By Earle Hitchner
1927: it was one year before the founding of the Irish Echo and two years after the acoustical recording process (recording horn, diaphragm, cutting stylus) for music was replaced by an electrical process (condenser microphone, vacuum-tube amplifier, electromagnetically powered cutting stylus) providing a much wider dynamic range. The quality of sound was improving, and so was the quality of recorded performances. In 1927, the benchmark of Irish traditional music being recorded in America hit a peak in the 78-rpm sides made by a 36-year-old fiddler from Knockgrania, Co. Sligo, who had immigrated to New York City in 1914.
Among the 78-rpm sides this fiddler cut for the Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick labels in 1927 were "Lord McDonald/Ballinasloe Fair," "The Morning Dew/The Woman of the House," "The Grey Goose," and "The Green Fields of America/The Swallow’s Tail." Classics all, they were revered as much for their vigor as their virtuosity, and both the musician and his recordings would shape future generations of Irish instrumentalists and ultimately alter the course of Irish traditional music forever.
That fiddler was Michael Coleman, whom Harry Bradshaw, the respected archivist from Dublin, regards as "the most outstanding and influential musician in the Irish tradition in this century." Significantly, Coleman’s reputation was first made in America, not Ireland, though his records had the same catalyzing effect there that they had stateside. So pervasive was the impact of Coleman’s fiddling that his detractors still hold him responsible for what they feel is the subsequent homogenization of Irish traditional fiddling. As players strove to "be like Mike," they began to abandon their own distinctive regional styles. At least, that’s the theory.
But blaming Coleman for his far-reaching brilliance is like blaming the sun for casting too much light. Coleman and other illustrious players from this so-called "golden era" — James Morrison (whose genius rivaled Coleman’s), John McKenna, Pakie Hunt, Hughie Gillespie, Paddy Killoran, Frank Quinn, P.J. Conlon, Pakie Dolan, Michael Hanafin, William Mullaly, John McGettigan — were masters of their instruments. Their combined legacy in the development of Irish traditional music is enormous and momentous, having paved the way for musical disciples to carry the tradition forward in America.
One such disciple was Bronx-born fiddler Andy McGann, who had taken some informal lesions from Coleman toward the end of the legendary Sligo fiddler’s life. "He’s one of my heroes," Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly gushed after meeting McGann at an Irish festival in Lansdale, Pa., many years back. The esteem with which trad musicians and fans hold McGann clearly knows no bounds, geographic or otherwise. His extraordinary skill on the fiddle is obvious to anyone.
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But it was perhaps McGann’s misfortune to blossom as a fiddler during a period, the 1950s and early ’60s, when "commercial" Irish music and showbands tended either to marginalize hard-core trad players or to absorb them with nary a ripple. Consider that Michael Coleman had recorded well over 50 sides of fiddling by the time he turned 37 — the age at which Andy McGann made his recording debut on the aptly titled "Joe Burke, Andy McGann & Felix Dolan Play a Tribute to Michael Coleman." It was 1965, and that recording became a watershed both for their peers and for younger players.
Up in Boston, second only to New York City in Irish population and descendants stateside, a button accordionist born in 1930 created a national stir by cutting — as a high-school senior — a number of 78-rpm sides on Copley Records. Falling under the strict but nurturing tutelage of Kinsale, Co. Cork-born box player Jerry O’Brien, Joe Derrane astonished all trad listeners in the late 1940s with these solo records that showcased his dexterity and the incredible lift he brought to the D/C# button accordion.
"He out-Kimmels Kimmel" was a fond saying at the time among sage accordion devotees who heard a much more evolved and accomplished technique in Derrane’s playing than in the playing of John J. Kimmel (1866-1942), a German-American from Brooklyn who could perform Irish traditional music with stunning skill. From the late 1940s to the mid-1950, Derrane held dominion over all Irish-American box players, and his triumphant return to the button accordion in May 1994 after a prolonged absence has helped rekindle an international appreciation of his unique playing style. The increased use of fleet-fingered triplets, a Derrane hallmark, on recent recordings of the button accordion and melodeon hints at his spreading influence, however subtle or indirect.
One style of button-accordion playing that has never left the Irish-American scene since 1954, the year he immigrated to New York, City, was that of Paddy O’Brien from Newtown, Co. Tipperary. Though not the first to pioneer a more nimble and fluid style of playing the B/C button, box O’Brien was certainly its most important and influential practitioner, earning the nickname "Father of the B/C." The fiddle-like embellishments he incorporated into his box playing, coupled with the stunning release of three 78-rpm recordings he made shortly before departing Ireland, convinced many Irish-American accordionists to switch from the D/C# or C#/D button accordion to the B/C. From 1954 to 1962, the year he returned to Ireland, Paddy O’Brien staunchly resisted the lure of any commercial compromise in his music. His principled stand and the high standard of this playing served both to inspire and to challenge his fellow musicians to preserve the tradition in their living rooms, kitchens, and wherever else they congregated.
A living tradition
Among those on whom O’Brien left the deepest impression is Jack Coen, who had come to New York City from Woodford, Co. Galway, in 1949. Coen rarely pursued the traditional music he grew up with until O’Brien managed to coax him back into regular playing. When O’Brien left America, he received a promise from Coen to keep playing and to pass along what he knew to others here. Recipient of a 1991 National Heritage Fellowship, Jack Coen fulfilled his promise to O’Brien many times over and can count among his standout pupils Joanie Madden, founder and leader of Cherish the Ladies.
