Loreena McKennitt seems to love anything which hitches the adjective Celtic to the noun music. She’s traveled the world to record music both Celtic and Celtic-like, often (even on brand-new songs) using instruments which might have been recognized 2,000 years ago across the whole range of the Celts’ distribution. She’s certainly traveled farther afield than many performers nominally in her genre; with its odd but infectious rolling rhythms of ancient woodwinds and percussion instruments, her music often sounds more Middle Eastern or even sub-continental Indian than conventionally”Celtic.”
But her 2010 album, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, had her returning to the recognizable. Recorded at a historic temple in Ontario, it includes classics like “Brian Boru’s March,” the title song, and a RAMH favorite, “The Parting Glass.” Among them: “Down by the Sally Gardens.”
William Butler Yeats first published his poem called “Down by the Salley Gardens” (that’s “Salley” with an “e”) in 1899. Per Wikipedia, he claimed inspiration from the singing of an “old peasant woman in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo,” who apparently sang two or three lines, repeatedly, which stuck in the poet’s head.
About that one odd word in the title, at a site called, simply, The Irish Page, I found this information:
A salley is a willow tree. It was once common to have gardens of willows for osiers (willow rods). These gardens were kept to have material for basket-making and for thatch roofing of cottages. The Gaelic for willow is saileach, which comes from the Latin, salix for willow tree… One more use for willow is the bark, which contains salicylic acid from which aspirin is made. Use of willow bark as an analgesic was known since ancient times.
With one exception, McKennitt’s arrangement keeps it simple; the accompaniment (if I’m reading the track listing correctly) includes just harp, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and uilleann pipes (okay, that one’s a stretch — Wikipedia: “the characteristic national bagpipes of Ireland”).
But McKennitt’s voice — wow. Whatever Yeats heard back in that Sligo village, however much inspiration he drew from the old woman’s words, I bet her voice didn’t raise the hair on his arms.
As an aside, this song’s lyrics — and of course Yeats’s poem — seem awfully close, up to a point, with those of an old Irish/Scottish/American folk/country/bluegrass song, “Down in the Willow Garden.” But as you can see from its Wikipedia entry, the story’s outcome, and the overall message, is quite different:
“Down in the Willow Garden,” also known as “Rose Connelly”is a traditional Appalachian murder ballad about a man facing the gallows for the murder of his lover: he gave her poisoned wine, stabbed her, and threw her in a river.
Part of wants to laugh out loud at the contrast between the songs, and part of me— Oh, hell. It’s just bizarrely funny in an Edward Gorey way. Or a Coen Brothers way, come to that: