Why Willie and Mary Matter

Old ballads in a dating app era
Episode Trailer

Why do old ballads endure? Does it make sense to sing about Willie and Mary, when our playgrounds are filled with Ozzies and Loxleys? Do we really need to say “my love is like a red, red rose,” or can’t we use a modern metaphor and call her really hot? 

Laura Cortese, Cathy Jordan, Sam Amidon, Robbie O’Connell, and Karan Casey help host Shannon Heaton explore old ballads in a dating app era.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Brian Benscoter, Pat Wilcox, Mike Schock, Billie Neal.

Episode 17-Why Willie and Mary Matter
Old ballads in a dating app era
This Irish Music Stories episode aired June 12, 2018


Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Laura Cortese: San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston
>> Sam Amidon: Musician/singer from Brattleboro, Vermont who is both a practitioner of Irish traditional fiddle and a composer/inventor of neo-folk and multi-media performances
>> Cathy Jordan: Roscommon-born, Sligo-based traditional singer and bodhran player who performs with acclaimed band Dervish
>> Robbie O’Connell: Waterford-born singer songwriter who toured and recorded with his uncles The Clancy Brothers, and went on to perform solo and with The Green Fields of America
>> Karan Casey: Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist who has appeared on stages and recordings with numerous projects


>> Shannon: Before I start the show, I wanted to thank everybody for listening. And for sharing episodes with your friends. And a very special thank you to this month’s donors, read by my son Nigel.

>> Nigel: Ready? Thank you to Pat Wilcox, Mike Schock, Billie Neal, and Brian Benscoter.

>> Shannon: If you can kick in, please visit IrishMusicStories.org. Your support helps me pull together different voices and views of the world… all through an Irish music and dance lens. So, THANK you!

And… I’m Shannon Heaton. And This is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it …

[ Music: “Lovely Annie,” from Tell You in Earnest
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

Like why Laura Cortese broke up with Willie.

>> Laura:  When I would hear the exact same, “Willie sits at the stable door.” I’m like, I don’t ride horses, I’ve never been to a stable. The places that these stories were happening were so disconnected from someone who’d grown up in the middle of a city, San Francisco.

>> Shannon: And why Cathy Jordan thinks Willie still has something to say today.

>> Cathy: I keep getting drawn back to the old ballads. I just love the personality of them. I love the stories they carry. There’s a weight in them.

>> Shannon: Here’s Cathy with her band, Dervish, and their version of Sean McCarthy’s song, Shanagolden, which has found its way into the traditional canon. 

[ Music: “Shanagolden,” from The Thrush in the Storm
Artist: Dervish (Cathy Jordan singing) ]

[Music: “Sabai Sabai” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Once you dig into traditional ballads, you meet lots of Willie and Marys and Johnny and Annies. These story songs tell about stableboys, and press gangs, and chaste night visits. You also hear about emigration, war, and lovers torn apart. But whether the stories are quaint and old fashioned, or depressingly relevant and timeless, we’re still using these old metaphors and old characters.

[Music fades]

So, what’s up with singing about Willie and Mary, when there are lots of playgrounds filled with Ozzies, and Marguerites, and Loxleys? And, well, do we really need to call our love a red, red rose, or can we just be real and use a modern metaphor: can’t we just say she’s really hot?

[Music: “Low Hum,” from California Calling
Composer: Laura Cortese ]

I asked singers Sam Amidon, Cathy Jordan, Robbie O’Connell, Karan Casey, and Laura Cortese what they think about OLD ballads in a post millennial era. Here’s Laura’s song “Low Hum” It’s NOT an old song. What is this? Alt folk? Indie roots music? Whatever. It’s beautiful. And while Laura might be a folk-pop bandleader, she’s got a hard core fiddle background. And there was a time when traditional ballads were a big part of her act. 

We started this Willie and Mary conversation a few years ago, in an elevator. Laura and I were both performing at the National Folk Alliance convention. We had just said good night to a bunch of presenters and as soon as the elevator door had closed, Laura turned to me and said, “I’m so done singing about Willie and Mary.”

[Music fades]

It was hilarious. And it got me really thinking about these old songs. 

Why do I sing them?

Should I sing them?

It was a moment of self examination, and I keep going back to these questions. 

So I asked Laura to revisit the elevator chat we had, back in the mid 2000s.

>> Shannon: So do you remember some years ago, we were at the Folk Alliance music conference? And we had each showcased our own acts, and then we were getting into the elevator, ah,just like decompressing. Just the two of us. You turned to me and you were like, “I am so done with singing about Willie and Mary.”

>> Laura: Hahaha! Those particular characters or maybe just the names of those characters no longer felt connected to me, they felt abstract and almost a little silly, not so universal, even though that’s all they do represent—the stories that are told are universal. And are dealing with real human emotion.

>> Shannon: So every time you heard the Johnny, the Mary, or whatever… 

>> Laura: Yeah, what the stories were telling, you know, lovers that are not supposed to be together for societal pressures, or whatever, the story that was being told, the scene that was taking place just felt silly or felt not connected to me. Much like watching fantasy. I mean, so many people can connect to watching, oh god, what is that show even called?

>> Shannon: Game of Thrones?

>> Laura: Yes, that show.

>> Shannon: No, I can’t do it. 

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Laura: I can’t do it, but so many people can. In fact, the universe that has been established allows them to step out of themselves. And think about things that if they had to do it in the context of their own life it would be too difficult. And I have, sort of, the visceral opposite reaction, like, “just be real with me.” Maybe I’m not gonna talk about petticoats because I don’t have petticoats.

>> Shannon: What are they? Are they slips?

>> Laura: They’re like extra layers under your dress! You know, I’m not gonna sing about petticoats, but the idea of showing what the person is wearing tells you something. 

Just be here, be now. I don’t need this character, Willie or Mary, to think or talk about this thing.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Was there a time that you DID believe these songs?

>> Laura: Probably in high school when I was “oh, wouldn’t’ it be great if the guy I have a crush on would come to my window and throw rocks at it and wake me up in the middle of the night and visit me.”

I don’t even know what I thought would happen when he visited me. Probably the same sort of sterilized version that happens in the song, where, you know, you stand there briefly chatting and then he runs away.

>> Shannon: The cock crows, and it’s done, it’s day

>> Laura: The cock crows, and then it’s done! It’s day. Exactly! Like, my fantasies were, like, holding hands at that stage of life. That idea, like, that fantasy of romance or something did work for me. I mean, so many  of these songs aren’t about romance.

 That was, just like, I can clearly remember on a rainy night in my bedroom in San Francisco and thinking, oh, that night visiting songs. It would be so magical.

>> Shannon: It would be.

>> Laura and Shannon: Hahaha!

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Beyond the silliness of singing an old fashioned love song in a dating app era, Laura also thinks there are bigger issues at stake. 

[Music: The Banks of the Red Roses]

Like, maybe there are intentions and messages that ripple out to the world, stuff that we may or may not want to infect our imagination. Laura is sensitive to these messages, so when she does sing traditional songs today, she’s careful. She’s thoughtful. So is Scottish singer, Karine Polwart, who sang this version of the Banks of the Red Roses when she was touring with the Battlefield Band.

[ Music: “Banks of Red Roses,” from Happy Daze
Artist: Karine Polwart with the Battlefield Band ]

>> Shannon: Here’s Laura again.

>> Laura: When we choose to sing a song, let’s say, one of the songs where the guy murders the girl. How are, what are we talking about? What are we saying before we sing the song? What is the context that we’re giving this song? Are we questioning society when we sing this song, or are we performing this song on its own? We don’t just continue to sing the song where a woman walks into harmony of success and love and the prince has taken her away. We do that with a wink and a question about how that relates to our society now.

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Any song that you’re singing that comes from a tradition, it’s all about the story that you’re telling, and how/what that story means to you and in the context of society that you’re participating in.

>> Shannon: And when Willie and Mary are the central characters, I guess that limits the story.

[Music fades]

>> Laura: I am definitely an ally for anyone wanting to label themselves any way or anyone to feel any way and if my songs can remove a stamp of something that has to be, like why does it have to be a heterosexual partnership that I’m singing about?  It doesn’t have to be. So, if I remove, if I can remove gender from a song it just gives more space for the listener to create their own story, and tell their own story.

Nic Gareiss, he does a lot with singing the song that would have traditionally been sung from the woman’s perspective.

Singing about a man, as a man. He’s opening up the possibility of someone to choose a different path than what this exact song would have said. 

[ Music:  “Jersey City,” from Emma Beaton & Nic Gareiss
Artists: Emma Beaton & Nic Gareiss ]

>> Shannon: Like the song, Jersey City Where Died for Love that Nic Gareiss sang here with Emma Beaton.


>> Laura: I sometimes can get very excited about how old a song is. 

[Music fades]

And the fact that we are all human and we are living this same human existence, and it doesn’t matter if we were a farmer trying to make ends meet 200 years ago, or if we’re, um, working at McDonald’s today. We have, like, the same will to survive. And we have relationships with people that are challenging, and we have relationships with people that are gratifying. And we’re, like LIVING, doesn’t change that much. Being a human doesn’t change that much. And so I can get really amazed by the fact that someone already told this story. That said, I connect also with the idea that you might happen upon a way of transmitting an idea that meets someone where they are in this moment, in a way that nothing else has.

