In the crowd I saw some musicians for whom I had written other album liner notes, and a small knot formed in my stomach.
I remember thanking the woman for her compliment. Although I don’t recall what I said after that, I thought of what she said as I was reading “The Definitive Collection of the Music of Paddy O’Brien 1922-1991,” a stunning, new, 212-page book conceived, compiled, edited, and principally written by Eileen O’Brien, Paddy’s daughter.
For “The Banks of the Shannon” CD in 1993, I had written a lengthy essay and biographies of the three musicians on it: Tipperary-born button accordionist Paddy O’Brien (1922-91), Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly, and Leitrim-born pianist Charlie Lennon. Green Linnet Records released it in cooperation with Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, which in 1973 had issued a self-described “little LP” with the same title comprising six monaural tracks by the trio. Besides those monumental six tracks, the 1993 album featured five sides taken from the epic 78-rpm solo recordings made by O’Brien in 1954, three new tracks recorded by Connolly and Lennon, and one track of strictly solo fiddling by Connolly.
A lingering unease about that 1993 CD stems from a decision made on four of the five Paddy O’Brien 78-rpm solo sides, rightly held as sacrosanct by collectors and admirers. Charlie Lennon was asked (by whom, I can’t recall) to furnish piano accompaniment, which he tastefully if reluctantly did, knowing he was vulnerable to criticism for adding to or altering acknowledged masterpieces. Despite Charlie’s beautifully supportive piano playing, he, Seamus, and I lament its insertion on those four O’Brien solo tracks.
Still, I was proud of the fact that the CD would make this classic music of the past available again, along with Connolly’s more recent, superb music. The tunes recorded by O’Brien on his own in 1954 and with Connolly and Lennon in 1973 provide cogent proof of O’Brien’s genius on the B/C button accordion. To hear his version of “The Yellow Tinker / The Sally Gardens,” for example, is to understand why a tectonic shift in Irish accordion playing would soon be underway. Boston-born Joe Derrane’s unsurpassed genius on the D/C# button accordion, powerfully evident throughout the first full decade after WWII, had found a counterpart in the playing of Tipperary-born Paddy O’Brien on the B/C button accordion, which quickly rose in popularity among box players.
Commemorating his legacy is Aonach Paddy O’Brien, an annual festival in Nenagh at which Joe Derrane was a special guest in 1995, and “The Compositions of Paddy O’Brien,” a fine, 53-page book published in 1992, a year after his death. In that book Eileen O’Brien, the 1980 All-Ireland senior fiddle champion and a member of the acclaimed Ormond Ceili Band founded by her father, wrote, “Hopefully we will be able to bring out another collection in the future.”
Hope became reality this year. “The Definitive Collection of the Music of Paddy O’Brien 1922-1991” contains a compelling, detailed biography featuring explications and insights into his musicianship, recordings, compositions, teaching, family life, and lineage. O’Brien composed more than 100 reels, single jigs, double jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes, polkas, and marches, and they are all transcribed here. Some of them have never been heard before, making the book an exciting new resource for musicians ever-searching for fresh or uncommon tunes. Several compositions carry brief descriptions of their provenance, reference, or inspiration.
Tributes to Paddy O’Brien in the book come from more than 50 musicians, family members, friends, playing partners, and writers (myself included). Of varying length, these tributes constitute an oral biography of their own, full of heartfelt anecdote, overwhelming esteem, and unrelenting gratitude rooted in vivid memories.
Among the stateside contributors is Msgr. Charlie Coen, recalling how “no one thought of dancing, just listening,” when Paddy O’Brien played during his years (1954-62) in New York City. Felix Dolan remembered the first time he met Paddy, in 1956 at age 19, and described his later membership with him in the New York Ceili Band as “one of the highlights of my musical career.” Jack Coen, another New York Ceili Band member, recounted how he “first met Paddy O’Brien at a Comhaltas meeting on Broadway and 215th Street in Manhattan” and how they had to borrow an accordion and flute to play a few tunes together, forever cementing their friendship.
But the most moving tribute of all is by Paddy’s playing partner from 1963 to 1976, the year he immigrated to America: Seamus Connolly. The “Father of the B/C Accordion” and the most honored fiddler in the history of the All-Ireland solo championships were a legendary duo, and the reputation of each rose even higher through their musical alliance and profound friendship. “I miss him and think about him still every day,” Connolly writes.
Ranking among the finest books ever published of an Irish traditional performer, “The Definitive Collection of the Music of Paddy O’Brien 1922-1991” also offers a slew of vintage personal photographs (a favorite is Paddy playing accordion in front of a parked sedan during the 1950s), drawings by Mike Lancaster, pictures of the different accordions played by Paddy, a song about him by Michael Scanlan, and an 11-stanza poem by Charlie Lennon about the recording of “The Banks of the Shannon.” No home library of Irish music can be considered complete or even remotely comprehensive without this essential book.
Eileen O’Brien has given us nothing less than her father–brilliant, beloved, and in full glory. Read the book while listening to “The Banks of the Shannon.” You’ll swear he’s beside you.
To acquire the new collection, visit www.paddyobrienbook.com. You can also contact Eileen O’Brien at Moanfin, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, 011-353-67-31716, [email protected]