No, this isn’t some tawdry tiff between critics. It’s quite innocent, in fact. And it has a happy ending or, at least, hints at one.
In my Oct. 12 “Ceol” column, entitled “Dearth of Irish Trad Music Criticism in Major Dailies,” I wrote about “a female critic who wrote regularly and well about Irish traditional music for a U.S. newspaper.” Without identifying her, I praised her writing as “good, combining an unclichéd, unimitative style, insight, humor in the service of elucidation rather than ego, research reaching back farther than the latest press release, and enthusiasm tempered by a reliable dung detector.” I also lamented the fact that she withdrew from writing regularly about Irish traditional music mainly because of inadequate pay.
A friend of hers, unknown to me, suspected her as the unnamed “female critic,” forwarded my Oct. 12 column to her, and asked pointblank: “Is this you?” Her subsequent e-mail to me stated: “I think that perhaps it is.”
In that Oct. 12 “Ceol” column I quoted JazzTimes and New York Times critic Nate Chinen about what he perceives to be a “perpetual shortage of influential female jazz critics.” I agreed with him, and I’ll add this here: The unnamed female critic I discussed in my column is, far and away, the most astute and accomplished U.S.-based female writer and critic about Irish traditional music. I know the gender qualification will ruffle some feathers out there, but it merely echoes Chinen’s gender-specific argument in jazz criticism. We need much more of what my unidentified female critic provides as an Irish traditional music journalist. I tried to make her see that and get her back into the fold.
Encouraging me was her admission that she has “a navel-gazing blog” with an identity-cloaking title allowing her to “keep on writing.” Out of respect for her nom de blog, I will not divulge its name, but I did check it out. Her October 15 blog entry, “Keep moving, people,” contained her response to my column. She wrote: “He said I left because it didn’t pay enough. That’s partly true. I was doing too many freelance things, journalism paid the least, and something had to go. But I also left for another reason: the anxiety. I loved writing, but I constantly found myself wondering, with each opinion article I put out, ‘Who the hell do I think I AM, anyway?’ I’m not Irish, I’m relatively new to the field (only ten years or so), and I felt uncomfortable about taking a stand, about putting myself in the position of judge, about telling the world too much about what I think, as if they care. And yet, opinionated was what I was getting paid for.”
That honest statement essentially qualifies her as a critic. All critics should be susceptible to doubts about their “position of judge.” I am.
Still, I won’t back down from the imperative of my task: To tell readers what I think, what I like, and what I don’t like, based on hopefully attuned ears, accurate research, and unpinched, unbiased taste informed by decades of close listening.
I confess I stumble at times. So will she. It comes with the territory. But to avoid the responsibility of weighing in with an opinion is to break a precious covenant with readers, who want to know about an album or book: Is it worth my time and money? If you fail to answer that question explicitly or implicitly, you fail miserably at your job as critic. So stick your neck out and state your opinion. Let readers decide if you’re serving wisdom or shoveling witlessness.
Stephen Holden, a long-term scribe at the New York Times, is notorious for describing, not reviewing, live music with which he’s apparently unfamiliar, such as Irish traditional music. In those instances, he’s a critic-manque.
My unnamed female critic is a musician, and so are two men I believe would also make fine Irish traditional music critics. One is in his twenties; the other is in his forties. Their judgments about Irish trad are knowledgeable, reliable, perceptive, and frank to the point of provocative–in private. I encouraged both to become formal critics, and both said no. Neither wants to risk the wrath of fellow musicians.
Every so often I’ll encounter a major newspaper critic I admire who defaults to description rather than writes a true critique. This happened recently, and I sent the critic’s review of an Irish traditional recording to my resistant, 20-something candidate for critic to get his reaction. This was his reply: “Interesting how it’s an ‘album review’ but he carefully steers clear of any kind of judgment. Hard to tell if he liked it or not. I’d guess he rates it a 6 or 7 out of 10. It’s as if he found an angle … and wrote a research paper on it.”
I could not agree more with that assessment, and the more tantalizing question, left unanswered, is: Why did this major newspaper critic not express an opinion? Was it fear of hurting the career of an otherwise talented performer struggling to be heard in a difficult music marketplace?
In his outstanding memoir “Boston Boy,” renowned jazz critic and fellow Wall Street Journal contributor Nat Hentoff regrets panning an album made decades ago by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in Down Beat magazine, where, Hentoff noted, “a negative review … could mightily injure sales, and feelings.” When Desmond, probably best known for his hugely popular composition “Take Five,” died from cancer at age 52 on May 30, 1977, Hentoff admitted that “the album I gave only a couple of stars to years before wasn’t all that bad, come to think of it, as I often do.”
Have I ever regretted panning an album? Certainly I have lost several musician friends because of my negative critiques. But my regrets coalesce around how I occasionally expressed my criticism rather than what I criticized. I made it a point to apologize to one musician for a regrettable turn of phrase I used. “I needed the kick in the ass,” he said. In that moment, we surprised each other.
I have also stunned some of my toughest skeptics among musicians with positive reviews, upending any assumption that animus animates my negative critiques. One skeptical musician told me: “I felt sure you were going to trash my album.” I replied: “It’s terrific. My job is to say so.” For me, the core question from readers keeps recurring: Is it worth my time and money?
You, the readers, judge my judgments. If I am found wanting, you won’t read them, and posterity–the most unforgiving critic of all–will ensure my writing is forgotten. That’s the way it should be.
Founded in 1963 and currently the second-largest Catholic university in New England (Boston College is first), Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, was the site of the Nov. 4-6 Irish Music and Dance Weekend. It was sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s Northeast Regional Board and hosted by SHU’s Center for Irish Cultural Studies under the direction of Dr. Gerald Reid, a professor of anthropology there.
The weekend at SHU began with a four-hour ceili on Friday night and ended with a three-hour ceili on Sunday. On Saturday morning and afternoon were music and dance workshops.
From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 5, I attended the CCE Northeast Region’s hall of fame inductions of Boston-born fiddler Brendan Bulger, a former student of Seamus Connolly and winner of a 1990 All-Ireland title; Miltown Malbay-born Mary Burke, a founding member of CCE’s Burke-Curry-Seery branch; Leitrim native Pat Stratton, a member of CCE’s P.V. O’Donnell branch; the late Jack Pendergast, born in Syracuse, N.Y., and former CCE Northeast Region chairman; and London-born John Whelan, a seven-time All-Ireland button accordion champion who founded the P.V. O’Donnell branch in 2001. The hall of fame ceremony for all five was very moving.
In introducing John Whelan at his induction, I cited a number of tunes he wrote and named for people, such as “Louise” (for his wife), “Ian’a Return to Ireland” (for his student Ian Carney, who won an All-Ireland button accordion title in 1987), and “Bob’s Garden of Earthly Delights” (for his late father-in-law). I explained that people matter to John more than things or places. I also described an occasion where John, seeing a clearly depressed man in a crowded pub, went up to him and played a few tunes to cheer him up. It revealed John’s character, a side of him that often goes unnoticed or unnoted.