>> Shannon: So for Laura there is that possibility of unlocking a new way of saying a timeless thing.

But above all, it’s about finding the truth in each song—what’s real and authentic for her. And like Laura, Sam Amidon hooks onto songs that ring out for him. His songs aren’t always old, but most of the stuff he records is traditional. 

[ Music: “Lily-O” from Lily-O
Artist: Sam ]

>> Laura: Sam Amidon, he can grab a song from a modern country artist or an old trad song or a hip hop artist, and you believe what he’s singing, equally. I think he cuts to the heart of the humanity in the story, and doesn’t get lost in that, “what is the time and place?”

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: Like Laura, Sam also has a fiddle background. He played jigs and reels on the fiddle  before he was a singer with guitar. And there are loads of rhythmic riffs and interludes in his music—how you present and deliver your songs, that affects it all, too. Sam and I talked about old ballads during his last visit. We had some time before we had to leave the house, so we set a timer on the Amazon Echo, and we talked about old ballads in a modern context.

“Alexa, set timer for 40 minutes”

>> Sam: Hello, hello, check my mike…

>> Shannon: All right, Sam, let’s warm up a little bit. Why are you moved to take these old stories and weave them into a newer context, into your own context?

>> Sam: It happened very organically and very accidentally. Basically the way it happened was, there was this phase when I was trying to learn how to play guitar, because I knew the fiddle was more of an Irish instrument for me. At a certain point I just, like, had a little riff, and I sang a song over it. In a way it was something I really got more from Irish tunes, where you know the melody is set at a session.

[ Music: “Jackie Coleman’s Reel” from Music at Matt Molloy’s
Artists: Matt Molloy & Friends ]

 You can have ten people playing the melody but you’re really, generally, going to have just one harmonic accompaniment, right? There’s going to be one guitarist, one piano player because that person is kind of improvising in a way the harmony, right? The melody is set, but the harmony is very ambiguous. So, you know, a lot of my influence, I think, at that moment was still from Irish music, even though I wasn’t playing Irish music at that moment because I was still inspired by those qualities. And then I would often write little guitar riffs and give them to Thomas.

>> Shannon: Your friend Thomas Bartlett who played piano?

>> Sam: My friend Thomas Bartlett, in the band Doveman. So I’d record them alone at night. And then he’d come back and I’d play it. And he’d be like, okay leave the house, and I would leave the house and he’d put all this weird stuff on it. That was his first album he produced. We were so shy, we couldn’t even do it in the same room together, we were so nervous about it. So I would literally leave the house and I’d come back two hours later, and he would have put some weird keyboards or some electric guitars, you know, things that he was doing without really knowing what he was doing at all. 

>> Shannon:  So has it ever felt like a separation for you to have these trad ballads woven into a more modern alt folk?

>> Sam: I think there’s a balance for me which is that, as a kid, there was Appalachian music in the background because of my parents playing the banjo and they listened to a lot of folk records and all that stuff. But for me the folk songs albums that I’ve made where I’ve reworked the music and etc., changed it around, I don’t present myself on the albums like wearing old fashioned clothes. You know what I mean? 

There’s no pretense that’s what I, you know, I think it was a lucky balance for me.  I had the sound of it from the background of my childhood, but it had not been something I’d grown up with, so I was still coming to it in a beginner kind of way. Yeah.

>> Shannon: So Sam was taking these old songs and re-imagining them. He called on his Irish music background, and also the free jazz he’d stumbled on as a teenager:

>> Sam: I heard some free jazz albums around age 15, of the blistering 1960s screaming saxophones. At first I also thought that was all so ridiculous, because it was like people just making bleeding noises, like goat noises on their saxophones, this is ridiculous. But then I took it home and realized it was actually really intense and beautiful and passionate music. And I really became obsessed with free jazz. And THEN, I heard the sound of the Appalachian singers and fiddle players in a very different light.

[ Music: Streets of Derry” from Bright Sunny South
Artist: Sam Amidon ]

 Because I heard it after appreciating the intensity and rawness of like,these 60s free jazz people, like Albert Ayler. And all of a sudden these field recordings of super scratchy, and you know, just sounded incredibly raw and powerful to me.

>> Shannon: Irish traditional music and free jazz. We all have our own rainbow coalition of influences. And in Sam’s case, his crazy path pointed his way back to these raw, old songs.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: So this raw quality that you talk about in these songs, do you think that’s accessible to people today?

