Kitchen to Concert Stage

What happens when you put trad music and dance on display
Episode Trailer

What happens when old traditional music and dance move onto modern concert stages? Do Celtic traditions get a big boost? Do they lose anything on the road to the performing arts center? 

Journey with host Shannon Heaton from the Pub to the Performing Arts Center, through the lens of Riverdance and the Breton band Kornog, with Jean-Michel Veillon, Matthew Olwell, Steph Geremia, Kevin Crawford, Herschel Freeman, Eileen Ivers, Mick Moloney, Brian O’Donovan, and Rory Makem. And explore how ‘trad’ continues to change, dissolve, evolve, and inspire.
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Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Tom Madden, Andy Kruspe, Danny Horton, Chris Murphy, Kathleen Biggins, Ted Coyle in honor of Lynn Cox, Gerry Corr, Brian Benscoter, and Joe Garrett. 

Episode 26-Kitchen to Concert Stage
What happens when you put trad music and dance on display
This Irish Music Stories episode aired March 12, 2019
https://shannonheatonmusic.com/episode-26-kitchen-to-concert-stage

– 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
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native who works in public broadcasting and music production
>> Matthew Olwell: Virginia-based Irish and old-time dancer, percussionist, flute player, and instrument maker
>> Jean-Michel Veillon: Flute player from Brittany who introduced simple system wood flute into Breton folk tunes by using some techniques from Irish flute players
>> Herschel Freeman: Tennessee-based promoter of innovative traditional music
>> Mick Moloney: Folklorist/musician and National Heritage Fellow who has taught at universities, directed festivals and arts tours, and recorded and produced numerous albums
>> Rory Makem: Folksinger and guitar/banjo player and folksinger, who learned from his grandma Sarah and father Tommy  
>> Steph Geremia: New York-born, Ireland-based flute player with a myriad of influences
>> Kevin Crawford: England-born, New York-based flute, whistle, and bodhran player who performs with the band Lúnasa
>> Eileen Ivers: New York-based Grammy-winning fiddle player, composer, and bandleader who has performed around the globe

———

[ Music: chimes ]

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. Before we dive into this month’s edition of Irish Music Stories, I want to thank the underwriters of this episode.

>> Nigel: Thank you this month to Tom Madden, Andy Kruspe, Danny Horton, Chris Murphy, 

 Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, Gerry Corr and Ted Coyle in honor of Lynn Cox. 

>> Shannon: Thanks to my son Nigel there. And thank YOU for listening. And..

[Music: My Love is in America,” from dearga
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton]

This is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…

Like… what happens when you bring tunes and steps from the kitchen (in Ireland, Scotland, or Brittany) to the concert stage?

When musicians and dancers create performances for a global audience, do Celtic traditions get a big boost? Do they lose anything on the road to the performing arts center?

Take the band Kornog, for example. If they hadn’t left Northwest France to perform in the US, would their music be different today? Would it be more “authentic” if they hadn’t tried to appeal to new audiences?

[Music fades]

And on the other hand, if Kornog had stayed home, would I have started to play flute? Maybe not, if I hadn’t been inspired by their flute player Jean-Michel Veillon… and by Kornog’s debut album:

[ Music:“Dans Loudieg,” from Première
Artist: Jean-Michel Veillon with Kornog ]

For this episode, I’ll travel back to 1983, when Kornog recorded that debut album, with the psychedelic cover and the hilariously robotic and memorable intro, “Please Welcome Kornog.”

I’ll talk with flute players Matthew Olwell, Steph Geremia, and Kevin Crawford. And to Jean-Michel Veillon himself about that Kornog album. I’ll talk to Herschel Freeman who was Kornog’s manager at the time. And I’ll chat with Eileen Ivers, Mick Moloney, Brian O’Donovan, and Rory Makem… to explore what happens when we take tunes from the kitchen to the concert stage.

* * * *

If bands like Kornog, and dance shows like Riverdance hadn’t hit stages and playlists, where would traditional music and dance be today? 

Still around? More obscure? Less diluted and distorted? 

[Music fades]

What does it do to authenticity and performance when what’s being sold is… tradition?

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

Boston producer Brian O’Donovan admits that ANY level of commercialism affects traditional music and dance.

>> Brian: It changes immediately once it gets out of your mother singing it at the kitchen as she’s peeling potatoes. 

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: The traditional music of Brittany definitely travelled outside the kitchen when Kornog first came to the States in 1983. 

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

Their debut tour was such a mega success that their agent decided to arrange a live recording in Minneapolis while they were over.

With the luck of the Irish, Kornog had this grueling day of travel mishaps; we’re talking 7 hour delays, and instruments being sent on the wrong flights. But they still managed to get up onstage and bang out a one-take-wonder live album that brought wood flute to generations of players in Brittany, the States, and beyond.

To flute players like me, and like dancer and flute player Matthew Olwell, whose family makes some of the best Irish flutes in the world.

[Music fades]

>> Matthew: My folks had a cassette tape of the Live Kornog album. So, I definitely heard that many, many times as a kid. 

[Music: “Ton DÈrobÈe,” from Première
Artist: Jean-Michel Veillon with Kornog ]

And then, later getting interested in music from Brittany. And sort of almost rediscovering Jean Michel’s playing and just being blown away every time I listened to it. 

[Music: fades]

>>Shannon: Matthew and I started learning wooden Irish flute in the pre-Riverdance, pre-internet era. Back then there were Irish music sessions, though I didn’t really know about them. And there were Celtic festivals and St. Patrick’s Day parades that my family would go to.

