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JOHN DOHERTY "The Floating Bow" Claddagh Records CCF31CD

This is a really interesting release: I don't know whether to describe it as an archive recording or a virtuoso solo fiddle album. Let me explain.

John Doherty (1900-1980) was one of a family of travelling musicians and tinsmiths from Donegal. The recordings on this album were made between 1968 and 1974, when John was still in fine fettle, and they include several superb examples of virtuoso Donegal fiddling. In 25 tracks and 53 minutes, John Doherty covers all the aspects of his native fiddle tradition as well as several examples from the Scottish tradition and a few tunes from further south. The recording is crisp, clean and relaxed, with occasional background noises which add to the atmosphere without detracting from the masterful fiddling. And masterful it is: fast and furious at times, but full of delicate ornamentation and variation - so much so, in fact, that it was said to be very hard to learn a tune from John Doherty's playing because it changed so much. This may have been a deliberate tactic to prevent the copying of the travelling fiddler's repertoire, but it certainly adds spice to the performances on this CD.

The fiddle is the only instrument heard on this album, and it's a borrowed fiddle at that, but there isn't a dull moment in all 53 minutes. John's mastery of the Donegal style is complete: single bowing, double stopping, ringing strings, octave harmonies and bowed triplets are all here in abundance, as well as the rolls and slides borrowed from related traditions. The tunes themselves include only five sets of straight reels, but plenty of jigs, marches and highlands, a strathspey, and several medleys of different forms and tempos which is unusual in Irish traditional music. The Dohertys are credited with introducing a lot of Scottish tunes into the Donegal repertoire, and there's ample evidence of that here: Scott Skinner compositions sit alongside traditional Scottish reels and marches, some of which have been localised such as "The Braes of Maas" which started life as "The Braes of Marr".

This virtuoso album is also an important piece of musical history, for as well as being a fine fiddler John Doherty was the man who preserved and embellished the Donegal fiddle tradition more than anyone else this century. His repertoire and style have influenced several generations of Donegal musicians, and are to be heard in the playing of groups from The Chieftains to Altan. In musical terms, he was a giant of a man, and this CD contains some of his best recordings. For field recordings, the quality is excellent, and the technique of patiently recording fireside fiddling over a number of years has produced a much more flowing and natural sound than more hurried or formal recording sessions. This relaxed approach also solicited many of the stories which John Doherty told to accompany his tunes, some of which are included in the 30-odd pages of notes.

All in all, this recording represents the heart of the old Donegal fiddle tradition. The music is excellent, not surprising from a former Irish champion. The recording quality is outstanding, definitely the best I have heard of John Doherty, and the sleeve notes are fascinating.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 21 of The Living Tradition magazine.