>> Sam: I think the material is just so good, right? Like the songs are amazing and the words are amazing and the stories are so powerful. I believe that part of what makes them so strong is that they’ve been put through the folk process. That they’ve been sung, they’ve been passed, they’ve been whittled down in that way. And there’s a great deal of accident in that process, which I love and have tried to preserve in different ways on my albums. You know, there is a song, Pretty Fair Damsel, for example, where this soldier is trying to get this girl to go out with him. And she’s  saying I can’t, because my lover is far away and I’m always going to be faithful to him. And then, I’ve learned, it just ends on that note. 

And the guy says he’s probably dead, and she says I don’t care. And that’s where it ends, and it’s so beautiful and odd and like hopeless but also beautiful.

[ Music: “Pretty Fair Damsel” from I See the Sign
Artist: Sam Amidon ]

 Now I’ve learned that there’s, like, tons of versions of that song where then the soldier reveals himself to be the husband at the end, which is sweet, but in my mind, so much less compelling than just leaving it on this odd note, of her expressing a slightly insane degree of love for this disappeared person. And I have no idea whether the mp3 I have of the Clarence Ashley just stopped or if he didn’t know that verse or if he couldn’t be bothered to sing it that day and sung it all the other days. You know, I love also that element, the mystery of it.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: And that there is variation?

>> Sam: Yeah! 

[ Beeping sound]

That’s the alarm. Alexa, off! Hahaha.

>> Shannon: Time was almost up for our morning chat. So I cut back to the main idea for this show.

>> Shannon:  So these old ballads—they matter, today?

>> Sam: Oh, of course. Yeah, Definitely. But I think they matter not because they’re old, but because they’re good. Part of what is powerful from them being from another era is, two things.

[Music:  “Sabai Sabai,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

 One is that you get to receive the wisdom of that era. So for example a lot of sacred harp and folk songs are about death and death is something those people would have been dealing with in a much more daily way, like if they had 6 kids and 3 survived, and you know, I think that can be very valuable and comforting for us, to sing those songs to help process stuff that maybe we process in a different way now. But also the other element IS also hearing something that is that old and has these clearly old references, and yet the sentiment is so familiar, right?

>> Shannon: It’s so relatable.

[Music fades]

>> Sam: Lost love, or the songs also that are just more like a person’s internal, like As I Roved Out. The Appalachian As I Roved Out, where he’s just basically wandering around the woods, it’s like-

[Sam singing: As I roved out on a cold winter’s night…drinkin’ of sweet wine… I spied that girl, sweet little girl… who broke this heart of mine.]

And the rest of the verses are verses some of which you find out in songs like, I Wish the Lord I’d Never Been Born. And, you know.

>> Shannon: But it’s about his experience of the broken heart?

>> Sam: I feel like this song is just a dude walking around in the woods singing to himself. And I don’t think he really sees her. I think he just imagines that he sees her in the trees and then he sings a snatch of another song, ‘cause he’s… you know…it’s like…I feel like it’s a…

>> Shannon: Kicking around in the woods and sort of having a ditty running around in your head.

>> Sam: Literally wandering around in the woods drunk, singing what comes into your mind and singing some other song for a verse, it’s amazing.

>> Shannon: Yeah, I can unfortunately relate to that.

>> Sam and Shannon: Hahaha!

>> Sam: Exactly!

>> Shannon: So with a ditty in my head, I ambled down from the wooded hills of Medford, Mass to Harvard Square in Cambridge, to meet up with Cathy Jordan and her band Dervish. It was a blustery night, but Cathy and I found a warm nook where we could chat before the show.

>> Shannon: Thanks for chatting with me.

>> Cathy: You’re welcome, nice to talk with you, Shannon.

>> Shannon: Cathy and I had been talking about trends in Irish music. How bluegrass songs and stomp boxes are fierce popular at the outdoor festivals. And yet, with her band Dervish, and with her solo projects, she’s still singing stomp-box free Irish songs. Now Dervish is a well-oiled machine—after more than 25 years of playing together.

[ Music:  “The Green Gowned Lass,” from Thrush in the Storm
Artist: Dervish ]

They’re not overly eager and they are not overly worried about their music and their show, but they still sit around and play together beforehand. They all clearly love traditional music. And Cathy loves old ballads.

>> Shannon: Why would you sing trad ballads in this day and age?

>> Cathy: I do ask myself the same question. You know? Why do I do it? I do write my own stuff and I do sing modern stuff every now and again. But I grew up with them. 

[Music fades]

My father and mother sang, and I just always loved those old songs. They just seem to carry this weight of, um, history and geography and people’s troubles and their heartaches. There’s a weight in them, you know. And I worry sometimes that they’d be lost, because this generation didn’t hear them the way I heard them at home in the house. They had a great relevance to me—it was the way I socialized and my family socialized was through songs. 