And my parents had recordings by Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary—you know, folk revival people who sang a few trad songs. And then my dad got excited about the Bothy Band and the Chieftains, these traditional bands that the great Irish composer Sean O’Riada helped launch. I remember the flute solos on those albums.

But, like most of my pals in elementary school, traditional flute music was NOT on my mix tapes. Not yet.

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

Also not on my radar back then? The Celtic nation of Brittany. While I was busy blasting U2 songs on my Walkman at the school bus stop,it turns out this cultural, coastal region of Northwest France was busy resurrecting its traditional music, which had nearly been wiped out after the Second World War. 

But then I heard those words: “Please welcome Kornog,” and my new course was charted.

When I asked Jean-Michel Veillon about playing flute with Kornog, his story of the band went much deeper than I ever imagined.

>>Jean-Michel: Of course, it’s always for me a pleasure to talk about Kornog. 

But maybe before I go further with it, I should, uh, say a few words about the context in which Kornog appeared. So, to do that, I need to go back a little bit in time.

It is important to say that the traditional music in Brittany was not in a good shape after WWII. Brittany itself was not in a good shape. It was a disaster. Many people had died, and among them, of course, many men. And among them, of course, many singers or instrument players. And those who came back, who survived, uh, sometimes didn’t want to sing or to play anymore. 

[Music fades]

So the situation was difficult. Luckily the war ended, and after it ended, there was a sort of a tradition revival in Brittany. Gradually, you know, many little towns and villages wanted to have their own dance bands with old local traditional costumes. Some very beautiful, you know, distinct to Brittany, with embroideries and strange hats and, and things like that. Also, at the same time, some other people decided to invent a sort of new musical ensemble. They imported highland pipes from Scotland, and they added to them the bombard-

[Music: “Scottish (Live),” from Live au Cornouaille
Artist: Bagad Kemper ]

which is the typical old Breton Oboe, a very loud instrument, plus drums so they could go parading on the street like a sort of proud Breton ensemble. And, um, it is still a success today.

[Music: ends]

 Later came the folk revival, coming from the States in the sixties and seventies. And in Brittany we had this man, musician and singer called Alan Stivell, who did a lot for the Breton music. 

In fact he carried the music, ah, to the stage.

[Music: “Tri Martolod (Live),” from Alan Stivell
Artist: Alan Stivell ]

Not only in Brittany but all over France and also abroad. He was an international artist. So, uh, this folk music revival was like a wave in Brittany carrying lots of new bands. Well, this is the context in which Kornog was created.

>>Shannon: And even more context? Here’s Alan Stivell, the harp player and singer that Jean-Michel mentioned. And some period airline trivia: when Kornog was created, you could still smoke on airplanes. The international in-flight smoking ban didn’t come until 1997.

It was smellier and pricier to fly. So most people didn’t just hop across the pond from Boston to Ireland, or Minneapolis to France for the weekend. 

And if it hadn’t been for a booking agent who was up for anything, the four guys in Kornog might never have come to the U.S. on their tour.

And if Kornog hadn’t recorded that album, I might not have been inspired to play wood flute. And the Irish Music Stories Podcast probably wouldn’t exist. 

So I’m glad that the Herschel Freeman Agency decided to take a chance on a flute and fiddle band. And fly them from Brittany, to Michigan, to Boston, and eventually to Minneapolis to record that album.

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

For Herschel Freeman, the success of Kornog was partly beginner’s luck. He had just made the switch from performing music to managing it.

>>Herschel: When we started this, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Uh, when Jamie Mcmenemy sent me this unsolicited letter with a cassette tape. At that point, it was 35 years ago, 1983. And I remember we were living in Durham, North Carolina. My wife was going to school in Chapel Hill.

And the two of us were driving between the two towns and we put the cassette in and I had never heard anything like this. It had some Celtic feeling, but it also had a lot of Moorish influence. It sounded very medieval. And you had the flute and you had the bouzouki and you had these other instruments. So, it was very exotic. But it was immediately apparent that this was something new and incredibly exciting.

Without really consulting anyone, I just decided, you know, this band is definitely worth working with. Somehow I was able to sell enough dates so that we put together a tour and the response to them was so stunning. I mean, people were just falling out in the audiences wherever they heard them. There was this tremendous visceral response to them; and so we decided during the course of the tour to see if we could get a live recording to capture the moment for Green Linnet. 

I knew some people who worked at Cafe Extemporere in Minneapolis, so we arranged with them to record the show. It was just one take and you hoped that they got it right.

[Music: fades]

>>Shannon: Remember how I said beginner’s luck? Yeah. A lot of “live” albums are actually the BEST, or even edited takes from a few different performances. But in the case of Kornog’s Première, what we hear is basically what audiences got on November 7, 1983.

Which is awesome. Because really, it can be hard to give a great performance every time. When you know the recording mics are on, things can happen to your brain. Psychology is a weird little dude. You get self conscious. You get distracted.

And that’s on a good day. When you’ve slept in your own bed. When you aren’t worried about your instruments arriving on time.

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

The liner notes of that Kornog album tell the story of how nasty weather struck on the way to Minnesota. The band spent the night sleeping on the airport floor. Some of the instruments went ahead on the wrong flight, without Jean-Michel, Jamie, Christian, and Soïg. 

Fortunately, the guitar and bouzouki were delivered to the guys just in time. And as Herschel said, this was just a small hiccup for a band like Kornog.

>>Herschel: You know, nothing was going to keep them from their daily appointed rounds. These guys were kind of freaks in their own country. They were the first group to use that particular instrumentation to reproduce that kind of music. They were the first group to come over to the United States and play this kind of music. So they were used to challenges. And so I think this was just another obstacle to be overcome rather than, you know, an insurmountable wall.

