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Voices Fall-Winter 2009:
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Volume 35
Fall-Winter
2009
Voices


Reviews Girsa: Traditional Irish Music, by Girsa. Pearl River, NY: Girsa Music, 2009. Sixteen tracks, $15.00 CD.

Within the New York Irish music community, the buzz about Girsa has been as steady and positive as the coming of Croton water, which 170 years ago flowed south to revive and rejuvenate a fever-stricken Manhattan. Girsa—pronounced geer-sha and meaning “young girls ” in Gaelic—is a group of eight Irish American teenagers, two generations removed from the Emerald Isle, who live in and around Pearl River in Rockland County. Their new, eponymous compact disc is as refreshing as a cool drink of spring water on a sweltering summer day.

The group’s instrumentation includes fiddle, accordion, whistle, mandolin, piano, and guitar. Two band members are also dancers. The disc was recorded and produced by Gabriel Donohue, who has played both with the Chieftains and Boston Pops, and who also contributes instrumentally here. There are absolutely no rough edges.

A CD featuring eight cyber-connected teenagers raised in the Riverdance age begs the question of how rapidly an ethnic music can change and still continue to be genuine. Certainly, in the instrumental realm, there are no contradictions. While Girsa’s sound is decidedly more modern than that of Cherish the Ladies—an obvious inspiration—it is still set firmly within the tradition. The “girls” studied with some of America’s finest Irish music teachers, and although their ages range from sixteen to nineteen, the recording reveals a solid maturity built on considerable experience in the gutsy world of fleadhanna (traditional Irish music competitions) and an easy familiarity with airs and dance tunes gained by years of ensemble playing, often with musicians two, three, and four times their age.

It would be hard to praise only one or two of these tune medleys. More importantly and to their credit, Girsa’s arrangements deftly vary tempo, meters, modes, and instrumentation to produce a fresh sound throughout . . . and they can really play! Remarkably, four group members also sing, and they are very good. Overall, Girsa’s song performance and selection is more eclectic than their instrumentals. “Immigrant Eyes,” by American country star Guy Clark; “The Rhythm of My Heart,” made popular by Scottish rocker Rod Stewart; and the beautiful old English country song, “I Live Not Where I Love,” are indications of their far-reaching tastes. Each lyric receives a fine performance, as do some Irish chestnuts such as the immigrant-experience waltz “The Home I Left Behind.” Stylistically, Girsa’s singing is an uncanny synthesis of sean-nós (old style), pop, and country, with an entertaining result. Hopefully, as they mature, these young women will plumb traditional Irish song a little deeper.

Girsa presents a vivid and energetic counterpoint to the latest gimmick in Irish music: begowned women lip-synching saccharine-sounding songs, with the implication that they represent the apex of the nation’s folk culture. If Girsa can persevere and expand on the striking work they present on this CD, the paradigm of overdressed musical posing may be seriously endangered. This is a delightful debut recording with broad appeal. At present, Girsa’s CD is available only through the group’s web site: www.girsamusic.com.

—Dan Milner
University of Birmingham (U.K.)


Central New York and the Finger Lakes: Myths, Legends, and Lore, by Melanie Zimmer. Salem, MA: History Press, 2008. 153 pages, introduction, photographs, selected bibliography, $19.99 paper.

“Seeking out a region’s folk tales and legends offers more than entertaining reading,” Melanie Zimmer explains in Central New York and the Finger Lakes: Myths, Legends, and Lore. “It offers a piece of ourselves” (150). This book is a celebration of the regional identity of central New York as developed and preserved through folktales.

Zimmer is a professional storyteller: a member of the Pearl in the Egg Storytelling Guild, the Salt City Storytellers, and the League of the Advancement of New England Storytelling. In her earlier career, she was captured by European folktales and wondered if the United States was too young to have developed its own folklore. Living in a small village in central New York, she eventually discovered the rich regional myths and legends attended by an identity rooted in the rolling hills and glacial lakes of the area. Zimmer’s intention in writing this compilation of folktales is to tell a “legendary history” in roughly chronological order. As a history through folklore, it is not a “linear history” of academic veracity, but rather a telling of stories that reveals the “truth of our history and this place” (11).

Such a project is in line with the mission of the History Press (www.historypress.com), established to publish local stories written by local history enthusiasts for local audiences as touchstones for community identity. Zimmer’s book is exactly that. The book is a compilation of folktales and myths, which makes the reader want to tour central New York and the Finger Lakes using it as a guide. Beginning with Iroquois stories, she moves through stories of the Revolutionary War, the Erie Canal, religious movements, and famous abolitionists and suffragists, and ends with a hodgepodge of humorous and bizarre tales.

As a compilation, it is reminiscent of other folktale collections. It reminds me specifically of Flatlanders and Ridgerunners: Folktales from the Mountains of Northern Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), by James York Glimm, which focused on the folklore of the state border region of northern Pennsylvania. Although also written for general readership, Glimm’s book gave one the sense of individual sources quoted verbatim, and therefore had a slightly more scholarly feel. In contrast, the stories in Zimmer’s book have been filtered through her own storytelling perspective and are more removed from original sources. Some of the chapters maintain that storytelling voice and are clearly not intended as reliable histories or ethnographic accounts in the academic sense. Other sections, such as the one on religious movements, however, have a more standard historical voice, despite leaning heavily on only a few sources.

At times, I wished for more social and historical context for these wonderful stories. Despite their presentation in chronological order, the book reads as if the stories are outside of time in the ethnographic present. I did not get a sense of how the stories changed over time or how the sense of community identity created by the stories was utilized.

The book, however, is not intended for scholarly purposes, but to pique the interest of the general reader. It clearly fulfills that mission. It would be a useful tool for teaching local history and lore in middle and high schools. Apart from the content, one of my favorite moments in the book is the dedication. The book is dedicated to the memory of Pat Dixon of the Vernon Public Library. In this simple initial paragraph, Zimmer reveals the way regional history brings together a community. I never met Ms. Dixon, but I feel I know her. With Zimmer, I celebrate the local culture bearers of central New York, their work, and their passion. Despite the book’s drawbacks, Zimmer captures and shares that passion. I plan on taking a road trip with Central New York and the Finger Lakes: Myths, Legends, and Lore tucked under my arm.

—Constance R. Sullivan-Blum
ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes


 









The book is a compilation of folktales and myths, which makes the reader want to tour central New York and the Finger Lakes using it as a guide. Beginning with Iroquois stories, she moves through stories of the Revolutionary War, the Erie Canal, religious movements, and famous abolitionists and suffragists, and ends with a hodgepodge of humorous and bizarre tales.





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Fall-Winter 2009. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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