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Fiddler spins gold from silk

May 4, 2011

By Staff Reporter

London-born, Portland resident fiddler Kevin Burke, now age 60, has lost none of the spellbinding silkiness in his playing. Though his parents hailed from Sligo and he himself identifies with the Sligo style of fiddling, Burke fused the best elements of the various Irish immigrant fiddle styles he heard growing up in England’s capital. Sligo may represent the unbreakable bone of his playing, but the styles of Clare (via Bobby Casey), Armagh (via Brendan McGlinchey), and other counties seeped into the marrow. It explains why Burke’s fiddling sounds familiar but is, in fact, uniquely his, overlaid by the diverse fiddling he’s heard in America since immigrating here in 1980. (For example, bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker’s rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge” inspired Burke to record his own version on his 1984 album, “Up Close.”)

Sponsored by the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, the strictly solo concert that Burke recently gave in the carriage house owned by the Cummiskey family in Redding, Conn., displayed all his performance strengths. His touch was impeccable, his tempo neither lunged nor lagged, his use of ornamentation was precise without being prissy, and his demeanor, comments, and droll humor made the audience of about 40 people as relaxed and comfortable as he was.

Burke began with a hornpipe and a jig, the latter composed by his Patrick Street colleague John Carty, and followed with three reels learned from Bobby Casey, Mairtin Byrnes, and Finbar Dwyer, all Irish traditional immigrant musicians encountered in London. Burke’s fiddling in both those medleys was seamless and spotless.

With the swing of a French café musician, he played “Paris Nights,” a waltz composed by his frequent musical partner Cal Scott. The Kerry medley “Dan O’Keeffe’s / If I Had a Wife / Leave Well Alone” seemed to dance on Burke’s strings, and a pair of polkas comprising “Glen Cottage” and a Donal Lunny composition also delivered plenty of snap.

Burke prefaced his nuanced, caesura-flecked playing of “Evening Prayer Blues” by saying that the tune, which he ascribed to Bill Monroe on the 2007 album he made with Cal Scott, “Across the Black River,” was actually composed by DeFord Bailey. Though Burke didn’t elaborate on who Bailey was, I instantly recalled that Bailey (1899-1982), who came from Tennessee, was the first black star of the Grand Ole Opry. Steeped in blues and old-timey music, he sang and played banjo, guitar, and harmonica, and it was that last instrument for which he was best known. In 1927 for the Brunswick label, Bailey recorded a popular harmonica solo of “Evening Prayer Blues,” and it’s likely that Bill Monroe heard it either on a recording or on stage when he toured with Bailey. The fact that Burke acknowledged this compositional error on “Across the Black River” speaks volumes about his integrity. Provenance, when ascertainable, matters to him.

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The fiddler’s creativity was unmissable in the way he folded Turlough O’Carolan’s “Loftus Jones” within “O’Carolan’s Concerto.” Burke’s homage to Sligo fiddling legend Michael Coleman (1891-1945), whose impact was first felt in New York City, featured two of his chestnuts, the reels “Boys of the Lough / The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” (He also played those tunes as bookends in the six-reel “Long Set” on “Across the Black River.”)

It was fascinating to follow Burke’s peripatetic journey from reels (“Egan’s / Hop Down”), to a Bach minuet, to the Quebecois medley “Reel de Napoleon / Reel en Sol / Guy Thomas,” to jigs and then slides, to “Kitty O’Neill’s Championship Jig” (a hornpipe in actuality), to the Yiddish tune “Itzikel,” and again to reels. That one excursion offered a glimpse into his musical openness.

The encore of two more Quebecois tunes, a tribute to their playing by Burke’s friend and Celtic Fiddle Festival colleague Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003), would have brought a smile of appreciation to the late Scottish fiddler. They certainly did to the Connecticut carriage house audience savoring the music of one of the world’s favorite and most skillful Irish fiddlers, Kevin Burke.

Remembering Jack Whelan

In 1989, when I left a small, unremarkable, noncommercial radio station on which I had broadcast Irish and other Celtic traditional music for nearly five years, many devoted listeners believed that I would seek and find another radio station to air that music. I was touched by the fierce loyalty and support of my listeners, but I knew I would not return to radio ever again except as a guest. I was a writer before my radio stint, and I returned to writing after it. That has always been my passion, and writing about music combines two passions for me.

Originally from Ballyvaskin, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, and a resident of Elmhurst and then Mineola, N.Y., Jack Whelan, who died on April 26 at age 84, was one of my devoted radio listeners. A registered nurse at New York University Hospital’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, from which he retired, Jack always complimented me on the way I presented music on the air. He even graciously overlooked my initial mispronunciations of “Laois” and “Ballinakill.” My porous defense was that I was a writer, not a speaker, at heart. An eminently kind gentleman, Jack never minded my sporadic stumbling because he was grateful I was promoting the best in the music both he and I loved.

I will never forget what Jack told me in the company of others: “Earle will have no trouble getting another radio show if he wants to.” I think he sensed that I had run my course on radio, and I knew that as much as he respected my program, he respected any decision I may make not to come back to radio.

I met Jack on several occasions afterward, invariably involving music or dance, and his enthusiasm for Irish traditional culture was manifest in more ways than I can recount here. His long-term participation and leadership in Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann certainly stand out. It was Jack Whelan who, as chairman of CCE’s Mid-Atlantic Region, launched its hall of fame in 1980. He was ubiquitous at CCE events within the N.Y./N.J. metro region, and no matter how much the tides of popularity for Irish traditional music may have changed over the years, his dedication never did. It was bedrock strong and inviolate.

But the enduring memory of Jack Whelan for me is his laughter. If I managed to say something funny, his head would tilt back, his chest heave, and his face redden with delight. Then he would poke me in the arm. There was a sparkle in his eyes.

I extend my deepest condolences to Jack Whelan’s entire family, especially his dear wife and favorite dance partner Mae (nee Clancy) and their children Maureen, Theresa, James, and Eileen. Jack also leaves behind countless friends lucky enough to have their lives brightened by his.

His funeral Mass took place on April 30 at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., followed by interment in Holy Rood Cemetery. Notes of sympathy and Mass cards can be sent to Mae Whelan and family, 244 Wardwell Rd., Mineola, NY 11501. In lieu of flowers, donations in Jack Whelan’s name can be sent–true to his undying love of Irish music–to WFUV-FM, Irish Music Programming, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458 (www.wfuv.org).

(Note: In next week’s “Ceol” will be an appreciation of the visionary leadership of Robert Browning at the World Music Institute, from which he’s retiring this month.)

 

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