Wax Cylinders to the World Wide Web

How home recordings shape Irish music
Episode Trailer

Is there magic in the medium? Do different recorded formats influence how we hear and absorb traditional music? Are we missing out on anything now that it’s much easier to record and FIND recordings online? 

Jeff Kszaiek, Kieran Jordan, Happy Traum, Steph Geremia, Kirsten Allstaff, Elizabeth Sweeney, Jacob Deck, and Natalya Kay help host Shannon Heaton explore early wax cylinder recordings, VR music sessions and YouTube videos, and the special in-between realm of the cassette tape. 


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Brian Benscoter, Mark Haynes, Chris McGlone, and Billie Neal.

Episode 18-Wax Cylinders to the World Wide Web
How home recordings shape Irish music
This Irish Music Stories episode aired July 10, 2018
– Transcript edited by Tom Frederick –


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
>> Jeff Kszaiek: Wisconsin-based archivist and Irish guitar, bouzouki, and flute player
>> Kirsten Allstaff: Scottish and Irish flute and tin whistle player who co-founded The Online Academy of Irish Music
>> Elizabeth Sweeney: Piano and fiddle player who works as Irish Music Librarian and Boston College’s Burns Library
>> Kieran Jordan: Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer specializing in sean-nós and old-style Irish step dance  
>> Happy Traum: Woodstock, NY-based Guitar/banjo folk musician who came of age in the folk scene of the 1950s/60s
>> Jacob Deck: Boston-born flute, whistle, and harp player and singer 
>> Steph Geremia: New York-born, Ireland-based flute player with a myriad of influences

>> 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: Thank you to Mark Haynes, Chris McGlone, 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… 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 much bigger stories behind it …

[ Music:  “Scotch Mary” (Reel) from The Francis O’Neill Cylinders: Thirty-two Recordings of Irish Traditional Music in America circa 1904
Artist: Patsy Touhey, James Early & John McFadden ]

Like how Jeff Kszaiek thinks that wax cylinders are a vibrant medium today.

>> Jeff: Because it’s all part of keeping the tradition alive. 

>> Shannon: And how Kirsten Allstaff finds timelessness in online videos and VR sessions.

>> Kirsten: The joy of Irish music for me, the joys come from the actual learning process, it’s from learning the tunes. Um, it’s from playing along with recordings, and there is plenty of joy to be found in learning Irish music in the more modern ways. 

[ Music: “Scotch Mary,” from Jolie
Artist: Nightingale ]

>> Shannon: The Irish tradition has always been about learning tunes and songs and dance steps from each other; in person and eventually recorded and online. But do the different recorded formats influence how we hear and absorb the stuff? For this episode, I aim to find out.

(Now, I am also interested in how home recordings and the evolution of the entertainment and recording industry have affected traditional music. I’ll explore that in my Pub to PAC episode.)

But for this show it’s all about the formats. Is there magic in the medium? 

I talked to archivist and guitarist Jeff Kszaiek in Milwaukee; and to dancer Kieran Jordan; to Happy Traum who runs Homespun Tapes; to flute players Steph Geremia and Kirsten Allstaff; to librarian Elizabeth Sweeney and to players Jacob Deck and Natalya Kay whose formative Irish music years are taking place in the digital age.

It’s an exploration of early wax cylinder recordings, VR music sessions, and the special in-between realm of the cassette tape.

I came to Irish music in the cassette era. The mini disc made a brief cameo along the way, I’m not sure what happened to those mini discs. But I’ve still got all my hand-recorded tapes in an old accordion case. Like this one I recorded in 1999 at Cruise’s Pub in Ennis.

[ Music: “Killavil Reel,” from Session Tape at Cruise’s Pub
Artist: Siobhan Peoples (fiddle), Murt Ryan (accordion) ]

Just opening that box of cassettes, it’s like this physical reminder of all the LEGWORK, of the MILEAGE I’ve logged because of Irish music. Each tape in my collection bears witness to formative experiences. All those nights of music; and all those subsequent afternoons of play, stop, rewind… Play, stop, rewind.

[ Music ends]

Those tapes…

Did Francis O’Neill feel the same way about the wax cylinders that he made in Chicago over a hundred years ago? Did Ciaran MacMathuna, Seamus Ennis, and Alan Lomax feel the same way about the reel to reel tapes there were making of singers and instrumentalists all over Ireland and the Southern U.S.?

Do young players feel the same way about the recordings they have on their iPhones? I mean, I don’t. And I’ve got lots of voice memos of session tunes and rehearsals.

Are we moving away from sentimental feelings about hard copy recordings? Now that it’s much easier to record and to FIND recordings online, is the era of backpacking around Ireland and New York and Boston less vital for traditional musicians? Can you really learn it all from your living room? Or do you still have to get out there with your Mp3 recorder and a dream?

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

I started my investigation with a visit to Milwaukee, WI. Home of beer, bowling, and the Ward Irish Music Archives. This is a collection of physical and online exhibits of Irish music in America, and I was particularly interested in the room filled with old phonographs and the Irish music recordings that were made to be played on them. Next to it is a room filled with recordings and slightly embarrassing promo photos from yesteryear, which is also pretty awesome.

