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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS

The Songs That Play in Ireland's Soul : LAST NIGHT'S FUN by Ciaran Carson; North Point $21, 198 pages

March 12, 1997|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The places in this evocation of musical Ireland: Carrickmacross, Cootehill, Carna, Innisbof, Cork City, Kilmallock, Verydarry, Sligo, Coolea, Ballyweird.

The breakfasts: "wavy bacon and the frilly-crisp, flipped-over eggs; the puckered burst seams of the sausages; the milk-tooth bits of fat in the black pudding . . . under a glaze of melted lard, ornamented by the fadge and soda cut in neat triangles."

The times: The morning after the night before. The night before the morning after.

The tunes: "I Do Not Incline," "The Hen's March O'er the Midden," "The Lark in the Morning," "What the Divil Ails Him," "The Active Old Man," "The Funny Mistake," "Good Morning to Your Nightcap," "The Duke of Leinster's Wife" (or "The Lady's Pantalettes"), "Though Late I Was Plump," "The Dear Meal."

There is music that stands by itself at recitals and concerts. There is music inextricably caught in the life going on around it; the life it springs from and competes with in the fug, brag, clatter and shuffle of clubs and pubs. American music--jazz, country, bluegrass, rock--draws richly from such a mix. Before declining into platinum records and million-dollar road tours, it worked itself up in dives and speak-easies, garages, roadhouses and battered vans traveling all night from one town to the next.

It is this smoky, ramshackle human context that Ciaran Carson evokes in his book about Irish music: part memoir, part research, and all interruptions, asides and wanderings-off. Carson is a poet who for many years followed the back roads, playing the flute with fiddlers and accordionists, hearing and learning from the greats and--Irish folk music being literally that--everyone else as well. Today he holds the job of literature and traditional arts officer for the Northern Ireland Arts Council.

It is hard to imagine him in an office. "Last Night's Fun"--the title, like those of each of the chapters is also the name of a tune--is an uproar; six different conversations at once in a haze of smoke, puddles of stout and sudden resurrections where two or three immobile barflies step out and begin to play or sing.

He writes of six different kinds of accordions, and of the traditional Irish flute: wilder, more sour, more dissonant than the standardized Boehm version, which one traditionalist scorns as "a class of typewriter." He visits the flute workshop of Sam Murray and, name-intoxicated, reels off a list of every tool and screw in the splendid disorder. He describes learning to play the instrument.

It resists the breath at first, "But gradually, you start to get a buzz. You learn to 'fill' the flute. You feel the flute vibrate when it is warm, and the little coin-columns of air stacked beneath your fingertips dance up and down."

With the same tactile command, he writes of a country pub "where you might see three fiddle-players standing in a line in the cramped aisle between tables, all facing one way, belly to back, angled against the slope in some hieroglyphic mural statement, their bows and shadows flickering against the whitewashed wall like three thorn bushes bent by yesterday's prevailing wind."

He writes of "handwinding." The singer shuts his eyes and reaches for a listener's hand as if plugging in to a power source. "The two clasped hands remind one another of each other, following each other; loops and spirals accompany the melody, singer and listener are rooted static to the spot, and yet the winding unwinds like a line of music with its ups and downs, its glens and plateaux and its little melismatic avalanches."

He wanders off to tell a joke or retail a poem. There is one about an Iowa pig farmer who comes back to visit his cousin and asks how he feeds his own half dozen pigs. One by one, the Irishman picks up a pig, takes it to a nearby apple tree, lets it feed and brings it back. " 'Don't you find it very time-consuming?' asks the American, who feeds thousands of the animals each day. 'Right enough,' says Paddy. 'But what's time to a pig?' "

There are other jokes, some that even I have heard, and there is a certain amount of gas in the garrulous excursions. Some pubs, as Carson tells us, have a double stout pump: one handle for the dark brew, the other for the foamy collar.

His foam hand can be too heavy, but Carson's ramblings are the heart of the book. He weaves in stories of his childhood, of his time on the road with other musicians, of the rain and rambles, the late nights, the dazed mornings, the heavy breakfasts that are not so much a pick-me-up as a formidable set-me-down--Ireland's music, like its clog dance, taking power and lilt from its ground. He writes of music as if it were the sound that life makes.

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