>> Shannon: So you’re performing these songs, recording them, but also teaching them, feeling this obligation to kind of keep them going?

>> Cathy: Yes. There’s great fulfillment in it. Knowing that, you know, that little section of kids now know all these songs and enjoy singing them. And we talk about the stories of them and what they’re saying. And they have an interest now that they didn’t have in the ballads and traditional songs that they didn’t have before I got there. I feel chuffed about that, that I’m doing something to keep it alive, you know?

[ Music: Érin Grá Mo Chroí,” from Midsummer’s Night
Artist: Dervish ]

>> Shannon: Cathy is well known for singing these enduring, well travelled songs. She also writes new ones. I asked her how she connects new with old.

>> Shannon: So what’s this experience of writing your own songs? How does that relate to the trad ballads. 

[Music fades]

>> Cathy: Um, weird sometimes because when I sit down to write or something comes out and, mmmm… what am I going to do with THAT? That’s not in the genre at ALL! That’s a pop song. But usually I try to fob those off on my nieces, or I try and then to focus on the stuff that would be more in keeping with the genre that I record in. But, um…

>> Shannon: So there’s musical consistency, or because that’s what really speaks to you?

>> Cathy: No, I love all the stuff that comes out. It’s fascinating. You know that, wow, that didn’t exist a half an hour ago, whatever, and then this thing is written. But it’s what to do with them when it’s written. When I go to record, well, this song sounds like a reggae song or this song sounds like a pop song. And it doesn’t really fit with Dervish. You know, I’m just probably not going to record them. Or if I do, it’ll be a real left of field, kind of, recording. But I can’t see meself being a pop star now at this point, or a reggae, you know, star either.

>> Shannon: I don’t know, I could see it.

>> Cathy: Can you? Well I guess when you have so many years of trad you, um, it’s a challenge to know what to do with them sometimes because, em, it would mean a big change for me if I was to pursue some of the stuff that came out of my head, you know. Um…

>> Shannon: Sometimes creative constraints are great. Sometimes limitations are just what we need for the creative process. As much as it might be nice to just follow every path, no matter where it goes. I think sometimes when you have…

>> Cathy: Hone in a bit. Yeah.. Good! 

[ Music: “The Rolling Wave,” from Thrush in the Storm
Artist: Dervish ]

>> Shannon: It would be fun to hear reggae Cathy. But like she said, for the most part, she really has honed in. There have been many other Irish singers who have followed tangents, and then ended up back in traditional ballad land.

>> Cathy: Big stars, when they get, when they get, maybe, dried a little bit, or maybe out of inspiration, you know. They always make their way to the tradition, to the well. It happens so many times in Ireland. They might start there and go off on so many tangents, and then come back to it. Like Paul Brady, like the Coors, like Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, you know,they all go to the well.

>> Shannon: It’s a homebase.

>> Cathy: It really is. Yeah. It’s, it’s all the inspiration you’ll ever need. Because of the lifetimes, so many lifetimes of inspiration there, you know? It just needs to be tapped.

So, I love them, I think they’re wonderful pieces of work, there’s beautiful melodies. They’re haunting, melodies, and then the stories as well. It’s just, and it just goes to show no matter how long, how much things change, the stories and the struggles are pretty much the same down through the generations, you know?

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: They are timeless. Those songs, they feel timeless.

>> Cathy: Yes. Absolutely.

>> Shannon: Timeless. These ballads have drawn singers like Cathy—because they are so timeless. And so beautiful. But still: it’s 2018. And my question of relevance and authenticity of these old songs, it still hangs.

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

So I went to see Robbie O’Connell. He grew up with a lot of old songs; but he mostly performs his own original songs. So… off to Rhode Island to trace Robbie’s path from the touring he did with his uncles, the Clancy Brothers…. to his work with the Green Fields of America… to his solo shows. Maybe Robbie’s journey could shed some light.

I nibbled on amazing biscuits while Robbie talked about his start—about the early days in his parents’ basement folk club.

>> Robbie: My parents had a small guest house at that stage and Bobby Clancy talked my mother into starting, like, a folk club in the cellar, which wasn’t being used. They whitewashed the walls. They put, it was typical, like a Greenwich village type thing, wine bottles with candles, you know, and fishnets on the ceiling, that kind of thing.

Every Saturday night there would be a session. Nobody ever was advertised, nobody ever got paid. Just people came and they sang. And, um, it really, really took off.

