Dan Milner.

Pivotal Milner was steeped in Irish, English and Scots song

Devastating news from the world of traditional music with the announcement of the passing of singer, scholar, photographer, and Air Force veteran Dan Milner.  

 Milner was born in Birmingham, England, in 1945 and grew up around music, his mother a dancer and his father a piano player and singer.  After absorbing his father’s repertoire, he began steeping himself in the world of Irish, English, and Scottish song in a prodigious and comprehensive way.  He added maritime songs to his repertoire with his brother Liam in 1961, after having to traveled to New York on the Queen Elizabeth.

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 In the ensuing years he became a pivotal figure in New York Irish music.  He was active in the folk scene and in the early 1970s he began a folk club that became incredibly important.  First hosted at Malachy McCourty’s bar Bells of Hell, it later found a home at the Eagle Tavern, a legendary bar and music venue located on west 14th street, whose sessions and concert series quite simply defined Irish music in New York City from its start the 1970s until the bar closed in the early ‘90s.  

 The Eagle’s concert series was the result of a residency by Flying Cloud, a band Milner founded in 1975 with guitarist Caesar Pacifici, multi-instrumentalist Brian Brooks, and string of fiddle players that began with the great Paddy Reynolds.  Flying Cloud performed alongside a who’s-who of bands who performed at the Eagle and after Flying Cloud broke up in 1978, the Derby Ram, another group Milner formed, this one with Paul Kaplan (singer/songwriter/guitarist/cittern player) and Larry Cole (Northumbrian and Scottish bagpipes), took its place. In these years, Milner ran the concert series with the assistance of Frank Woerner, with whom he would later perform as a member of New York Packet, a group known for its performance of traditional maritime music. Milner ran concerts at the Eagle until 1983.  

 Milner was a widely respected singer who counted folks like Joe Heaney, Frank Harte, and Margaret Barry as friends and worked with the music’s best over the years, including Mick Moloney, Robbie O’Connell, Lou Killen, Bob Conroy, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey, John Doyle, Joanie Madden and many, many others.

 He performed widely.  Milner taught at places like the Catskills Irish Art Week and the Augusta Irish Week, was performed regularly at places like the Mystic Seaport Music of the Sea Festival in Connecticut and the Inishowen International Folk Song and Ballad Seminar in County Donegal, Ireland.  In New York, he was a fixture at the South Street Seaport Museum, where he often performed with the New York Packet and alongside the Johnson Girls, a singing group that includes Bonnie Milner, Dan’s wife, who is herself an excellent singer.  He also performed for many years with the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra.

 Milner held a Ph.D. in American and Canadian Studies from the University of Birmingham and since 2011 had been an adjunct associate professor at St. John’s University.  He gave numerous presentations and workshops over the decades that complemented a highly respectable number of scholarly articles.  He also published two books, “The Bonnie Bunch of Roses: Songs of England, Ireland & Scotland,” a collection of English, Irish and Scots folk songs, in 1983, and “The Unstoppable Irish: Songs and Integration of the New York Irish, 1783-1883,” a major academic study that looked at early the Irish Catholic experience in America (and used music to tell the story).  It was published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2019.

 In addition to Flying Cloud’s eponymous album, Milner also recorded five albums, the first three “Irish Ballads and Songs of the Sea,” “Irish in America,” and “Irish Songs from Old New England,” coming out on Folk Legacy Records and the last two “Civil War Naval Songs,” and “Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea,” released by Smithsonian Folkways.  All were excellent and have a lasting quality about them.

 A mighty man, Dan was a great character and excellent singer whose kind presence will be sorely missed.  Sincerest condolences to his family and friends at this painful time.

 On a different note, congratulations is due to Joanie Madden, whose 2021 National Heritage Fellowship was finally celebrated this past Friday with a special event at the Library of Congress honoring the 2020-22 NHF recipients whose award ceremonies were delayed because of Covid.  Madden is one of the best and it is gratifying to see her properly fêted.

 In other news, the great Dolores Keane has released a very powerful and emotionally cutting new single called “My Refuge.”  The song was released to coincide with Keane's 70th birthday and will be included in her forthcoming multi-volume Anthology set which will be released in the coming weeks.  Definitely check this one out!  Click here for more https://bfan.link/my-refuge.

 Finally, the Augusta Irish Retreat will take place this November 2nd-5th at the Blackwater Falls Lodge in Tucker County, West Virginia.  This looks like it will be a great even for those interested in honing their musical chops, as the Retreat picks up where the Augusta Irish Week, the U.S.’s first Irish music teaching week that ended in 2017 after 35 years, left off.  Last year’s inaugural weekend got rave reviews from all I spoke with (and people had great things to say about the new accommodations and food) and it appears the weekend’s organizers have found the right ways to build on last year’s success.

 This year’s instructors include Brenda Castles (concertina, vocals), Dylan Foley (fiddle), Ivan Goff (flute, https://augustaartsandculture.org/fall-2023-airpipes), Jefferson Hamer (guitar, vocals), and Liz Hanley (fiddle, vocals), an excellent group of musicians if there ever was one.  Again, this looks like it’ll be an excellent time as this compact weekend promises to pack a punch.  To learn more and enroll, visit https://augustaartsandculture.org/fall-2023-air.