From the Fringe to the Fore

How banjo got to Irish music, while other instruments have been slower to the fold
Episode Trailer

A harp, a cello, and a sax walk into a bar.

The banjo playing bartender (who opened this pub some time ago), serves them up a brand new cocktail—old ingredients, blended in a new way. What’s the result? Only time will tell.

The newest episode of Irish Music Stories, Episode 43-From the Fringe to the Fore, explores how musicians can adapt and add new ingredients. Like how the tenor banjo has risen in popularity for Irish musicians…

…and what it’s like to play trad tunes on instruments LESS common at Celtic music festivals and sessions.

Hear how the banjo came into common acceptance in Irish circles from Daniel Neely, Enda Scahill, and Martin Howley… and check in with the joys and challenges of outsider status from harpist Maeve Gilchrist, cellist Natalie Haas, and saxophone players Susan Lindsay and Isaac Alderson.


Thanks to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Pat Wilcox, Soomee Han, Ken Doyle, Stephanie Reeve, Finn Agenbroad, Mark Haynes, David Vaughan, Gerry Corr, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Jon Duvik, and Suezen Brown.

Episode 43-From the Fringe to the Fore
How banjo got to Irish music, while other instruments have been slower to the fold
This Irish Music Stories episode aired  July 14, 2020

– Transcription assistance from Elizabeth Sweeney –

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Enda Scahill: All-Ireland champion Irish banjo player from County Galway who founded the band We Banjo 3
>> Natalie Haas: Cellist from California who plays different fiddle genres and performs with fiddler Alasdair Fraser
>> Maeve Gilchrist:  Edinburgh-born, New York-based Celtic (lever) harp player who has collaborated with numerous project
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Daniel T. Neely: New York-based musician and ethnomusicologist with specialties in the musics of Ireland and Jamaica
>> Martin Howley: Galway-born banjo and mandolin player who performs with We Banjo 3
>> Susan Gedutis Lindsay (Sue): Massachusetts-based flute/sax player, writer, and educator
>> Isaac Alderson: Chicago-born, New York-based musician who has performed and recorded on uilleann pipes, flute, and whistle with numerous bands and dance shows


>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…

[ Music: “The Big Reel Of Ballynacally/The High Hill/Flash Away The Pressing Gang,” from Sunny Spells And Scattered Showers

Artist: Solas ]

… like how the banjo has risen in popularity for Irish players since back when Enda Scahill chose the instrument at school:

>> Enda: … there was a lady called Bernie Garrity who’s an amazing teacher. She came into the school and said, who wants to play the Banjo? I was eight, so I stuck up my hand… .So that’s how I started on the Banjo. But it’s hugely popular now, like there’s thousands of incredible Irish banjo players, like loads of them.

>> Shannon: So this is the story of the now wildly popular banjo… and the story of playing trad tunes on instruments that are less common at Celtic music festivals and sessions.

>> Natalie: Historically, cello was part of the tradition in Scotland. Yeah, you don’t see that many cello players today. Lots of pipes, lots of fiddles. 

>> Shannon: That’s Boston-based Natalie Haas. She’s carried her cello all around the world, playing Scottish traditional music and helping shine a light back on an instrument that USED to be a key player in Scotland.

For this episode, I’ll talk to Natalie and to other musical pioneers like harpist Maeve Gilchrist and saxophone players Susan Lindsay and Isaac Alderson about what it’s like to be on the fringe. I’ll talk to banjo players Daniel Neely, Enda Scahill, and Martin Howley about their experiences with an instrument which has become more of a mainstream voice in the trad music choir.

So hold on to your wristwatches… and your Darth Vader mugs… because in a living tradition, change is the only constant.

Natalie Haas started playing trad cello in addition to her classical Suzuki lessons, as a kid in California. And she served us tea, using her R2D2 teapot and Death Star tea ball. 

>> Natalie: Hello. Good morning.

>>Shannon: That sounds fantastic. Good morning. Thanks for the tea. OK I’ll unplug the headphones.

>> Shannon: I wanted to get the dirt on how it feels to play an outlier instrument in traditional music. Natalie started out by explaining that fiddle and cello duos were the main act like 100 years ago:

>> Natalie: It’s part of the tradition in Scotland in a very visual, prominent way. You can go back and look at old paintings and old musical collections and see bass lines that were intended to be played on the cello, and see beautiful images of cello being played for dances in village gathering or balls. 

[ Music: Professor Cherry, from Ports of Call
Artists/Composer: Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas ]

The Highland Wedding is a really famous painting by David Allen which has an image of Niel Gow playing fiddle with his brother Donald accompanying him on cello for a dance in the Highlands. And there are similar ones to that where you’ll often see a cello player there, doing a bass line for dancing. Which is pretty cool, because I don’t know many other cultures that have that, apart from maybe Romania, or Hungary, or something, or Eastern Europe.

It kind of went out of favor, maybe towards the beginning of the 1900s I would say. Scott Skinner, actually a famous player/composer, started playing cello, And he died in I think 1927. So by that time, after his death, you don’t hear much about it at all. Because at that point I think piano and accordion were starting to come in and people wanted a bigger sound, and the cello wasn’t providing that.

>> Shannon: Big dances, big events?

>> Natalie: Yeah. And there were big events and dances before that, too. But I guess they were better listeners back then, because you’d just have one fiddle and one cello playing for a dance, and it worked. Back in the 1700s, 1800s.

>> Shannon: Did the shoes change or something?

>> Natalie: Maybe. Maybe. I have no idea, actually. 

>> Shannon: People started drinking and getting rowdy?