I had the additional pleasure of emceeing the Saturday night all-star concert in Sacred Heart University’s attractive Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts. Entitled “The Journey Continues,” the concert celebrated both the 60th anniversary of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and the official change in name of CCE’s Milford branch to the P.V. O’Donnell branch, honoring the fiddler from Inishowen, Donegal, who became a fixture in Hartford, Connecticut, and passed away on January 28, 2011.
First on the Edgerton Center stage were fiddler Jeanne Freeman, who studied with P.V. O’Donnell; button accordionist Loretta Egan Murphy; mandolinist and guitarist Claudine Langille, formerly of Touchstone, a band led by Triona Ni Dhomhnaill; and pianist Brendan Dolan. They set an enviable standard of proficiency for the concert.
Following them were CCE Northeast Region hall of fame inductees Brendan Bulger on fiddle and John Whelan on button accordion, backed by Anna Colliton on bodhran and Flynn Cohen on guitar. All four delivered tunes with crisp energy and expertise.
What also distinguished their set was the official renaming of CCE’s Milford branch to the P.V. O’Donnell branch. Marion O’Donnell, P.V.’s widow, was invited up on stage to receive flowers.
The next group of performers was something of an experiment: two flutists, Brendan Dolan and Christel Rice Astin, and bodhran player Anna Colliton. That combination of instruments is rare, but it worked well. The flutes entwined effortlessly, and Colliton’s bodhran playing, often subtle and nuanced, became an ideal complement.
Jerry O’Sullivan did a solo on uilleann pipes afterward. His reputation for utter concentration and exemplary chanter and regulator work was affirmed by his performance. He is one of the most captivating pipers in the world.
A duo representing a seamless match of chops and sensibility and, in fact, one-half of the acclaimed quartet Pride of New York, fiddler Brian Conway and pianist Brendan Dolan were the final scheduled performers before intermission. The last American to win the All-Ireland senior fiddle championship (in 1986), Conway uncannily climbs in virtuosity with each public performance. His bowing was absolutely brilliant. Dolan was equal in impact, playing chords in beautifully controlled support while inserting brief, delicate, improvisatory touches that enhanced the music. It was sheer magic, and coming out to join the duo later in their set were John Whelan, Jerry O’Sullivan, Anna Colliton, and Flynn Cohen.
After intermission, Connemara-born sean-nos singer Bridget Fitzgerald, who was on the 1985 Shanachie album “Cherish the Ladies” preceding the formation of the band Cherish the Ladies, sang two unaccompanied songs with stirring conviction.
The concert ended with a massing onstage of all the night’s performers as well as several guests, including Brian Conway’s nine-year-old, budding phenom fiddle student, Haley Richardson, harper Regina Delaney, and local balladeer Danny Ringrose, who sang an original song in tribute to P.V. O’Donnell. It was a fitting finale for a memorable night of music that overflowed into a late-night ceili.
Credit for organizing the concert goes to John Whelan, who lives in nearby Milford, Connecticut. His positive impact on the entire weekend was readily apparent and demonstrated just how valuable an asset he could be within Sacred Heart University’s Center for Irish Cultural Studies guided by Professor Gerald Reid, whose vision and work for the center impressed me.
SHU itself is one of the few U.S. universities now offering an undergraduate, interdisciplinary minor in Irish Studies requiring at least one three-credit, immersive course in its “SHU in Ireland” program. The latter is in partnership with the Diseart Institute of Education and Celtic Culture in the gaeltacht of Dingle, County Kerry, where SHU students reside and learn.
Also, the 16 undergraduate courses in Irish Studies offered at SHU in Fairfield, Conn., include “Introduction to Traditional Irish Music” and “Introduction to Irish Language.” And part of SHU’s outreach to the nearby Irish-American community features cooperation with Fairfield’s Gaelic-American Club for selected events, as well as Tuesday evening sessions on campus by the Shamrogues, a group of regional musicians linked to the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society.
It’s clear that Sacred Heart University and its Center for Irish Cultural Studies have already made significant strides in establishing a first-rate Irish academic and cultural presence in Fairfield and Dingle. November 5 was my first visit to SHU. It will not be my last. Everything I saw and heard there radiated promise.
Dana Lyn at Caffe Vivaldi
Dana Lyn, a gifted Irish traditional fiddler who’s often performed with Mick Moloney, and guitarist Kyle Sanna have recorded an excellent new album, “The Hare Said a Prayer to the Rainbow and Followed the Fox Down the Hole.” Lyn and Sanna will hold a CD release concert at 8:30 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 23, at Caffe Vivaldi, 32 Jones St. (off Bleecker St. and near 7th Ave.), New York, NY 10014. There is no cover charge. Call 212-691-7538 for more information
As a parochial elementary-school student, I had to memorize this passage spoken by Portia in Act IV, Scene I, of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
We are all constantly bombarded with requests for donations to any number of good and–let’s be frank–not so good causes. The line between generosity and naivete can be razor-thin, and to give generously to causes espousing altruism but practicing avarice goes beyond naivete. It’s myopically succumbing to swindle.
One cause beyond reproach is the Mercy Centre. Aptly named, it is located in Bangkok, where the misery of poverty has lately been compounded by destructive floods sweeping through Thailand. The Mercy Centre selflessly serves the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick in Bangkok’s slums.
Nonprofit and intentionally nondenominational, the Mercy Centre was founded in 1973 by Father Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest who takes his vocation seriously and acts on it each day. Though he would undoubtedly resist such a characterization, Father Joe is a throwback to the religious I used to read about as a schoolchild, such as Father Damien aiding lepers in Hawaii during the 19th century. Though he would object again, Father Joe shares the missionary fervor of Mother Teresa, whose commitment to relief for the indigent of Calcutta was admired worldwide.
Father Joseph Maier is not a figure of vaulting global reputation, nor would he seek it-unless, and only unless, it would help the impoverished and infirmed of Bangkok.
The list of good works and genuine charity by the Mercy Centre is long and ever-lengthening. It includes more than 180 abandoned, orphaned, trafficked, or HIV-infected children finding shelter, food, medicine, and other care there; more than 3,000 children, ages 3 to 6, getting a woefully needed education in 26 preschools; 100 patients getting annual assistance in an adult hospice called the Bridge of Hope Caring Centre; and over 10,000 homes built, repaired, or renovated for the elderly and poverty-stricken.
What about the poor, the abused, the neglected, the uneducated, the homeless, the hungry, the long-term unemployed, and the desperately ill in the United States? Shouldn’t we first take care of those in greatest need here rather than there?
I fully understand those two questions, and I remain mystified why our federal, state, and local governments–even when flush with money–fail so miserably in responding to them. According to John 12:8, “The poor will always be with you.” It’s a biblical passage cited too often by pompous pols and Zelig-like zealots as an excuse to ignore the poor. The ubiquity of the indigent makes them invisible, and their voicelessness and powerlessness in the political arena make them easy to overlook and, unconscionably, to denigrate. Punishing the poor for being poor (“I’m rich, why aren’t you?” is the current mantra of Mammon) and otherwise re-victimizing victims have shamefully become economic and political sport in the U.S.
