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

(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. 

(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. 


Based on an Eastern European folk tale. 

(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. 

(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. 


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. 


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.' 

(trad. arr. Downes/Ryan) 

One of the most lovely Irish traditional songs. The tune was taken for the hymn “Lord of all Hopefulness.” 


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. 


From 'A Day's Work.' We think it is self-explanatory. 


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. 


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. 


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. 
In the early 19th century there were
From my show “The Voyage” which was about 19th century emigration to America
Sample not available
A beautiful song from Paul's home county of Devon. The church at Northlew has the words proudly displayed on the wall.
Based on an Eastern European folk tale.
Sample not available
The tin mine at Geevor
Sample not available
I learned this from a 'traveller' on a council estate. It is a combination of three songs. “Young Men All
Sample not available
In 1834
Sample not available
From the show about the Great War
Sample not available
One of the most lovely Irish traditional songs. The tune was taken for the hymn “Lord of all Hopefulness.”
Sample not available
This refers to the mediaeval version of 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain'. Technically speaking
Sample not available
From 'A Day's Work.' We think it is self-explanatory.
Sample not available
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
Sample not available
Sample not available
This is from my latest folk musical (The Navvy's wife.) The song tells the story of Thomas Brassey (1805 -1870)

Folk Northwest

Derek Gifford

The opening track says it all in terms of superb guitar and occasional banjo and mandolin accompaniment, fine singing and creative arrangements that pervade throughout this album. That said, only the choice material is left to comment on!

There is a mixture of traditional songs and songs written by Mick many of which feature in his folk shows on a variety of themes. I have to say at this point that not all the songs are appealing! Some are very dour like Reprisals from "The Voyage", Sleep of Death and The Foe from "A Day's Work" ; but this is folk song for heaven's sake so we need death and destruction to make it authentic!

The Lazy Man lightens things up and, while not cheerful, The Lark Above the Downs is a beautifully crafted and performed song. Green Island also from "The Voyage" is in similar vain and takes us to the enviable heights of Mick's voice range which is well tested without blemish here. I also liked  their arrangement of Banks of the Bann a very well known Irish song of course, but refreshingly performed here. Similarly, The Bell Ringing from Mick's home county of Devon gets a lovely treatment with a highly effective banjo accompaniment and a chance for Paul to express his skill in singing harmonies.

The final track Thomas Brassey from Mick's latest show "The Navvy's Wife" makes a cracking finish to this album which I'm sure will rightly become a classic.

No folkie should be without this CD in their collection.

Shire Folk

Jan Strapp

Mick Ryan is a successful and well-respected writer and singer of songs from comic through to serious, and has performed in radio ballads and shows. Paul Downes has worked with Phil Beer, The Arizona Smoke Revue, Pete Seeger and The Joyce Gang and has toured the length and breadth of Britain, USA and Europe.

Paul manages to enhance the depth and quality of Mick's voice whilst still showing why he is one of the most respected guitarists on the folk scene.  The two work together exceedingly well, and fans of both Mick and Paul will not be disappointed. There are 14 tracks, four of which are traditional (arr: Downes/Ryan) with the rest written by Mick. Some are taken from Mick's shows.  'The Voyage', 'A Day's Work' and 'The Navvy's wife'. Each track tells a different story, and have been taken from many sources, like the song taken from the church wall at Northlew - The Bell Ringing, or the one learnt from a 'traveller' on a council estate, Young Men All.

All sung and played to perfection.

Folk London

Brian Cope.

It is interesting the differing combinations and partnerships that have evolved and emerged from the folk scene. Some work and others don't. I do not know how the pairing of Mick Ryan with Paul Downes emerged but the result is a C.D. of an exceptionally high standard.

Both are well known as fine solo performers as well as members of notable groups and duo's, Mike for his work with Pete Harris and the group 'Crows' while Paul was a member of the popular band 'Arizona Smoke Review' and may currently be seen as part of The Joyce Gang. Although a first?rate singer himself Paul, restricts his vocals to supporting Mick on choruses, providing instead sensitive acoustic accompaniment using guitar, banjo, mandola and mandolin.

Mick's rich voice fits the songs chosen like a glove, hardly surprising as of the fourteen tracks, he wrote ten of them. The four remaining are traditional. The title track 'Grand Conversation' is given a little more speed than often heard and the move from dirge to slightly up tempo works well, whilst Paul's temperate banjo accompaniment gives a chiming feel to Mick's pleasing rendition of the Westcountry evergreen 'The Bell Ringing'. The original compositions showcase what an exceptional songsmith Mick Ryan is. Whether documenting historical injustice 'Put them down', or achievement 'Thomas Brassey'; singing in praise of 'The Lazy Man'; or warning against 'The Foe; he has an enviable skill. I particularly enjoyed 'The Light' where an evocative description of Geevor Mine in Cornwall, is set to Joni Mitchell's 'Song to a Seagull'.

A Quality album with a capital 'Q'.

Rock n Reel

Danny Moore

3 Star rating

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes combine as a duo for the first time on Grand Conversation.

