Martin Donnelly at FiF

Martin DonnellyOne of the many treats from last years Bonn Folk Club was an appearance by Martin Donnelly.  Folk Club Chairman John Harrison was so impressed that he took the next available opportunity to catch the Irish troubador on tour in Bonn.   FiF (Folk in Feuerschlösschen) Bad Honnef was the location, with an added bonus in the form of superlative guitarist Annette Degenhardt from Mainz.

Martin Donnelly and Annette Degenhardt concert Wednesday 08.05.2013

FiF Folk in Feurschlösschen, Bad Honnef

I must admit, even I was expecting an unusual duo on the night, a match made, well, where, I thought? Both of the performers shared a great love of music and also of Erin, the green emerald isle. In the case of Annette Degenhardt it was perhaps a love of Ireland, shared and inherited from her talented mother, as a tranquil cultural antipode to an ever more hectic post WW II German “economic wonder”, and in the case of Martin Donnelly, perhaps it was more of a love of such a beautiful place he felt most fortunate to call his home and birthright.

It was, however, not to be a duet, but it was a canny match of two separate concerts, by two separate performers, an idea hatched solely in the head of the equally canny Jutta Mensing, who is the brains and pumping heart and soul and smiling visage behind the dozen or more folk concerts which occur each year in the small town of Bad Honnef on the east bank of the river Rhine, just to the south east of Bonn, with such amazing regularity and of such consistent good quality that even WDR radio send their ears and microphones along once or twice a year to record and broadcast the shows. Jutta feels passionate, and deservedly proud, about her events and travels with unflagging resolve, promoting her concerts in every possible live music performing nook and cranny of the region, like a gleeful, fly posting, folk-crazed Banksy. In addition to these very well attended concerts, Jutta also runs a monthly session for musicians entitled “dusty instruments” where any musician of any genre can come along and play and/or sing informally on the third Friday evening of the month, with whoever else happens to be there on the night.

No human is infallible, however, and Mr Donnelly is having problems with his surname. Already a printing error has him billed out on the FiF six monthly flyer as Martin “Nnelly” (which in British folk circles can only possibly refer to the Bolton Bullfrog aka Bernard Wrigley’s rendering of the dear old elephant called “Nelly”

and this evening dear Jutta is also suffering from a most severe mixture of hay fever mixed with lurgy induced influenza and she makes the almost fatal mistake in the introduction of pronouncing “Donnelly” as “Donnelli” with the emphasis clearly on the last rather than the first syllable. Martin is not fluent in German but he knows his own name well enough to feel the need to intervene, that he is certainly not an Italian, but both deeply and passionately Irish, and the emphasis in the pronunciation of his surname belongs clearly on the “Don”. Now there are several people in Ireland who trace their ancestry back to the shipwrecked sailors of the Spanish Armada of 1588 who could take the “Don” to be a prefix for a Spanish nobleman or gentleman. Personally, I think Martin is a very old soul indeed and the “Don” in his name probably refers to the old Celtic goddess of this name, who was the mother of Gwydion and Arianhad.

Annette Degenhardt is an entirely unknown entity to me, but I’ve known Jutta long enough now to trust her musical judgement more implicitly than her very, very occasional English mispronunciation. Annette is obviously the very talented child of a very talented mother, Gertrude Degenhardt, who is a very gifted painter and illustrator, who thankfully took her daughter with her each year on holiday to Ireland. Her uncle Franz Josef was also, amongst many other things, a very talented singer/songwriter. So she comes from a family steeped in musical and artistic tradition, with a deep love of Ireland.

The Spanish concert guitar, the foot stool rest for the left foot and the guitar rested on the left thigh whilst seated, prepares the listener partly for what awaits. Annette puts the capo on the second fret and launches into “Back O’ the North Wind” in DADGAD tuning and blows us a way with a most passionate rendering of the Scottish emigrant song, which also helps us to understand Martin’s previous earlier vocal intervention during the introduction. The European emigrants from Europe to North America in the 19th and 20th Centuries, so many of whom came from the Celtic fringes of the British Isles, often had little more with them than the clothes they stood up in, and their own good names, when they took a collective very deep breath and then sailed off into a hopefully better, but still, very much unknown future.