In an open letter I received from musician Donie Carroll, who is organizing a gala fundraising concert entitled “In Partnership with the Poor” for the Mercy Centre on Nov. 14 at Manhattan’s Irish Repertory Theatre, he wrote: “I close in the hope that you will give this [fundraiser for the Mercy Centre] favorable consideration even though we know in our hearts you do have your own favorite charities.”
Perhaps you give exclusively to a favorite stateside charity. If so, bravo. Any act of charity deserves encouragement during these tough times.
But if the daunting daily challenges faced by Bangkok’s Mercy Centre persuade you to support it additionally, know that “every penny earned will go directly to the Mercy Centre,” emphasizes Donie Carroll, who for the past three years has been quietly raising money for it on his own. Mary Cahill, a UNICEF veteran, is involved in coordinating this fundraising that extends to outright donations.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, and producing director, Ciaran O’Reilly, have offered their venue rental-free for the Nov. 14 fundraising concert. The musicians, dancers, and writers are all donating their services without fee. In addition to Donie Carroll, they include Mick Moloney, Brian Conway, Brendan Dolan, Mattie and Deirdre Connolly, Girsa, Black 47 bandleader and fellow Irish Echo columnist Larry Kirwan, Athena Tergis, Gabriel Donohue, author Colum McCann, and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, featuring Dan Neely, who is helping with the publicity for the concert. Some special guests are also expected.
This “In Partnership with the Poor” benefit concert for the Mercy Centre will take place at 8 p.m. on Mon., Nov. 14, at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011. For tickets or other information, contact Donie Carroll at 917-723-7488 or email@example.com, or Dan Neely at 646-270-1172 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can’t attend, consider a direct donation via Mary Cahill at 718-545-9554 or email@example.com.
The opportunity to act with mercy for Mercy is at hand.
John Doyle in concert
Founding member of Solas, current member of the Green Fields of America, former music director and member of Joan Baez’s band, and half of a notable duo with fiddler Liz Carroll who earned a Grammy nomination for their 2009 album “Double Play,” Dublin-born, Asheville, N.C., resident John Doyle has also bloomed as a triple-threat solo singer, songwriter, and guitarist. His new solo CD, “Shadow and Light,” on Compass Records is his third solo release overall.
To promote his new album, John Doyle will be performing solo at 8 p.m., Thurs., Nov. 10, in the Turning Point, 468 Piermont Ave., Piermont, NY 10968 (845-359-1089); with fiddler Duncan Wickel at 8:30 p.m., Sat., Nov. 12, in Wilde Auditorium, U. of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, CT 06117 (800-274-8587 or 860-768-4228); and solo on Thurs., Nov. 17, in a house concert sponsored by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society in Fairfield, Conn. (For exact time and location, call 203-256-8453 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Duncan Wickel, Doyle’s concert partner on Nov. 12, is a former member of the Red Wellies trio and the Hay Brigade quartet. The latter comprised Wickel, Dan Gurney (son of “Dinotopia” series author James Gurney) on button accordion, Forrest O’Connor (son of famed fiddler Mark O’Connor) on mandolin, and Nicky Schwartz on bass. They self-issued a downloadable debut album of eight tracks in Nov. 2010. Dan Gurney did the design.
Rarely, if ever, have I witnessed a concert as bold, varied, beautiful, funny, poignant, and profane as “Other Voices New York City,” sponsored by Imagine Ireland, the Irish-arts-in-America initiative under the aegis of Culture Ireland, whose visionary CEO is Eugene Downes. Ed Sullivan, stiff-limbed host of a very popular “really big shew” on network television back in the 1960s that ranged from a talking Italian mouse named Topo Gigio to singers Robert Goulet and Robert Merrill, would have understood but probably blanched at this three-and-a-half concert with no break.
“Other Voices New York City” took place on Oct. 27 and 28 inside Le Poisson Rouge (translation: The Red Fish), a club whose reputation for new, experimental, or otherwise edgy entertainment and sometimes demimonde daring is now well established at 158 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. At the Oct. 27 concert that I attended, most of the performances were spellbinding.
Providing a framework of continuity for the evening were Cork-born, Kerry resident musician and producer Philip King (of “Bringing It All Back Home” and, in Dingle, “Other Voices” music series fame), Glen Hansard (of the Frames and the movie “Once” fame), and Thomas Bartlett, a/k/a Doveman, who, along with his good friend Sam Amidon, has been making a stir in the musical ferment now bubbling from Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan.
Many years ago, Solas fiddler Winifred Horan tipped me off to a Vermont-based band called Popcon Behavior, whose members included Bartlett and Amidon, and I was impressed by their inventive, then trad-steeped sound. Both Bartlett (keyboards, vocals), who is also a fine piano accordionist, and Amidon (guitar, fiddle, banjo, vocals), whose 2001 CD, “Solo Fiddle,” comprises 12 tracks of Irish tunes, are excellent players of Irish traditional music. Separately and collaboratively preoccupying the two musicians today, however, are composing and recording their own music.
On stage Bartlett and Clare-born fiddler Martin Hayes traded recollections of how they met. Hayes recalled a phone call from Bartlett about the possibility of setting up a concert for him in Vermont. When Hayes expressed interest, Bartlett said he’d have to ask permission from his mother. He was 12 years old at the time. And Bartlett recalled how he and his family essentially “stalked” Hayes around Ireland to catch as many concerts by the fiddler as they could during their visit.
Martin Hayes was in top form at Le Poisson Rouge. No doubt inspired by the array of other talent, he gave a mesmerizing performance of a long medley of Irish tunes, beginning slowly with “The Sailor’s Bonnet,” with each subsequent melody unfurling a little faster while Hayes confidently coaxed the audience into paying attention to the beauty of all the notes. Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, arguably Ireland’s most risk-taking traditional fiddler, played a fairly straight melody line to set into relief Hayes’s virtuosity, and Bartlett and Amidon accompanied. The generosity of O Raghallaigh in particular reinforced the concert’s atmosphere of harmony–not just musical but interpersonal. Le Poisson Rouge seemed to levitate as Hayes, O Raghallaigh, Bartlett, and Amidon performed together.
Beauty was also abundant in “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” a song composed by the late Kate McGarrigle, who died in January 2010 from cancer. Her daughter, Martha Wainwright (father is Loudon Wainwright III and brother is Rufus Wainwright), performed the song as a duet with Sam Amidon. It was heart-rending to hear the two delve into this tender song’s journey, both geographic and spiritual, from New York State to the Midwest to the Mountain States and finally to California: “Talk to me of Mendocino / Closing my eyes, I hear the sea / Must I wait, must I follow? / Won’t you say, ‘Come with me’?”
Armagh-born poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, who, as the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, has been bringing more Irish poets and their diverse verse to its pages, adroitly recited his poem “Bob Dylan at Princeton, November 2000.” Then Glen Hansard took the stage with Philip King on harmonica and the de facto house band of the night–Bartlett, Amidon, Brad Albetta (Wainwright’s husband) on bass, Doug Weiselman on sax, clarinet, and electric guitar (played bottleneck as well), and Ray Rizzo on drums–to deliver a scorching rendition of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
Another climactic musical moment came when Cork’s Iarla O Lionaird, an unsurpassed sean-nos singer, transfixed the audience with a song in Irish backed by a full band.
