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An Pluiméir Ceolmhar Lyr Req: Snowy Breasted Pearl (42) RE: Snowy Breasted Pearl 23 Jan 04

Art, JJ came close to opting for a career as a singer, and won several prizes as an amateur. I can't quote chapter and verse from Ellman's biography, but he records the fact that Joyce's wife Nora quite seriously thought he'd have been better off sticking to the singing.

I got to know the song as a swinging ballad, sung, if I remember correctly, by the Wolfe Tones in the early 1970s, and it was quite a surprise to discover that my mother knew it as a genteel parlour song, sung in the J McCormack style. Joyce would certainly have known it and probably sang it, since it was clearly one of the well-known tunes in Dublin in the early 20th century. Anyone of his background with even half a voice in the Dublin of his era would have been expected to deliver a song or two as his party piece.

But he probably would have despised the 1970s version of it, and I suspect he also would have had little regard for traditional music as we know it. The atmosphere of the Dublin of his era with musical evenings around the piano in even quite modest but "respectable" households is very faithfully recreated in John Huston's film of Joyce's "The dead". When I saw that film, it brought me back to my childhood in the 1950s. Apart from my mother, four or five of my parents' circle of relatives and friends would take turns at the piano, and accompany the singers at regular Sunday musical evenings. We still have my mother's piano, which was the centrepiece of many such gatherings right up to the 1960s, and I can't bring myself to get rid of it, even though it can't cope with central heating so it is permanently out of tune and pretty unplayable.

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