The Ward Center is actually in the neighboring town of Wauwatosa. Jeff Kszaiek and Barry Stapleton curate the collection. Jeff met me at the center on a busy May morning. The kids at the school next door sounded like they were already on summer vacation.

We started in the parlor with old recording and playback machines. I would not want to dust this room!

[ Music fades]

“What year is this?”

>> Jeff: Yeah, this is an Edison phonograph from about 1910.  So this is really Edison’s first audio invention. I believe, if I remember correctly, it was invented in 1875. But really, Edison was thinking more of it as an office tool.  So business people would come in and they would dictate a letter on a cylinder machine. They would play it back to transcribe it the next day. And then they’d scrape down the wax and reuse the cylinder. And as kind of a part of a promotional tour of the phonograph idea I think they had hired certain musicians and towns to play into the machines and they played it back. And that’s really where the idea of recording music, and really then the music industry began. You probably get about 10 plays off the cylinder before the sound would deteriorate pretty poorly. 

>> Shannon: This was the machine that Chicago police chief and flute player, Francis O’Neill, bought around 1902. You may know him from such hits as O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, it’s a collection of 1850 melodies, self-published in 1903. 

When O’Neill got HIS wax cylinder machine, he recorded his friends, just like I did at Cruise’s with my tape recorder. 

>> Jeff: Francis O’Neill in Chicago got his in 1904. But he saw it at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, I think. So it took him a while to get the capital to buy one of those.

>> Shannon: It was like buying furniture. Those old machines took up a lot of room. And they were beautiful.

>> Jeff:  So Edison was manufacturing the internal components. A lot of times he, they, would sell them to furniture makers, and so they’d rig these elaborate cabinets. This one has a little shelving system for your cylinders. And this one has a little bit more elaborate… way to store your cylinders.


>> Shannon: Oh beautiful. It’s like a spice rack.

>> Jeff: Yeah exactly. So you have your poles. You’d put your cylinders and store them. 

>> Shannon: Very nice. 

So it was pretty. And not everybody could get one. And I’ll bet it sounded like the FUTURE to people—hearing recorded music and voices back! But hearing it today doesn’t sound like clean, modern productions; like the Irish Music Stories podcast.

>> Jeff: So by the early 1900s, Edison had, um, this is known as a blue Amberall disc and it has a plaster of paris interior on it. So he’d advertise them as being indestructible, which really wasn’t true either. But you could get probably a thousand plays off it.

So let me fire up this one.

>> Shannon: OK, so you’re actually just turning, you’re flipping a lever. 


>> Jeff: It’s not electric at all, it’s the acoustic era. So you would just turn it, crank it, and let it go. 

[ Music plays]

>> Jeff: So not too bad, really!

>> Shannon: They don’t write ‘em like that any more. 

>> Jeff: Not anymore! No!

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: This machine playing Blue Amberols is from about 1910. From there, a variety of disc shapes and sizes flooded the market. Eventually, the industry settled on the 78 RPM format.

[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Theme,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton, guitar ]

>> Jeff: So at the same time really as the cylinders are being sold, the flat disc was being manufactured and sold simultaneously. So what we think of as the 78 RPM disc. Edison’s answer to it was the diamond disc that you can see is a little bit thicker than a normal 78 or an LP from later on.

>> Shannon: Jeff pulls out this really big pancake. It’s a disc featuring the piping of Patrick Fitzpatrick, which was apparently recorded in 1917. Jeff explains that for these diamond discs, the needle moved up and down, instead of moving back and forth. It was a slicker surface, so there was more surface area on which to cut the groove.

>> Jeff: Really the reason why it’s so thick is because the diamond discs were cut and they playback vertically.

>> Shannon: Do they sound different?

>> Jeff: It sounds pretty good. The fidelity’s actually really clear. 

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: So you’re cranking it again.

>> Jeff: Yep, this is an acoustic one.

>> Shannon: Flip the lever.


[ Music: Patrick Fitzpatrick, piper, jig]

>> Jeff: It sounds really clear.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon and Jeff: laughing.

>> Jeff: The thing with Edison, though, is he, these were manufactured between 1920 and 1929, and he didn’t really believe jazz was going to catch on, even though his kids were really bugging him to record jazz artists. 

>> Shannon: Add Edison to the list of guys who didn’t sign the Beatles.

>> Jeff: And because of that really, the sound recording part of his laboratory went bankrupt on this machine. It didn’t really recover after the jazz boom hit. But the nice thing was, is that he did record a lot of ethnic artists like Patrick Fitzpatrick here, the uilleann piper. So there’s a lot of folk music he recorded which is great for us because we have some of this material now. 

>> Shannon: Getting to see and hold these old recordings, and hearing them on the actual machines they were meant to be played on; well, it’s an experience. Maybe I’m just sentimental and not a digital native. But Jeff concurs.

[ Music:

>> Jeff: When you have this kind of acoustic experience, it’s a whole different matter I think. 