Other literary highlights this night included Glen Hansard reciting a Seamus Heaney poem, co-emcee Gabriel Byrne describing with hilarious detail his days as a struggling actor in Dublin, Colum McCann expertly reciting a passage from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and then some of his own work, Joseph O’Connor reading from his writing, and Roddy Doyle regaling the crowd with comic, incisive insights from his work.
During the concert, Ireland’s Glen Hansard never had less than a positive musical impact, supporting where needed, taking the reins where appropriate, and, in one strictly solo spot, singing a haunting new song on piano. Also from Ireland, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, two members from Bell X1, and the Lost Brothers (keep an eye out for this talented duo) performed with distinction. Only Ireland’s Jape, who I think partly relied on laptop programming for ambient background, fell below the night’s high standard with a vacuous, recursive pop song called “Scorpio.”
Unannounced guest performers included a vocalist named Trixie Whitley backing herself on a vintage Les Paul electric guitar as she sang one of her own songs with Bartlett adding piano accompaniment, and a duo of young women who sang their original material in fine twin harmony.
Damien Rice, whose recordings have sold in the millions, was also a surprise performer. Looking like a roadshow theater’s casting idea of Robinson Crusoe, Rice sang with an acoustic guitar and without a vocal microphone an original song that was very compelling.
But the strongest impact by an unannounced guest performer came from Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (the “Mx.” means “mix,” referring to gender self-identity), who wore an evening gown and sang two songs of protest: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” written by Tracy Chapman, and “Patriot’s Heart,” written by Mark Eitzel (of the band American Music Club). The concert was being filmed, and Mx. Bond asked if she/he could move around before launching into “Patriot’s Heart.” From his piano, Bartlett said, “You can move around,” and Mx. Bond did. The song is about a male stripper, and the lines convey the angst of disenfranchisement: “He says give me all your money and don’t tell me what you’re thinking / I’m the past you wasted and the future you’re obliterating.”
Benefiting from the proceeds of “Other Voices New York City” is “Fighting Words,” a creative-writing center and program co-founded by Roddy Doyle in Dublin in 2009. The goal of “Fighting Words” is to get Irish people of all ages, especially young students, to discover and develop their aptitude for writing. If they had attended this outstanding concert at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge, they would have heard how words work their unique magic with and without music.
What a night! Bravo, Culture Ireland!
“Poetry Fest 2011″ at IAC
Speaking of verse, I recommend you check out “Poetry Fest 2011,” taking place during Nov. 4-6 at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019. Featured poets include Nick Laird, Michael Longley, Dennis O’Driscoll, Leanne O’Sullivan, David Wheatley, and Sara Berkeley Tolchin. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.irishartscenter.org.
A touch of synchronicity antedated the all-star “A Tribute to Harrigan & Hart” concert at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on October 13.
At the same venue on September 24, violinist Tim Fain presented “Portals: A Multimedia Exploration of Longing in the Digital Age.” Allan Kozinn’s review of the performance in the September 27 New York Times began: “Musicians who grew up in the age of television and rock shows have become increasingly intent on replacing the stand-and-play recital format with technologically and conceptually fresher approaches.”
Like Fain’s conceptualization of “Portals,” Mick Moloney’s conceptualization of “A Tribute to Harrigan & Hart” incorporated multimedia. A large backdrop screen showed slides or photos of prominent people (Harrigan, Hart, Kitty O’Neill) and locales (the Bowery, Tony Pastor’s Opera House) related to the American musical theatrical productions in the late 19th century from Edward Harrigan (1844-1911), Anthony Hart (1855-1891), and/or David Braham (1834-1905). These images and Moloney’s commentary about them added significantly to the concert’s appeal.
What further distinguished Moloney’s presentation was his overall deft transformation of historical information into intellectual entertainment. Potentially stilted pedagogy turned into outright pleasure, and it was accomplished by merely sitting down on stage and asking a few selective questions of experts. The antithesis of the hopelessly inept, insufferably interruptive interviewer Charlie Rose on PBS-TV, Moloney in a relaxed, genial, succinct manner coaxed interesting responses from his guests.
They included David Mulkins, the chairman of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, and Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian, who together discussed with Moloney the rich heritage and vital cultural importance of the Bowery, where tap dance, streetcars, Yiddish theater, minstrelsy, and vaudeville (its notorious hook yanked tanking performers from the stage) initially took root. The efforts of Mulkins and Culhane led to the Bowery landing on the New York State Register of Historic Places, usually a precursor to landing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another guest expert interviewed on stage by Moloney was Maureen Murphy, a dean at Hofstra University, whose metier is the Irish Famine and, in particular, New York City’s Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided thousands of Irish immigrant women who mostly entered domestic service. When an archival photo of these young Irish women at the mission appeared on screen, Murphy told the audience: “These are your great-grandmothers.”
Music and dance during the concert were varied, well-executed, and sometimes overtly theatrical, befitting a tribute to Harrigan and Hart. None were more so than Poor Baby Bree (Bree Benton), who adopted a Bowery accent and swagger to sing and dance to such songs as the cleverly comic “The Bowery,” and Murray Callahan and Chris Simmons, a duo who at one point wore top hats and brandished U.S. and Irish flags as they performed.
Vince Giordano (playing tuba) and the Nighthawks, with Dana Lyn sitting in on violin, were superb, especially in “Patrick’s Day Parade.” They added period grace to this period homage.
Featuring Moloney, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Dolan, Athena Tergis, Joey Abarta, and Niall O’Leary, the Green Fields of America were a delight, delivering tunes, songs, or steps with crispness and ebullience.
Others who stood out this night included singer and concertinist John Roberts, whose rendition of “The Jolly Roving Tar” was exceptional; singer Liz Hanley; tap dancer Parker Hall; and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, led by Dan Neely on banjo and mandolin and also featuring Don Meade on harmonica and fiddle, Scott Spencer on flute, and Donie Carroll on vocals.
Toward the end, several descendants of the Harrigan, Hart, and Braham families came out on stage to be recognized. They joined the night’s performers for a rousing rendition of “The Mulligan Guards.” The song served as the capstone of Mick Moloney’s emergent new concert format, blending edification with enjoyment, and multimedia with live music and dance, all pointing to a fresh trend in Irish ensemble performance.
Great weekend of music and dance coming up in Conn
Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an ambitious, highly appealing Irish music and dance weekend has been organized by Milford, Conn., button accordionist John Whelan for Nov. 4-6 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Sponsoring this weekend are CCE’s Northeast Regional Board, CCE’s P.V. O’Donnell Branch, the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, and SHU’s Center for Irish Cultural Studies under the direction of Prof. Gerald F. Reid.
A seven-time All-Ireland champion box player and one of the finest composers of tunes within the idiom of Irish traditional music, Whelan has scheduled an impressive roster of workshops during the morning (10 a.m.-12 p.m.) and afternoon (1:30-3:30 p.m.) of Saturday, November 5, that covers a host of instruments as well as singing and set dancing. Instructors include Brian Conway on advanced fiddle and Jeanne Freeman on intermediate fiddle, Jerry O’Sullivan on uilleann pipes, Bridget Fitzgerald on singing in English and Irish, Brendan Dolan on tin whistle, Anna Colliton on bodhran, Flynn Cohen on guitar, Regina Delaney on harp, Damaris Woods on banjo and mandolin, Christel Rice Astin on flute, Loretta Egan Murphy on concertina and C#/D button accordion, Damien Connolly on B/C button accordion, and Roisin and Padraig McEneany on set dancing.