In her own composition “Leben / Life” she lets her classical guitar training out of its straight jacket and gives it musical life and wings. On her own instrumental composition, “No Midges Today” in dropped D tuning, one can feel those pesky mosquitoes which are the bane of any decent Scottish, Irish or Scandinavian summer with close proximity to water. Annette’s classical training on the guitar shows through in her wondrous dexterity and guitar virtuosity.

I was expecting Annette to be good on the guitar, but she further amazes me with the unexpected power of her voice, whether in English or in Gaelic or even in French as in Edith Piaf’s “Sous Le Ciel De Paris”. This is followed by her delightful instrumental composition “Muse-Musette” taken from her CD of the same name. Annette has a prodigious output of CDs stretching into double figures so she has an enormous and varied repertoire from which to select her songs and tunes for us this evening. In addition she has published five volumes of beautifully illustrated, hand written musical notation. This evening she had also given us “O’Carolan’s Concerto” on the whistle, so we certainly were not short changed as she gave us “Song For Ireland”, in dropped D with the capo at the third fret, as an encore and a baton reaching piece for Martin to grab in the second half after the break.

Annette Degenhardt - c.J.Harrison (2013)

Annette Degenhardt – c.J.Harrison (2013)

Martin Donnelly strides into the second half with ten league boots, like a man not just singing for Ireland, but for mankind. It’s almost like he’s finding the baton, whilst half looking for the gauntlet. A quiet, observant and reflective man with a vision and a view, which is seldom found today. It’s almost exactly a year since I last saw him and heard his songs in the monthly Bonn folk club in Graurheindorf , just to the north of Bonn. We jointly recall beforehand how spring is at least 20 days late this year and the swifts which dominated the skies twelve month’s  prior, are now noticeable indeed by their current absence.

It’s a mark of the consummate performer that Martin is, that he elects, just before his own performance this evening  to give the sound engineer the rest of the evening off, and he presents his set completely unplugged and unamplified and we are able to listen to Martin’s excellently crafted songs in the very same way they were written and how they are certainly best heard performed. In an increasingly electrical and electronic world in which we exist this “simple” pleasure seems to be ever more difficult to find and enjoy. Martin instantly recognises that in a hall with naturally good acoustics and 50-60 people, sat closely huddled together and intently keen on listening, this should be the natural default setting, but unfortunately, seldom is today. Well done for that Martin, if only more performers had your courage, experience and faith in your audience. Never one to miss a joke he, incorrectly, tells the audience, tongue in cheek, that he begged and pleaded for a microphone, but they wouldn’t give one to a poor Irish peasant like himself. Nice one Martin. I understood both the joke and the gesture and your music.

Martin’s songs are about nature and love, and echo his own particular love of nature. “Rathlin Island” is  the start of this tour around Martin’s northern Irish homeland, his own hinterland and the heart of his very mind. “but the rhythm of my soul, is with the tidal ebb and flow, of seasons, for reasons, deeper than we know, where the elemental powers still are strong, of something, that somehow we’ve lost along the way.”. The farmers on Rathlin Island were “fortunately” so poor that they couldn’t afford to apply pesticides to their agricultural land and so the buzzard population there were not as decimated, being close to the top of the food chain, as was the case on the mainland and this has provided the possibility for buzzards to now thankfully re-establish themselves once more on Ireland from the Raithlin Island gene pool. Martin tells us, only half jokingly, that this song has inspired many people to visit Rathlin Island and it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if The Irish Tourist Board were to “sponsor” him for his services to tourism. Thinking about it, he probably has am eminently valid point, as whatever they are currently spending their allocated promotional funds on, they would have to spend an awful lot in an attempt to come close to the wonderfully descriptive finely crafted songs about the Irish countryside and its flora and fauna which seem to flow so effortlessly from Martin Donnelly’s musical quill.

“Flute Of Ebony” recalls a skylark above his head and swifts a screaming, and,

“reels that send you spinning and airs that make you sigh”. It’s all about a now time encapsulated red-haired 19 year old girl, his first love, when he was with a capo on the 4th fret, about a music festival in County Tyrone in 1976, and has a haunting ear-worm of a melody.