>> Natalie: I’m sure they were doing that in the 1700s, too.

>> Shannon: They took quieter sips back then…

>>Natalie: Yeah. [laughter]

[ Music:  “John’s Theme,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Natalie: It didn’t make it across so much into Ireland or to Cape Breton.

>> Shannon: Harder to carry over in a backpack?

>> Natalie: I think so, probably, and cost. Financially preventative.

[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So, cello had faded from the Scottish scene. And in Ireland, except for rare musical gatherings, with a mix of traditional and European Art music, cello wasn’t part of the musical conversation. 

But like other “exotic” instruments (like the Greek bouzouki), players started bringing in cello into acoustic bands during the folk revival of the 1970s. American cello player Abby Newton started playing American and Scottish music; Irish piper Neil Martin played cello on a few tracks with his band Crann; and fiddle player Frankie Gavin asked English cellist Caroline Lavelle to play on a De Dannan album after he heard her busking on the street.

Natalie started touring and recording with Scottish fiddle player Alasdair Fraser in the early 2000s. Now, I live in Boston, that’s where Natalie lives … and also Valerie Thompson, Mike Block, Ariel Friedman, Ben Anderson, they all play trad cello. But not everywhere has such a cello presence:

>> Natalie: Even today people see it and they don’t know what to think … a lot … I guess we’ve sort of made it our mission, Alasdair and I, to really bring it back and put it in the forefront. Not just as a pretty accompaniment thing that plays beautiful long lines, but something that can give a lot of dance energy and drive, rhythmically speaking.   

>> Shannon: Like Eric Wright brings here with Mairi Rankin.

[ Music: “Taste of Gaelic,” from The Cabin Sessions
Artists/Composer: Mairi Rankin & Eric Wright ]

>> Natalie: There’s a lot of people using it in Scotland today. In the last 10 years or so it’s starting to become popular again. People are going and studying it at the Conservatoire in Glasgow in the traditional music course. And we see, Alasdair and I run fiddle camps over there, we have one in Skye on the Isle of Skye every summer, and we run one in Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections, just a weekend thing. And we get tons of cellists coming. So there’s definitely an interest for it. There are people who are using it in bands, in the younger crowd. So that’s very heartening to see. It’s definitely coming back in Scotland. In Ireland, I did some teaching at Limerick, I’ve been over there a couple times to work with cellists that they’ve had come through their World Academy for Irish music there. I’ve been really excited about what I’ve seen: people who are fiddle players and taking up the cello, and other people who have come more from the classical world, and really cool to see what they’re doing! 

>> Shannon: Yeah. Also picking up steam? The lever harp. Maeve Gilchrist was drawn to this instrument as a kid in a musical family in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

[ Music: “February Bright,” from 20 Chandler Street
Artist/Composer: Maeve Gilchrist ]

From the start, her love for lever harp was as bold as the poinsettia sitting on the end table beside us while we talked: bright and alive … a real contrast to some of the older, dying flowers in Maeve’s hotel room, where we chatted last winter.

>> Shannon: I love that you have a poinsettia in your hotel room.

>> Maeve: And that’s an old bouquet from my parents. It’s kind of sad. And then I had room service for a few days. It’s kind of a dying flower graveyard.

>> Shannon: Yeah. Dying flower graveyard: Sounds like a beautiful harp tune!

>> Maeve: Yeah. hahahaha!

>> Shannon: The dying flowers would have looked even better in a Yoda mug. I asked Maeve why she first took up the harp.

>> Maeve: I have a twin sister called Orna, who’s a beautiful fiddle player, but when we were both very young, around 7 or 8, we were taking piano lessons and I was really enthusiastic. Orna perhaps a little less so. So Mom and Dad initially thought, listen, we’ll give Maeve the fiddle, because she’ll be able to make it sound good, clearly she’s got a real interest in music. And we’ll give Orna the harp. So whether she’s interested or not, it doesn’t sound like a cat dying. It’s pleasant in the house. And Orna said great. And I put my foot down and demanded the harp. And I’m not sure why. Maybe … I have two aunts who are harpists, so it was kind of on my radar. I often wonder if, I feel like I was just a vainer child than Orna, and I like this image. There’s something kind of princess-like about picking up the harp and playing it. Which, of course, is everything I’m kind of fighting against now as a professional player. And it is funny how people say they just connected with an instrument. Because it’s true, as soon as I held the harp it felt so organic to me. And it just kinda slotted into my life. My dad often talks about how I would tumble out of bed in the morning to go to school. And in my rush out the door I would grab a fistful of notes. And I love that description. This idea of, not have it being a separate thing in your life. Just grabbing a fistful of notes when you can.

In Ireland it’s still predominantly women playing the harp. And there is this association of feminine energy, or something. Which would not have been the way back in the day. Again it’s hard to know where that changed. 

>> Shannon: It’s like the color pink.

>>Maeve: Haha

>> Shannon: Used to be a very strong masculine color, that women would not wear. 

>> Maeve: Yeah, well in that case it is exactly like that. And when you look again to other harping traditions in South America and Central America, it’s a very masculine style of playing. 

>> Shannon: Like the way Alfredo Rolando Ortiz plays here.

[ Music: “Zayante,” from Home Recording
Artist: Alfredo Rolando Ortiz ]

>> Maeve: It’s driving. And it’s fast and it’s furious and it’s competitive. But when you look back to the glory days of Irish harping in the Baroque era or before that, it was mainly men that were traveling around writing the compositions. And playing the harps. 