People literally came from all over the country. My mother used to hahahahah patrol around, telling people to be quiet. If people started talking she’d say, “if you want to talk you can go upstairs.” She just wouldn’t allow any talking, you know, it was a listening room. It was a genuine folk club. And it was all about the music. It usually ended up being a whole weekend because people would come, they’d stay. The musicians who would come would stay over. We’d have all night sessions on Saturday night. You know, it just went on. So many times I remember as a kid falling asleep in the middle of a session not being able to keep my eyes open, waking up in bed in the morning having no idea how I got there. Hahaha. You know, just somebody woke up and went off but I just wouldn’t even remember. But I didn’t want to miss anything, you know?

>> Shannon: Yeah!

[Music fades]

>> Robbie: In the summers, as the Clancy Brothers/Tommy Makem became more famous, a lot of people came to visit them, in the summer. A lot of them would stay at the house, so our house was kind of a central point of the sessions. There was a little bar, and we were about a mile outside the town, so when they got thrown out of the bars in town, they’d come to our place and play til the wee hours. I remember my mother and father used to get kind of annoyed that they would wait til closing time, but they were in no position to turn the business down. Nor did they want to miss the music.

>> Shannon: So Robbie was hearing all this great music live in the basement. And he was also poring over recordings.

>> Robbie: You know my uncles, the Clancy Brothers, my mother was the sister, and they started sending back albums, not just their own ones. But, Ed McCurdy had an album of children’s songs. I played the hell out of that! I got it all scratched up and everything, but I loved it. I learned a lot of those songs.

[ Music: “Once There Was a Little Girl” from Children’s Songs and Stories
Artist: Ed McCurdy

And I remember getting SingOut magazine. 

>> Shannon: Sure.

>> Robbie: I remember learning Tom Paxton’s song “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.”

>> Shannon: So, inhaling all those newer folk songs—while also hearing traditional singers at the guest house basement—this probably spurred Robbie on to write more of his own stories, in a more traditional ballad way. His musical BASE, from the start, was BOTH old and new. His heroes included Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, and Irish singer and song collector Frank Harte:

>> Shannon: You know Frank Harte, right? Frank was a great song collector.

>> Shannon: An incredible source of songs.

>> Robbie: And he was one of my musical heroes as I was growing up. Later on we both taught for several summers at the Irish week at Augusta. 

>> Shannon: A cup of tea, please, thank you.

[sounds of tea pouring]

>> Robbie: We became great friends. 

But I learned a lot about spud songs from Frank as well because he had a passion for songs that was most unusual. He saw them a little differently than most people. I remember one day he said to me, “O’Connell, you know, songs are important.” We were sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Elkins. And, you know, I never thought about songs being important. But he was talking about, uh, you know, not pop songs, but folk songs. He saw them as slices of history, eyewitness accounts of things that had happened. He coined that wonderful expression, “those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs,” which I later used in a song I wrote as a tribute to Frank, because it is just a wonderful, powerful line.

[Music: “The Keeper of the Songs,” from Live at WGBH
Artist/Composer: Robbie O’Connell ]

I kind of stick with the vocabulary of the older songs. I think there are loads of people writing kind of popular songs, right? And there’s no need for any more of those. But there’s not very many people writing songs in the tradition. 

[Music ends]

>> Shannon: So when you say you’re writing songs ‘in the tradition’, what does that mean?

>> Robbie: In terms of the musical style of songs. A lot of times it means a 4 or 8 line verse with a chorus. Not necessarily always a chorus. The kind of language that you use, the storytelling thing. Ballads are story songs, but almost all songs have information, essentially a story. Some are more narrative, the ballads are more narrative.

>> Shannon: “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it… That’s telling a story, for example.”

[ Shannon, Robbie- laughing]

>> Robbie: If you had never heard any kind of music but traditional Irish songs, and you went to write a song, that’s the kind of song you would write

I kind of narrow my focus down to my own tradition—to the Irish tradition or that folk tradition. And try and write within those parameters. I like songs to be about real events, real people, or real emotions. To me those three things are kind of what makes a folk song different from a regular song. 

[Music fades]

If you write about a particular event, sometimes you can do it in a way that gives it that, kind of, universal appeal. I wrote a song called “The Winning Side,” about a guy called John Doherty. It was around the time Nelson Mandela was getting out of jail.

>> Shannon: Here’s Robbie with Mick Maloney and Jimmy Keane. 

[Music: “The Winning Side,” from The Rights of Man: The Concert for Joseph Doherty
Composer: Robbie O’Connell
Artists: Robbie O’Connell, Mick Moloney, Jimmy Keane ]

>> Robbie: Loads of people assumed I had written it about Nelson Mandela. I was conscious of that. I wrote it for a concert to help defray the legal expenses of Joe Doherty that was being held in New York. And, as I am writing this song I realized that the thing that was happening to him wasn’t a one-off, this was the kind of thing that happened all over the world. So I put the song in that context. 