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: They just did it. They had their “Please welcome Kornog.” They played their show. And they put together an album with great liner notes and a color-popping cover design.

>>Herschel: The, whatever that thing is, griffin, or whatever, jumps off of that red background. So that was extra cool

>>Shannon: I asked Matthew Olwell, my flute playing, dancing pal, what he thought Kornog’s album did for wood flute players; and for traditional music.

The recording industry and putting it on a stage did amazing things for generations of musicians. It also has probably done pretty weird things to the tradition.

>>Matthew:  I  mean, it seems to me like that’s true for any type of music that becomes popularized as a performance art form. Pros and cons.

[Laughing, agreement]

>>Shannon: So what are some of the pros that you see?

>>Matthew: Oh gosh, I mean, you know, the popularity of so many groups who toured the United States, um, did so much to spread awareness of the music and to inspire people to play, to establish new communities of musicians and dancers. I mean, being inspired to play because of these artists.

>>Shannon: Right. And then, what about the cons?

>>Matthew: Right. I feel like one answer to that is it sort of depends on how much of a purist you are. Like, you know, there are people who feel like the music really lives and breathes in the pub or the kitchen. I think that’s true in a lot of ways, like that is, there’s this sort of feeling that that is the roots of it and the sharing of it between people who are participating is a big part of the experience. But then in today’s world it doesn’t seem like you can easily disentangle the social music making from the stage, because while there are people who only play socially, they are constantly interacting with people who are touring musicians.

[Music fades]

So, “pure drop” music, as it’s sometimes called; non-commercial traditional music; the purity of regional styles: it all probably began eroding with the first waves of mass migration OUT of Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany, right? Especially with Irish music… with so many musicians and dancers leaving Ireland, and then meeting up with other Irish and Irish Americans in the States. From the beginning, it got pretty mixed up. And it’s still all mixing together.

>>Matthew:  I mean, as a player learning tunes and arranging them for the stage, how could that NOT then influence the way you would play in a session, and vice versa. You know, they’re constantly informing each other it would seem.

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

>>Shannon: When I spoke with Brian O’Donovan in his WGBH office, he called this cycle of influence between performers and session musicians mostly helpful. It’s a way to broaden support for traditional music and dance, within the Irish trad community—but ALSO out to a bigger community of listeners, some of whom might get deeper into it (and even start podcasts about it.)

[Music fades]

>>Brian: Because I’ve been lucky enough to be on such a powerful medium as WGBH’s radio, and the ability to present these major shows because theatre’s my passion, it’s allowed me then to say,  “hey look what I have, look what I found.”

[Music: Flute Duet,” from Christmas Celtic Sojourn, 2007
Artist: Louise Mulcahey and Shannon Heaton ]

Christmas Celtic Sojourn, for example, which is one of the programs we do around, generally, Christmas themes, we played to almost 14,000 people last year. Many of whom are not necessarily traditional music fans, not even folk fans. But suddenly they are out there hearing yourself and Louise Mulcahy playing, it’s one of my favorite moments from Christmas Celtic in the past. We just had a pure drop moment. It was the same moment that you could have had in Hugh’s pub in Connemara twenty years ago. There was really no difference in the moment. It was just that you had a beautiful theatre in downtown Boston packed to the gills multiple nights that got to hear it.

I think a lot of the people who have first come across Irish traditional music on a stage are often drawn to the other forms of it. They’ll buy a CD that night. They’ll listen to radio and hear more of it, says he in a self plug… Em, they will travel to Ireland. They will get to know traditional musicians and; but recognize that this is a living tradition that continues to exist with people communing around us. 

>>Shannon: OK, communing sounds good. But in some cases, this kitchen music is being put on very big stages. Stages that separate audiences and performers. And this really really takes traditional music and dance away from the informal, home-based setting.

[Music ends]

>>Brian: So once anybody comes in and says I’m going to put this on radio, I’m going to put it on a record you’re already in the slippery slope. And I don’t believe that’s a slippery slope to anywhere problematic. I have zero problem with it. In fact, I celebrate live music even when it’s not in the pure form as how it would have been originally conceived or created.

>>Shannon: Even groups that have established to PRESERVE Irish music. Well, they affect it too. 

Like the cultural organization Comhaltas, which formed in 1951. In order to promote Irish music, Comhaltas introduced competitions. And then, pretty soon, ideas got set about STYLE: people thought they had to sound a certain way to win those competitions. And this standardization continues today.

So even institutions like Comhaltas really do alter the conversation. 

>>Brian: It changes immediately once it gets out of your mother singing it at the kitchen as she’s peeling potatoes. 

>>Shannon: Of course, taking cultural music out of the kitchen,  and making MONEY off of it is nothing new.

>>Brian: You know I’m a big fan of vaudeville, of Tin Pan Alley, and if you think of that it was kind of the initial commercial exploitation. And I’m not even using the word exploitation with any sort of derogatory term. I’m just saying the exploitation, the using of that sadness and missing home to make a commercial business out of music.   

And suddenly you have this great Vaudeville Scene that was going on, attracting thousands of people. 

[Music: “The Cameronian,” from Fiddler Comp
Artist: Michael Coleman ]

And people like Michael Coleman becoming stars of it, basically. Michael Coleman, a fiddler,  becoming a star of that scene because people just wanted to hear this fiddler who could play like the hammers of hell. 

[Music ends]

>>Shannon: People wanted  the hammers of hell. They wanted entertainment. Still do. When I go to a show, or listen to a podcast, I want something really good. Something that took a lot of care and thought to assemble.