>> Shannon: I asked Jeff about digitizing these old recordings. It turns out, context is key. Just like when you’re learning a tune— if you know the person playing, or you have some context, you’re probably gonna know the tune in a different way than if you learn it from sheet music or some random video. You’ve got a story.

With digitizing and remastering, if you’ve got a team who knows about the original players and the instrument, it all comes together in a particular way.

Here’s the the bigger story behind the Dunn family collection:

>> Jeff: One of the big core collections that we have here is the Dunn family collection, which includes material from Michael J. Dunn who came to Milwaukee in 1875. He was a member of the fire department here in Milwaukee, and he was a friend and contemporary of Francis O’Neill in Chicago.

[ Music fades]

Dunn was really well known as he was repairing uilleann pipes, so he had this connection with Sergeant James Early in Chicago who was probably the go to guy to repair uilleann pipes at the time. Um, kind of one of the centralized meeting places in Chicago was Sergeant Early’s house for a number of years. So they would get together and play tunes.

>> Shannon: Got it? Piper Michael Dunn, who’d emigrated to Milwaukee, was pals with Captain Francis O’Neill, that was the flute player and tune collector who’d settled in Chicago. Chicago piper James Early was also part of the posse. 

So it was the living room recordings—like I was making a hundred years later. It was about the tunes, and the performances, not the piece of plastic they’re recorded on.

[ Music: “Chief O’Neill’s Favorite” (hornpipe), from instructional book Oil for the Chain
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: But O’Neill must have had feelings for his cylinders. After his musical son died, he and his wife couldn’t bear to have them in the house.

>> Jeff: He started giving a lot of his material to Sergeant Early to keep at his house. Mostly because O’Neill’s wife, um, was still mourning the loss of her son, and her son was a musician, she didn’t want to hear music in the house anymore. O’Neill started giving, like, his Edison phonograph to Sergeant Early as well as some other material.

>> Shannon: Even after Dunn died, people knew about the collection of 32 wax cylinders in the Dunn family home. At one point, it seemed as if Dunn’s daughter Mary had been the end of the line for these recordings.

>> Jeff: It was kind of badly kept secret that O’Neill had recorded these cylinders and they’d made their way to Milwaukee at some point in time.  And at some point she told people that she had taken a lot of records out during World War II, out to the back, um, backyard and destroyed them because there was a rumor going around that if there was some sort of attack, um, that stuff would turn into shrapnel if there was a bomb hit or something. So she told a lot of musicians that she destroyed this material previously, but luckily it turned out to not be true. Um, the grandsons of Michael J. Dunn, when they were clearing out the family home in the early 2000’s found the suitcase that had the 32 wax cylinders of Irish music recordings.

>> Shannon:  Were they in decent shape?

>> Jeff: They were in great shape for being in an attic in Milwaukee for 80 years. Um, they were well insulated in a case. And we worked for a few years with the Library of Congress to digitize those, transfer them over to a digital format. And worked with Jackie Small and Harry Bradshaw in Ireland to, uh, remaster them and pitch them.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: Harry Bradshaw was one of the co-founders of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. He and Galway musician Jackie Small knew that these recordings had passed from Captain Francis O’Neill to Sergeant Early to Micheal J Dunn and then to Dunn’s family. And THAT all informed the digital remastering of Touhey’s performance here of The Monaghan Jig.

[ Music: : “Monaghan Jig,” from The Francis O’Neill Cylinders: Thirty-two Recordings of Irish Traditional Music in America circa 1904
Artist: Patsy Touhey ]

>> Jeff: They tracked down the set of pipes that match the pitch on the cylinders of the pipes, and were able to adjust the speed so we now have the cylinders pitched and at the speed that they probably would have been originally played at.

>> Shannon: So you know what the real speed and the real pitch was?

>> Jeff: Mm hmm. We know Touhys virtuosic playing, and we know that he probably ripped through tunes. But it’s just, we hear a tune that’s played  unnaturally fast, like sped up, just feels weird. 

>> Shannon: Right.

>> Jeff: So once I got pitched you almost kind of felt this relief like when you listen to him like, ahh, OK, here they are. 

>> Shannon: It’s like when you temper the guitar for the chords and the voicings that you are going to be using.

>> Jeff: Ahh, yeah, such a relief.


>> Shannon: So the tuning… the PROCESS… the BACKSTORY of saving these old recordings. Do players apply the same care with newer home recordings? Do players worry about context like this when they’re hunting down tunes online?

[ Music fades]

Here’s Elizabeth Sweeney. She’s the librarian for the Irish Music Archives at Boston College. We chatted for Episode 5 of Irish Music Stories. She talked about the mission of the BC archives—and also the online Seamus Connolly collection.

>> Elizabeth (Beth): Today we have YouTube and this sort of thing so there are a lot of choices for people that didn’t exist back in, you know, back in the 90s. But still there is a lot of material that, um, isn’t on YouTube. It isn’t here, there and it needs to be preserved. And there are ways of doing that, archives can achieve some of those preservation objectives in ways that maybe something like YouTube might not do. 

