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Echoes of the Millennium: The trad century

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

The imminent end of both the century and the millennium has spawned a "best-of" craze that seemed to get sillier as the year got shorter. The Modern Library perhaps started the fin-de-siècle ball rolling with its list of the 100 best novels. Time magazine then issued six "keepsake" special issues profiling the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Even New York University’s journalism department weighed in with its list of the 100 best works of American journalism.

In music, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame registered its 500 top performers, VH-1 its 100 greatest women of rock and roll, and WFUV-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate in the Bronx, its 100 best albums of the century.

What these sometimes slapdash lists create is debate, which is healthful. It spurs people to explore books, music, and art they may have missed or neglected. Even so, I’m not about to rank the 100 best Irish traditional musicians or albums of the 20th century, though I admit my top-10 list of Irish traditional albums released in the decade of the 1980s came fairly easily, with some 30 musicians and critics enlisted worldwide in the picking process back in 1989. Our consensus No. 1 for the ’80s was Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon’s "I gCnoc na Graí" (Gael-Linn Records, 1985), which holds up splendidly.

Still, 10 years later, some perspective does emerge on who and what are of enduring merit and influence in Irish traditional music during the last 100 years. The three individuals who follow — born in Ireland, died in the United States — are, I think, preeminent figures defying challenge. Their legacies reflect the vitality and virtuosity of a music that has weathered ignorance and disparagement — "bog music" is one of many slurs slapped on it — to become a pillar of so-called world music and a point of pride for anyone Irish or who wants to be.

Musician of the century

Claims can be made for many performers whose talent and art shaped the music forever: Tipperary’s Paddy O’Brien on accordion, Sligo’s James Morrison on fiddle, Wicklow’s Johnny Doran or Dublin’s Séamus Ennis or Galway’s Patsy Touhey on uilleann pipes, Dublin’s Mary Bergin on tin whistle, or Galway’s Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney) for sean-nós (old-style) singing.

But one stands above all for combined skill and influence: fiddler Michael Coleman (1891-1945). Born in Knockgrania, South Sligo, Coleman came to the U.S. in November 1914. Within seven years of arrival, he made his first recordings for the Vocalion and Shannon labels in New York City. Later, he recorded for Columbia, New Republic, Okeh, Pathé, O’Beirne/DeWitt, Victor, Brunswick, and Decca.

This plethora of labels for which Coleman recorded attests to his playing prowess and popular appeal, and indicates a thriving market for so-called ethnic music then. The Irish music Coleman played — jigs, reels, hornpipes, barndances, polkas — showed no trace of paddywhackery or stage-Irish affectation, even though Coleman himself had earlier toured America’s vaudeville circuit and could have easily gone that commercially safer route in his recordings. (In his vaudeville days, he often fiddled and danced at the same time. Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac take note.)

Coleman stuck to the tradition he grew up with, performing it with unsurpassed technique complemented by breathtaking shadings and ornamentation. The 80 sides of music he released commercially between 1921 and 1936 created a tectonic shift in the way Irish traditional music was learned. A deeply ingrained oral tradition yielded to vetting by Victrola, as countless kids (and adults) in Ireland and America would listen raptly to — and even slow down — his 78s in order to pick up all the intricacies and nuances of his technique, which became the template for the much ballyhooed Sligo style of fiddling.

Coleman’s influence became so pervasive that a sort of backlash set in, a claim that his recordings hastened the demise of regional fiddling styles in the pell-mell rush to learn how he played. This, of course, is vastly exaggerated. Few fiddlers in Donegal or East Clare, for example, would give credence to the contention that their styles were capsized in Coleman’s wake. But many certainly listened to his recordings and learned from them, however subtly.

That learning goes on today, especially through the monumental double-CD release of 1992, "Michael Coleman: 1891-1945" (Gael-Linn/Viva Voce CEFCD 161), containing 48 sides of the m’stro’s music expertly transferred onto disc by RTÉ producer Harry Bradshaw. Hearing Coleman bow the reels "Bonnie Kate/Jenny’s Chickens" for the first or thousandth time elicits the same reaction: slack-jawed awe.

One can only hope that the 10 radio transcriptions Coleman made in 1944, considered long lost but discovered in recent years among a cache of big-band tapings, will soon be released on CD by Gael-Linn, which has been lamentably sitting on the project for more than four years. Bradshaw obtained the hard-won legal permission for Gael-Linn and painstakingly remastered these final Coleman recordings, which display a noticeably altered style of fiddling that musicologists and lay devotees alike would find intriguing.

