Folk music in general, and Celtic music in particular, is full of love songs, some of the best, frankly, ever written. There are themes of passionate worship, forced separation caused by emigration, illness or death, the impossibility of love across class barriers, the universality of unrequited love, etc. . In this playlist, I choose my top 10 for this year.
Of course, such a list is entirely subjective and exponentially omits more than it can ever include. For me, this list represents a sample of love songs that particularly moved me. I added notes to each song I chose to give a little more context and explain my inclusion of it. Like many of our playlists, we’ll add and replace songs over time. Your suggestions are always welcome. Celtic@wgbh.org is the best email to reach us.
10. “The Trees They Grow Tall”, Jarlath Henderson
This is a very old song and has many variations in Irish, Scottish and English chants. It tells a somewhat odd and sad story of twinning between an older woman and a young boy who is still in school. The bride waits for the boy to grow up to adulthood and hopes that “my beautiful boy is young, but he is growing up,” which is the title often used for the song. I heard this version in Glasgow in January, at Jarlath Henderson’s A Celtic Connections concert. The arrangement and accompaniment on the piano, Henderson’s voice and the emotion captured in the words, reminds me of the best art songs in classical music, if not part of the Lieder passion.
9. “From Galway to Graceland”, Seán Keane
I have long been fascinated by the story told in this song. Richard Thompson has been one of the most prolific songwriters in English music since he first gained public attention when he led the group Fairport Convention in 1967. The story here is that of a Galway woman in the midst of a psychotic crisis. She thinks she is married to Elvis. She leaves her family, travels to Tennessee and Graceland, and is quickly arrested. Far from comedy, the song turns it into a poignant and even universal story of passionate love and often of its close neighbor, mental illness.
8. “Ar Bhruach Na Carraige Báine”, Seamus Begley and Mary Black
You don’t have to understand Gaelic to hear the force of the emotion in this song and the pain of unrequited love. The singer says that there is no cure and describes the almost impossible beauty of the desired girl. Seamus Begley is part of a very musical family from the Dingle Peninsula in West Kerry, where he grew up speaking the magnificent Irish used in the song. Mary Black is from Dublin and adds powerfully to this version of the song, which was originally recorded years earlier by Seamus on a now classic CD he made with guitarist Steve Cooney.
7. “Ae Fond Kiss”, Matthew Byrne and Siobhan Miller
Scottish national poet Robert Burns had a reputation for being ‘girl-loving’. He has had several well-documented banter outside of his marriage. Her only true love, the one that won her heart, was Agnes McIlhose. Agnes was married when she first met Burns in Edinburgh in 1791. She was estranged from her husband, who had moved that same year to Jamaica – then a British colony. Burns and Agnes have maintained an intimate and passionate correspondence although it is admitted that the relationship was platonic. Agnes, whom Burns calls “Nancy” in her letters, has decided to leave for Jamaica and attempt a reconciliation with her husband. Before he left, Burns sent him one last love letter. They never saw each other again. Five years later, Burns was dead. Agnes never reconciled with her husband. She returned to Scotland and lived to be 82, and opened the letter each year in December to remember her “Robbie”. The content of the letter was, in fact, the words to “Ae Fond Kiss”. It’s a song I’ve always wanted to include in our Christmas Celtic Sojourn concert series, and I finally got the chance when I realized how amazing the voice of Newfoundlander Matthew Byrne would be with the Scottish singer Siobhan Miller. Oh my…
6. “The first time I saw your face”, Sharon Shannon with Jim Murray
Roberta Flack had a mega-hit with this song in 1972. Scottish-born singer Ewan McColl wrote it in 1952 for the woman he had fallen madly in love with, Peggy Seeger. Seeger was American and from the famous Seeger family. Pete was his half-brother. I chose this version of a Sharon Shannon album with Mike McGoldrick, Desi Donnelly and Jim Murray. It’s sung by Murray, who inexplicably doesn’t sing much in fact, and beautifully combines McColl’s loving spirit with the lyricism of the Flack version. How could a song be more romantic!
5. “Black is the color”, Christy Moore
A universally known love song with probably English origins, but whose versions have spread all over the world, from folk to jazz, rock and classical. I first heard it sing by Lindsay Henes at an Irish music session at Brookline on a sweltering August night in 1980. In August 1981 we got married and will be celebrating our 40th anniversary next year .
4. “Righteous and tender women”, cherish the ladies
It’s one of those songs from the British Isles that has passed through Ireland to mainstream American music. He then returned to Ireland and Scotland with a distinctly American accent, and was enjoyed for decades and widely recorded. This version of the venerable all-female group, Cherish the Ladies, features several female singers performing different verses brilliantly, including Heidi Talbot, Karen Mathieson, Eddi Reader. This is my favorite version.
3. “She walked through the fair”, Cara Dillon
This is a very old song, the variations of which were probably widespread in the north of Ireland around the turn of the last century. The lyrics sung today are taken from a poem written by Padraig Colum, but even told him that they come from other sources. The last verse, in fact, he said, was not his at all. Such is the fascinating power of transmitting traditional songs. Part of the theme reflects other songs from the British Isles which mention a “night visit” where the dead lover returns to visit his private partner.
2. “The Dutchman”, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy
Here is an example of something written in recent times, going into the tradition. Michael Smith is originally from Chicago and is a well-known songwriter. He wrote this song a few years before the super folk duo of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy (of Clancy Brother fame) started performing it live and recording what has become the definitive version. It’s a pretty amazing and powerful song of love and commitment through “sickness and health”. This theme and the song’s recurring and very singable chorus, combined with the massive influence of Makem and Clancy, make “The Dutchman” a staple of Irish musical gatherings on both sides of the Atlantic.
1. “I wish my love was a red, a red, a rose”, Orchester de concert Altan / RTÉ
As with many Robert Burns songs, this version, which is the most famous and which is attributed to him, comes from traditional sources. He came from Scotland, probably long before Burns, and adopted distinct Irish characteristics. My first introduction to this idea came from Bothy Band founder Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill of Co. Donegal, who spoke of learning it from Sarah Makem, the mother of the aforementioned Tommy. The version I chose from this list is simply beautiful and incorporates string arrangements from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and vocals from another singer from Donegal, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from the group Altan.