Vaudeville star Ann McNulty put a lot of care and thought into her act. She’d emigrated from County Roscommon to New York. Her husband died in 1928. And then the Great Depression hit. To keep afloat, she assembled a family band with her son and daughter.

I learned about Ann McNulty when I spoke with banjo player and scholar Mick Moloney at the 2018 Catskills Irish Arts Week. He was putting together a presentation about the McNulty Family and showed me photos of Eileen, Peter, and Ma over lunch.

>>Mick: So I have these incredible pictures, and then I start with this first record.

[ Music of the McNultys, courtesy of Mick ]

 The melodeon, which is, you know, she’s in an old, lovely Irish style. At that time it wouldn’t have been virtuosic, it would have been for dancing.

>>Shannon: In the photo, daughter Eileen is singing and dancing. Her younger brother Peter is on the piano and fiddle. And Ma McNulty has her melodeon, and her ball gown.

[Music ends]

>>Mick: She starts them off when they are teenagers, in school, in the Holy Redeemer school, in New Jersey. She’s determined, the husband’s just died. It’s 1928, just before the Depression, she doesn’t know that yet. Now, she could have looked for a likely lad she could handle or she could have taken in washing. But instead she says no, I’m going to make my children stars. It’s still Vaudeville, you see. Vaudeville doesn’t finish for another 3 years. And she gets them all dressed up in high school, gets Peter taking fiddle lessons. They’re going to the Hextor Drama Guild. She takes them to the palace, which is the big, big; it’s like the Carnegie Hall of Vaudeville. They say they’re great but they’re too young, bring them back when they’re 18. And there they are in the school sketch. She has them billed, and this is the first time they are ever billed, and they’re billed as the McNulty twins. They’re not twins at all but they’re so small nobody knows.

>>Shannon: She’s in a taffeta ball gown,  it’s like a wedding dress.

>>Mick: Exactly. She looks like the Mae West of Irish music! On the stage, she could be dressed up for Maggie Hall (?), they all could, and on this tiny little stage!

This is high art, and it’s popular art, and it’s to some degree, it’s traditional art too. There’s recitations,  there’s songs,  there’s an Irish jig, there’s dancing. This is variety, variety theatre.

>>Shannon:  It’s a variety show. Like Riverdance. We’ll get to that. But, what do variety shows do TO and FOR traditional music and dance?

>>Mick: There’s always a tension between popular art and traditional art. Traditional art gets ignored and becomes wallpaper. Popular art is ephemeral. But if you take the values from both—the McNultys kind of did. They were not virtuosos, but they tapped into a chord.

You could form your little traditional music ghetto, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m part of it, you’re part of it. And it’s great to be in that hood. You know, it’s a very supportive little community. But if you want to be in show biz you have to always be changing your material, adjusting and not go out there and play your latest CD, put your head down and say nothing. 

>>Shannon: Right.

>>Mick: That’s what some groups have done, but it just doesn’t lead anywhere. If you want to be in show biz and make a living, you have to make some compromises, that’s all. 

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: Ooof. Show Biz. Okay. Presenting a well conceived set. THIS seems the mannerly thing to do. But…. show biz? That’s not a term that a lot of trad players would aim for—or admit to. 

Like, did Jean-Michel Veillon set out to be an “Entertainer!?” I don’t think so. I think he loves wood flute and traditional music from Brittany. If he’d had more of a pandering vibe, I don’t think the edge and the flavor of his music would have hit me the same way.

Like Mick Moloney said, there’s always that tension between traditional and pop culture. And offering entertaining trad music means, well, considering the entertainment factor.

That’s what Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy did back in the 60s. They brought Irish folk songs and theatre sensibilities to stages around the world.

>>Rory: My father was important in that role. He came to American in 1955 to be an actor. 

>>Shannon: That’s Tommy Makem’s son Rory.

>>Rory: He, uh, would do acting. The Clancy’s were here and he met Liam months earlier.

[Music: “Mountain Dew,” from Irish Drinking Songs
Artist: The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem]

And they started doing concerts after the plays. And they’d be singing at The White Horse Tavern, these were just songs they all grew up with. It was just natural for them. And, what every, I’ve always thought, everybody in New York at that time, it was the folk boom. Washington Square Park was full every day of collegiate kids with their guitars and banjos and here come these four guys from Ireland who were already what they wanted to be.

>>Shannon: Rory Makem grew up with his dad’s songs. He still performs them today. Right before Rory and I spoke, we met some old hippies who were talking about the 1960s folk craze. They remembered early Makem & Clancy shows, how these Irish guys in Aran sweaters made old Irish songs come alive.

>>Rory: They had a style of presenting it that came from the theater and the way they packaged the songs was for the stage. If you took my granny singing and put her on a stage in Carnegie hall in 1962, I don’t think people would have understood it. You know, a little old lady singing these songs. And my granny just knew thousands of songs without even trying, they just were in her head. And they took them and they did change them. And they got a lot of flack for that.

>>Shannon: They arranged them in a way they felt was accessible?

>>Rory: They did, Yes

>>Shannon: Shortened some of them?

>>Rory: Shortened some, sped them up. Maybe gave them a beat they didn’t have back in the old country. But then they had quite a bit of success here in America. Huge. These four young guys from Ireland, huge and humorous.

>>Shannon: And the costumes, the sweaters?

[Music fades]

>>Rory: Poetry. The costumes was their Jewish manager’s idea. He needed to package them.

>>Shannon: Wow, I can’t imagine how hot they must have been!

>>Rory: Well, they wouldn’t wear them the whole show. Most of the time they’d take them off after the first song.