With or without those radio transcriptions, Michael Coleman’s lofty place in the history of Irish traditional music is assured. The golden boy of the "golden age" of Irish music, he showed the exhilarating height to which it could ascend when played by a true master. "Riverdance," for all its undeniably powerful impact on the music in recent years, can’t hold a horsehair to the enormous effect Michael Coleman’s fiddling had in this century.

Collector of the century

There have been a number of conscientious collectors of Irish music whose field work and notational efforts nourish it still. Limerick’s Francis Roche (1866-1961) issued three important books of Irish music between 1911 and 1927. Dublin’s Brendán Breathnach (1912-85) published "Ceol Rince na hÉireann," four greatly respected volumes (the last was posthumously edited by radio broadcaster Jackie Small) of Irish dance music.

But the bible, or "the book," came from Daniel Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), born near Bantry, West Cork. He moved to Chicago in 1870, joined its police force three years later, and became superintendent, or chief, in 1901.

A singer, flutist, fiddler, tin whistler, and piper of passing ability, Chief O’Neill loved Irish music and sought to preserve and support it through eight books that he published between 1903 and 1922. He was in the right place, Chicago, at the right time, late 19th century to early 20th century. Musicians from all 32 counties in Ireland could be found inside the city limits then, and O’Neill, in the parlance of today, picked their brains for tunes and memorized them.

Of his eight books, the second, "The Dance Music of Ireland," published in 1907 and basically derived from his larger "O’Neill’s Music of Ireland" four years earlier, is considered the über-text, the bible, "the book" for most musicians. It contains "1,001 gems," as the title page claimed: reels, hornpipes, jigs, set dances, and other tunes.

Rare is the album of Irish traditional music today that does not have several references to O’Neill’s work in its track notes. Woodford, Co. Galway-born flutist Jack Coen, recipient of the 1991 National Heritage Fellowship, recalled playing tunes straight out of O’Neill’s book with button accordionist Paddy O’Brien at each other’s home between 1954 and 1962, the period O’Brien lived in New York City.

If ever a reference work provided maximum utility, O’Neill’s "The Dance Music of Ireland" did that — and more. Dog-eared copies owned by musicians often reveal bookmarks, Post-Its, yellow highlighting, underlining, and margin jottings for future reference. Performing on stage, they’ll say simply, "This is from O’Neill’s," knowing the audience needs no further explanation. Occasionally, they’ll mention alternate tune titles for something O’Neill published, or even "correct" the tunes named and transcribed there. Many will thumb through the pages to find an offbeat or seldom-recorded tune to put on their own albums.

The most impressive resource and multimedia presentation on Irish traditional music in recent years is Ceol, a £5 million interactive music center that opened this past April in — note the name — Chief O’Neill’s Hotel. Inside is a large mural and a freestanding sculpture of the Chicago police superintendent, whose profile provides thematic inspiration for the entire complex.

What’s remarkable is that Chief O’Neill’s Hotel is not located in Bantry or Chicago but in Smithfield Village, north of the Liffey River in Dublin. It’s a clear indication that the police chief’s "hobby" (his word) of collecting Irish music transcends any geographic considerations. It’s work of and for the ages, the most important and influential collection of Irish music in the 20th century.

Composer of the century

Paddy O’Brien (1922-91), the brilliant B/C button accordionist from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, was one of the most productive and accomplished composers of music in the Irish tradition. Another musician from Nenagh, fiddler Seán Ryan, who died in 1985, is credited with some 250 tunes. Fiddler Paddy Fahy (b. 1926), hailing from Kilconnell, East Galway, wrote dozens of tunes greatly admired today.

Charlie Lennon (b. 1938), a gifted fiddler and pianist originally from Leitrim, has also made a lasting contribution to the repertoire of Irish dance music. So has Chicago fiddler and 1994 National Heritage Fellowship winner Liz Carroll (b. 1956), whose upcoming solo album on Green Linnet Records, "Lost in the Loop," will feature a number of her own tunes.

But the compositions of one individual stand out this century for both abundance and acceptance: Ed Reavy (1898-1988), a fife and fiddle player born and raised in Barnagrove, Maudabawn, Co. Cavan, and a resident of Philadelphia from 1912 until his death. His sons Ed Jr. and Joe estimate that he wrote between 400 and 500 tunes in all, of which 127 have been preserved in notational form.