“The Hunger In Their Eyes” tells about the hunger not just of the wolf, but perhaps more of the werewolf, about the dangerous love of a person who can never be satiated and some people, including Martin can never give them enough, so that “I could never feed the hunger in your eyes”. Martin’s known a few people like this in his time, but thankfully he reassures us that there’s no one in the audience tonight with this particular trait.


“Bright Star” is a song about hope, a candle burning for a loved one representing the love that we all cherish for soon to be, long loved departing souls. This is a song about this ritual of lighting a candle which Martin himself followed when his father was very ill, “while it burns there may be some hope, your love unyielding, your presence healing,” and which enabled both  the love and hope to be thus channelled into a bright star, bright enough, to be followed home.

“Now The Swallows Are Away” is a lament about migratory swallows leaving Ireland to spend winter in southern Africa but are thankfully replaced by migratory wild geese leaving their bearable Arctic summer homes to winter in the, relative for them, warmer climes of Ireland.

“Moon On The Water” is really a country blues with a Celtic feel, a love song tracking the lost love, “the moon on the water” Martin’s always been a seeker and “Whitepark Bay” is a wonderful descriptive song about nature which would also be suitable for sponsorship from the tourist board. It was actually written in Germany on an earlier tour when he was feeling homesick for the gannets and the Eider ducks, whose warm down feathers support a local duvet industry, and the flowers on the dunes. “I just called to tell you, I’d like to see your smile, the first week of June with the violets flowering on the dunes.”

“The Green Man” is probably the song that Martin Donnelly is best known for, and one of the reasons why it is so difficult to write about him. He’s simply as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you can nail this mystic creature and natural ideal, universally represented by a male head surrounded by foliage, but which may be just a loose twirl of leaves in a woodland clearing to some and yet the very quintessence of all renewable life forms to others, “the spark in every creature’s heart”, then one can safely say that someone has truly cut their song writing spurs. So hats off to Martin for honing this beauty of a song. “ I am the fire in the red stag’s eye, the touch of a lover’s hand.” This primaeval life force vastly predates all modern religions, but has accompanied mankind’s hopes and fears ever since Homo sapiens once got up and bravely left southern Africa. Perhaps this initial migration itself was a sign of man’s insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge as these early humans went to follow the local winter swallows to see where they went to in summer? As these people gradually exchanged their previous hunter-gathering lifestyle to become agriculturalists in the Euphrates valley, before dispersing all over Europe, they became more, rather than less, reliant upon the continuous returning natural power of the Green Man to support them each year.

You can learn more about the Green Man on Mike Harding’s webpage here:

“Daddy Will You Run” is a song with which all parents can associate at one time or another, particularly busy fathers and childish daughters who may often have completely different agendas and totally different concepts of time. “Blackmail”, in however mild a form, should never be condoned, but any adult who tries it on a child normally receives their well deserved comeuppance against the irrefutably superior logic of a child. Martin tries to cajole his daughter Kate into joining him on a long walk, which he foolishly refers to as his necessary “medicine” after an illness, to which she astutely replies that the river in which she has been resolutely playing for the last few hours is her medicine, before finally challenging him, not to his longed for walk, but to a run along the beach.

Martin Donnelly - c.John Harrison

Martin Donnelly – c.John Harrison

Most people still send Christmas cards at Christmas, but if you’re lucky enough to be a friend of Martin Donnelly, he might just send you an MP3 file of a song he wrote called “The Robin”. The song reveals the true harsh winter realities facing this most iconic of Christmas symbols, the humble resplendent robin. You can read the lyrics here and wonder at Martin’s observational powers and his deep understanding of nature and willingness to depict it truthfully:

If you were at the concert you would have also been able to marvel at his own whistling impressions of the robin’s song.

Martin Donnelly is like John Clare with a guitar, and what a wonderfully descriptive country poet John Clare was. What a fine guitar it is that Martin plays too, a Lowden rosewood S25 from the Irish luthier George Lowden with a power in the middle to low range which belies its relatively small size.