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

 I’ve always said the reason they didn’t sing Danny Boy or When Irish Eyes Were Smiling, or any of that tin pan alley Irish, it was because of where it came from and what it represented in America. It was basically blackface Irish.  Leprechauns singing these songs and drunken Irishmen being arrested by police officers. And this was horrible for them so they refused to do those things. 

They were on the Danny Thomas show in 1961, or something.  They played his wife’s “Irish cousins.” And the one show they were on was filled with songs. It was pretty funny, I’ve seen it. But it was to launch their own television series about these four bumpkin Irishmen who come to New York City and everything is, is, you know, odd for them. “Oh, look at these men going down into the street. I can’t believe they are walking under the street! Look at all these tall buildings!” You know, and the four of them looked at the script and said absolutely not. This makes Irish look stupid. So the TV executives rewrote the story and it became the Beverly Hillbillies.

>>Shannon: My goodness. Considering the impact that they had on Irish music and on folk singing. It could have had a dire effect.

>>Rory: Right, it could have. It could have stopped in 1962. They could have been TV stars. 

[Music stops]

>>Shannon: We all have our own limits of what we’re willing to do for a paycheck.

[Music: Celtic Grooves reprise]

And while Makem and Clancy didn’t star in the Irish Hillbillies, they DID change old songs to increase their popular appeal. And in the process they brought those songs to a lot of people.

Just like Jean Michel Veillon and Kornog did. 

Is that a boost? Or is it diluting the tradition? Or is it both?

Flute player and singer Steph Geremia is based in Ireland. She teaches around the globe and performs with the Alan Kelly Gang. When we chatted at a festival in Texas, Steph told me why she thinks it’s important to create music that reaches beyond the traditional music ghetto.

[Music fades]

>> Shannon: And then what is that process of taking music that you have sort of played in a session setting, in a traditional setting and curating it for a stage setting?

>>Steph: It’s like putting on a different hat you have to think about music completely different. You have to think about the presentation of it completely different. Um, you know, you’re putting stuff together to create, like doing an album. You know you’re thinking about it from start to finish. You know you want you want the progression and the flow to work right. You know you need your setlist to work. It can’t be all slow stuff, or all fast stuff. You can’t just lash out reels all night, even if that’s what you want to do. You have to make it interesting, you know, you have to reach audiences that mightn’t know anything about Trad. There are so many music lovers out there . You know, and even if they don’t play or don’t know anything about it. Um, I think I look at it as a time to really bring them into your world for an hour or two hours or whatever when you’re on stage. Um, and get them to sort of feel your love for it. 

>>Shannon: Like Steph does here, playing her own tune Linnane Terrace.

[Music:“Linnane Terrace,” from The Open Road
Artist: Steph Geremia ]

Bringing people into your world. Reaching and sharing. That’s what it was about for me, when I first heard Kornog. I really felt Jean-Michel’s love and passion for the traditional music of Brittany, and for the flute.

But now that we have even more biz and infrastructure around professional trad bands, is the industry affecting and shaping the music too much? As bands get slicker… and when playing music is your JOB, does it change you? Does the music change?

Flute player Kevin Crawford and his 5-piece band, Lunasa have put out nine albums. They’ve got great riffs and grooves. They’ve got a logo. And they have stagecraft. They know how to play to a seated theater AND a raucous festival tent. And they know how to make REALLY strong coffee, which is what Kevin and I had been drinking when we started talking about approaches to performing.

[Music fades]

>>Kevin: When you’re putting together something that ultimately is gonna be performed, em, you’re only putting things into the hat that you’re passionate about, right? So definitely like the ingredients are good. Em, but that’s not enough to do a gig I’ve always felt. Now there’s another school of thought that says that should be enough. Why do we have to look like we’re having a good time, why do we have to dress it up? That’s fine, and there is a place for that too. But for me, I’ve always, I feel that people should enjoy it. Then you get the fact that you need to present them in a way that perhaps people that aren’t music aficionados, but they’re going to see you’re having a good time, and that in itself is infectious. And you can make it a bit, again, lighthearted as opposed to have been this recital-type of atmosphere. The other thing is to make it interesting in a group context, like in terms of the arrangements; the way you put the tunes together; the way you dress it up.

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

Those tunes are just, they’re so beautiful and they have the patterns that shout out and, you know, we can do more with them.

>>Shannon: Do those crazy arrangements mean that Irish music is getting dressed up beyond recognition? Does Lunasa still manage to hold on to an informal, spontaneous session vibe?

>>Kevin: I mean, not everything we’ve done is right by any means, but at least we give it a go. It felt right for us at the time. Em, but we’re still, we’re still trying (big sigh). I think you need to, you can almost synthesize the session vibe. I mean, not all sessions are fantastic either

>>Shannon: Correct. So, uh,to say to put the one against the other, you’re right. It’s not a very clean comparison.

>>Kevin: There’s good and bad about both. 

[Music fades]

Not all sessions are great but when a session IS great it’s the greatest thing on the flippin’ planet, em, because I think you’re not conscious of getting it right either. You’re just in the moment. You’re playing with friends. You’re feeding off of somebody in, in an acoustic way as well there is nothing like hearing you play here, and me forging my sound to marry what’s coming from your instrument, like. 

[Music: Hometown Lullaby Reprise ]

And that’s that’s what happens in a session. There’s no there’s nothing in the way. It’s you and it’s somebody else, and you’re having this conversation musically. And it’s, it’s sometimes a great conversation. 

>>Shannon: You’re right. And just like not all sessions are perfect, not all performances are great either. Even if you are on a certain level and you did the job.

