Trad/Roots: Weaving music and song through the tapestry of WB Yeats's poetry

Christine Collister
Christine Collister Christine Collister

I have heard in the night air

A wandering airy music;

And moidered in that snare

A man is lost of a sudden,

In that sweet wandering snare.

AS the lines above from The Musicians show, William Butler Yeats through his life was always interested in music and song.

Indeed, he wrote the words to many songs, some of which were sung in his plays and he even wrote some marching songs for Eoin O'Duffy's Blueshirts when he was drawn to European authoritarianism in the 1930s.

There are Seven that Pull the Thread is a song where Yeats wrote the words and the English composer Edward Elgar wrote the music.

In return, there have always been musicians, from Joni Mitchell to Christy Moore, the Waterboys, Lou Reed and Carla Bruni, the wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who have used the poems of the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet as inspiration in their work.

Someone else who has taken the poems of Yeats to his bosom is the renowned former illustrator and cartoonist, Raymond Driver.

For Driver, "Yeats wanted his poetry to be sung. His poems lend themselves to music."

Driver himself had never before composed music until one day, while he was walking in the woods near his Maryland home and trying to recall a Yeats poem, "a melody just came to me," he says.

"Where it came from is a mystery," says Driver. "It's like someone gave me a gift."

The now fully-fledged composer eventually set over 100 Yeats poems to music and nearly a quarter of those appear on the new album, I Am of Ireland, in which 32 musicians and singers from three continents got together to perform Driver's adaptations of the work of Thoor Ballylee's best known resident.

Driver had already produced two albums of Yeats's poems featuring soprano Laura Whittenberger and pianist Peyson Moss but he decided that it would really do his subject justice to have traditional musicians back the singers.

The composer asked his long-time buddy, Paul Marsteller, to find a group of musicians who would do the work and the poems justice - and what a line-up he conjured up out of the lockdown.

Aptly, WB's fellow Sligonian Seamie O'Dowd was first on the list and wherever you have Seamie, Cathy Jordan is probably around too, to add her impressive vocals.

The Bothy Band's Kevin Burke appears, as do harp player Cormac De Barra, Tyrone's Niall Hanna, pipers Mick O'Brien and Leonard Barry are also joined by three members of Lúnasa - Cillian Vallely, Trevor Hutchinson and Colin Farrell, as well as newcomer Bríd O'Riordan, a traditional singer from west Cork.

"Brid's voice is rich and powerful, a really traditional sound and on Ephemera her clear fresh voice is backed by Mick O'Brien's haunting low whistle," explains Marsteller.

Another standout track is Mick McAuley, formerly of Solas and who recently played in Sting's play, The Last Ship, singing Folly of Being Comforted, a song of unrequited love, McAuley's emotive voice nearly breaks alongside New Yorker Dana Lyn's gently aching violin.

Fergal McAloon, lead singer of Whistlin' Donkeys, a popular folk-rock band in Tyrone, came on board for four songs.

"Fergal was a discovery for me," recalls Marsteller.

"I found YouTube videos of him fronting his band and the videos had a couple hundred thousand views, but I'd never heard of him. He's got a really strong voice, he sounds like the real deal. The Yeats songs have him stepping out of his normal style, a little more traditional."

McAloon's rich, yearning vocals shine on four songs, including the uptempo Ballad of the Foxhunter.

Christine Collister, a singer-songwriter from the Isle of Man, may be best known for her work with Richard Thompson on a previous Marsteller project.

Her three songs here include The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Yeats's yearning for rural Sligo, with her deep voice accompanied by Canadian fiddler Joel Zifkin and American guitarist Gabriel Rhodes, son of Kimmie Rhodes.

It was Raymond Driver who introduced Marsteller to Yeats's poetry.

"I was in shock when he told me what he had been up to, and didn't tell me at all until after he had the art-song full produced," recalls Marsteller.

"I've known him since the early 1970s and we talk all the time. He's good at keeping things to himself (the opposite of me.).

While I Am of Ireland is very much Ray Driver's project, Marsteller was the album's executive producer, something which involved, he told me from his home in San Diego, "paying for it, partly overseeing and directing all aspects from concept to the release and distribution".

However, Paul had a lot of experience in the music business, although he started out in real estate.

"I have written and released four albums in the past decade, and executive produced The Beautiful Old - Turn of the Century Songs in 2013, a various-artists album of parlour era music, featuring Richard Thompson, Dave Davies from the Kinks, Garth Hudson from the The Band and a bunch of great folk-rock artists," he says.

Marsteller used the same type of networking to find artists for the Yeats album.

"Of course, I drew on my experience from The Beautiful Old, so it was fun to launch into that again, in a genre that I knew almost nothing about," he admits.

"We never had a plan to do 24 songs - maybe just half that. But, once we started, we got into it and had a really hard time stopping, as we got to appreciate a lot of the artists and wanted to keep going.

"And Ray had written a whole bunch of settings - maybe 100?"

It must have been quite an undertaking, spanning over two years with all 32 artists across three continents working remotely through the pandemic. Was it all hard work or did Paul find time to have a bit of fun with it as well?

"For me, it was all great great fun. I hope there's another one ahead somewhere. If you have any ideas, let me know," he laughs.

:: I Am of Ireland: Yeats in Song is released on July 23 and can be pre-ordered from yeatsinsong.com