>> Shannon: In the 1700s and before, the performers and composers who travelled and published—at least the ones we read about—were pretty much all men. But now the field is much more open. And it’s a much bigger field. There are  a lot more players performing and recording on harp now. But it’s not a ubiquitous session or band instrument. 

>> Maeve: Because it can be such a solo instrument. A lot of students taking up the harp will spend a lot of time practicing by themselves. 

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

And just physically it’s a pain in the ass to bring to sessions and stuff. So it’s not such an obvious choice for picking up and immediately being drawn into collaborations, unless you’re lucky enough to grow up like I did in a traditional music household where there were traditional musicians around all the time. It would take an extra effort to start playing with other people. And I feel like that collaboration, that playing music with other people, is what enables you to develop a style and a way of your own to converse with other musicians. So I still feel like it’s a little slower to the fold in that regard.

>> Shannon: When harps are brought into group projects, they can often be pigeon-holed in that more arpeggiated, dream-sequence glissando land.

[ Music: Tune: “Harp Glissando demonstration,” from How to play Glissandos on the Harp
Artist: Christy-Lin ]

>> Maeve: In regards to it being this ethereal, magical thing, that’s an interesting point as well. Because while I occasionally get frustrated with people enamored with that side of the harp (because I sometimes feel it promotes a less imaginative and technically focused approach to the instrument, and the imagination is key in creating new sounds), again to illuminate the harp in a different way, technique is key in enabling those things to happen. To allow your ideas to come out. And I sometimes feel that that isn’t a focus because the natural timbre of the instrument is so sweet. And yet I can’t deny that there is something intangibly moving to people about the sound of the harp. And to me as well. 

[ Music : “Waimea Rising,” from Vignette
Artists/Composer: Maeve Gilchrist & Viktor Krauss ]

People love it. It affects people. It’s been proven in music therapy to be an incredibly effective instrument in healing or releasing people. And even the idea of playing the harp and having these vibrations so close to your heart, to your chest, that’s a real thing. I guess in my own work trying to find the balance between just embracing the natural sound of the instrument and that effect, and also trying to satisfy myself as a musician. 

>> Shannon: Maeve recorded this with bass player Victor Krauss.

>> Shannon: So you do feel that celestial ringing in your soul, and at the same time you don’t want to be relegated to just playing the pretty sparkly stuff all the time?

>> Maeve: Totally. Yeah because who’s to say there’s not something celestial and heavenly about an exciting, driving harp part. And to be able to experience that side of harp playing, and then be released into this more stereotypically harp land. 

>> Shannon: Maeve is quick to recognize players who have combined different sides of harp playing. Different ideas and approaches. Like Mary MacMaster and Patsy Sedden, from the harp duo Sileas.

[ Music:“The Castlebay Scrap/Stuarts Rant,” from Play On Light
Artists/Composer: Sileas ]

>> Maeve: They played electric harp and acoustic harps, and they used a lot of traditional pipe tunes from Scotland. They sang in Gaelic. But there was a hipness to it that was kind of revelatory. And actually, is STILL. When I listen to those records, it still sounds new to me.

I’m also thinking of Maire Ni Chathasaigh, one of the first people to start using chromaticism. And who else, in Ireland …

>> Shannon: Laoise Kelly?

>> Maeve: Totally. Laoise Kelly. Michael Rooney, especially in the traditional musicians. 

>> Shannon: Michelle Mulcahy.

>> Maeve: Also. The three of them. 

[ Music:  “Grupai Ceol Memories,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Maeve named many fine influential players in Ireland and Scotland. Now there are players in North America. Players like Kim Robertson and Sue Richards have been championing the instrument for decades in the states. But that’s infancy compared with Ireland, where the harp showed up around 800 AD.

[ Tune: “The Blue Dress,” from The Blue Dress
Composer/Artist: Shannon Heaton with Maeve Gilchrist ]

>> Maeve: The number of young harpists is extraordinary. I went to a tiny town in the middle of Ireland recently called Port Laoise. It’s a prison town, actually, There’s a prison. And not a ton else. I means, it’s a lovely little town. And the harp teacher there has 103 students!

>> Shannon: Wow, are the harp students in prison? 

>> Maeve: Hahaha! A lot of that is due to this organization called Music Generation. Which enables public school attendees to take traditional music lessons on the instrument of their choice. For free, or for very little. Which is really fantastic for bringing in students who might not otherwise have exposure to the traditional music. And it’s the same in Scotland. There’s huge interest in traditional music now, from early elementary level right through college/university. 

But in America, of course, there is no folk harp tradition. Anyone playing the clairseach, the lever harp, the Celtic harp–all of these are the same thing, by the way–they’re coming to it from, often as classical harpists who are intrigued by this other form or school of harping. A lot of music therapists who go into harp playing pick up the Celtic harp simply because it’s more portable. So the role of the Celtic harp in America has been very different to that in Ireland and Scotland. And I find that anywhere that there is a folk harp tradition—say, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico—there is a vitality and vibrancy to the playing that I don’t find in places where there isn’t that. You can’t just HAVE that. It comes from years of a tradition taking place and evolving. 

>> Shannon: The longer that Celtic harp is played in America, the more it will have its own story here.

I feel so lucky to explore these evolving stories with this podcast. And I really couldn’t keep the show going without your support. THANK you to the folks who’ve kicked in with donations. Here’s my son Nigel to thank this month’s sponsors

>> Nigel: Thank you to Pat Wilcox, Soomee Han, Ken Doyle, Stephanie Reeve, Finn Agenbroad, Mark Haynes, David Vaughan, Gerry Corr, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, Jon Duvik, and Suezen Brown.