>>Kevin: We all, hopefully feel certain things at certain times and if you’ve had a rough day and you’ve been flying for three days, and you get to a place and there’s no hotel and you can’t have a shower, and you haven’t eaten. Like obviously there’s things that are going to impact on the starting point.

>>Shannon: And all those, you know,the late flight, didn’t eat, didn’t shower; it always makes me think of “Please welcome, Kornog.”

>>Kevin: “Please welcome Kornog,” yeah, that’s fantastic.

[Music: “Dans An Dro,” from Première
Artist: Kornog ]

>>Shannon: Yeah! 

In this episode, all roads lead back to Jean-Michel Veillon and Kornog.

You’ll remember that the music tradition of Brittany had almost been lost. When Jean-Michel was a kid, the country was reinventing its tradition. They were finding ways to play and, yes, to PERFORM and record their music. To share the essence of their culture with audiences outside of Brittany.

Jean-Michel: I grew up in a remote village on the north coast of Brittany. And very young, when I was 10, I started to learn the Breton Dances. And then I started to learn to play the bombard (the oboe I mentioned before) And I knew very little, almost nothing, about the folk revival. However, I knew about Irish music and Scottish music, because I heard it several times in the feasts in Brittany. There were often bands coming from Ireland and Scotland. And this is how I heard the flute for the first time. And I just loved it. So I managed to find a wooden flute, uh, in 1977, which was not very easy at the time. And I started to play it. Not very long after in 1982, Jamie, Christian, and Soïg invited me to join their trio, which became a quartet. And that was it.

>>Shannon: So what about those dance tunes? How did the guys learn them, if the Breton fiddle and fife players had all died?

>>Jean-Michel: In the early 80s, it was not so easy to pretend to play Breton music with instruments like a fiddle, a flute, a guitar and a bouzouki. No recording, and nobody left to refer to, we had to find new ways of articulating what we wanted to play. So we decided to refer to the singing tradition, which comes first always. And then the reed instruments, together with the bombard there comes a little pipes called biniou kozh. And also to the clarinet. And also very important, the accordion. 

[Music ends]

>>Shannon: That’s right. Jean-Michel and fiddle player Christian LeMaitre inVENTED new ways of playing flute and fiddle. 

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

But they were also trying hard to figure out how Breton tunes might have been played on their instruments historically.

Trying to choose tunes that would represent their country, their culture. Inventing techniques. Talk about a mission. Talk about a story. No wonder it knocked my socks off:

>>Jean-Michel: We tried to select carefully the tunes, the Breton repertoire that we wanted to play. First of all, we wanted tunes that were not too difficult to adapt to our flute and fiddle. And, uh, and the other thing is that because Kornog was starting to tour abroad, we wanted also tunes that were quite representative. That would show, really, the best of the Breton tradition.

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: Jean-Michel has taught courses at the University of Limerick, where you can get undergrad and Master’s degrees in traditional music and dance.

There are similar programs in Ireland and the States. Lots of Celtic fusion projects come out of these programs. Sometimes they bring in jazz, bluegrass, and music elements from around the world. And some of the band members in these projects are NOT active in the local Irish music community. It’s interesting. And time will tell what sticks.

But something that DID really strike a chord and stick: RIVERDANCE! In case you missed it, Irish step champions Michael Flatley and Jean Butler hit the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. 

And for seven minutes, here’s what went down.

[Music: “Riverdance Medley,” from Eurovision Song Contest
Composers: Michael McGlynn, Bill Whelan
Artists: Katie McMahon, Anúna, Bill Whelan, Máire Breathnach, Kenneth Edge ]

Katie McMahon sings a high, reverb-drenched incantation, before the rest of the choral group Anuna joins her for the opening “Cloud Song.” (Most of the singers are wearing hooded cloaks.)

This leads seamlessly into an elegant, soft-shoe slip jig, danced by Jean Butler.  The tune: a modern, syncopated composition by Bill Whelan. The costume: a short black dress. And this, for Irish step dance at the time, was wicked punk rock.

And then… four drummers and dancer Michael Flatley come out. Michael is wearing a blousy, Electric blue shirt.

He’s dancing with these flamboyant upper body movements. Really cutting edge for Irish dance at the time.

Michael and the drummers take turns trading steps and beats. 

Then a saxophone plays a Baltic-sounding modern tune. 

Jean and Michael lock eyes… and BRING it. 

The rest of the dance line joins them. 

No gaudy dance costumes, just tight black outfits and muscley choreography. 

Now THAT’s entertainment.

[Music ends, cheers, applause]

And it was just an interval act. Which far surpassed any of the main events scheduled that night. And soon after, producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan helped transform the act into a full-length show. The first Riverdance run sold out in three days.

It was the beginning of a phenomenon that would revolutionize Irish dance and music around the world.

Matthew Olwell has thought about some of the deeper dimensions of Riverdance:

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

>>Shannon: So, then let’s talk a little bit more of a dramatic example of how this very social tradition can really alter when it goes on a stage: Riverdance.

>>Matthew: Hahahahah. Yeah, certainly the popularity of the dance shows that have come along since the early days of Riverdance I think has had a huge impact. You have Irish dance schools all over the world. You know, those dances are influencing, again, more social styles of dancing, like people who do sean nos and ceili dancing. It’s not like they’re not experiencing those shows, unless they haven’t seen them. But that became pretty hard to do at a certain point. 

>>Shannon: Yeah.

>>Matthew: And again, it’s spreading the tradition far and wide and increasing the number of people who are experiencing it. It’s also codifying it in a particular way, and popularizing a very specific style of dancing, of playing music. So there’s an upside and a downside to that.