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

You know, sometimes things on YouTube, which has so much great material, but it’s all kind of chopped up. Sometimes, you can, I feel like you can get lost a little bit. Um, so anyway, those are, um, those are the challenges. Balancing the rights that people have, you know, performers have rights to their material. So you can’t just say, “we’re putting everything on line.” I mean, that’s just not feasible and not always, not always legal. But pushing, pushing the boundaries of that. We have a big project going on now, with Seamus Connolly, called the Seamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music. And there are going to be almost 340 tracks on there with stories and music notations. So that is an example of where we really want to be, putting more material out there and hopefully drawing more people in as a result.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: That immediate access of online videos seems most transformative for DANCERS. Here’s Boston performer, teacher and choreographer Kieran Jordan.

>> Kieran: Honestly, until the advent of Youtube, if you wanted to look at old dance footage you had to get yourself to an archive or a library or have, you know, a store of old family videos, or access to someone else’s. Um, so, it’s very recent that we have the ability to Google  search something and see a clip of the Blackbird, or of whatever dance it is we’re thinking about or looking for.

[ Music:  “The Blackbird,” from Cover the Buckle
Artist: Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan ] 

And there are also instructional videos now for step dancing and for sean nos dancing and for set dancing.

>> Shannon: So can you really learn to do Irish dance… from a video?

>> Kieran: I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to technology myself and so I’m slow to the party, you know, with these kinds of things.  But I’m coming around, because I can see that that’s the world we live in. If that’s your only access, um, I think you can learn a lot that way. I still think that, um, you know, being in a community; even if that means you just have two dance buddies that come to your house and you look at YouTube videos together, you know? I think that being in a community amps up the fun and keeps it lighthearted, and gives you a chance to learn by sharing and learn by watching how other people might interpret the same step, you know, in a different way. Um, and I was thinking about this in regard to the music, because for as long as I can remember musicians will openly say, “I learned this tune off an old recording by so and so.” And as dancers we haven’t had that option until recently. I actually used to resist learning off videos because I wanted, I mean, I valued the steps that come with a story attached to them. If I have steps in my body and my mind that I learned from so and so 20 years ago, I remember not just the steps, but so many things about the person, the place we were when I learned that step. So I didn’t really want that removed sense of learning from video. And, um, not too long ago there was a dance on a video that I really liked and I said, “you know, I’m just going to sit down and learn this off of YouTube.” That was the strangest experience, and I did the dance and I can do the dance now and I have new memories that have built around it. So I think, you know, there is value to all of it.

 I think the best way to use all that stuff is as a supplement to the in-person experience of learning. But I can also appreciate that for people who live in parts of the world where they don’t have access to a teacher or class or an active Irish dance community, it’s really valuable to have those online DVDs or streaming things or YouTube videos available.

>> Shannon: So, before you could see people dance instantaneously online, there were hard copy videos. Kieran has released a few DVDs herself. And since the 1980s, you could find Irish dancing and music videos from independent groups. And also from bigger outfits like Mel Bay and Homespun Tapes.

Homespun founder Happy Traum and his business partner and wife, Jane, are still in the instructional video game. They’ve got music instruction for Irish music, and also for bluegrass, blues, Cajun, classical, country, flamenco; many different types of music styles. When I checked their web-site, I learned that 2017 marked their 50th year! Now, VHS tapes weren’t released in the US market until 1977. So I called Happy to learn more about the Homespun timeline.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: So you started Homespun in 1967. Now, obviously you didn’t have VHS tapes back then. What were you doing from the beginning? 

>>Happy: Well, back in 1967 when we first started putting lessons onto tapes, uh, we were sending them out on reel to reel audio tapes. Little five inch reels. Um, and um, there are some people under a certain age that might not even know what audio tapes were. But they were these things on round reels. A couple of years later we moved into cassettes, which was the latest technology at that time, much more convenient. And in the early 80’s, uh, VHS tapes came in. So we started transmitting our lessons and recording them on VHS tapes, which was a big improvement because you could see as well as hear what the instructor was doing. By the early 2000’s VHS suddenly went out. So we had to scramble to transfer all of our hundreds of lessons by that time to DVD, which was the latest and greatest medium for learning, for watching movies and everything else. Uh, nowadays, even DVDs aren’t the latest thing. We are doing digital downloads and streaming, which is now the major, central part of our business.

>> Shannon: What about the digital vs. hard copy? How do you think it hits people?

>>Happy: Digital vs. hard copy is both good and bad. Uh, with the streaming and downloading you can’t touch and feel them. You don’t get liner notes. You can’t hold them in your hand, put ‘em on your shelf and look at them. Um, but of course we do send PDFs of the notes which you can print out so, um, they can get some of the material in a hard copy that way. The good part about it is that it’s instant gratification. You can download or stream something immediately onto your computer, your IPad, your, um, Iphone and you could be working on a song in minutes, or less. So, that’s the good part of the latest technology.

>> Shannon: You’ve got a lot of tapes. Are you attached to the medium? To the analog medium?

>>Happy: I don’t know if one is better than the other. People are increasingly liking the digital download or the digital streaming aspect of it but the main thing for us is getting the material across to people. Getting people with an instrument in their hands, or singing along and playing along and really learning stuff. So, that’s what our mission is and it always has been.