[ Music:  “Tom Maguire’s Fancy, The Flogging Reel,” from Traditional Music On Fiddle, Banjo & Harp
Artist: Oisin Mac Diarmada, Brian Fitzgerald, Micheal O’Ruanaigh ]

>> Shannon: The Irish harp tradition has struck a chord with American musicians. And the American tenor banjo has become increasingly popular in Ireland and Scotland, with players like Galway-based Enda Scahill, and Martin Howley. They formed a … four-piece band named after the instrument.

>> Shannon: We Banjo 3, you named your band after that instrument.

>> Enda: Yeah. No idea why we named it that. Well there was three banjos at the very start. …. 

>> Martin: Like we high three kings are, we kings are …. your wife was the one that had the genesis I think. 

>> Enda: It made sense at the time. We sat around my table, we started playing, we were just all grinning because we were enjoying it so much. That’s why we never got around to changing the name of the band to something that made numerical sense. 


>> Martin: Yeah.

[ Music: “G Chimes,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>>Shannon: OK, so we’re talking tenor banjo. That’s the 4-string banjo, played with a pick, or plectrum. Tenor banjo is cousin to the five-string banjo that you hear in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Folk music. Like the longneck banjo Pete Seeger played. And like the open-back 5-string that Rhiannon Giddens plays.

[Music: “Following the North Star,” from Freedom Highway
Artist/Composer: Rhiannon Giddens ]

All of these banjos are descendants of stringed instruments from Africa. I asked ethnomusicologist and banjo player Daniel Neely in New York about how TENOR banjo developed. He recorded his side of the conversation (while I was home in Medford, Massachusetts)—and he set up his microphone in a Darth Vader mug, naturally.

[ Sounds of Daniel setting up microphone, his kid comes in to ask about a watch ]

>> Daniel: All right, I think we’re in business. Hold on a second.

>> Shannon: Just so you have the complete scene, Dan’s got his microphone set up in a Darth Vader mug, he’s about to help me to understand how and why Irish people started playing jigs and reels on the banjo, and he’s also helping his kid, who has lost his watch. Maybe it’s a little bit funny to spell that out for people who are not quarantining with a child, and maybe it’s particularly amusing for those of us trying to do creative work with a kid running around the house. 

>> Nigel: Hey Mom!

>> Shannon: I rest my case. 

[ Music: “The Miller Of Drone/Pauline Conneely’s/Finbar Dwyer’s,” from An Traidisiún Beo
Artist: Angelina Carberry ]

>> Daniel: The banjo is a very complicated instrument historically. The idea for the banjo came over with large groups of enslaved people who might be from disparate parts of Africa. Some of them might not speak the same language. They might not have the same religious or cultural traditions. So when they found themselves in crisis situation over here then you have to recreate elements of home, according to what you have at hand. Basically what we know is that the modern banjo is an inheritance of that traumatic moment. 

People latch themselves on to facets of that history as being the symbol of the whole…. It sort of marginalizes and essentializes the banjo’s history … And doesn’t do a lot to talk about what happened in the United States over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And why things might have changed for it.


>> Shannon: Okay, so the instrument has roots in Africa. Versions of banjo were played by Black communities all over North and South America.  Then it starts spreading over the colonial world, and gets appropriated and used in Minstrelsy—in these shows of white people in blackface, mimicking and mocking Black identity in America. These shows also made it over to Ireland and England.

Then toward the end of the civil war, people started making a move to get the banjo OUT of blackface minstrelsy. This really resonated with upwardly-mobile folks who valued material progress, technological progress, modernization, and self discipline. 

>> Daniel: There was a guy named Frank Converse. I think that he was one of the primary people. Around 1865 he had the idea to elevate the banjo. So he published an instructional booklet called Banjo without a Master. And then following that you had other people come along who were banjo manufacturers as well. So there was a guy Samuel Swain Stewart who started manufacturing banjos. And then he started a journal called the Stewart Banjo and Guitar Journal, in which sheet music was being sold as a way of getting banjo players to improve themselves.

>> Shannon: So putting out sheet music for banjo players—and later for mandolin and guitar players—by publishing arrangements of popular dance tunes, light classical music, Irish melodies, Italian songs. THIS was a good way to help players develop. And it was a great way to sell instruments. Because if you publish music for banjo orchestra, people need lots of banjos to play that music.

>> Daniel: So your man SS Stewart, he made, you know, like the banjos that the bluegrass or old timey people would play, those were called regular banjos (five string banjos). Just regular banjos. But he would also manufacture banjos of different sizes to suit the different parts written for a banjo orchestra. So you’d have piccolo banjos, you would have had slightly larger instruments called banjerines; bass or cello banjos …

>> Shannon: Okay. Cello banjos, but also cellos, harp, and saxophone. This group, The Fabulous Ingenues, played ‘em all. From 1925 to 1937, this all-female band played jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and light classical music. The hits of the day.

[ Music: “Medley,” from live footage from 1928 (presented by Vitaphone
Artist: Fabulous Ingenues ]

There were also mandolin orchestras.

>> Daniel: The mandolin orchestras are interesting, because you had first and second mandolin, you had a mandola, you’d have mandocello, a guitar, and then you’d have maybe a harp guitar. And in 1901, in Stewart’s journal, he proclaimed the banjo had “become a high-class musical instrument.” It’s not just like a musical thing. It’s also like a class thing that’s going on.

>> Shannon: Right.

>> Shannon: So at the beginning of our interview I had mentioned that Dan’s kid had lost his watch. Well here’s an update. 

>> Daniel’s son: I can’t find it.