Featuring John Whelan, Felix Dolan, Rose Flanagan, Brendan Dolan, and several more musicians, a “super ceili” will be held between 8 p.m. and midnight on Fri., Nov. 4. A closing ceili has also been set for Sun., Nov. 6, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
CCE’s Northeast Region Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring John Whelan, Pat Stratton, Brendan Bulger, Mary Burke, and the late Jack Pendergast will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 5. And from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on Nov. 5 will be an all-star concert showcasing workshop instructors and surprise guests. The concert will be held in the 776-seat Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts on SHU’s campus.
The venues for this special Nov. 4-6 weekend are the Edgerton Center and Sacred Heart University, both located at 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825-1000. To register for the Nov. 5 workshops or obtain other information, visit www.pvodonnellcce.org or call John Whelan at 203-430-5403. To purchase tickets to the Nov. 5 all-star concert, call the Edgerton Center box office at 203-371-7908 or visit www.edgerton center.org. Tickets to the Friday and Sunday ceilidhs will be sold at the door. In addition, call 203-877-8588 to find out about a special “Irish Music Weekend” rate for rooms at the Marriott Fairfield Inn, 11 Schoolhouse Rd., Milford, CT 06460.
It should be three days of absorbing, invigorating Irish music and dance. Go!
Best American Poetry blog
At the invitation of distinguished poet and critic David Lehman, I’ll be writing daily from Sun., Oct. 23, through Sat., Oct. 29, for the Best American Poetry blog. If you love verse and love discussing it as much as I do, visit http://thebest americanpoetry.typepad.com/ the_best_american_poetry during that period.
Many of you inquired about nine-year-old fiddle prodigy Haley Richardson after you read my October 19 “Ceol” column. I provided a photo of her here, courtesy of Haley’s mother, Donna.
The two best U.S.-born fiddlers in Irish traditional music today are Liz Carroll in Chicago and Brian Conway in New York. They have much in common. Both are first-generation Irish Americans: Carroll was born in 1956 to parents from Limerick and Offaly, and Conway was born in 1961 to parents from Tyrone. Both had a musical father: Kevin Carroll played button accordion, and Jim Conway played fiddle. Both won All-Ireland senior fiddle titles: Carroll in 1975, and Conway in 1986. Both received Traditional Artist of the Year awards from the Irish Echo: Carroll in 2000, and Conway in 2008.
In addition, both were inspired by legendary Sligo-style fiddlers born in the U.S.: Chicago’s Johnny McGreevy (1919-1990) for Carroll, and New York City’s Andy McGann (1928-2004) for Conway. All four fiddlers can be heard on “The Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival: My Love Is in America,” a 1991 album documenting a momentous concert by 16 standout fiddlers in Boston College’s Gasson Hall on March 25, 1990.
It’s hard to imagine two better stateside exemplars of Irish traditional fiddling than McGreevy and McGann, and the same is true of Carroll and Conway. Neither had ever participated in such profile-boosting stage spectaculars as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance,” yet these two brilliant Irish American musicians command the utmost respect from traditional fiddlers not only in America but also in Ireland.
That’s why I was undeterred when I learned that previously scheduled guest fiddler Tony DeMarco would not be appearing at the October 12, Wednesday night session hosted by Brian Conway at Dunne’s Pub in White Plains, N.Y. I would have enjoyed hearing the two rekindle the special spark they had on their 1981 album, “The Apple in Winter.” But any evening featuring the fiddling of Brian Conway, who has been hosting these Wednesday night sessions at Dunne’s since December 1997, is a special occasion. And when I learned that his niece, Maeve Flanagan, who won an All-Ireland junior fiddle title in 2001 and is a member of the band Girsa, would be filling in for DeMarco, my decision became only easier.
So I headed off to Dunne’s Pub, owned by Monaghan’s Sean Dunne, whose support of Conway’s session has remained strong for 14 years, whether on packed-out nights or “quiet nights.” This October 12 session was a “quiet night,” and I settled in at a table close to the small circle of musicians sitting near a few microphones. Joining Conway on fiddle and Flanagan on fiddle and tin whistle were Finbar Cantor, Mike Stewart, Haley Richardson, and Tomara Henderson, all fiddlers. Henderson also sang “The Plains of Waterloo,” Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia,” and, with guest Liam Murphy, “The Parting Glass.” Two other guests came up to sing as well.
The music was as relaxed and unfussy as the pub itself. The only airs put on were the slow airs beautifully played solo by Conway and Cantor. All six fiddlers delivered a graceful rendition of Turlough O’Carolan’s “Madam Maxwell” and similarly acquitted themselves well on a slew of dance tunes. The fiddling of Conway and Flanagan in particular stood out throughout the session.
But the Irish traditional fiddling of Haley Richardson deserves special mention. From Pittsgrove, near Vineland, N.J., where she also takes classical violin lessons, Richardson is nine years old but plays with a poise and proficiency far above her age. A twice-a-month student of Conway, she has all the earmarks of a budding phenom. Her mother, Donna, who sat at the same table where I was sitting, told me that her home-schooled daughter started to play at two and a half years old. The effect of Conway’s tutelage was apparent in Haley’s confident technique and surprisingly substantial repertoire. Very few tunes played at this session were unfamiliar to her.
I’m fortunate to have two reliable outlets for my writing about Irish traditional music: the Irish Echo, the USA’s most widely read Irish-American newspaper, and The Wall Street Journal, the largest newspaper in North America. In December I will mark my 20th anniversary of writing for the Irish Echo, and in March I will mark my 17th anniversary of writing for The Wall Street Journal. I’m also lucky to have receptive, supportive editors who like my work and make it easy for me to do it, as well as readers who are both loyal and skeptical.
Before you start gagging over those statements, I assure you that I’m not trying to curry favor here with the newspapers, the editors, or the readers. Those are just the facts.
But the same facts raise a question: Why aren’t most other U.S. newspapers making even a minimal effort to cover Irish traditional musc apart from St. Patrick’s Day or March?
In his October 2011 Jazz Times column “The Gig,” Nate Chinen asserts that “robust criticism is crucial to the life of any art form.” Flowing from that premise, his column decries “the perpetual shortage of influential female jazz critics” and the lamentable, false assumption that “a female critic has to compromise, masking her gender or softening her authority.”
I concur with Chinen’s points but with this demurral: Whether written by too many men or too few women, jazz criticism is still widespread and ingrained at major newspapers, even after the contraction of overall arts criticism during the past few years.
Chinen himself is fortunate to be one of two mainstay jazz critics (Ben Ratliff is the other) at the New York Times. Several other major dailies still have at least one dedicated jazz critic, and a number of large newspapers have more than one.