[ Music:  “The Beauty Spot/The Ballnahoun Reel/The Cashmere Shawl,” from John Williams
Artist: John Williams 

>> Shannon: So for some time, videos have been a potent way to learn tunes and steps and to see techniques. And with instant access via YouTube, it can be a central way to hear and discover artists. 

Whistle player Jacob Deck is much freer and easier with YouTube than Kieran. It’s been a major source for him. But he’s also got vinyl LP stories.

>> Jacob: I’m Jacob Henry Deck, I am 20 years old.

>> Shannon: So what kind of technology do you use in your Irish music study?

>> Jacob: Irish music study, well, I use my computer and I use YouTube for, sort of, discovering new music.  Most of the time what I do is I get a recording and I use either audio editing software, or the God send that is the slow playback speed button on YouTube videos to slow down recordings and learn tunes. And when I’m in a live setting, like a lesson or a session, I use my phone as a recording device, like some people used to use tape recorders.

>> Shannon: Got it. So, I’m gonna show you, Jacob, in this accordion case over here. This is what I did in my youth. I traveled around Ireland, and here is, we can see, um, Miltown Malbay and I wrote a few people.

>> Jacob: Ronan Brown, no way!  

>> Shannon: Here is, uh, here is Kevin Ryan, December 6th, 1999.

>> Jacob: I was less than one year old!!

>> Shannon: So, when I open up this accordion case I feel a little like, wow, I mean I; this is all hand-recorded, hand carried back from Ireland. This is, like a tangible sign of all that time that I spent playing this music and learning this music.  So, what about your mp3s, do you have any attachment to ‘em?

>> Jacob: A little bit. I just, definitely I feel that if I had some tangible reminder of the music I’ve witnessed, I would be, I would feel a little bit guilty, guiltier about not learning them as fast as I want to.

>> Shannon: Haha, So the Mp3s make it easier to not feel that guilt?

>> Jacob: A little bit. But unlike a tape recorder, I guess, sort of every time I take it out I’m reminded of all the music that I have on it. And I do feel an attachment to these tunes. Um.

>> Shannon: So your accordion case is your phone?

>> Jacob: Yes, it is.

>> Shannon: So what about pre-recorded music, how do you access that? Like commercial CDs?

>> Jacob: Mostly YouTube. I’ve got a small, growing CD collection, because I run a radio show at school and I have some CDs for that. But a lot of the pre-recorded music I’m accessing is YouTube. Because it’s just so convenient and it’s right there. It has the advantage of you can branch out and find other tunes by the same player, or a group. Or the same tune played by multiple players. It’s a really great resource.

>> Shannon: Fiddle player Natalya Kay also admitted to learning stuff off of YouTube videos when she was younger. But she’s much more careful about her YouTube consumption today. I wanted to hear her thoughts, but time was tight. We did a quick text interview. I wish I could play you the emojis.

[ Music fades]

Natalya told me that when she’d learn a tune from YouTube and play the tune for her teachers they usually wouldn’t like the versions that she’d found.

She moved over from YouTube to mostly recordings from teachers and players she really knows. She’s got hours of recordings saved in Dropbox. But Natalya still buys CDs to play in the car, since her phone is always running out of space. 

[ Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton, guitar ]

I asked Jacob about hard copies.

So do you own albums? Do you have albums that you love?

>> Jacob: Oh, my favorite album of all time is Andy Irvine/Paul Brady 1976.

>> Shannon: Do you own a copy of it? A physical copy? 

>> Jacob: I own a physical copy of it…on a CD! I want, I’ve been occasionally scouring used record stores, I want, one Bothy band album on vinyl. Just so I can have a Bothy band album on vinyl, but I don’t have any right now.

>> Shannon: Interesting. Why? Do you have a record player?

>> Jacob: I do, at home. It’s not set up . My dad has this enormous record collection of, not Irish stuff, but, like, rock and roll. When I was really small I was into, like, rock, rock and roll from the 50’s. Buddy Holly helped teach me to sing, so I’d just played the same Everly Brothers records about 10 times a day for like three weeks. And annoy the crap out of my dad.

>Shannon: And you played it on vinyl?

>> Jacob: On vinyl. It was just so fascinating watching that thing spin around in circles.

>> Shannon: So you do have an attachment to that vinyl experience. But that’s not really how you grew up learning Irish tunes.

>> Jacob: No, I grew up learning Irish tunes from people in person. And just hours and hours and hours of staring at computer Youtube videos, jumping between players and sessions, and sort of getting a little bit of an education that way.

>> Shannon: Yeah, yeah.

>> Jacob: You couldn’t slow things down and keep them in the same key when you were learning tunes. So the old crotchety people would argue that might help make you a better musician, because you had to hear the tunes in your head a little bit more before you started playing them. Um, but, I can learn things a little bit faster if I wanted to; and things change but they stay the same a lot.

>> Shannon: Yeah, cool. Well thanks for keeping it going, Jacob.

