Reinterpreting traditional folk songs is a niche musical tactic, to be sure, but it can be a very effective—often lucrative—one, if done well. Some artists make the practice their stock and trade; others simply dabble when the urge emerges. In the former pack, Canada's Great Big Sea has to be one of the leaders. In the nearly 20 years they have been together, the band has released nine studio albums, one compilation, two DVDs, and three live records.
Great Big Sea's current lineup includes founders Alan Doyle (on vocals, guitar, bouzouki, and mandolin), Séan McCann (on vocals, bodhrán, guitar, and tin whistle), and Bob Hallett (on vocals, fiddle, accordion, mandolin, concertina, bouzouki, whistles, and bagpipes) still going strong. The fourth founding member—Darrell Power (vocals, bass, guitar, and bones)—took his leave of the group in 2003, after which they haven't matched their previous platinum-level successes, but still manage to go gold (at least in Canada).
Still, the trio is out on the road, slogging it out with their brand of rocked-out folk tunes and amped-up sea shanties. One remaining 2012 performance has Great Big Sea in Toronto on November 4. They will take the holidays off, as well as the first bit of 2013, starting up the bus engines again come early March. Then, Great Big Sea plays Anaheim on March 5 and goes on from there for about 30 more dates.
Among the Canada stops, Great Big Sea hits Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Montreal, Moncton, London, and Kingston. Dates in the States put Great Big Sea in San Francisco, Portland (OR), Seattle, Saint Paul, Chicago, Omaha, Boulder, Buffalo, Ann Arbor, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Burlington, and Portland (ME).
The whole tour wraps up when Great Big Sea heads home to Halifax on April 26.
But what of the dabblers, the artists who occasionally meander into traditional music as a creative expression or a marketing ploy? Natalie Merchant and Sinéad O'Connor both fall somewhere along that spectrum.
For The House Carpenter's Daughter, Merchant took on and arranged mostly traditional folk songs, but threw in four contemporary ditties, as well. The project was a labor of love and released on her own label, so it would have to be considered a creative expression.
Track Listing for The House Carpenter's Daughter:
"Sally Ann" (Jeff Claus/Judy Hyman/Dirk Powell)
"Which Side Are You On?" (Florence Reece)
"Crazy Man Michael" (Richard Thompson/Dave Swarbrick)
"Diver Boy" (traditional)
"Weeping Pilgrim" (traditional)
"Soldier, Soldier" (traditional)
"Bury Me under the Weeping Willow" (A. P. Carter)
"House Carpenter" (traditional)
"Down on Penny's Farm" (traditional)
"Poor Wayfaring Stranger" (traditional)
In contrast, O'Connor “sexed up” a bunch of Irish traditionals on Sean-Nós Nua for what was probably more of a marketing ploy to bolster a flagging and tumultuous career. The effort topped Billboard's World Music chart. It's worth noting that she did, in fact, tip her hat in respect by singing two of the tunes in their original Gaelic.
Track Listing for Sean-Nós Nua:
"Her Mantle So Green"
"The Singing Bird"
"Óró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile" (in Irish (Gaelic))
"The Moorlough Shore"
"The Parting Glass"
"Báidín Fheilimí" (in Irish (Gaelic))
"My Lagan Love"
"I'll Tell Me Ma"
Still others—like Kate Rusby, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss—have a more natural relationship with song interpretation, folding traditional tunes in with original compositions. The soundtracks to Songcatcher and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are both fine collections of contemporary artists singing traditional songs. But to really be immersed in the genre, stick with Great Big Sea and you won't be disappointed.