I love jazz, but, as a genre, it occupies no more than a niche in the larger commercial marketplace of music. The same is true of classical, bluegrass, old-timey, Cajun, zydeco, blues, folk, and, yes, Irish traditional music. No one will confuse the popularity of those genres with the popularity of rock, pop, and country.
Aside from the issue of popularity, the other reasons I’ve heard for the disappearing newspaper space accorded Irish traditional music include declining public interest in all “ethnic” music, economic retrenchment, impact of the Internet and social media, vacuum of cultural understanding and appreciation, critical backlash against anything remotely redolent of “Riverdance,” upsurge in intelligence-lowering treacle that smothers anything genuine, scarcity of scribes more than glancingly acquainted with Irish traditional music, and presumed lack of cachet or sophistication in what some still denigrate as “bog music.”
Then there’s the rawest rub of all: Who cares?
I care, and you care. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing about Irish traditional music, and you wouldn’t have read this page this far.
Several years ago, a female critic who wrote regularly and well about Irish traditional music for a U.S. newspaper quit her position mainly because it paid too little. Her prose clearly indicated that she enjoyed writing about the music, but the effort and time didn’t match the remuneration. It was too far below a living wage. This is not news to newspeople, though it may be news to readers.
She once asked me to critique a sample of her Irish traditional music writing, and apart from a few, perhaps niggling points, I had no suggestions for improvement.
Her writing was good, combining an unclichéd, unimitative style, insight, humor in the service of elucidation rather than ego, research reaching back farther than the latest press release, and enthusiasm tempered by a reliable dung detector.
I still stay in touch with her, and she still writes on occasion. But it pains me to see someone with her aptitude and ability only writing sporadically about Irish traditional music.
Good critics in any musical genre are in perpetually short supply. Over the years, a number of Irish traditional music critics had the knowledge and expertise but lacked style or, more inexcusably, never learned to write. There was no “music” in their words about music. Other critics had style and a sure grasp of writing fundamentals but offered scant substance. Too many in either camp aped the style and the approach to substance by long-term trad writers. This imitative writing usually began in flattery, flattened into tedium, and ended in laziness.
Where do I think I fall within the spectrum? I’ll answer this way: I wince at every solecism, puzzle over why I didn’t make a point clearer or more forceful, and second-guess my choices. (Ask Eileen Murphy, my long-term editor at the Irish Echo, how often I submit a revision just minutes after I submit the “final” text.) As a journalist mentor once told me: “Mediocre writers are always happy with their results. Serious writers aren’t.” The same is true of Irish traditional musicians.
I take words seriously because I want you to take them seriously. I’ve seen the damage done by carelessness, and I loathe the insidious spread of condescension and distortion not only in music writing but also in our national discourse.
Irish traditional music writing at its best aspires to the level of Irish traditional music at its best: confident, compelling, and distinctive. To write well about it is to struggle, not to settle. That struggle should become enjoyable to the writer and never become detectable to the reader.
In his book “Worstward Ho,” Dublin-born writer Samuel Beckett gives this advice: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I keep his words in mind as I try to find mine. So I continue to struggle and to enjoy. And I will enjoy struggling to get my female critic friend back into the fold.
Bert Jansch passes away
While America’s media fixated on the October 5 death from cancer of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at age 56, I pondered the October 5 death from cancer of Glasgow-born acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch at age 67.
My initial encounter with Jansch’s music came through Pentangle and “Sweet Child,” the band’s 1968 album serendipitously discovered by me in the large cut-out bin of a record shop in Philadelphia. (I miss fanning through old LP’s in musty retail stores in the hope of alighting upon overlooked aural treasure.)
(CHESTNUT HILL, Mass.) — By 6:40 p.m. on Thurs., Sept. 22, I assumed the crowd would be small for “The Genius and Growing Impact of Joe Derrane” presentation from 7 to 9 p.m. inside Gasson Hall here on the main campus of Boston College. Rain, fog, a new venue, and a later start time seemed to be undercutting the turnout for the launch of the fall 2011 Gaelic Roots Music, Dance, and Lecture series.
But by 7 p.m., all the chairs were filled and more had to be brought in to accommodate the largest crowd ever to attend a Gaelic Roots series event. It was a clear reflection of the high esteem commanded by button accordionist Joe Derrane in his home state and near his hometown of Boston. Much of the night was devoted to a lecture and other commentary, not to the popular live traditional music established in the Gaelic Roots series, so the attendance was all the more remarkable.
The crowd came and stayed and wanted more.
They settled cozily in the spacious Irish Room of Gasson Hall, an iconic Boston College building. It opened in 1913 and over the past two years had undergone a massive renovation to restore the luster of the Gothic-style exterior and increase the comfort of the interior. The podium was set up underneath a large, central, stained-glass window depicting St. Patrick.
Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly, director of the Gaelic Roots series and Sullivan Artist-in-Residence at Boston College, opened the presentation with a warm welcome to distinguished guest Joe Derrane, his family, and the audience. Tom Hachey, executive director of the Center for Irish Programs and a chaired professor of history at Boston College, then spoke compellingly about Gaelic Roots and Seamus Connolly’s skillful stewardship of it.
John McGann, a professor of strings at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a superb guitarist and mandolinist, illustrated his absorbing comments about Derrane’s exceptional craftsmanship by playing examples on mandolin of how he achieves it.
Honoree Joe Derrane then got up to answer some questions that I posed to him about his music. With relaxed eloquence spiked by humorous anecdotes, Derrane spoke about the kinds of music and musicians he encountered during the years he was not playing the Irish button accordion. He also spoke about the formal tutelage he received at the Schillinger House, the precursor to Berklee College of Music. And in vivid detail he described the bustling dance halls and notable musicians, including George Derrane (Joe’s brother), Johnny Powell, Johnny Connors, and Billy Caples, during the famed Dudley Street era.
Derrane concluded his responses with a moving tribute to his Longford-born wife of 53 years, Anne, whom he first met not in a Boston dance hall but in New York City’s Tuxedo Ballroom around 1952. She had asked him to dance a waltz during ladies’ choice. Selflessly and staunchly, Anne Derrane supported her husband’s musical pursuits until her death in 2008. There would have been no fabled comeback by Joe Derrane at Wolf Trap in 1994 if his wife had not coaxed him into believing that he could do it.
The evening concluded with a powerful performance by Seamus Connolly on fiddle, John McGann on mandolin and guitar, and surprise guest Dan Gurney on button accordion. Together they played “The Old Copperplate” with Ed Reavy’s “The Hunter’s House” and Martin Mulhaire’s “The Golden Keyboard,” a three-reel medley recorded by Derrane on his 1998 album “The Tie That Binds.” McGann soloed on “The Prayer Reel,” composed by Derrane; Gurney, who received a Harvard University fellowship to study with Derrane from 2007 to 2009, soloed on the reels “Farewell to Ireland / The Beauty Spot / The Flowers of Red Hill”; and Connolly was nothing less than spectacular in performing “Peter Feeney’s Dream,” the first tune ever composed by Derrane.