[Music fades]

I kept it kind of general enough without being too specific. I never mentioned him by name. So that the song had a broader application, if you know what I mean. 

>> Shannon: And when songwriting is a thing you do, at least you know you have an outlet when you hear something that really moves you or that enrages you. It is a really handy way to process.

>> Robbie: It is, except it’s a little dangerous, I think, to let anger drive a song. ‘Cause you tend to write bad lyrics. Hahaha, you’re angry, you know what I mean?

>> Shannon: Yeah, have you had that experience where you’ve…. ?

>> Robbie: Yeah, I’ve written songs. And afterwards I go, nah, I’m not gonna sing that. But you’re right, it does get it out of your system. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good song, you know?

[Shannon and Robbie- laughing]

>> Shannon: OK, no writing out of anger. I guess because songs have power. And power is strongest and most enduring when it’s balanced. And with care, maybe these OLD songs can bring a special kind of balance to our modern experiences and mistakes.

So, is the Willie and Mary question about more mindfulness? Is that the punchline here?

I was eager to run these ideas by Karan Casey. She and I talked about old ballads right after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. And I featured her conversation on the second episode of Irish Music Stories. Here’s what we came up with in a more recent discussion.

>> Shannon: Some of these songs are really old. And yet here you are, you’re still singing them… Why? Are they still relevant?

>> Karan: Yes, I think they are, I think they are very important to be sung. I think the whole history of Ireland has been  told through song. And, um, we keep repeating ourselves, you know, of course. We keep repeating the same mistakes and I suppose the same things have happened to us over and over again. But we find an expression for all those wounds through our songs. So let’s say I sing something like Suil Arun, possibly it can be dated back to the 17th century, we’re not sure, we kind of need a time machine, but possibly to the mercenary soldiers, the wild geese that went to Europe for work. 

[ Music: “Siúil Arun” AKA Johnny’s Gone for Soldier, from Solas
Artists: Solas ]

It’s essentially an anti war song because it tells of what actually happens when, uh, soldiers go to war. So it’s a way for me to say, well, this hasn’t worked, it hasn’t worked for 400 years. Colonialism fails us, it fails us in Ireland, it fails everywhere. It fails in Yemen, it fails in Somalia, Palestine. 

[Music fades]

So that is a way for me to discuss that subject through a beautiful song. It also has to be said, they’re beautiful songs. 

[ Music: “Slip Jig Dreams,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

They wouldn’t have lasted so long and they’re so enchanting and the melodies or, the modes, they draw you into that story. And they’re so beautifully crafted, the actual stories they take their time in telling that story. They’re 10 verses long. They set the scene. And then you’re drawn into that person’s life. I suppose for myself, I think it’s really important to be able, or at least to try to understand other people’s lives, other people’s point of view, em, other people’s situations, because I think that draws on our imaginary powers. And it also promotes compassion and love. 

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: And what about NEW political songs?

>> Karan: I do struggle with that. You know, are the new songs as rich, are they as in depth, are they as steeped in lore and in language, you know the poetry of so many of those songs is so deeply etched in our collective memory, that they are so powerful

>> Shannon: So there’s a richness to these older ballads because there is this collective experience with them?

>> Karan: Yeah, I do think, I do believe in a collective memory. I think it adds up, but I think it’s cumulative. And I think people’s experiences are so well uttered through those songs that we all know them, we’re sort of familiar with them, em, deep down. 

>> Shannon: Maybe there is that richness with the older songs, too, because they have traveled, they’ve crossed oceans, back and forth many times. And, you know, they’ve sort of been compromised, right, they’ve adapted along the way. It’s sort of like the perfect human experiment, really. 

>> Karan: I do think in America it goes back a long way because Irish people have been coming here for a long, long time. And, uh, I would like to think that all the people that have been coming to America use their songs to express, em, that we all use our songs to express ourselves. And then that we swap them as cultural gifts to one another, and that it is a means to help understanding.

>> Shannon: Cultural gifts. Yeah. Song swapping is seriously effective (and inexpensive) diplomacy. The Arts programming that State Departments around the world organize connect participants in a very deep way. 

And whether you’re sharing an Irish song with university students in Thailand, or you’re teaching fellow Irish singers one of your family’s favorites, people hear and sound different. We’re supposed to, right?

[Music fades]

 Variation is a beautiful, essential thing about being human. So passing songs on… and then hearing them adapt as they move along…that’s what a living tradition is all about.

>> Karan: When I’m teaching, singing, I talk about me getting the skeleton of the song and the bare song. But I don’t want them to leave and just sound like me. I want them to take the song and to immerse themselves in the song, and then for it to be a two way relationship. That they give back and the song gives to them. And it’s this continuous circle. So, I love when somebody has the courage to do that. You know, not, because I think it is important that the tradition doesn’t claim all of the ownership, because that’s too much reverence.  Um, because I think then people feel oppressed and I think if they’re clamped down and feel rigid then their imaginations can’t open. And, what’s the point?