>> Daniel: Is it behind the TV? Is it on the floor in front of the tv? Is it on the chair in the tv room? Have you looked in any of those places? Give me two seconds, I’ve got to go find that watch.

[ Music: “Seamus Connolly’s/Brid Harpur’s,” from Traditional Music From Doolin Co. Clare
Artist: Kevin Griffin ]

>> Shannon: So let me just catch up. This instrument comes over. It’s like this Gourd instrument. It starts to get appropriated. It starts to be used as a display of derision for the people who actually brought these instruments over. People began actually playing these instruments though and becoming technically proficient on them. And then, motivated maybe by some altruism of wanting to take it out of this racist realm … or just to sell instruments … it’s coming away from minstrelsy to this more moneyed set who can buy these instruments. And technique is advancing, maybe more and more people are becoming aware of the timbre of the banjo. Is that where we are? 

>> Daniel: That’s where we are. Now the question is, where does this, what does any of this have to do with Irish music? Well, at the turn of the 20th century, if you were a middle class family, you would have a banjo or a mandolin lying around the house. This is where it gets interesting. We get to Francis O’Neill.

[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Captain Francis O’Neill was a flute player… and he was chief of police in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Siobhan and Brendan McKinney talked about him in Irish Music Stories episode four, about how O’Neill was best known for being a collector of Irish music and for self-publishing several collections of tunes, from which modern players still draw heavily. He also made wax cylinder recordings of his peers.

>> Daniel: Francis O’Neill as you know, made cylinders. And then he sent some to Ireland to a guy named Father Henebry. One of the cylinders that he sent to Henebry consisted of James O’Neill playing fife, Edward Cronin playing fiddle, and Thomas Kylie playing mandolin. O’Neill called it Connemara fiddle. 

>> Shannon: This is not actually Thomas Kylie on the mandolin, I couldn’t get a hold of that recording, but it is the mandolin, played by Martin Howley.

[ Music: “The Rookery,” from Music class at 2014 Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School
Artist: Martin Howley ]

>> Daniel: Circa 1910, companies like Vega and other companies started developing banjos with four strings as a sort of extension of their banjo selling line.

>> Shannon: Why did Vega take a string away?

>> Daniel: Because they wanted to appeal to mandolin players. You wouldn’t have to change your fingering. Buy a new instrument, be louder, and extend your… you know, get more gigs.

>> Shannon: So then in steps Mike Flanagan. He’d moved to America from County Waterford at the age of 13, and his brothers were also musical. He started on the mandolin, and then took up the banjo after he moved to Albany, New York. A famous photo shows Mike on the banjo beside his brothers Joe on the accordion and Louis on the harp guitar, which is basically a guitar with extra strings on it. 

[ Music: “The New Irish Barn Dance,” from 1929 recording
Artists: Flanagan Brothers ]

Like the McNulty Family that Mick Moloney talked about in episode 26, the Flanagan brothers were entertainers. They played music that reflected Irish American tastes at the time. And they reached a lot of listeners.

>> Daniel: They recorded over 150 sides. You know, I mean some absurd number. So with Mike Flanagan, who is the father of the Irish tenor banjo, not only does he have an understanding of this well-known 19th century caricature minstrel history, but he also knows about virtuoso classical parlor-style banjo repertory.

>> Shannon: But could he have helped Dan’s son find the watch? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that in the 20s and 30s you start to hear more banjo at Irish dance halls in New York and Boston… in jazz bands … and then in the 1960s Barney McKenna seals the deal in Ireland for the tenor banjo.

[ Music: “Sailor on the Rock,” from Fleádh Ceoil (1964 recording from Gael Linn)
Artist: Barney McKenna ]

>> Daniel: Barney McKenna really did it. People like to say that he’s the father of the Irish tenor banjo. 

>> Shannon: Is he the Dubliners guy?

>> Daniel: Yeah. And his real innovation was putting G-D-A-E strings on the banjo. Tuning it an octave below the fiddle. I don’t know of any people who played tenor banjo in Ireland before Barney McKenna. Interestingly enough, the banjo that Barney played was made by a company called Paragon. And the Paragon company was one of three or four British companies that developed because of the craze for banjo orchestras.

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

>> Shannon: From slave ships, to the U.S. African American diaspora, to theatrical genres of Minstrelsy and Vaudeville, to more “respectable” banjo orchestras, to banjo makers who were following and GUIDING the development of the instrument, to the Irish American dance halls… to a concert hall in Somerville, Massachusetts where I met with Enda Scahill and Martin Howley, right before their band We Banjo 3 took the stage in 2019. They played some brand-new music, and some sets like this one that they recorded in Galway. 

[ Music: “Bill Cheatum / Kitchen Girl,” from Live in Galway
Artist: We Banjo 3 ]

We spoke shortly before their set. And because they were traveling they had just plain travel mugs. No Star Wars theme here. I asked Martin first about how it was starting out on the banjo. 

>> Martin: When I was young, a pretty high percentage of players were in that old mode of very heavy and rhythmically-dominant and lacking in maybe dynamics. And now if you go to a session, I would say it’s, the converse is true. It’s very hard to find those older-type banjo players. A lot of the younger banjo players tend to be very, very melodic and very sensitive in their playing. So that’s definitely changed.

>> Shannon: Enda had similar encounters with loud session players, and that’s what prompted him to experiment and find ways to fit in. 

>> Enda: So when I was young, and I would go into a session, they’d be like, och, here comes the banjo. And their experience would have been kind of, older guys, really stiff wristed, kind of thumping out very static rhythm and being very loud, and ruining a session. So, there was a lot of that when I was a kid. You’d walk in with a banjo case and they’d be like, oh god, here comes the banjo player. And then when you were actually able to play well and fit in with the other instruments. And that was a huge goal of mine, right up through my teens and into my early 20s was how to make what can be quite a staccato, intrusive instrument blend with everything else. 