It was a night sparking many fond memories and creating a new one for all present. I gave a lecture, but it was Connolly, McGann, and Derrane who held the crowd spellbound with their talent, insight, and generosity. Gurney added significantly to the enjoyment by the audience, many of whom recalled their own good times in listening or dancing to Joe Derrane’s music, past or present. One woman carried a collection of old Copley 78-rpm recordings made by Derrane, who autographed some of the disks for her.
Kudos to Seamus Connolly, John McGann, Tom Hachey, Joan Reilly, the Irish Music Center’s Beth Sweeney and Jack Kearney, and Dan Gurney for giving Joe Derrane the formal, home-based tribute he deserved.
for the entire fall series of events.
CCE’s “Echoes of Erin” tour of U.S.
Comprising a dozen top-notch traditional musicians and dancers, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s 2011 North American concert tour troupe will be performing at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 11, at the Mineola Irish American Center, 297 Willis Ave., Mineola, N.Y. (631-698-3305); 7:30 p.m., Oct. 12, Middletown Arts Center, 36 Church St., Middletown, N.J. (732-915-2191); 7:30 p.m., Oct. 13, Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, Sacred Heart U., 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, Conn. (203-371-7908); 8 p.m., Oct. 14, Waltham H.S., 617 Lexington St., Waltham, Mass. (781-899-0911); 7:30 p.m., Oct. 15, Rome Free Academy Auditorium, 95 Dart Circle, Rome, N.Y. (315-827-4291); 2 p.m., Oct. 16, Gleasner Hall, Erie Community College’s North Campus, 6205 Main St., Williamsville, N.Y. (716-536-0490); 7:30 p.m., Oct. 18, Breen Center for the Performing Arts, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland, Ohio (216-645-9844); 7:30 p.m., Oct. 19, Summit Country Day School’s Kyte Theater, 2161 Grandin Rd., Cincinnati, Ohio (859-441-7682); 7 p.m., Oct. 20, Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis, Mo. (314-534-1111); 8 p.m., Oct. 21, Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wis. (414-345-8800); and 8 p.m., Oct. 22, Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., Chicago, Ill. (773-282-7035).
H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N spells
A great night in Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Thurs., Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. There and then, a can’t-miss, all-star concert entitled “A Tribute to Harrigan and Hart: The Original Men Who Owned Broadway” will take place. Organized by Mick Moloney, the leading scholar of Irish-American theatrical history and songs, this concert tribute to storied Broadway partners Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart and their musical collaborator David Braham will feature the Green Fields of America (Moloney, Billy McComiskey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Joey Abarta, Athena Tergis, Brendan Dolan, and Niall O’Leary), the red-hot Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks of HBO “Broadway Empire” fame, Dana Lyn, Susan McKeown, John Roberts, Murray Callahan, Chris Simmons, Maureen Murphy, Poor Baby Bree, the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, and surprise guests. Symphony Space is at 2537 Broadway near 95th Street. Call 212-864-5400 for tickets.c
On a sunny, sky-blue day, Ballinakill, Galway-born multi-instrumentalist and teacher Mike Rafferty, who died at age 84 on September 13, was given a sendoff commensurate with his stature in Irish traditional music.
With three co-celebrant priests, including Fr. Francis Kelly (previously known to many as fiddler Joe Kelly from Dumont, N.J.), Msgr. Charlie Coen said the September 16 funeral Mass for Mike Rafferty inside Corpus Christi Church in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. Musicians filled the choir loft and dotted the pews below. They included Willie Kelly, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Whelan, Felix and Brendan Dolan, Seamus Connolly, Mattie and Deirdre Connolly, Martin Mulhaire, Rose Conway Flanagan, Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, Laura Byrne, Myron Bretholz, Mick Moloney, Don Meade, Tina Lech, Dana Lyn, Donna Long, Dan Gurney, Dylan Foley, Gabriel Donahue, Brian Holleran, John Nolan, and Larry Reynolds.
Mary Rafferty Clancy, Mike’s daughter and former member of Cherish the Ladies, played a button accordion solo on the altar that was tender, expressive, and unhurried, qualities that would have made her father beam in appreciation. It was all she could do to hold back the tears. Everyone there felt the same way.
Msgr. Coen gave two homilies: one at the pulpit, where he described Mike Rafferty the man, and one at the right side of the altar, where he described Mike Rafferty the musician. A gifted musician himself, Coen hit all the right notes in his remarks.
Baroque-flavored melodies of Turlough O’Carolan mixed with Irish traditional dance tunes, hymns (Deirdre Connolly movingly sang “How Great Thou Art”), hymnal melodies (“Tantum Ergo, Sacramentum”), and even a waltz. The last came as the casket was being wheeled slowly out of the church. Mary Rafferty Clancy, following behind her father’s casket, gazed up to the loft of musicians playing and raised her flute briefly in salute.
A long cortege of cars proceeded from the church to Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, N.J. All along the route, police were present at main intersections and stoplights to hold up cross-traffic and allow the procession to pass. This display of multi-community respect for Mike Rafferty was stirring.
At the grave, Msgr. Coen offered more prayers, and Willie Kelly soloed on fiddle and Mary Rafferty Clancy soloed on whistle. Others also played by the grave, including John Whelan, Felix and Brendan Dolan, and Don Meade. The music lightened the load of grief. Mike Rafferty was laid to rest surrounded by family, friends, and admirers, drawing solace from what sustained him: Irish traditional music.
I drove out of the cemetery and headed to the reception. There, three concentric rings of musicians sat in chairs and played in a virtually nonstop session for Mike Rafferty. They made each note count, as he did.
The following are excerpts from some of the e-mails of remembrance, affection, and sorrow sent to me in response to Mike Rafferty’s passing:
“Mike was unanimously seen as the ‘real deal,’ representing a kind of timeless center in the venerable musical tradition he so proudly espoused in his wonderful life. And it was not just his musicality that made him so beloved. He was a gentleman to the core, gracious, good-humored, and willing to help anyone who came his way. He truly was the Mighty Raff.” — Mick Moloney.
“Mike was not only a window into the authentic musical style of 19th-century Ireland (because of the tutelage from his father), but also and much more importantly the embodiment of all that was good and noble in the West of Ireland country people of his time. These virtues and abilities included a hearty sense of humor, great knowledge of local history and culture, extreme generosity, a strong work ethic, unfailing loyalty, and a love of family and friends. Mike was a father to me musically and nonmusically. I always felt, and still do, that I was an adopted son into the Rafferty family. My admiration and love for Mike will only continue to grow, and I was blessed to have the time with him that I did.” — Jerry O’Sullivan.
“He is one of my musical heroes and a true gentleman who was always so encouraging and generous towards me down through the years. I will cherish the many lovely memories I have of nights Mike and I spent together playing tunes and telling stories in the Hill Bar in Kylebrack when he and Teresa would be home on holidays.” — Kevin Crawford.
“I have known Mike since I was 12 years old. He was always tremendously encouraging to me as a young player and to all young musicians, and he continued that stewardship of the music until he took his last breath. His loss is immeasurable.” — Brian Conway.
“I have known Mike for some 65 years. He was a dear friend, a great man, a great musician, and a true son of Ballinakill. It was a special gift to have known him.” — Msgr. Charlie Coen.
