coyne” all but ready to go, the possibility that Fitzgerald might take on future recording projects would appear to be a strong one. But whether on stage, in a studio or for her own pleasure, Fitzgerald will sing until it’s not humanly possible. Ask her about the place singing occupies in her life, and Fitzgerald will tell you about the time some years ago when she was battling laryngitis, and her doctor told her she shouldn’t sing again.
“My feeling about that was, well, I might as well keep trying; I’m not just going to give up. What was the point in having the voice if I couldn’t use it? I love singing to babies, I love singing to kids, to adults, everyone; it lifts my soul. I can’t imagine not doing that.
“Besides,” she adds, again with a straight face, “my laryngitis got better.”
For information about “Two Sides of a Coyne” – including details on the still-to-be-scheduled CD release concert – see the Suspicious Motives Records website at www.suspiciousmotives.com.