P.J. Curtis’s Notes From the Heart: A Celebration of Irish Music

cover art for Notes From The Heart, featuring a photograph of a young Sharon Shannon holding an accordionChuck Lipsig wrote this review.

P.J. Curtis is a noted record producer and radio presenter of Irish traditional music. Notes From the Heart: A Celebration of Irish Music is his attempt at creating a summary of the history of Irish music, in both Ireland and the emigrant communities, during the 20th century, including a brief history of Irish dance in the 19th and 20th century. The second part of the book is a series of short biographies of noted musicians, groups, and musical communities in County Clare, ranging from the legendary piper Johnny Doran to brilliant young accordionist Sharon Shannon.

Unfortunately, this is a poorly written and horribly edited book. Among the more glaring errors are a misspelling of famed fiddler David Swarbrick’s name, as well as two different ages of death given for Johnny Doran. Even setting aside such editing errors, the writing is often muddled. Information is unnecessarily repeated, often within only a few pages. The worst case of this is one long paragraph in the chapter on Doran in which, among other things, “Rakish Paddy” is mentioned three times as being one of the tunes that the piper played an outstanding version of.

Even the basic structure of the book doesn’t work. The broad general history and the specific brief bios don’t mesh. Neither does the text give a clear reason for the author’s decision to concentrate on the music and musicians of County Clare. Most likely, the reason is that the author was born in Clare, but it takes reading the author’s biography to glean this piece of information.

There are some interesting pieces of trivia in the book. For example, John Lennon’s grandfather, Jack, was born in Dublin and immigrated to America around 1900, where he performed as a blackface singer in The Kentucky Minstrels, before crossing back over the Atlantic and settling in Liverpool – and if you miss this in chapter 2, it’s mentioned again in chapter 3. But tidbits like this are hardly enough to justify this mess of a book.

For a much better and broader history of Irish music, I recommend A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó h Allmhuráin. You may also want to check out my review of Joyful Noise, a compilation of some of the finest tracks put out by Green Linnet – including Altan’s performance of “Donal Agus Morag,” produced by P.J. Curtis, which alone is enough to forgive him for authoring such a poorly written book.

(Torc, 1994)

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