O’Brien and Coen, of course, were not alone in keeping the tradition alive in America from the postwar era onward. Contemporaries such as Mike Rafferty, Paddy Reynolds, Larry Redican, James "Lad" O’Beirne, Martin Wynne, Louis Quinn, Tom Doherty, Sean McGlynn, Johnny McGreevy, Joe Shannon, and Billy Caples all strengthened the foundation on which the popularity of Irish traditional music in America rests today.
The younger musicians who looked up to them — Tony DeMarco, Liz Carroll, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway — have, in turn, passed on their knowledge and skills to musicians younger still. The Sligo fiddling nexus of Coleman to McGann to Conway to high school freshman Patrick Mangan, for example, embodies all that is admirable and durable about the Irish tradition in America.
It’s equally unimaginable to think of what trad music would be like in the U.S. without the formidable, formative instruction provided by Martin Mulvihill, John Glynn, his daughter Maureen Glynn Connolly, and countless other teachers. America can likewise boast that for 76 years it had the single most prolific composer of Irish traditional music in the 20th century: Ed Reavy (1898-1988), who immigrated to the U.S. from Cavan in 1912 and settled in Drexel Hill, a Philadelphia suburb. Around the globe and virtually around the clock, Reavy’s work continues to be played in sessions, concerts, and recording studios.
Though Reavy’s output of hundreds of tunes is unmatched in America, this often overlooked tradition-within-the-tradition of composing has been sustained by other musicians, such as Martin Mulhaire, John Whelan, Liz Carroll, and Brendan Callahan. One of the tunes written by Callahan, a teenage fiddler from Vienna, Va., is now part of Solas’ stage repertoire.
A good friend of Reavy in Philadelphia and an ongoing advocate of his composition, Limerick-born singer, multi-instrumentalist, and scholar Mick Moloney has been the conceptual or guiding force behind more than 50 recordings, some of which were fledgling efforts by artists as renowned now as Eileen Ivers and Seamus Egan.
In 1977, four years after immigrating to America, Moloney along with Washington, D.C., attorney Dick Shea, spawned the Green Fields of America, an ensemble comprising Irish- and American-born performers who would tour the U.S. to present the best that the tradition here had to offer. (Featuring 18 musicians and dancers, plus Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, the 20th anniversary concert of Green Fields of America will take place Friday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m. at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., NYC;  545-7536 or  840-2824.) In one incarnation or another over the ensuing years, this ensemble has featured Jack and Charlie Coen, Liz Carroll, Seamus and Siobhan Egan, Eileen Ivers, Mike Rafferty, Eugene O’Donnell, Jerry O’Sullivan, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Mulvihill, Tim Britton, James Keane, Jimmy Keane, Robbie O’Connell, and Sean McGlynn, plus stepdancers Donny and Eileen Golden and the "Lord of the Dance" himself, Michael Flatley.
What Donny Golden has been to the cultivation of young Irish stepdancing talent in this country, Mick Moloney has been to the cultivation of young musical talent in the U.S. over the same period. Would Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers, Seamus Egan, and other bona fide stars of Irish music in America have broken through without Moloney’s advice and assistance? Probably, but it would have been a far slower and more tortuous path to the top for them. Frankly, it’s a blot on the annual National Heritage Fellowships that Moloney has not yet been named a recipient for a quarter century of vital, unparalleled work. With or without that honor, his name is already writ large in the annals of Irish music in America as this century draws to a close.
Millennium at hand
Think of it: in the year 2000, the compact disk will still be a teenager, just 18 years old. Technology moves apace and always forward, even as musical tastes and styles flourish, fade, and flourish once more. Who would have thought that swing music would get hot again — and among Gen Xers?
Irish traditional music, despite the fickle swing of fashion, has endured with its integrity relatively intact over the last 70 years. Sure, there will be the age-old arguments about tempo and ornamentation and improvisation and "exotic" instrumentation (bouzouki, anyone?). But those debates burn from a deep passion about this music, from caring almost beyond reason about something bred in the nation, in the family, in the bone.
The past decade in America has seen the Irish tradition achieve heights perhaps only dreamed of or wished for by its early-century forebears. Stepdancing schools across the country struggle to keep pace with the post-"Riverdance" surge in interest, while more, better-paying opportunities have opened up for trad performers in film, TV, theater, radio, video, and, yes, recordings.
It’s reached the point where the word "Celtic" is no longer automatically associated with pro basketball players in Boston but with a world-music revival that features the Irish tradition as part of its core. Perhaps unavoidably, the word "Celtic" has also been slickly slapped on a glut of products calculated solely to cash in on the boom. "What’s next?" a famed trad musician confided to me a few years ago. "An album of Celtic belches?"
Hucksterism invariably trails after trends, and looking on Irish music as a trend, not a tradition, prevents these myopic merchants from seeing what’s truly valuable and enduring about it. For it all starts simply, with the purest of motive: a teacher shows a student proper positioning on the fiddle fingerboard or accordion keyboard, a prized instrument is handed down from one generation to the next, a parent scrambles into the car and drives madcap over many miles to get a child to that week’s lesson, a tune or a song is freely swapped between friends in a pub or a parlor.
And all because, at heart, it matters. No amount of hucksterism can sully that.