CD Review: James Keelaghan A FEW SIMPLE VERSES

Years ago when I was a teenager I read a novel that really made a tremendous impression on me.  It was a book called The Drifters, written by one of my favorite writers– Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener. The novel follows six young characters from various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique during the Vietnam War era. My favorite character is Gretchen, a girl from Boston who becomes disillusioned about life in American and hits the road after getting caught up in a senseless political riot.

What I thought was really sensational about Gretchen is that she played the guitar and loved old ballads! In fact, the entire book is peppered with verses from a selection of magnificent old English and Scottish ballads, collected in the 19th century by Francis James Child and published in the book  Popular English and Scottish Ballad. This was my first exposure to this wonderful form of folk music–it sent me scurrying to the library and to friend’s record collections to try to learn more.

I’m reminded of the love of ballad singing that I developed early in the 70s when listening to James Keelaghan’s   A Few Simple Verses. On this album, James sings other people’s songs, longtime favorites of his. He has included an exquisite rendition of an old English ballad “The Constant Lovers”. This haunting  song, which tells the tragic story of a boy lost at sea and his lover’s leap from a cliff to join him, is beautifully sung by Keelaghan with just the right amount of sentimentality. The turn of phrase and musicianship are so breathtaking, that I have listened to the song many, many times and have not tired of it. Joining this ballad is a collection of songs that Keelaghan says were important in his musical development and are” lyrically superior and melodically appealing.” These include:

Harvest Train (Dan Somers)
Bonnie Light Horseman (Traditional)
Jack Haggerty (Traditional)
Le Tourment (JP Loyer)
Sweet Thames Flow Softly (Ewan MacColl)
Boston Burgler (Traditional)
Galway Races (Traditional)
Constant Lovers (Traditional)
My Blood (James Keelaghan and jez lowe 2003)

Another great thing about this CD is that on three of the selections James is accompanied by members of the Irish super-group DANU (Benny McCarthy, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Eamonn Doorley, Oisin McAuley and Tom Doorley). He also has recorded one number with Chilean musician OSCAR LOPEZ (with whom he has recorded two CDs as COMPADRES) and English musician JEZ LOW.

Check out a couple of other sample tracks at

Keelaghan comes to Central Pennsylvania for a Susquehanna Folk concert with bassist David Woodhead, on November 20 at 7:30PM at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. Information at

CD Review by Jess Hayden, 11-13-10


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