“The National Heritage Fellowship award last year validated Mike Rafferty as a folk hero in the USA, but his everyday life and prodigious recordings in his later years had already made that case to those who follow Irish music.
So many younger musicians looked up to him as a legend who shared his music so generously and who made them feel they were doing him a favor by listening to and playing with him.” — Paul Keating.
“I have known and played with Mike Rafferty for over 30 years. Like most other Irish musicians, I consider him to be one of the legends of Irish music both in the United States and in Ireland. One of my greatest pleasures was to sit and play near Mike at a ceili or an informal musical gathering of friends playing tunes.” — Felix Dolan.
“We were so lucky to have known him. May the Mighty Raff rest in peace.” — Kathleen Biggins.
“What a great man he was, is, and always will be.” — Myron Bretholz.
“His music immediately communicated the essence of who and what he was. His passing leaves an enormous void in the world of Irish traditional music, but we can take some comfort in knowing that he enriched the lives of so very many people. But, Lord, I miss him.” — Paul F. Wells.
“Ballinakill is close to Loughrea, my mother’s hometown, and that part of Ireland seems to have produced its fair share of musical geniuses, Mike so eminently among them. I treasure his albums with his daughter Mary, and I was completely knocked out by ‘The New Broom,’ his more recent album with fiddler Willie Kelly. Such sweet and fluent music. And Mike’s own compositions–like the classically perfect reel ‘Coming to Mind’–remind us of what a creative soul he possessed. He will be tremendously missed.” — Terence Winch.
“I had the good fortune of meeting Mike, if only once. I knew of his great reputation both as a person and as a musician, and I was immediately struck by how likable he was. His passing has caused a massive tear in the fabric of the music.” — Joe Derrane.
“I feel kind of empty. This is a big chunk of the music gone.” — Billy McComiskey.
“Mike will be sadly missed by everyone who had the pleasure to know him and hear him play.” — Michael Collins, Irish Ambassador to the United States.
“We join many others in the traditional music community and beyond in mourning his death while celebrating his life and lasting legacy.” — Rocco Landesman, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman.
“Mike Rafferty simply was one of the most important people in my life. I remember when I got my first silver flute from Sean McGlynn, and Mike drove straight over to the house in the Bronx to show me how to put the flute together and show me the scale. Since that day, he continued to be a teacher, role model, and incredibly inspirational person to my music. I will miss him terribly. Life to me is forever changed with Mike Rafferty gone. I just dream that there is a heaven and that my father and Mike are making beautiful East Galway music together again.” — Joanie Madden, whose Portumna, button accordion-playing father, Joe, was a very close friend of Mike and died at age 70 on November 14, 2008.
On Tuesday, September 13, the day Mike Rafferty passed away, I received in the mail two invitations: one was for the 2011 National Heritage Fellowships ceremony in Washington, D.C., and the other was for a Sierra Club membership. Whether coincidence or kismet, the two were linked in my mind to Mike Rafferty.
The NHF invitation from National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman reminded me that in 2010 Mike Rafferty became just the 11th Irish artist to receive a National Heritage Fellowship in the now 30-year history of the awards. The list of nine honorees for 2011 contained no Irish artist. Rather than register my customary dismay over this absence, I was profoundly grateful for the presence of Mike Rafferty on the list for 2010. To be considered for a National Heritage Fellowship, a nominee must be alive. Last year, in reasonably good health and spirits, Mike went to Washington, D.C., to receive this most prestigious award and the formal adulation he so richly deserved. Finally, the rest of the nation officially woke up to what followers of Irish traditional music already knew: Mike Rafferty possessed–many times over–all the virtues and virtuosity associated with a National Heritage Fellowship.
The invitation from the Sierra Club arrived with a large postcard showing a 3,500-year timeline for the oldest living sequoia, a tree dubbed “Grizzly Giant.” The timeline started with the sequoia’s sprouting in 1500 BC, marked the tree’s flourishing at various milestones (development of the Greek alphabet in 775 BC, fall of the Roman Empire in AD 331, signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and man’s landing on the moon in 1969), and ended with 2011.
Though obviously nowhere near as long as the Grizzly Giant’s, a timeline formed in my mind for Mike Rafferty, a giant of Irish traditional music, whose towering stature as a player, instructor, mentor, and companion is readily apparent to his countless admirers.
Mike’s timeline starts with Sept. 27, 1926, his date of birth in the village of Larraga in the parish of Ballinakill, East Galway. He was one of seven children raised on a small farm with no electricity, gas, or running water. “I worked with pick, shovel, plow, and horses,” he once told me. Influencing his childhood music were Thomas “Barrel” Rafferty, his flutist father nicknamed for the wind and tone he could summon in playing, and Pakie Moloney, an uncle who played flute and whistle and started Mike off on the latter.
“The name of Rafferty was held in high esteem in the Connolly household during my boyhood days,” recalled Killaloe, Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly. “Pakie Moloney was a regular visitor to our home in Killaloe, and I heard many stories from him about Mike’s father and the music in and around Ballinakill. It is difficult to describe how elated I felt when I first met Mike Rafferty in New York in 1972 and had the honor of playing ‘The Earl’s Chair’ with him, a reel that Pakie used to play for me in Killaloe.”
Other milestones in Mike Rafferty’s timeline include his immigration to New York in 1949, his marriage to Teresa in 1953, the years in which his five children were born, the coaxing he got from Joe Madden, Jack Coen, Mike Preston, and Sean McGlynn to resume playing Irish traditional music after a decade of relative quiescence, his invitation to perform at the Smithsonian Institution Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in 1976 in Washington, D.C., his retirement from the Grand Union supermarket chain in 1989 that freed him to pursue more fully his passion for music, his induction into Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s hall of fame in 1991, the founding of the CCE branch named after him that he graciously renamed the Mike Rafferty-Joe Madden branch in 2011 to honor his dear departed friend, Lesl Harker’s publishing of two books in 2005 and 2008 that together contain 600 tunes learned from Mike, and the years he recorded, especially from 1995 to 2009 when he issued five luminous albums.
In 2003, Mike Rafferty was the Irish Echo’s Traditional Artist of the Year, but in reality he gave himself unstintingly to the music in every year I knew him, dating back to 1978, the year I left Philadelphia for Bergen County, N.J. He was an unsecret sharer, openly supportive and encouraging to anyone displaying the slightest desire to play, learn, or listen. Even at an advanced age, his music never lost its grace, pulse, and heart. In 2004, “Speed 78,” his sole solo album, was a pun on his age at the time, but it also evoked the era of 78-rpm recordings: no frills, no tricks, no hurry. Just like Mike himself.
With the much younger Willie Kelly on fiddle and son-in-law Donal Clancy on guitar and bouzouki, Mike played flute on his last album, “The New Broom,” in 2009. He was 83 years old. The music on that CD is ageless, the gift that never stops giving.
I listen to that album often because it’s the musical document nearest to Mike’s 84 years of life. But I also listen with endless relish to “Mike Rafferty & Billy McComiskey with Felix Dolan and Special Guest Mary Rafferty,” an unreleased, double-CD set of live music privately recorded by Tom Madden, Mike’s friend, at the Blarney Star pub in lower Manhattan on March 28, 2003.