Ben Lennon & Friends’ The Natural Bridge

Judith Gennett penned this review.

The Natural Bridge is a heavily traditional Irish album featuring septuagenarian fiddler Ben Lennon, a native of County Leitrim. Lennon’s friends include members of his Eighties plus traditional band Dog Big and Dog Little, all Fermanagh natives: fiddler and piano player Seamus Quinn, singer and concertina player Gabriel McArdle,and Altan’s Cieran Curran on mandola. Additional friends are family members: brother Charlie Lennon (piano player and fiddler),accompanist on albums by Joe Burke, Vinnie Kilduff, and others; and sons Brian Lennon (concert flute) and Maurice Lennon (fiddle) of thetraditional/pop band Stockton’s Wing. Also joining the group are mandocellist and piano player Garry O’Braian from the Burrens of Clare (a location, not a band!), who recorded with Maurice in the band Aengus, and London/Roscommon fiddler and banjo player John arty, a musical friend of the family.

Ben Lennon was born in Kiltyclogher, near the Kilcoo River which separates the Irish Midland counties of Leitrim and Fermanagh; the title refers to a natural bridge which unites the two counties. As a youth he played, by default, a three gut-stringed fiddle with no bass. Later, in the 1940s, Ben moved to London without his fiddle and eventually, returning to Ireland with his family, learned to play again from scratch. Living in Cork, he formed a band named Shaskeenwith several musicians including De Dannan-Patrick Street accordionist Jackie Daly. Now living again in Leitrim, he has continued to fiddle, teaching workshops at the Joe Mooney Summer School and the Willie Clancy School, not inclusive.

Most of Natural Bridge was recorded live in a session environment at Meehan’s, The Cosy Corner Bar in Kiltyclogher. Few ofthe tracks are performed en masse; rather, the various players are featured on different tracks. The musical ties that bind these tracks are the piano, played almost as a rhythm instrument by O’Braian or Quinn, and Ben Lennon’s Sligo/Leitrim-style fiddle-playing.

One track in particular, the reels “Boys of Ballisodare/The FiveMile Chase” demonstrates this technique of fiddle-playing nicely. It is further given in the liner notes that it is the Dog Big Dog Little album (Claddagh CC51) which “is definitive of” this style, a greatboon of information for those of us generally puzzled by Irish regional styles!! Ben was in fact influenced, we’ve read from that album, by the 78s of Irish-American fiddler James Coleman, originally from Sligo.

The initial liner notes on Ben’s life and those for each track are not only extensive and quite informative, but translated into Irish as well. Many of the selections are based on the Irish-American 78rpm recordings of Coleman, Paddy Killoran, James Morrison. Other tunes seem to have been picked up somewhere or another from other”live” musicians. One of the tunes, “The Primrose Polka” is Scottishin origin and was recorded by the prolific Scottish accordionistJimmy Shand in the Forties. Two traditional songs (“Flora” and “Banksof the Clyde”), sung by Dog Big Dog Little’s vocalist Gabriel McArtle, are included with simple accompaniment. My own favorite is a Lennon-O’Braian duet, the reel medley “John Henry/Ryan’s Rant” which features a cute shift of emphasis on various notes in a phrase between tunes; it’s a striking feature and you can just imagine those dancers stomping their feet!

Natural Bridge is a delight for session musicians and traditionalists. More progressive Irish music enthusiasts should keep in mind that it is a record of earlier 20th century styles and thatLennon and his friends are making little attempt at innovation.

(Clo Iar-Chonnachta Teo, 1999)

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