[ Music: “Martin Wynnes #2 / Martin Wynnes #1 / The Coalminer,” from Roots of the Banjo Tree
Artist:  We Banjo 3 ]

>> Shannon: Martin explained why the banjo can be so cumbersome to play smoothly, and he gives Enda a lot of credit for helping players soar to new technical heights. 

>> Martin: It’s an incredibly inefficient instrument, as instruments go. The fret spacing makes it quite difficult to move, and then the actual picking on it, on its skin, is pretty unusual. There’s no other instrument with a flat pick on a resonant skin, which invents basically its own problems, and what you had with, all the way from Barney McKenna in the 60s right through to the modernization of the tenor banjo is, you had people going through various stages of refining the efficient use of that instrument, and creating the most seamless way to play music. And Enda would be a big part of that story, in that he’s quite an engineering brain, where he broke down things, and looked at, how do I play with the least tension, and you know, explored all these classical and jazz savants that really did focus a lot on that in their playing. And then you had bands like Stockton’s Wing, Kieran Hanrahan playing in the 70s, and Gerry O’Connor came along. I think after Gerry came along in the 90s there was just this flood of interest in the banjo. And then on a broader level you have bands like Mumford and Sons that then made it popular in a very commercial sense and in a very wide sense. 

>> Shannon: Mick Moloney has also helped seat the banjo in the Celtic music imagination. He moved from Ireland to Philadelphia in the 1970s and he’s been a driving advocate for the Irish tenor banjo. And for exploring the history and sociology of the instrument. 

There are more and more skilled players, and that means, more great teachers.

>> Enda: You know, 30 years before, where you had to travel really far to get a particularly good teacher, whereas now there’s great teachers everywhere. It’s borne out now in the Fleadh Cheoils, the competitions, because when we were going, if you went to the 15 to 18 age group, that’s where you saw the creme de la creme of the musicians. Now, 15 years later, the 12 to 15 age group were sensational. Now, the under twelves are sensational. The ability has got so high at such a young level. 

>> Martin: I think they’ll probably end up, like, Comhaltas will introduce an under-6, and an in-utero age group, so that would be the creme de la creme. “Which instrument did you have in the womb?” [laughter]

>> Enda: Hopefully the banjo. 

>> Martin: Could be difficult to play though. Concertina would be quite efficient in that regard.

>> Shannon: It would be. In some sense the flute might be, if it comes out the correct way.

>> Enda: Tin whistle would be fine. 

>> Martin: Tin whistle, flute, yeah.

>> Enda: Harmonica would be the ideal, really. And as usual, accordions would be a disaster. 

>> Shannon: Well thanks guys, thanks for talking to me about banjo.

>> Enda: Great, Thank you.

>> Martin: Thank you so much. 

>> Shannon: Just as awkward to play—and just as tricky to practice in utero—the saxophone!

[ Music: “Splendid Isolation,” from At the Racket
Composer: Brendan McGlinchey
Artist: At the Rocket ]

Even though, just like the banjo, there were players bringing the instrument into dance halls in the 1920s— and there have been bands with sax players, and there have been tracks on albums featuring saxophone— there hasn’t been this big Mumford and Sons-style boost for Irish saxophone. Even though Seamus O’Donnell on the sax here, and John Carty on the banjo have  given a good show with their band At the Racket.

When I spoke with author and musician Susan Lindsay in  Plymouth, Massachusetts for my episode about Dance Hall, we checked her kid’s watch. And we saw that we had just enough time to talk saxophone. And to have one more cup of tea. No Star Wars mugs. But she did have a solar powered dancing Yoda, the lightsaber looked a lot like a flute, which Sue also plays.

>> Shannon: So there’s an historical precedent for playing the saxophone?

>> Sue:That nobody remembers, by the way. Like, there’s a historical precedent, that’s okay, now it’s in a book. But nobody really knew about that so much. I mean, people just love the sax because they love the sax. I always found that in Ireland people would ask me for songs like Stranger on the Shore, or the Ackerville Clarinet song. Different things. But they don’t want to hear Irish music on the saxophone. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a reel or jig in a session in Ireland. If I bring it into a session, it’s a session that’s open to a variety of music. And usually we’re doing like a Bob Dylan or we’re doing maybe a Christie Moore something with the saxophone. But I don’t remember having played a traditional set on a saxophone. Partly because now the more I play music, it doesn’t sound right to me in a session. So I feel like there’s a place for it.

>> Shannon: Because it doesn’t blend?

>> Sue: Yeah It doesn’t blend. And you have to play very quietly, which is fine. So if I do play a set of tunes I try to take the sound off of, say, an accordion (another reed based instrument). And I try to mimic what the accordion is doing. But also being very aware of the volume.

[ Music: Mutey Big Build,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So what’s the story of the sax in Irish music. How did it get in there?

>> Sue: Well, as I understand it, it got in there because people were interested in the music that  they were hearing on American Armed Forces radio during WWII. They were hearing all this saxophone music, and they were into Swing. You know, people were tuning into the stations in Germany and got very interested in Swing music, with the show bands. They were interested in the rock and roll a little bit later.And they all had saxophones. So I think that’s how the music just sort of made its way in.

And the folks that I interviewed in the course of writing See You at the Hall,  told me that in the beginning the saxophone was there to play the American stuff. The ‘Modren’ tunes. The saxes weren’t necessarily there to play the jigs and reels. So when the Siege of Ennis came on, that was a smoke break time for the sax player, maybe. 