He is an old soul, a man who feels deeply happy with a skylark flying high overhead and the sounds of swifts screeching around his head in summer, whilst walking in the countryside. In an increasingly urbanised world it is a pleasure to meet someone who, like John Clare centuries before, could instantly tell the difference between a swift and a swallow and who knows that the wonderful melodic songbird, the lark, flying so high overhead as to be invisible to the naked human eye, will spend the night, nesting in the grass, on the damp ground perhaps only a few feet away from where he is currently standing, or near where a female hare may be sheltering her leverets for the night and that self same hare, may have to run for her life to outpace a hungry fox in the morning before breakfast.

There’s simplicity, and there’s a genius there, in uncommonly equal portions.

With Martin Donnelly’s songs you don’t hear the Bach inspired riffs, runs and trills which permeate a lot of Annette’s wonderful guitar accompaniments, nor is he continuously re-tuning his guitar into fancy tunings, but what you do hear with Martin, is the same sort of essence of the wonderment of nature’s very own soul, that would have initially inspired Johan Sebastian to produce such wonderful music.

Martin Donnelly is quite a private person, you’ll not find a lot about him on the internet, much in contrast to Sarah McQuaid, who was the last performer I reviewed here in Bad Honnef back in March. She seems to take almost the exact opposite approach and puts all of the full audio content of her last CDs, as well as over 30 music videos of her performing live, into the public domain herself, in the hope that the loss of potential CD sales will in the short term be compensated for by future performing revenues, particularly at large events such as festivals, in the long term. All the jury, judges, lawyers and consultants and legislators will probably be sitting out for several decades still as to what is, or was, or will be, the correct approach this can of modern musical ear-worms. Suffice to say, you can order Martin Donnelly’s CDs here:

To return to the real world, if you have the chance to see Martin Donnelly live in concert, do grasp it, you will be well rewarded. This particular evening we had a dozen of his very best own songs and while he had many more good ones still sitting on the reserve bench such as “My Father’s Coat” and “Kall’s Song”, to mention but two, Martin for the first time in the evening, as if in recognition of the fact that he is not especially noted for writing “sing along songs”, does a cover, and for his final encore he reaches into the large trunk of “songs by other people “ which up until now, has been left unopened, and gives us a fine rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme”, with audience participation on a grand scale. I couldn’t find a version by Martin on YouTube, but here is a version of this traditional Scottish song from several musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, a few of whom you may recognise:

I think you will agree, it is an excellent parting song to go home by, even if Martin didn’t write this particular one himself.

So another wonderful concert organised by Jutta Mensing, even if the audience was a little smaller than on my previous visits, due to the potential four day extended weekend ahead and people taking the opportunity to travel away.

During the break I chanced to meet a Scotsman who was very proud of the FiF’s tradition of mounting annual concerts of the Scottish folk group, “The McCalmans” over the years, up until their retirement from performing in 2010. Rightly proud too, I remember seeing them perform at the weekly folk club held in the Derby Rugby Club in 1976. Well, your correspondent happens to know that Ian McCalman, who was both the backbone and name spender of the trio, is still very active on the folk scene and this year has been producing a new CD for Simon Kempston, so perhaps we may see in future in Bad Honnef a reconnected link to the “McCalmans” again, and one of Scotland’s most talented new singer/songwriters and musically addicted DADGAD finger picking guitar virtuoso treading the boards next year promoting his new CD bearing an Ian McCalman stamp upon it?

Whatever the future holds it’s always a very great joy to hear live music, and an extra special joy, when it is both original and truly acoustic live music of such high quality as we have heard this evening. So, many thanks again to you Jutta and your team in Bad Honnef for making this all possible, and putting on such a wonderful double bill this evening.  A  special thanks to Annette Degenhardt, for enabling me to listen to something new, and to Martin Donnelly for simply being.

In the famous words of Dick Gaughan from the 19th Century folk song he sings of the same name:   “Erin Go Bragh”.

You can also catch Martin live in Rheinbach this June at the Irishes-Kulturfestival

– John Harrison

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