By Earle Hitchner
Sometimes we fail to see what’s directly in front of us. It took the National Endowment for the Arts 18 years to finally bestow a National Heritage Fellowship on Mick Moloney, who received this most prestigious of all U.S. folk and traditional arts accolades in 1999. Consider that of the seven previous National Heritage Fellowship recipients for Irish music or dance, six were given important performance or recording opportunities by Moloney: uilleann piper Joe Shannon, fiddler and teacher Martin Mulvihill, "Lord of the Dance" Michael Flatley, flutist and teacher Jack Coen, fiddler Liz Carroll, and stepdancer and teacher Donny Golden.
Since his immigration to the U.S. in 1973, Moloney’s influence as a highly accomplished singer, guitarist, mandolinist, tenor banjoist, bouzouki player, folklorist, record producer, field recorder, instructor, author, consultant, mentor, and leader has proved vital to the development of Irish music here. In fact, its well-documented rise in popularity and respect during this period is simply inconceivable without his tireless contributions.
Quite fittingly, to mark the close of the 20th century, the Irish Echo selects Mick Moloney as its Traditionalist of 1999. He follows previous Irish Echo honorees Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane, Séamus Egan, Joanie Madden, and John Whelan, four of whom — Keane, Egan, Madden, Whelan — have appeared on recordings he produced or tours he organized.
Listening to British skiffle (Lonnie Donegan) and American folk music (the Weavers, Burl Ives) as a teenager growing up in Limerick, where he was born in 1944, made Moloney curious about Ireland’s own folk music. He often visited Clare to steep himself in the traditional music of older instrumentalists, and seeing the Clancy Brothers in concert increased his interest in Irish ballad and folk singing.
That interest led to Moloney’s involvement in two groups: Emmet Folk, featuring Dónal Lunny, and the Johnstons, comprising Lucy, Adrienne and Michael Johnston, the last of whom was replaced by Paul Brady. The Johnstons were enormously popular in Ireland and Britain, recording seven LPs and making countless tours and media appearances in five years.
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Striking out on his own in 1971, Moloney lived in Europe and then London, where in 1973 he cut his first solo album, "We Have Met Together," for Transatlantic Records. By the time he immigrated to Philadelphia in 1973 to pursue graduate studies in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, Moloney was a musician already with a long, lustrous line of credits.
During the course of 27 years in the United States, he has greatly augmented his musical reputation. Moloney has performed on or produced dozens of albums for such labels as Topic, Shanachie, Green Linnet, and Rounder. Some were critical to the early, evolving careers of Eileen
Ivers (at ages 11 and 13, she appears on two "Living Tradition" recordings Mick produced in 1977 and 1980), Séamus Egan (he appears on "Uncommon Bonds" in 1984 and, at age 16, made his Moloney-produced solo debut in 1985), and Cherish the Ladies (the album "Cherish the Ladies," featuring more than 30 women, was produced by Moloney in 1985).
In 1977, Moloney co-founded the Green Fields of America, a touring ensemble crucial to a more widespread public appreciation of Irish traditional music performed by both immigrants and U.S.-born together. A logical outcropping of the Irish and Irish-American performances Moloney organized at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in 1976, Green Fields presented and still presents musical personnel of exceptional talent. They include Jack and Charlie Coen, Tim Britton, Mike Rafferty, Eugene O’Donnell, Jimmy Keane, James Keane, Robbie O’Connell, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Mulvihill, Al Purcell, Tommy Sands, Séamus Egan, Eileen Ivers, Liz Carroll, Donny Golden, Zan McLeod, Marie Reilly, and the late Seán McGlynn.
In addition, Moloney has hosted a number of programs on American public television and, on National Public Radio in 1978, wrote, hosted, and co-produced "Across the Western Ocean," a 13-part series on stateside Irish music. In 1980, he produced the film documentary "Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?" and was a consultant and performer on the 1991 five-part BBC documentary "Bringing It All Back Home," the 1994 U.S. documentary "Out of Ireland," and the 1998 PBS special "Long Journey Home: The Irish in America."
The pedagogical and scholarly side of Moloney is evident in the Irish courses he’s taught at Georgetown, Villanova, George Washington, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he got his doctorate in 1992 after completing his dissertation, "Irish Music in America: Continuity and Change."
In all the attention paid to these activities, it’s easy to miss how gifted a musician he truly is. His lead and harmony vocals are exemplary. For proof, check out any song he recorded with the Johnstons, his singing with Bobby and Paddy Clancy on the song "Muldoon the Solid Man" from "Uncommon Bonds," and his beautifully complementary harmony with Robbie O’Connell on two songs they made popular, Tommy Sands’s "There Were Roses" and Peter Jones’s "Kilkelly." As a singer who plays four stringed instruments, Moloney also knows how to accompany, adjusting dynamics to suit those of the vocalist, whether himself or another.
Nowhere is his mandolin prowess more impressive than on "Loftus Jones," the Turlough O’Carolan tune he plays on his 1980 all-instrumental album "Strings Attached." How is he as a four-string banjo player? The readers of Frets, a now defunct magazine devoted to excellence in acoustic music, voted him America’s best tenor banjoist — not once but four times.
The frustration in writing about Moloney is the inability to do full justice to his achievements. (I’ve mentioned nothing about his artistic directorships and advisory board memberships in various music-sponsoring organizations.)
Moloney still performs, still teaches, still mentors and advises younger musicians, and still produces (1999’s "Horse of a Different Color" by Sunrush, an Irish traditional band based in Kansas). He has also developed a cottage business organizing and hosting eight folklore tours a year in Ireland, where each tour day concludes with live traditional music from local performers.
As far as his own upcoming album projects go, Moloney hopes, he said, "to record an album of Irish-American songs mostly from 1850 to 1900, things from minstrelsy and vaudeville. I have 14 songs all selected. And Jimmy Keane and I have been talking about recording a banjo and accordion album together."
Throughout the decades, his enthusiasm for Irish traditional music has never waned. "When I heard all this great art, I got very excited and I just wanted other people to know how great it was," Moloney said. "I can’t think of a better way to spend your time or spend your life than to be involved in something like that."
Neither can we. On behalf of Irish music fans everywhere, the Irish Echo extends its gratitude and congratulations to Mick Moloney, Traditionalist of the Year, a distinction he’s richly earned many times over.