Ed Reavy recorded a large number of his tunes onto homemade six-inch disks that he stored in his cellar. But heat played havoc with many of them, damaging the disks beyond reclamation. Only in the 1960s, with the interest and aid of Joe Reavy, were Ed Reavy’s surviving compositions properly collected and written out from his own dictation and still available tapes and disks.

In 1971, about 80 Reavy tunes were published in "Where the Shannon Rises," a book that Armagh-born fiddler and close friend Louis Quinn (1904-1991) helped to shepherd into print. Reavy was 73 years old at the time of publication, and the irony is that many of the tunes appearing in the book had already passed into the active "oral tradition" of most players, some of whom were unaware that the Cavan man had written them. The book, then, forged a formal link between composition and composer, giving credit where it was long overdue, and informing and reminding musicians everywhere of the extraordinary talent possessed by this humble musician, a plumber by trade.

Eight years later, Mick Moloney produced an album, "Ed Reavy" (Rounder), that featured such instrumentalists as Paddy Cronin, Liz Carroll, Billy McComiskey, Brendan Mulvihill, Martin Mulvihill, Louis Quinn, M’ve Donnelly, and Eugene O’Donnell performing Reavy compositions. Among them were "The Hunter’s House," arguably Reavy’s most popular tune; "In Memory of Coleman," named for the great Sligo fiddler who occasionally visited Ed’s home in Philadelphia, and "Maudabawn Chapel," inspired by a place of worship Ed knew as a child in Ireland.

This last reel was played with memorable touch by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill on their 1982 album, "Portland" (Green Linnet). It was also the tune Bronx-born fiddler Eileen Ivers chose to play in her successful quest for the All-Ireland senior fiddle championship in 1984. Liz Carroll, another U.S.-born All-Ireland senior fiddle titlist, won a junior championship with Reavy’s "The Lone Bush," a hornpipe he wrote about a remarkably resilient shrub outside his family farmhouse in Cavan.

The appeal of Ed Reavy’s compositions continues unabated today. They seem wholly sprung from within the tradition, yet the vast majority of them do not sound alike. Critic Whitney Balliett once described jazz as "the sound of surprise," and that’s an apt description of Ed Reavy’s music as well. It’s distinct, sometimes employing keys (F-major, G-minor) uncommon to Irish dance music.

Like Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts, who died the same year, Ed Reavy was a deeply religious man. He often felt God or, whimsically, a druid guided his hand at composing. Whatever the provenance, what he left us is a body of work not likely to be eclipsed in the coming century.

It’s interesting to speculate what Ed Reavy’s reaction would have been to one of the best-selling and recurring pop hits of the past few years, Sarah McLachlan’s "I Will Remember You." The song is based on "Weep Not for the Memories," a melody written by Seamus Egan largely in tribute to the late Cavan composer, at whose graveside he played in Drexel Hill, Pa.

That January day in 1988, Egan was supposed to do a Reavy slow air on the uilleann pipes, but the gelid weather forced him to play the tune on the tin whistle in gloves with their tips cut off. Camden, N.J., pastor Michael Doyle vividly wrote of the scene in a poem that ends: "Listen, my friend, to the lad with the whistle / With his fingertips timid and cold. / See the life that he brings to the old man’s tune / And the leaks that he brings to the eyes. / See Reavy arise from the holes in the tin / And announce on his grave, ‘I’m alive!’ "

The question posed by the poem’s title, "How Could Reavy Die?" is easy to answer: He hasn’t, not when so many of his tunes still find their way onto albums and into concerts, sessions, and hearts.

The work done by his sons through the Ed Reavy Foundation, 2004 Aspen Circle, Springfield, PA 19064, (610)543-3295, keeps his music and memory burning brightly. Helping to preserve and perpetuate his musical legacy are two books, "The Collected Compositions of Ed Reavy" (127 tunes in all) and "The Ed Reavy Collection of Irish American Traditional Tunes, Vol. 1: The Music of Corktown" (100 Reavy settings of favorite tunes, including seven he wrote); a three-cassette release, "The Collected Compositions of Ed Reavy, Vols. 1-3," and more recently a video, "The Music of Ed Reavy," recorded at Philadelphia’s DUTV-Cable 54 studio.

The books and three-cassette package are also available from Green Grass Music, Carrick Road, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, Ireland; phone: 011-353-78-41236; fax: 011-353-78-41237.

(Earle Hitchner is the Echo’s "Trad Beat" columnist. He is also frequent contributor to many music publications and writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal.)

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