Cuan liner notes: Belfast Mountains
When Colleen and I produced Cuan, we decided to keep costs down and to focus on online distribution and lightweight eco-wallet cases that we could easily transport from coast to coast and to Ireland and back. Colleen designed a beautiful striking cover, which you can own yourself if you buy a copy from CD Baby, and it makes me proud every time I look at it.
But one of the downsides of this very modern way to produce a CD is that we didn’t have the space for liner notes. I love liner notes, and some of my favourite musical memories are pouring over those little booklets explaining what each song or tune was about, or where it had come from, and what the words were.
We’re incredibly grateful for every copy of Cuan sold, and it means a lot to us when people connect with the music, we’d love to be able to give more back - including real liner notes. Although Apple, Amazon and others are making it easier to include downloadable PDF notes when you buy an album, it doesn’t feel quite the same.
So instead, we’re going to try something a little different, and write some collaborative liner notes, track by track, and put the results online, on my blog, on Colleen’s Facebook wall, and maybe some other places. As we go on with this experiment, hopefully it will become a conversation, and if you have any questions about any of the music that we’ve recorded - feel free to ask and we’ll try to cover it.
And with that, here’s our first liner note, for our first track, on our first duo album.
Track 1: Belfast Mountains (4:32)
It being on the banks of Claudy, I heard a maid complain
Setting forth her lamentation, down by yon purling stream
Saying here am I confined in the constant binds of love
All for a handsome sailor boy who did inconstant prove
And oh you Belfast Mountains can you bring me no relief
Have you got no tongue to flatter with or ease me of my grief
Have you got no tongue to flatter with or ease me of my pain
For it’s hard to love an old sweetheart and not be loved again
She twined her arms around my neck just as we were going to part
She twined her arms around my neck saying ‘you’re my own sweetheart.”
She twined her arms around my neck like the branches on yon vine
Saying “Jamie, cruel Jamie, you have broke this heart of mine.”
“Oh may you never prosper, oh may you never thrive
In any job you take in hand just as long as you’re alive.
On the very ground where on you walk, may grass refuse to grow
For you’re the provocation of my sad grief and woe.”
I learned this song at Colm’s suggestion when we first started playing as a duo and it’s remained one of the most challenging as well as one of the most fun to perform. As a singer, the lyrics to a song are as important, if not more important at times, than the melody… and this melody is no joke.
In three, seemingly simple verses the protagonist takes us through the scope of her emotional response. I considered, at one point, replacing the final verse with something less bitter, because it seemed too harsh and too direct. In the end I left it, recognizing that the depth of that emotion is the impetus for her pleas to the mountains in the first place. For such a beautiful song, it is unbelievably tragic.
I’ve always found it easy to feel at home in Belfast, it has a mix of the familiar from both Dublin and London, and Belfast people are naturally welcoming. Walking around Donegal st. or Victoria, the hills let you know where you are, east one way, west the other.
I say hills because Belfast, like the rest of Ireland, doesn’t have any real mountains, just some very impressive hills. From the centre of Belfast, you can see the looming Black hills with their communications towers and police station, letting you know where West Belfast is. To the east, you can see Prince of Wales avenue; a long boulevard built into a ski-jump-steep hillside, a skewed catwalk stretched in front of the Stormont estate, its function mostly to impress.
The hills reflect the city back to itself. If you feel at home, they are a cradle. If you feel at a loss, betrayed and in despair, like the protagonist in this song, then they perfectly frame the cold dispassionate mirror of a glassy Belfast lough and a Northern Irish sky. Hills can’t provide any comfort for any amount of pain contained within.
This has long been a favourite song of mine, for its simple plain story and raw feeling and a driving melody. I first heard it in a recording from the Belfast band Craobh Rua, but have found a number of other versions over the years. It’s a deceptively difficult song to sing, it’s hard enough to convey despair and anger at once, but harder still to also weave the melody as it mounts the tension note by note. But since we first started playing it, it’s been a crowd pleaser, thanks to Colleen’s delivery.
Here we play the song in F, on DADGAD tuned Goodall guitar, and GCGCG tuned Fylde Cittern.