>> Jacob: Oh, you’re welcome I… I try my best.

>> Shannon: Of course you don’t have to navigate the YouTube waters all alone. Flute player Kirsten Allstaff and the staff at the Online Academy of Irish Music offer a 21st century helping hand.

[ Music fades]

Launched in 2010, OAIM features instructional videos, play-along tracks you can slow down, private video chat lessons, and 360 degree Virtual Reality music sessions you can play along with. And when you create an account you get connected to a global roster of students, so there’s this social component too.

[ Music: Tune: “Linnane Terrace, from The Open Road
Artist/Composer: Steph Geremia ]

Steph Geremia has created videos for OAIM. We chatted when we were both in Texas, where we rode this yellow school bus to the Irish retreat center campus. There’s a photo of Steph on the bus at IrishMusicStories.org.

I asked Steph to tell me about the site Kirsten and her husband, Matt, have created.


>> Steph: It’s a fantastic resource, it’s amazing for people. So, what she’s done is she’s created these kind of online courses. Some have themes, you know, like flat tunes, and others are just, you know, beginner, intermediate, advanced for each level. Through that, I think, probably reach a lot of people that are really just struggling to find somewhere to begin, somewhere to kind of jump on the ladder.

>> Shannon: So it’s a series of videos that people can access. 

>> Steph: Yep that’s it. 

>> Shannon: And you’ve made little pieces that break down certain techniques or tunes?

>> Steph: Yah, I mean, when we were doing it she just kind of said come with, like, it was maybe like 12 different ideas, you know, sort of like 12 different topics for the lessons. It’s quite an intensive day, you know, you go down and you do the videos all in one go from start to finish. 

>> Shannon: OK, I’ve been on the site and, well, I’m a little jealous. Compared to my 3 month trips to Ireland, travelling all around Clare with my tape recorder. Getting all of those recordings and 360 degree videos from OAIM while you sit in your own home with central heating seems wicked easy and affordable! If I were starting out now, is this how I’d learn? Is this how Steph would learn? I asked her about her background.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: Earlier we were talking about learning from cassettes, you and I.

>> Steph: (Laughing with Shannon) Yes! We were, blood sweat and tears! But you know, it’s good.

>> Shannon: Yeah, and now things are different. They’re accessible in a different way. 

>> Steph: Much, much, much more so, yeah. 

>> Shannon: What do you think about that? Do you use online resources yourself. 

>> Steph: I do definitely.  But I think I would be very, um, scrupulous about what I use. And I try and get that point across to my students as well. Like I’m still fascinated by everybody that comes to me says they just learn via YouTube, which I find hard to get my head around. You know, because, you know,  like that you’d be buying albums and…

>> Shannon: Yeah, in addition to taping sessions, we were collecting these pre-recorded CDs.

[ Music: “Bobby Casey’s” from The Green Mountain
Artist: Pat O’Connor ]

 We weren’t finding them online. We’d go to Custys in Ennis to discover the newest releases. And there we’d meet Eoin, and John, and Pat, and musicians who worked in the shop, who welcomed us, who taught us tunes, who told us about sessions and dances going on that night. So, my shelves of Irish music CDs also hold a bit of nostalgic sway. But much of that music is now available online and on YouTube.

Steph: You know whether it was on cassettes you’d be recording off the radio. And like that you were saying, laughing like- you know, you press play, stop, rewind… trying to hear and pick up the nuances of the person you were listening to. And so just, you know, for the YouTube generation, my fear would be that there’s so much great information on the, on the, on the web. But not all of it is, obviously, what you want to be accessing, if that makes sense. Right?

>> Shannon: OK. So if you don’t have a tour guide you might not know.

>> Steph: Yes, whether it’s a good version of a tune, whether it’s not. Or you know, like we would have been probably, you know, looking at our favorite players and being inspired by them. Whereas your, maybe, younger players are just going on YouTube and Googling the name of a tune. And they don’t know who they’re listening to, they don’t know, you know, they’re not learning off of Matt Molloy. You know, people like that they’re just kind of learning off random videos. So it’s just, you know, I would make that point with them to make sure you look through and try and get an idea of who you’re actually trying to access on YouTube. But it’s, you know, it’s just like with everything, it’s important, you have to filter out, you know, certain things so you get to the right, kind of, the right source. 


Yeah, a bit of hard work is good, isn’t it?  Things like the Amazing Slowdowner and all these programs you can use to slow stuff down and shift it. That’s brilliant. But I think it’s, it’s, you know, I’ve noticed that sometimes even with kids,  they have so much access to tunes and variations and everything, that maybe they forget the hard work that does have to go in really to mastering your instrument. You know, when stuff is handed to them, and that’s brilliant, because you know, the standard out there is incredible, right? But you still have to, you still have to put in the hard work at some point, knuckle down and really get serious about it.

>> Shannon: And sometimes, back in the day, the search, you know, for that tune, or for the title of the tune, or for that particular variation or that setting; that was the process. 

>> Steph: It was definitely the process. 

>> Shannon: And the process is so fast now. We have so many ways to call up tunes immediately, and call up different settings immediately.