But some of the bands did have saxophones who would play those jigs and reels. If you hear the Johnny Powell Band, their Copley recording has saxophone on every tune: jigs and reels and barn dances and two-steps

>> Shannon: Wow. It probably carried!

>> Sue: It certainly did. I mean, it carried as much as the accordions did. And they needed that. Because if you were going to play a flute and there were 800 people dancing and no amplification, or not modern amplification, you’re not going to hear those instruments. So saxophone made sense. 

[ Music: “Siege of Ennis No. 3,” from B Side of Copley Record #9-178
Artist: Johnny Powell and his Irish band ]

>> Sue: But you know what? All the saxophone players that were in Boston that I heard about were all actually Polish.. They were not Irish players. The way I understand it, as some people described it, the way the late Joe Derrane explained it, that the big band era was dying down and these guys were looking for work. And the Irish scene was blossoming. So they made their way over to Dudley Square.

>> Shannon: These Polish players were finding work at the Irish Dance Halls in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There are great stories about that scene in Sue’s book See You at the Hall. And there were Irish-born sax players, too, like Jack Healy in New York. But no matter where the players were from, they were playing an instrument rooted most deeply in American jazz. 

[ Music: “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria,” from Bach: Goldberg Variations (For Saxophone Quartet)
Artist: Danish Saxophone Quartet, Christian Hougaard, Torben Snekkestad, Jørgen Ole Bove & Per Egholm ] 

The saxophone was designed by a Belgian musician (Adolphe Sax) around 1840.  It was played in Europe for a while, even taught in classical music programs at universities. But after just a few decades, it mostly left the continent. And the imagination of most Europeans, except military outfits). 

It found a happy home in America. In vaudeville, ragtime, and dance orchestras—and in the Blues and ragtime communities in New Orleans. That’s when the saxophone craze began. And most players had some improvisational tendencies.  

[ Music: “Rhythm Is Our Business,” from 1935 Hits (Remastered)
Artist: Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra & Willie Smith ]

>> Sue: They were accustomed to playing harmonies and playing lines in the background, And they were, as I understand it, summarily told, “if you don’t know the tune, don’t play.” In other words, melody. And if it ain’t melody, don’t play.

>> Shannon: Melody or bust!

>> Sue: Yeah.

[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: The Irish traditional music approach is melody. You play the tune. Maybe you have piano or guitar chording. That’s a fairly newer addition as well, but that’s a pretty well-established 20th century invention. But having loads of counterpoint and having other instruments playing harmonies and decorative lines, this is even more of a modern construct. 

>> Sue: And I mean, as a saxophone player that’s part of the reason I haven’t gone full force into playing all my tunes (jigs and reels) on the saxophone. Partly because it’s in a mindblowingly challenging key. And the range isn’t quite right. For example to play a D tune, you either go too high or too low to make a lot of those tunes easy to play. Or to make it sound good.

>> Shannon: Because you have to transpose it, because it’s not in a concert pitch instrument?

>> Sue: Thank you. Yeah, so a tune that’s in D for everybody else is actually in B, which is five sharps, which is…  But I also have felt like I don’t want to play those tunes on saxophone until I can on flute. Unless I can really play them the way I feel super strong about, I don’t necessarily need to take it step away that tradition to take it somewhere else entirely. Because I can’t help but play the tunes differently. When I play saxophone, I scoop and bend those notes really differently, even if it’s a trad tune Which is fine. But I don’t want to do that exclusively. There’s a place for it. 

 I think this is exposing me to myself as more conservative than I would have thought. Because really. in my mind, maybe I’m questioning my own authenticity when I play. 

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

You know, there’s that constant struggle. Am I entitled to do this? Is this okay? 

>> Shannon: As traditions root, they develop many different branches. Like with jazz and Bluegrass, Irish music is full of distinct styles. There are innovators. And there are conservative practitioners, intent on preservation. And lots in between.

Comhaltas—the organization that Enda and Martin mentioned, h runs the annual Irish music competitions. And Comhaltas is Irish music’s Grand Ole Arbiter of what constitutes traditional style and taste. Every year they issue a rulebook for competitors, with ideas of what is and isn’t considered traditional.

>> Sue: I think that’s part of the reason why organizations like Comhaltas are so important. Because they help to preserve the central crucible that gives creative musicians something to differ from. But there still needs to be that hard core.

You know, you hear criticisms about the way Comhaltas judges. They don’t necessarily reward innovation. You hear all these things. But there’s value in protecting the central canon. So that if you have variety you have something to differ from. Its’ sort of the same way I bring my kids to church. So when they turn 16 they have something to rebel against, and they don’t join a cult! 

>> Shannon: Haha!

[Music: “Sixteen Jolly Ravers,” from From the Green to the Blue
Artist: The Lindsays ] 

>> Shannon: In recent years, the Comhaltas Miscellaneous Competition category has grown to include melody instruments like 5-string banjo, harmonica, cello, and saxophone. 

But what about Irish music sessions? I asked Sue about walking into a pub session with a saxophone: 

>> Sue: You don’t sort of walk into a session and throw your instruments down on the table. We sort of wait. We listen. We slowly bring the cases up. And if someone happens to notice and they invite you, then you join. I think some of the problems Americans might have in being welcomed in these sessions is that they go in with American cultural tradition and American way of being into these sessions. And sort of say “I’m here!” before seeing if they want to play with those folks, and just kind of getting the vibe first. I feel like there’s the whole social customs and mores really apply to how you approach a session.