>> Shannon: Yeah. Definitely the Willies and the Marys of the song world, they’re still relevant? 

>> Karan: They totally are to me! But maybe I’m weird, you know. Maybe I just live in this world where I love the poetry and I love what it sets up. And I love the metaphor.

>> Shannon: And why are metaphors so important for us? 

>> Karan: Well, I think that, ah, the way we map out the world is based on metaphor. I think love is like a red, red rose. I think we often CAN’t say some of the deepest things, we can’t talk about love,  and the things we can’t talk about all day but need to, we can sing them at night. And I think it is really important for us to have a space in society, and the time to sit and say those important things. 

[Music fades]

And often that valve or that release is in song and poetry, and we seem to rely heavily on metaphor to do that, to kind of ease us into it, to do it gently and, and with great beauty .

>> Shannon: So there’s power in feeling, “wow, I think she’s really hot”, and saying “my love is like a red, red rose.”

>> Karan: Yeah! Maybe I’m getting, or maybe that sounds really old fashioned. That’s a very good question. Yeah, I’d prefer if somebody said, “my love is like a red red rose.”

>> Shannon: There’s a real timelessness that connects you with other people who have felt courtship and love in a way that, “wow, she’s really hot.” 

>> Karan: Doesn’t say it. At all. It’s not very deep, is it? To me anyway it’s not. Well, I’d like to think that I’d give him a clip around the ear.

[Shannon and Karan laughing]

>> Shannon: So maybe there’s safety in metaphor. And certainly, there’s elegance in metaphor. And these ballads about Willie and Mary… and Johnny and Molly… they’re rich in metaphor. They have to be, if Willie and Annie are going to speak for you and for me.

[Music: “Ae Fond Kiss,” from Ships in the Forest
Artist: Karan Casey ]

And they have to be if they’re going to tell real stories that are timeless and universal. And these songs ARE timeless and enduring. They might not be at the top of the pop charts. But they’re still here. Here’s Robbie again.

>> Robbie: In the face of, kind of overwhelming mass culture trying to wipe it out basically—it’s like a Tsunami of mass culture, you know, that  flows  over everything—it still survives. Side by side, with the other stuff, you know?

>> Shannon: Yeah.

[Music fades]

So whether you’re sitting at the stable door.

Or walking in the woods on a midsummer’s morn.

Or Up in the Club, Just Broke Up, Doin’ Your Own Little Thing (hmmmm…)

Maybe OLD songs gain meaning and dimension when we put them next to new songs. And maybe new songs get a dose of reality and staying power when they incorporate tried and true characters, or timeless language. No offense to Beyonce Knowles, who writes great pop songs. 

Maybe a good first step for me is to really think about the songs that I’m singing. About the messages I’m internalizing and sending out into the world. To take a little more responsibility and care—so that I get even MORE enjoyment and fulfillment from these beautiful songs. And that they are real for ME. 

My thanks to Laura Cortese, Sam Amidon, Cathy Jordan, Robbie O’connell, and Karan Casey for helping me launch my own journey, with Willie, Mary (and maybe Loxley) by my side. 

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to Matt for script editing and underscore. Thank you, Nigel, for naming this month’s supporters. And thanks again to Pat Wilcox, Mike Schock, Billie Neal and Brian Benscoter for underwriting this episode.

Thanks again for listening, everybody!



>> Shannon: So what’s a petticoat for?  Is it to make the skirt stand out more? 

[Laura and Shannon: Hahahah!]

[ Short Music Quote: “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” excerpt from I Am…. Sasha Fierce
Artist: Beyoncé ]

>> Laura: I think maybe for warmth? It could be because you could have a warm petticoat, right?

>> Shannon: Maybe we can start a new trend: genderless petticoats for all!

[More laughter]

>> Laura: Definitely that!

Bonus Content

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Sam Amidon


Musician/singer from Brattleboro, Vermont who is both a practitioner of Irish traditional fiddle and a composer/inventor of neo-folk and multi-media performances

Laura Cortese


San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston

Cathy Jordan


Roscommon-born, Sligo-based traditional singer and bodhran player who performs with acclaimed band Dervish

Robbie O'Connell


Waterford-born singer songwriter who toured and recorded with his uncles The Clancy Brothers, and went on to perform solo and with The Green Fields of America

Karan Casey


Waterford-born folk singer, songwriter and activist who has appeared on stages and recordings with numerous projects

The Heaton List