This may well be the most unusual CD I have reviewed here. Hector MacIsaac’s The Legend of the Black Donnellys is what might be called a folk opera. MacIsaac has set out to dramatize in words and music a tale that is as well known in his native Canada the tale of Jesse James is here in the United States. The album consists of alternating tracks of narration and song, all telling the tale of almost 60 years of the Donnelly family. For my review, I have taken two songs and presented them out of context. This will give my readers a sense of the sound of the music, but some of the words will not make as much sense as they should. I have chosen the two songs I am presenting mostly to showcase the different singers, with one solo and one ensemble piece. I will try to fill in the blanks, but there is no substitute for listening to the entire album. MacIsaac has told the tale far better than I could hope to.
The tale of the Black Donnellys is as much a part of Canadian folklore as Jesse James is here. The Donnellys were a Catholic family from Tiperrary in Ireland. In Ireland, they were called Blackfoots, or Blackfeet, which I gather was a derogatory term for those who sympathized with the Protestants, and by extension, who favored British rule. The Whiteboys were a secret society who committed acts of violence against Blackfeet. The Donnellys fled to Canada, hoping to find a life free of fear where they could persue their dreams. But the “troubles” followed them to the new world. Budelph Township, in Ontario, was an Irish enclave, and a lawless one in the manner of the American West. The Donnellys started to make a good life here, but the tale ended tragically.
To tell all of this, MacIsaac his created a work for four singers and one narrator, each portraying a different character.
Hector MacQuarrie plays Johnny O’Connor, the narrator; he has the most to do, but does not sing. But his speaking voice carries the necessary emotional range without ever overacting. Much of what he narrates is what the Donnellys told him of their history; the character Johnny O’Connor enters the story fairly late, and the emotional tone of his performance changes as he begins to relate his personal recollections.
Brian Farrell sings the part of Jim Donnelly, the patriarch of the family. His performance must convey the hopes of the move to the New World, the sense of hardships endured, and eventually, the premonition of his own death. And Farrell does all of this beautifully.
Emma MacIsaac has the most important role, that of Johannah Donnelly, the family matriarch. And she delivers an outstanding performance. You can feel the strength of this woman, and sense that she is the glue that holds the family together. Her sorrow is palpable. Late in the proceedings, there is a duet between her and William Donnelly which is an emotional tug of war between a mother’s all too real fears and her son’s righteous anger; the song, Why Should I Give a Damn?, is an emotional high point of the album.
Hector MacIsaac himself sings the part of William Donnelly, the son who becomes the leader of the family. MacIsaac shows the greatest emotional range of any of the singers. His character falls in love. William survives the tragedy at the center of the story, and goes through a range of survivor’s emotions. His love of Maggie Thompson, the woman he hoped to marry, has a different quality than the love he has for his parents. William goes through several different kinds of anger. And MacIsaac brings this character to life, using different tones of voice for different feelings.
Finally, Junior Fraser sings one song as Constable James Carroll. This is the only character voiced on the album who is not on the side of the Donnellys. In his only song, Fraser must portray a man attempting to justify something that he knows, at a deep level, is wrong. Fraser does a fine job with a character that we mostly do not like. It’s something of a thankless task, but he does it well.
The music is acoustic, with electric bass, and Celtic flavorings. There is tasty fiddle work, and occasional pipes and whistles. But mostly, the instrumental work does not draw attention to itself; the focus is on the words and the singers.
To fully appreciate what MacIsaac has accomplished here, you need to set aside the time to actively listen to the entire album in a single sitting. This is a complex, and very powerful, kind of story telling. You will find it time well spent.
Hector MacIsaac: Maggie Thompson
Hector MacIsaac: Ride William! Ride!