Renowned performers within the folk and wider roots music scene, from the off the assured confidence in the robust vocal delivery of Ryan and the similarly strong performances from Downes, on guitar, banjo, mandola, mandolin or offering supporting vocals, consistently impresses.  There are stylish adaptations of traditional songs such as the title track, transportation ballad 'Young Men All' and Irish standard 'Banks Of The Bann'. Elsewhere, Ryan's self penned compositions - taken from his acclaimed folk musicals, 'Reprisals', 'Put Them Down', 'The Lark Above The Downs' and the pastiche 'Green Island', see the pair satisfy with refreshingly zestful performances.


David Kidman

Mick's distinctive rich baritone and unerring command of phrasing are in fine fettle here, with his latest collaborator, ace instrumentalist Paul Downes, proving worth his weight in gold. The opening track, a brave new arrangement of the celebrated Napoleonic title song, is furnished with a syncopated, driven momentum that imparts Mick's reading with a sense of urgency that's different from (though no less valid than) the epic treatment given it by most revival singers. A comparable sense of energy is present on Young Men All and on Mick's own compositions, Thomas Brassey (from his latest folk musical The Navvy's Wife) and Sleep Of Death (where Paul's percussive riff provides a simple but effective foil for the more florid contours of Mick's melody).

Around two-thirds of the songs are Mick's own, in fact, and although they're drawn from different time-frames within his career they embody a healthy consistency. I'd single out The Light, whose melody (borrowed from Joni Mitchell's Song To A Seagull) weaves around and climbs the vocal register, portraying the contrast between the intimidating darkness of Cornwall's Geevor tin mine and the blinding light into which you emerge on the high cliffs above. Another triumph for Mick is The Lazy Man, the nearest we get to a patter-song (each Mick Ryan album normally contains one example), while his bel canto delivery of Green Island transcends the spirit of affectionate pastiche in which, Mick says, it was originally written. The Lark Above The Downs (resurrected from A Day's Work) receives a magisterial performance from Mick against Paul's powerfully understated guitar figures. Coming after which, however, Mick's highly attractive rendition of The Banks Of The Bann feels like a bit of a makeweight by comparison. Also, while I greatly admire Mick's technique, with its strong sense of purpose and firm legato, his fairly constant use of tenuto (extension of line) can sometimes become just a little wearing. Elsewhere, I mustn't underestimate Paul's own unassumingly competent vocal harmonies, nor his exemplary instrumental work (a sterling combination of sensitivity and virtuosity). He easily moves from the guitar on to banjo to accompany the gorgeous Bell Ringing (from his home county Devon) and the deliciously sinister Land Of Cockayne (another ingeniously wordy opus from Mick's pen), and on to octave mandola to grace the stirring Dorset labourers' anthem Put Them Down.

In all, this teaming of two well-regarded yet well-underrated folk talents signals a quite special record which is worth taking time to get to know.


Nick Passmore

NOT only is Mick Ryan one of our finest traditional singers, but he's also a gifted songwriter. Both these talents are very evident on this new CD, in which he joins forces with the superb guitarist Paul Downes.

The result is a very fine album indeed, with a well-judged balance of material, from hardhitting songs like Ryan's Reprisals (about the Irish rebellion of 1798) and The Lark Above The Downs (about the execution of a WW I conscientious objector for �cowardice�), through traditional ballads like The Banks of the Bann and The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, which gives the album its title, to the delightful and amusing The Lazy Man, another original.

One particular highlight is The Light, a song about Geevor tin mine in Cornwall, which Mick unwittingly set to an �original� tune that turned out to be Joni Mitchell's Song To A Seagull!

Ryan has never sounded in better voice and never sounded better than when paired with Paul Downes' sensitive accompaniment.


Jacqueline Patten

When two noted musicians form a new duo, the debut album is awaited with expectation, and some trepidation, by devotees of both. For many reading this review, this was the case with this album which brings together Mick Ryan and Paul Downes. The former is a superb singer, talented writer, and excellent arranger of traditional songs, while the latter's skill on a range of stringed instruments is hard to better.

Of the fourteen songs, nine were written by Mick, the majority for one or other of his shows. 'Reprisals' and 'Green Island' were written for The Voyage about 19th century emigration from Ireland to America. The line 'salute you dear old Ireland in a song' in 'Green Island' reflects how important the homeland becomes in the memory of the emigrants, and gives insight into how and why Irish music has been spread throughout the world.

'The Lark Above The Downs' and 'The Lazy Man' are about the Great War; 'Put Them Down' about transportation; while 'Sleep of Death' and 'Land of Cockayne' draw on folk tales for their themes. 'Thomas Brassey' is a tribute to a forgotten hero, a railway engineer and contractor who played as important a role as Brunel in the history of the railways. Mick's songs are guaranteed to provoke thought and a response from the listener.

Four of the other tracks are traditional, arranged by Mick and Paul, and include the favourites 'The Bell Ringing' and 'Young Men All', while 'The Light' about the tin mine in Geevor, Cornwall, has words by Mick set to music by Joni Mitchell.

With Mick's resonant and clear voice and Paul's fine arrangements and playing of a variety of stringed instruments as well as providing vocal backing, the combination is compelling listening.

Having seen them live, I looked forward to hearing the album; it surpassed expectations.