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Dervish Finds New Ways To Celebrate Tradition With 'The Great Irish Songbook'

Dervish's latest album <em>Irish Songbook </em>is out now.
Colin Gillen
Courtesy of the artist
Dervish's latest album Irish Songbook is out now.

For the past three decades, Dervish has been at the forefront of reinventing traditional Irish folk songs. The Sligo-based band is "breathing new life" into the beloved music of its homeland with The Great Irish Songbook, an album pulling from an eclectic range of genres and the voices of over a dozen featured artists.

Collaborators on the album include Steve Earle, David Gray and Rhiannon Giddens and this project encompasses everything from traditional dance music to love ballads, including a W.B. Yeats-penned serenade "Down by the Sally Gardens" and the classic "The Rocky Road to Dublin."

The Great Irish Songbookis out now. Founding Dervish member Shane Mitchell and longtime vocalist Cathy Jordan spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the band's unlikely beginnings, the soul of Irish music and the making of The Great Irish Songbook. Hear the radio version of their conversation in the audio link and read on for interview highlights.

Interview Highlights

On the origin of Dervish

Mitchell: We basically were a group of friends that were growing up together. We were asked to make a recording of local music one time and we had to come up with a title for the album pretty quickly. And we were just called The Boys of Sligo.

Jordan: I wrecked it. [Laughs] They couldn't be The Boys of Sligo anymore!

It was about '91 when when I joined. I was, at that time, making cakes and making pastries in County Longford and singing on the weekends. I had known the guys for quite some time and they decided that it was time to get a singer and I decided that I was fed up making cakes. I hitchhiked down to Sligo with my rucksack on my back and never came back.

On why the Irish excel at songs about heartbreak

Jordan: The heartbreak, I guess, comes in many forms. It can come in immigration, leaving loved ones behind, of course, the affairs of the heart. We have far more songs about love unrequited than songs with happy endings, which I found [out] one time when I was asked to sing as somebody's wedding. They wanted a lovely traditional Irish ballad with a happy ending and I couldn't find one. There's usually somebody dead by the third verse and betrayed by the fourth or whatever. So, I'm not quite sure, there could be many reasons for it, but we have a few happy endings songs, you'll be delighted to know on The Great Irish Songbook.

On how beloved Irish music is around the globe

Mitchell: We continue to be surprised by how loved Irish music is. I suppose when we started this project nearly two years ago, the idea was to try and find people who had a love for Irish music from different genres of music. We found a lot of closet Irish folk music fans. In fact, we have enough to make three albums, somebody said at one stage.

I am so proud of our music, that there's so much love and people get emotionally attached to us. It's a very positive genre of music and this was one of the reasons why we looked at this project. These are iconic songs that we all grew up with. You know, Irish pub music, people come together and it was a great sense of camaraderie when people would sing together. We just think that this was a great way to approach an album — breathe new life into these wonderful old songs.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.