>>Shannon: Distributing a big show and a new style of Irish dancing. Now that’s another thing that can have significant and probably unintended consequences. It can end up stifling future creativity in a way, because performers and audiences get fixed notions of what’s possible. And what’s expected. 

But it also creates a bigger audience.

>>Matthew: When I was growing up, if you said ‘oh I do Irish step dancing’ there was a good chance that nobody would know what you were talking about. But in the post Riverdance years you can say Irish step dancing and you might get a blank stare, but if you say Riverdance, people instantly have an association. 

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: Yeah.

It wasn’t just Irish dancing that got a boost. Riverdance broke new ground for Irish music as well, The idea of a fiddle player with a wireless mic, unTETHERED. 

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

Not just standing up, which is crazy enough, but ranging across the stage, walking toward the dancer and the audience: THAT was new. And while Eileen Ivers’ bold, improvisational style and her blue fiddle may now be iconic, the Riverdance performance aesthetics went against her instincts… at first.

>>Eileen: Coming from that place and being very traditional and then having a chat with the wonderful director John McCulgen who was egging me on to leave the actual band and come out on stage and work it, and go, run around the stage with a wireless mic and engage with dancers, engage with the audience. I remember having a big chat with John saying, you know, that’s not what traditional musicians do, John. That feels really wrong to me!

[Music fades]

And, you know, John just said something, “but Eileen, you could engage the crowd. 

[Music:“Apples in Winter,” from An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas
Artist: Eileen Ivers ]

I want you to engage the crowd, really pull them into this music that we all love.” And he was very cute, he said, “OK, tomorrow night, just come out to the stage here, 25% of the stage.” (Laughing). “OK,” I said, “that’ll be my mark, OK.” He said, “Now the next night, can you go halfway. And then maybe then try to cross the stage.” And I remember that, each night, it was like baby steps.

>>Shannon: Wow, that was thoughtful of him.

>>Eileen: Yeah, it was very thoughtful holding my hand as we did it. And I did, and actually, when I joined the show, it was London,um, where we played it.  So the audiences back then, late 90s, late mid-nineties, here’s Irish music coming into London in a wonderful way. And I saw that the people in the audience just kind of getting excited—here’s this fiddle in your face. Here’s the dancer’s feet you know, engaging with the fiddle. It did, it just elevated it. He was so right. We had quite the run.

>>Shannon: Yeah!

The fiddle and the feet were a sensation. So was the dance challenge, where Irish and tap masters have this dance off. Just like ACTUAL African Americans and Irish immigrants did in the 19th century in New York. The two dancing traditions share a lot of history.

>>Matthew:You certainly wouldn’t have either style of dance, the way you know it now, without the other one. They’ve not grown up in isolation. They’ve been constantly influencing each other since day one

>>Shannon: That’s Matthew Olwell again.

>>Matthew: In a sense, Riverdance is almost like a new type of variety show because there are these different elements. You’ve got the chorus line of Irish dancers, you’ve got these very virtuosic soloists, you have a flamenco dancer, you have, uh, tap dancers. It does sort of hearken back to this older style of variety theater, uh, to sort of like a vaudeville playbill where you have these different types of acts.

[Music fades]

 And there are some complexities and complications there, at least in the United States, the history of the variety show and vaudeville takes us right back to the minstrel shows of the  mid-19th century. And so you’ve got this very tangled and complicated web of history and racism and inequality and all types of things mangled together and it’s difficult to know what to do with as a contemporary performer.

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

>>Shannon: The minstrel shows in the U.S., Europe, and Ireland involved white performers performing in blackface. They presented horribly racist caricatures of people of color. The shows ran from about 1830 to 1860. But Matthew told me about a TV show on the BBC called the Black and White Minstrel show. It ran until 1978!!! Just 40 years ago!!! You can find clips on YouTube, and I recommend NOT doing it.

Now, the Black and White Minstrel show might not be traditional music. But they sang a few traditional songs, alongside comedy, pageantry, and 12 pretty girls. And when you put on a variety show on today—where you have Irish musicians and dancers on a stage… well, there is a connection to that history.

[Music fades]

>>Matthew: It feels like the elephant in the room. If you know that’s part of the history and you know that it is an invisibilized part of the history that has been very carefully sort of whitewashed out of the narrative that we get growing up, then it’s like, well, what do we do with that now?

I guess, you know, Riverdance touches on that so briefly in that scene, where you have the male lead and his buddies mixing it up with the tap dancers and there’s this sort of challenge dance. 

Uh, I think that moment in the  show really opens the door to a lot of other possibilities to examine some of those stories, to tell some of that history a little more directly. And to try to raise questions about what do we do with it now.

>>Shannon: What do we do with it now, Matthew?

[Shannon and Matthew laughing]

[Music fades]

>>Matthew: Oh, golly! To me, as a choreographer and as a musician, um, I think there is a bit of a call to action that I have felt in more recent years.  I think there is a real power to putting styles of music that don’t necessarily come from the same place or the same experience on stage side by side, and, or together. Uh, that mixing can take different forms, it could be that you have an Irish dancer and a tap dancer on the same stage and they’re working together. But it can also be allowing those styles of dance to influence each other and to, um, continue to change in the way that they have historically. And looking for ways for them to be in a musical dialogue. I think that’s definitely important, uh, and valuable.