[ Music fades]

A simple online search for a tune can bring up a lot of conflicting information very quickly. You look on YouTube, you might cross reference the tune on irishtune.info or thesession.org. You find these different versions, you find comprehensive lists of names for tunes. And that stuff used to reveal itself much more slowly.

It used to be I’d record it at a session. Like this is Sean Gannon and George Keefe playing the Whistling Postman at a session in Boston in 2001.

[ Music: “Whistling Postman,” from Boston Session at Kitty O’Shea’s
Artist: Sean Gannon (accordion), George Keith (fiddle) ]

Then I’d find another setting of the tune a few weeks later. This is Seamus McGuire from the 1984 album, Carousel.

[ Music: “Whistling Postman, from Carousel
Artist: Seamus Maguire (fiddle) ]

Then a few months later I’d realize it’s on John Carty’s 1996 album, Last Night’s Fun.

[ Music: “Whistling Postman, from Last Night’s Fun
Artist: John Carty (fiddle) ]

That process of hearing, of finding different versions of tunes, it’s so immediate now.

>> Steph: There’s so much information out there. It can be confusing. Right?

>> Shannon: Yes.

>> Steph: You know, so people are now kind of looking for, like, what’s right and what’s wrong and I get that. And that’s good to be searching for that. But perhaps the only thing that maybe potentially gets lost is, like, when I was learning tunes off of players and all those great players, every time they played the tune they played it different. Right?

>> Shannon: Right.

 >> Steph: So you understood that that was inherent to the music.

>> Shannon: And you yourself had to decide. 

>> Steph: Yes, you, you had to figure out how to listen enough and go maybe go find other versions and find other people, and figure out what was the right way (or not even right.— I don’t believe that black or white is right or wrong). But to figure out the setting that, that was going to work for you and then go from there. So that’s the only thing. I get it when you’re overwhelmed with so much information, you can want to kind of, you know, put it nearly into, into a very strict kind of parameters. But it’s good to be a little bit free, still. You know, let it breathe.

>> Shannon: Even in the 8 years since Kirsten and Mathew launched OAIM, technology continues to advance, and society has altered. Maybe we don’t totally let it breathe all the time anymore.

>> Kirsten: Our society’s become, uh, very instant. Instant gratification is a big thing. Everything’s fast tracked.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: In keeping with the fast track theme, Kirsten and I “chatted” though a series of voice recordings. I asked her what motivated her to create OAIM in the first place.

Hi, Kirsten! Thanks for doing this. So can I ask… what led you to create OAIM?

>> Kirsten:  Hi Shannon. My vision for OAIM was, um, a place where people could learn Irish music from all around the world, without having to travel to Ireland. And for an affordable price. My vision also was to create an online community.

>> Shannon: So how’d you come to the idea that it might be doable or… mmm…  appropriate for people to learn this social music tradition online?

>> Kirsten: I suppose, um, what led me to create OAIM was the possibility of living rurally. And working from home, with a baby. I was working in the University in Limerick. There was a long commute in every day. But at the time I was involved in the very first online lecturing initiative. And I was lecturing a course in traveller music studies. And all the students, this was going back 12 years, 10 to 12 years, they had to submit their essays and all their submissions via online. I marked and returned online. And this opened my eyes. And I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if you could teach practical music in a similar sort of way.

>> Shannon: This was not a flip business venture. There was a lot of thought and, I think, a mission of making Irish music accessible to more people. But I really wondered how well this could actually work.

Do you think people can really learn to play remotely? I mean, can you learn to play Irish music sitting at your computer? And then, as you’re working on your own with your independent learning does that feed into real-world social music making?

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

>> Kirsten: Yes, for sure. I often meet online students of mine who are visiting from around the world. And, uh, I sit and have a tune in a session with them, and I can even hear my own idiosyncrasies, um, in their playing. At the OAIM we don’t only offer tutorials, but we have these VR sessions and backing tracks. These tools—they’re there to encourage and to enable students to go out into their community and to join in actual sessions and meet other musicians and get playing Irish music.

[ Music fades]

>> Shannon: Can you talk a bit about your own musical development? Did technology play a role? Were you, like, a cassette tape recorder person or MP3 girl?

>> Kirsten: Cassette recorders and minidiscs were very much my modus operandum. Taping sessions was how I learned my repertoire and most of my music. Um, I didn’t really play Irish music as a child, and I was self-taught as a teenager, whilst my family was living in Canada. 

[ Music “Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s Barndance, from Gallowglass
Artist: Kirsten Allstaff ]

At the time, my learning tools were a pocket sized Irish tin whistle tutorial book, a book of tunes from the Armagh pipers club, and a video cassette of Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. And I remember tediously trying to learn the Teetotaler’s Reel as a 15 year old from this video of Aly Bain playing so fast. I sometimes wonder what my learning experience would have been like if I’d had the Online Academy of Irish Music or Slowdowner app. 

>> Shannon: Do you think that players miss out on anything by having everything presented so easily? Like that slowdown technology, I guess it’s great for learning, but do players miss something when they sidestep the real world, real speed challenge?

