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Wexford Carols Brings Irish Holiday Relics To Life


There's a new collection of ancient Irish carols for this holiday season. The Wexford Carols were composed back in the 17th and 18th centuries and largely lost to history until an Irish singer named Caitriona O'Leary became fascinated with them. So with help from producer Joe Henry and contributions from Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens, the Wexford Carols have come to life again.


CAITRIONA O'LEARY: (Singing) Or where have you been this long night. Strange visions woke me before the day. I thought it unusually bright.

SIMON: That's Caitriona O'Leary singing the opening tune, "Tell Shepherds," from "The Wexford Carols" collection. And Caitriona O'Leary joins us now from the studios of RTE in Dublin.

Thanks so much for being with us.

O'LEARY: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And out at NPR West in California, Joe Henry the producer also joins us.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JOE HENRY: Oh, Scott, it's my pleasure to be here as well.

SIMON: Ms. O'Leary, let me please start with you. What first got your interest about these old songs?

O'LEARY: The depth of emotion in the words, a very understated subtle kind of emotion, but nonetheless very, very profound. Beautiful imagery, as well. And the tunes that are very humble, very folk-like in origin - well, they are folksongs - and yet they're - well, not and yet they're - but, they are noble and they stand alone and they are just beautifully-crafted songs.

SIMON: Joe Henry, how do you take songs from the past and bring them into the modern listening world?

HENRY: You know, that is something that I'm very mindful of. You know, this still has to sound alive now, still has to be engaged and engage-able now. And we want to, you know, feel our connection to the great and expansive past. But we want to be very much awake to how, you know, to sort of paraphrase Faulkner, you know, the past not being dead - it's not even past. You know, it's here among us and every time we conjure it into the present-day it becomes part of our new fabric.

SIMON: Let's listen to another voice on the CD, I daresay a familiar voice, though he ain't no Irishman. One of the best-known Welsh people in the world, Tom Jones, singing "The Angell Said To Joseph Mild."


TOM JONES: (Singing) The angel said to Joseph Mild, fly with the mother and the child. Out of this land to Egypt go. The heavenly babe will have its soul.

SIMON: That's a beautiful song. To what degree is it like the version of the song that we might've heard back in the 18th century?

HENRY: You know, I would just say that I think the instrumentation here harkens back to what might authentically have been played in the time that these songs were first conceived. And I think Tom was very much trying to honor that atmosphere. You know, we were not trying to give it a makeover or update it, but just make it alive now as we think it was alive then.


O'LEARY: (Singing) And as through life we went away.

SIMON: This is the whole ensemble. That's you, Caitriona O'Leary, Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash, Rhiannon Giddens. The Enniscorthy Christmas carol.


O'LEARY: (Singing) We'll wait in peace his Holy Ghost.

SIMON: Joe Henry, I realize everybody involved was a professional, but how do you get all these harmonies to work together?

HENRY: You get people in a room, you know, who know how to listen and who don't arrive with a preconceived notion of what this supposed to sound like, you know, who are invested in real time discovery. And you know, the trick is just to get people in a circle and they hear each other in real time. That's really the key.

SIMON: Caitriona O'Leary, tell us about "This Is Our Christmas Day."

O'LEARY: Oh, Yeah. Well, that was the most political song in the collection. It's lamenting the prohibition of Mass that Christmas. But actually, the most political significant thing about "The Carols" is their sense of community, is that they were written to comfort people who had been dispossessed. And they were sung by the community that was left and as that community grew again, I'm sure that that was a really unifying feature of their community.


O'LEARY: (Singing) This is our Christmas day, the day of Christ's birth. Yet we are far from joy and far from Christmas mirth. On Christmas to have no Mass...

SIMON: Let's finish up with something maybe a little brighter, "An Angel This Bright Midnight."


O'LEARY: (Singing) An angel this bright midnight doth to the shepherds bring most rare and joyful tidings to move our hearts to sing.

SIMON: Joe Henry, do you finish a project like this and begin to think of ways in which it can energize and put a little - a new wrinkle or luster into the modern work you do, too?

HENRY: We're always trying to imagine it and conjure it into the present day and hope that people would recognize their history in it. But it's really important - I know this is important to Caitriona - that this music not be treated as archival, but is sent up in a way that remains vital and relevant. And I think any of us making records, that's always our hope. Brand-new song or, you know, one that's 200 years old, it's got to have blood in its veins to be of service to anybody. And that's always the goal.

SIMON: Caitriona O'Leary is in Dublin and Joe Henry out at NPR West. Their new CD is called "The Wexford Carols."

Thanks so much.

O'LEARY: Thank you, Scott.

HENRY: Oh, thank you.


O'LEARY: (Singing) This Christmas is made humble...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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