SINGING is an undiscovered country for traditional music icon Seamus Begley. Renowned for his accordion and fiddle playing, the Kerryman is notably less confident in his prowess as vocalist — despite a fine, nuanced crooning style. Indeed, he lives in fear that his voice might leave him down at any moment.
“I never know until I open my mouth whether the voice is there or not,” says Begley, 66.
“I have a very soft singing voice. I can be loud when shouting at the dog or what have you. But not when singing. It’s given me fierce trouble down the years and I’m slightly paranoid about it. I’m always worried about my voice. Sometimes I will take whiskey or honey — whether that is false courage or not, I don’t know.”
For these reasons he was somewhat taken aback as producer John Reynolds (Sinead O’Connor, Damien Dempsey) suggested Begley record a collection of trad standards. Begley had often taken lead vocals during live performances down the years. But only when the fancy struck and he felt the audience was receptive (the rowdier the crowd, the less likely he was to sing). An entire album was another matter entirely.
“It was a first singing an album for me,” he nods. “I always played more than sang. People have often said I should sing more. The truth is I didn’t do a lot of singing at gigs. I was mostly playing music that audiences could dance to — the gigs would be noisy and the crowd wasn’t necessarily interested in singing.”
Still, Reynolds was persuasive and Begley found himself installed at the producer’s London studio, performing such beloved staples as, ‘Taimse Im Chodladh’, ‘Wrap The Green Flag Round Me Boys’, and ‘Will You Go To Flanders’.
“We recorded the entire thing in two days. It was great. John has a three-storey house with its own studio. I drank loads of tea and relaxed and threw myself into it when I felt like singing. I can never depend on the voice, as I’ve said. I was lucky that it was very good while I was there. There have been times I’ve gone to the studio to record and the voice simply disappears. It’s horrific. This worked out fantastically.’
Begley is from Ballydavid, several miles outside Dingle. His father was the esteemed accordionist Bhreandáin Bheaglaoich and Begley has performed since he was a teenager. Music is in his blood — is one of the things that defines who he is. “There was nine in the family. We sang all the time. In the evening, after milking the cows, there would be a huge sing-song. We also owned a dance-hall. The incentive was that if you learned a couple of tunes you’d to play at the céilí. I started when I was 13. It was fantastic.”
Entitled The Bold Kerryman, the new record features a cameo from Damien Dempsey, dueting with Begley on ‘The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses’. We’re speaking the day after Kerry’s All-Ireland loss to Dublin and mention of the Liffeysider evinces a groan from Begley. Still, no matter Dempsey’s provenance, collaborating with him was an honour, he says: “His heart is in the right place. He’s a huge fan of the Irish language. For a Dub he’s a mighty man.”
Dempsey has voiced the fear that, in an increasingly globalised world, Irish people will lose their love of traditional music. Begley feels standards among emerging trad players are higher than ever — and that the enthusiasm with which young people celebrate folk music would put previous generations to shame.
“They really enjoy their singing” he says. “My granddaughter has put out a CD, for instance, and it’s wonderful. I think there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm at the moment. Some people just have to make music. That’s certainly true in my case. It is part of who I am.”
‘The Bold Kerryman’ is out now. Seamus Begley plays Dolan’s, Limerick, tonight and INEC Killarney on Friday
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