While I’m not overly familiar with Celtic traditions or music, there was a lot for me to love about Jillian LaDage’s new album, The Ancestry. In the introduction, LaDage writes that her music explores the nature of remembrance, and both locates and preserves a kind of pan-Celtic “collective which resides in our memory.” In the CD booklet insert, each song’s lyrics are preceded by a short reverie, almost like a travel/research journal entry, dated by months in 2006, 2007, and 2008. I immediately felt kinship for LaDage’s project when I saw how the first song is introduced:
November 2006 Sweetheart Abbey, New Abbey, Scotland. The early morning mist rises as I walk these ancient grounds. I feel so keenly the presence of the modern age and yet I too see the pathways my ancestors left, the old ways that are never forgotten, where this kindling comes from within.
She goes on to tell the story of Devorgilla, Lady of Galloway, who established the Cistercian Abbey in 1272 in memory of her husband John. A rather unforgettable narrative, this past August it attracted me, too, to visit the admittedly misty abbey near the southwest coast of Scotland. The song was not actually one of my favorite four songs from the album, perhaps because of how unfamiliar I am with the sad sounds of the Uilleann pipes, but noting the synchronicity between cultural/geographical influences LaDage and I have tapped was a treat.
I most loved the middle songs, and this was partly due to my excitement at recognizing track four, a familiar traditional song, “Bonny was the Lady" (The Legend of Cong). I ultimately gained the deepest appreciation for the songs that followed, “Manzikert” and “Vanished Secrets.” In fact, I was mesmerized by their ethereal, timelessly feminine charm. I felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of a film in the same genre and of the same scope as The Lord of the Rings. LaDage's voice has incredible allure and purity, and as the cover picture suggests, she even plays harp (plus piano or keyboards) on several tracks.
There were songs I didn’t enjoy as much, but in trying to experience them fully, I found other things to savor about The Ancestry. For example, in the liner notes of “Eve of Night,” we see that LaDage was inspired by the following translation of Medieval Irish text from the gospel of Thomas, which she relates to the sometimes desperate character of Celtic migration:
“O King of the starry sky, Lest thou from me withdraw Thy light—Whether my house be dark or bright, My door shall close on none tonight."
Perhaps I found the song’s background more beautiful than the slow and ballad-like song itself, but I was perfectly prepared for a shift when “Keltoi” began, in which LaDage plays harp in a lilting, softly tribal sounding instrumental. In turn, “Keltoi” (the “first literary reference made by Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus in 517 B.C. giving the Celtic peoples” a name) provides the perfect prologue to the final song on the album, “Endless Knot.” Her almost cooing earnestness in this song seems to evoke the longing of a boundless Celtic soul. It seems only fitting that The Ancestry ends where the voice, the compass, and then we, too, meet the wind. “There in the stillness meet the wind… There too we meet the wind.”
I would recommend this melodic selection of songs to anyone even tangentially interested in a Celtic cultural tradition or style of music. If occasionally the stories LaDage recounted felt too solemn to draw me in, they only served to underscore the transcendent beauty of her soaring voice at the close of each lyrical song.