[Music: [Music: “Trip to Birmingham,” from Cybertrad
Composer: Josie McDermott
Artist: Matthew Olwell] ]

>>Shannon: Whether you’re finding common ground between beatboxing and Irish music, on a flute your dad and brother made for you; like Matthew did with Shodekeh Talifiero on the Cyber Trad album. Or you’re building a band to cast light on your own cultural music that almost died out. Or you’re tuning in to the story of racism or the intertwined stories of Irish and tap, searching for meaning and tuning into the stories behind the tradition seem key. Like Jean-Michel did with Kornog. And like traditional roots bands are still doing today.

>>Herschel: You still have a lot of groups that embody, the real traditional roots. But you also have a number of musicians that have expanded it without diluting it. I guess that’d be the best way to describe it. 

[Music fades]

>>Shannon: That’s Herschel Freeman again.

>>Herschel: My motto since I began is “innovations in traditional music.” So I like to focus on groups that are based in a strong indigenous culture, and comfortable enough with it so that they can stretch the boundaries a little bit.

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

>>Shannon: Promoting performers who are rooted in their distinct cultures and kitchens. Who are able to thoughtfully stretch and, above all, SHARE trad music and dance. And eventually reach flute players like me. And Matthew. And Steph. And Kevin. This seems like having your gateau (or your Breton gwastell) and eating it, too. It’s a way to ride the tension between popular and traditional art. This way, the music lasts. And maybe it makes a difference.

Jean Michel Veillon continues to make a difference. Here’s how he thinks about Kornog today.

[Music fades]

>>Jean-Michel: Flute and fiddle have become quite popular in Brittany. The musicians today, the young musicians, many of them, many young talented musicians don’t work exactly the same way. They use a lot more of technology. But it, it sometimes, the question comes up to know if the physical presence of the musician is still necessary, I am wondering sometimes.  

What I still like and what I think remains precious, is to me, the live music. Musicians playing live in a venue, even in a small room. Um, it has to me no comparison. 

I’m glad I have taken part in some live albums, among which the Premiere, you know, the live album of Kornog in Minneapolis, which was some experience. It was the first time for me to record live an album. And, uh, it was some experience, because we had some problems, you know. The Bouzouki and guitar were stuck somewhere in an airport until the last minute. So there was a lot of tension. But I’m glad we did it. It was, it was a great experience.

[Music fades]

* * * * * * *

>>Shannon: When trad music and dance play on big stages with pyrotechnics, it is about entertainment. But in its own modern way, could it also be about uplifting and engaging people, so they can digest bigger, difficult messages, if they want to?

Or does the show distract and distort traditional music and dance too much?

[Music: Mutey Big Build Reprise ]

 Like if performers become so intent on making engaging, good looking performances, do they lose their focus on the music? Do they get cynical and dispirited?

Do really successful acts squish future innovation for a while, because they set up expectations? And then presenters and audiences expect whatever gimmick the latest big show had?

And if so, are tiny venues better places to present traditional music and dance? When a dancer performs in a living room, it DOES bring dance and music close to people. It establishes a rapport between players and listeners, instruments and music, feet and floor.

But then, what? Playing to 20 people—does that just keep this small art form marginalized? 

I mean, yes to all of the above, right?

>>Matthew: I think there’s an opportunity there—to make something for the parlor, to make something for the stage. To make something for the parlor. To make them symbiotic, so that they work well together. So that the act of music and dance making in the home or the pub or the kitchen, uh, is, kind of, complimenting what you’re putting on stage. And that they are both informed by some critical investigation of the history.

[Music: fades]

>>Shannon: From the kitchens, to the local pubs, to the university concert series, to the beer-drenched Celtic festivals; at every turn, performers have an opportunity to consider where they’ve been…. and where they’re going. 

[Music: “Jesuitmont,” from Première
Artist: Kornog ]

Maybe musicians who know their story… 

 

…who remember that WWII, for example, nearly knocked out their tradition.

Maybe they CAN overcome travel delays. And still put on a concert worth podcasting about!

* * * 

Irish Music Stories was written and produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to all of my guests, and a very special thank you to Carol Zall for script editing. Thank you to Judith Joiner for helping me tell the Kornog story. And thanks, as always, to Matt Heaton for the production music, and to Nigel for acknowledging our sponsors.

Thanks again to Tom Madden, Andy Kruspe, Danny Horton, Chris Murphy, Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, Gerry Corr and Ted Coyle for underwriting this month’s show. If you can kick in, there’s a donate button at IrishMusicStories.org. Every little bit helps. Thank you. Thanks again for listening, everybody. 

EASTER EGG

>>Herschel: If you hold the album and you wiggle it side to side, it has the effect of having 3D glasses on.

[Music fades]

[Music: ]

>>Shannon: It sort of sits alongside the Sex Pistols album in my mind. Uh, that’s also kind of got 

a similar color experience.

>>Shannon and Herschel: Hahahah!

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Flute player from Brittany who introduced simple system wood flute into Breton folk tunes by using some techniques from Irish flute players

Cork native who works in public broadcasting and music production

Matthew Olwell

DANCE/FLUTE/PERCUSSION

Virginia-based Irish and old-time dancer, percussionist, flute player, and instrument maker

Tennessee-based promoter of innovative traditional music

Mick Moloney

BANJO/GUITAR/SINGER

Limerick-born folklorist/musician and National Heritage Fellow who has taught at universities, directed festivals and arts tours, and recorded and produced numerous albums

Rory Makem

SINGER/BANJO/GUITAR

Folksinger and guitar/banjo player, who learned from his grandma Sarah and father Tommy

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

England-born, New York-based flute, whistle, and bodhran player who performs with the band Lúnasa

New York-based Grammy-winning fiddle player, composer, and bandleader who has performed around the globe

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