Prior to the great potato famine in the mid-1840s, very few Irish people willingly left home. There was no word in Irish Gaelic for "emigration" ; the closest equivalent translates to "exile". Thus, as thousands of people prepared to board ship and flee abroad, probably forever, the occasion was often marked with an "Emigration Wake", where those about to depart were celebrated and mourned as though dead. The music that grew specifically out leave-taking and homesickness is sad, joyous, and hopeful.
"Thousands Are Sailing" (Shanachie) is an extraordinary collection, performed by some of the best artists of the last 25 years. The video "Out Of Ireland" (Shanachie) is also highly recommended for its engrossing retelling of a difficult but ultimately triumphant tale. De Dannan's "The Star-Spangled Molly" and "Ballroom" (Green Linnet) both feature vivid interpretations of important tunes connected with emigration and the difficult rebirth of assimilation. "Ballinasloe Fair" (Traditional Crossroads), meanwhile, gathers together some of the earliest recordings made specifically for the Irish-American market, most of them dating from the 1920s. This set is notable for its well-chosen tracks, which range from sentimental odes to an idealized Ireland to witty parodies of stereotypes imposed on the Irish by American society. Other selling points are the incredibly clean and well-restored sound quality and Mick Moloney's copious, fascinating liner notes. "Wheels Of The World - Volumes 1 & 2" (Shanachie) and "From Galway To Dublin - Early Recordings Of Irish Traditional Music" (Rounder) are admirable efforts and cover a similar place and time, but lack the sonic clarity of the Traditional Crossroads set.
For up-to-the-minute bulletins about Irish-Americans and the Irish in America, the festive and rowdy output of New York's most beloved bar band, Black '47 (named for the darkest year of the great Irish famine), provides good if not entirely clean fun plus a graduate degree in urban anthropology. Although this group's profane energy is best experienced live, their recorded output is an awfully close second. "Fires Of Freedom" (EMI) had the shock of the new, the gut-wrenching famine ode, "Black '47", and a contemporary illegal immigrant's lament, "Livin' In America", but both "Green Suede Shoes" and "Trouble In The Land" (Shanachie) are milestones of humorous, pissed-off, Guiness-drenched rage, rant, and rhetoric.
Another latter-day permutation is explored onThe Chieftains' "Another Country" (RCA Victor - 1992). American country music evolved partly from Scottish, Irish, and British immigrants who settled in the Appalachians and similar regions. More than a century later, anthropologists discovered landlocked communities who spoke archaic English and were still singing the old songs the way their grandparents did. The Chieftains have drawn on the styles that grew from these roots, mixing bluegrass and old timey favorites like "Wabash Cannonball" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe" with country-and-western hits and Irish traditional numbers. The cast includes Emmylou Harris, Ricky Scaggs, The Nitty-Gritty Dirt band, Chet Atkins, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Bela Fleck, and a good time was had by all.