>> Kirsten: I, I don’t know. But I do know one thing. The joy of Irish music for me, over the past 20 years, a  lot of the joys come from the actual learning process. It’s come from going out to the sessions, it’s come from learning the tunes. It’s from playing along with recordings. I really wouldn’t swap that process that I had for the world. Um, but I also think there’s plenty of joy to be found in learning Irish music in the more modern ways. It must be great to use the slowdowner to pick up ornamentation, and variations. I’ve never actually used the slowdowner myself. But it’s an interesting concept. Also to practice tunes along with quality backing tracks. I mean, it sounds like great fun to me. So, I don’t think that students are missing out. No.

>> Shannon: Wax cylinder recorders. Reel to reel machines. Big powered cassette recorders. Eventually the battery cassette. Video recorders, Mini discs, Mp3 and digital video recorders.

No matter the machine, home recording devices allowed us to learn from each other. And that’s been a vital part of 20th and 21st century Irish music and dance. 

Whether it’s Jacob and Natalya and their Millennial and post-Millennial pals in Boston or Chief O’Neill, Sergeant Early and Michael Dunn in early 20th century Chicago and Milwaukee. Musicians are affected by technological advances and changes. 

But at the end of the day, we are still just learning from each other—from our peers and our heroes. 

[ Music fades]

And as sentimental as we, as I, may feel about one format or another, or as attached as we can get to our slowdown or tune identification apps, the living, human PROCESS is probably the punchline.

[ Music: “Heartstings,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton, guitar ]

And the process can unfold, even if the wax cylinders melt or the Mp3 files get corrupted or the power goes out.

I may always feel nostalgic about the tools I used in my formative years. But a cassette tape learner like me and an Mp3 only 20 year old like Jacob,

[ Music fades] 

we really transcend the formats when we meet in the music. 

>> Shannon: Alright, Jacob, let’s play a tune together. You start.

[ Music: “Trip to Durrow,” from Shannon’s sunroom
Artist: Jacob Deck (whistle) with Shannon assist on flute ]

>> Shannon: Do you think that there’s any power in the medium? Or do you think it’s mostly, at the end of the day, about the tunes?

>> Jacob: There are some different experiences you can get from the medium. But at the end of the day, it’s not so much about the tunes, it’s about the people. Um, maybe there’s a difference from the medium if you’re just learning from the medium and not from other folks. But if you’re in a session and playing with people, and those are the people you’re recording however and you’re learning tunes from however, it doesn’t matter how you’re doing it.

>> Shannon: Yeah.

Thank you dear listeners, for tuning in! This episode of Irish Music Stories was recorded and produced as a wav file, and compressed to Mp3 to be delivered via RSS feed to your podcast player, by me, Shannon Heaton.

[ Music fades]

[ Music: “Eanáir,” from Lúnasa
Artist: Lúnasa ]

My thanks to Jeff Kszaiek, Kieran Jordan, Happy Traum, Elizabeth Sweeney, Jacob Deck, Natalya Kay, Steph Geremia, and Kirsten Allstaff for helping me tell the bigger story behind different recording methods. Thank you to Matt Heaton for script editing and underscore. Thank you, Nigel, for naming this month’s supporters. And thanks again to Mark Haynes, Chris McGlone, Billie Neal and Brian Benscoter for underwriting this episode.

If you can kick in with a show of support, it helps me pull Irish music stories together, to share with everybody. Just visit IrishMusicStories.org and click the donate button. You can also help by rating the show in iTunes, or by sharing this episode with a friend.

Next month, a cuppa tea chat with fiddle player, Liz Carroll. I hope you’ll tune in. 

In the meantime, thanks again for listening, everybody!


>> Shannon: So, Jeff, in the archives you’ve got these wax cylinders and old sheet music. But, I saw you also have more modern recordings of bands that play at your festival, like Cherish the Ladies and Lunasa. There are some old promo photos in there.

>> Jeff: Our core collection for a number of years was really just the material that people sent in for Irishfest. Recordings and other pieces, photographs… 

>> Shannon: Of varying quality. 


>> Jeff: Yeah, exactly! That’s one part I love about the job because, you know, that’s kind of why we’re here. 

You know, to make sure this material keeps on.

>> Shannon: Yeah, so you can see that members of Lunasa actually wore turtlenecks at one point, right?

>> Jeff: Yeah, right, no matter how embarrassing it might be.

[END with end of LP noise]

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Jeff Kszaiek


Wisconsin-based archivist and Irish guitar, bouzouki, and flute player

Kirsten Allstaff


Scottish and Irish flute and tin whistle player who co-founded The Online Academy of Irish Music

Elizabeth Sweeney


Piano and fiddle player who works as Irish Music Librarian and Boston College’s Burns Library

Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer specializing in sean-nós and old-style Irish step dance  

Happy Traum


Woodstock, NY-based Guitar/banjo folk musician who came of age in the folk scene of the 1950s/60s and founded Homespun with his wife Jane

Jacob Deck


Boston-born flute, whistle, and harp player and singer 

New York-born, Ireland-based flute player with a myriad of influences

The Heaton List