Sleeve Notes for Grand Conversation by Mick Ryan & Paul Downes
This album marks the debut of a new working partnership for Mick Ryan. Mick is well known as a fine singer and Paul has a great pedigree and is one of the best string players in the country. Together they make the sparks fly. The tracks are a mixture of traditional songs and Ryan’s own compositions.
Mick Ryan: Vocals
Paul Downes: Vocals, Guitar, Banjo, Octave Mandola, Mandolin
1 GRAND CONVERSATION
(trad. arr. Downes/Ryan)
In the early 19th century there were, apparently, many 'Grand Conversation on' broadsheet ballads commenting on contemporary figures such as Wellington, Nelson and others. Odd then, that only this song 'on Napoleon' achieved any currency at the time or any lasting place in the repertoire of traditional singers.
From my show “The Voyage” which was about 19th century emigration to America, this song tells of the kind of events which were fairly common during the Irish rebellion of 1798, but could easily describe many another military atrocity, before and since.
3 THE BELL RINGING
(trad. arr. Downes/Ryan)
A beautiful song from Paul's home county of Devon. The church at Northlew has the words proudly displayed on the wall.
4 SLEEP OF DEATH
Based on an Eastern European folk tale.
5 THE LIGHT
(words:Mick Ryan;music:Joni Mitchell)
The tin mine at Geevor, Cornwall is now merely a place for tourists to visit. I was struck by the contrast between the intimidating darkness and confinement of the extremely narrow and damp tunnels and the stunning views from the high cliffs over the sea, which meet the eye as you emerge from beneath the ground. Writing the song, I suddenly realised that what I first thought was an original tune was, in fact, the melody of Joni Mitchell's “Song to a Seagull.” In the perhaps unlikely event of this 'borrowing' coming to the attention of Ms Mitchell, we hope that this taken as a compliment.
6 YOUNG MEN ALL
(trad. arr Downes/Ryan)
I learned this from a 'traveller' on a council estate. It is a combination of three songs. “Young Men All,” “The Cypress Brigg” and (briefly) “Rufford Park Poachers.” William Swallows was a real person. He really did 'take possession of that brigg.' He and his comrades sailed it to China from where he worked his way home to England. He was soon re-arrested and sent back to Oz.
7 PUT THEM DOWN
In 1834, six Dorset farm labourers were convicted of 'swearing an illegal oath' and sentenced to seven years transportation. Their real 'crime' was in forming a union which was not, technically, illegal. The revival of the 'Mutiny Act' by which device the men were brought to trial was cooked up between James Frampton, the local Squire and Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary. The obvious injustice was widely condemned and remains a cause celebre of the Left even today.
8 THE LARK ABOVE THE DOWNS
From the show about the Great War, 'A Day's Work'. This is the farewell song of a conscientious objector about to face the firing squad for 'cowardice.'
9 BANKS OF THE BANN
(trad. arr. Downes/Ryan)
One of the most lovely Irish traditional songs. The tune was taken for the hymn “Lord of all Hopefulness.”
10 LAND OF COCKAYNE
This refers to the mediaeval version of 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain'. Technically speaking, a gustatory utopia, it was a mythical land of plenty which is a vision of bliss to those who did not always (or ever?) get enough to eat.
11 THE FOE
From 'A Day's Work.' We think it is self-explanatory.
12 THE LAZY MAN
It has been said that the German army of the Great War issued a statement to say that a high casualty rate amongst the Officer Corps had forced them to promote not only the intelligent and energetic but also the intelligent and lazy. They added that, as a last resort, they might also promote the lazy and stupid. However, under no circumstances would they promote anyone who was both stupid and energetic. Anyone who has worked in the public sector will know just how much damage such people can do. This song then, is a salute to those who, while having no personal “mission statement”, turn up, do their best, then go home and try to forget about work.
13 GREEN ISLAND
Again, from 'The Voyage', this was written as an affectionate pastiche of those 'Oirish' (actually most often Irish-American) songs of exile and longing which I heard at many a hooley, funeral or wedding on my father's side of the family. When it was written, however, I found I actually liked it enough to take it seriously.
14 THOMAS BRASSEY
This is from my latest folk musical (The Navvy's wife.) The song tells the story of Thomas Brassey (1805 -1870), engineer and the greatest railway contractor of the nineteenth century. He built over 6,500 miles of railway worldwide, including, in 1854, a line from the port of Balaclava to Sevastopol where 30,000 British and French troops, besieging the town, were dying for want of basic provisions and shelter. It was said of Brassey that he changed the world more than Alexander the Great.