>> Shannon: And do you bring out the traditional flute, the Irish flute, which is a more traditional, customary instrument to see in a session. before you bring out the sax?

>> Sue: Yes! I do. And a lot of times in session, we don’t even bring the saxophone in. We leave the boxes in the car. But yeah, I wouldn’t bring out the sax case right away

>> Shannon: Because of the range, and the key, and the volume, saxophone may remain a small dose instrument in Irish traditional music. But who knows? Maybe there are folks working on sax as a pandemic project. And once we’re all able to meet up and play music together, maybe more Selmers will hit the sessions.

Here’s Chicago-born flute player, piper, and occasional sax player Isaac Alderson.

>> Isaac: Well you know, at one time there wasn’t the bouzouki in Irish music. The saxophone is, in some ways, more bombastic than the bouzouki. But I’m kind of surprised when I see how open minded people are to it. Even a lot of the older generation of Irish-born people seem to really enjoy hearing it. And you’d be surprised, There’s a few closet saxophone players out there, older musicians who (I don’t want to name names, don’t want to out them publicly, haha!)  but I can think of at least two folks here in the States who are very well known and very respected musician of my parents’ generation who play Irish music on the saxophone.

And I’m always surprised. Even in Ireland. People really responded well to it. So I think it’s another instance of if you put some time into trying to do something tastefully (I’m not saying I succeed at that), but I think people respond very well to that, no matter what that is.

>> Shannon: In addition to Isaac and Sue, I have other friends who have can play Irish sax. Fiddle player Tara Breen. Piper and flute player Patrick Murray. I’d rather play music with them (on any instrument they want to play) than play with a boring, inhospitable fiddle player. Maybe it’s not only what you play but also the intention and spirit behind your music. 

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

Here’s Sue Lindsay again:

>> Sue: There’s something so magical about playing music with other people. And I think the thing that drew me to Irish culture in the first place is that people wanted to hear music. And they didn’t care if your voice wasn’t Pavorotti level

>> Shannon: For trad ballads, let’s hope it’s not Pavorotti style…

>> Sue: Oh my God, please. Right?

>> Shannon: Hahaha! 

>> Sue: I know, yeah. So I was so moved by the belief that everyone is musical, or at least that everybody’s entitled to sing a song or play an instrument. It’s like music as a human expression.

[ Music:  “Aunt Jane’s Trip to Norway,” from The Blue Dress
Composer/Artist: Shannon Heaton with Maeve Gilchrist and Paddy League ]

>> Shannon: All right. So Maeve, the harp

>> Maeve: Mm hmm.

>> Shannon: Symbol of Ireland?

>> Maeve: Symbol of Ireland, yeah. Historical emblem

>> Shannon: That’s Maeve Gilchrist again. In that room with the dying flowers, we talked about instruments that might have rich stories in the traditional music world, like the harp. It’s an ancient, important instrument in Ireland. But it’s really on the fringe when it comes to modern bands.

>> Shannon: Same with the cello? Same with the saxophone?

>> Maeve: yep

>> Shannon: Same with the harmonica. I mean these instruments are… is ‘fringe’ the right word?

>> Maeve: Yeah, like people are less familiar with the sound of them. For sure. If you want a quick formula for putting together a band sound, you’d have your flute, fiddle, pipes, you’d have your guitar. People still don’t think the harp can rock.

>> Shannon: Even AFTER we recorded the Blue Dress?

>> Maeve: Exactly!

>> Shannon: Maeve and I did record an album called The Blue Dress. With Paddy League on percussion, and Matt Heaton on bouzouki. Who’s to say that a vintage, blue lace dress can’t rock.

>> Shannon: So maybe the idea of a fringe instrument is these are instruments whose potential is not as familiar, whose collaborative profiles aren’t as well known and realized yet. 

>> Maeve: Yeah. Or the vast majority of people assume they understand what the role of that instrument is. When it’s so early in its … You know, there’s so much for it to be explored. So maybe that’s what makes it fringe. These are elements which aren’t so familiar to the majority of people, in what they can bring to the table sonically. And those pushing the boundaries and exploring are doing so in different ways. So there isn’t one set sound that people yet know how to grab onto. It’s more the musicians playing the instruments that people are hiring. They’re not saying we need a harmonica to play the tune in this band. They’re saying, let’s get Rick Epping, let’s get Brendan Power. They want the musician, rather than the instrument. 

>> Shannon: Harmonica. Hammered Dulcimer. Clarinet. Five-string banjo. And still, Cello, harp, saxophone: these voices aren’t as common in the modernbands and sessions. Kind of like it used to be for banjo, these instruments are still on the fringe.

>> Maeve: Which isn’t completely a bad thing. I mean, it really gives a lot of room to someone like me or Natalie to create our own space. 

[ Music: “Jane’s Reel,” from Simon Chrisman & Wes Corbett
Composer: Wes Corbett
Artists: Simon Chrisman & Wes Corbett ]

Like, at times I’m torn between, I’d love to have more of a community around me, doing similar things. To brainstorm, and listen and learn from each other. But the fact that there isn’t means you really have to rely on your own inner musical voice and find your own space. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Do you know? It is liberating in a way. There’s no one telling you you’re doing it wrong, because there’s not a model for it to be compared against yet.

>> Shannon: Here’s to liberation!

When you just practice an instrument, no matter what it is, maybe you end up starting a trend. Maybe not. Maybe you make something cool and new—like Simon Chrisman here on the hammered dulcimer, with Wesley Corbett on the 5-string banjo.  

Or maybe it just gives you something to do, other than bug your dad about a watch.

Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to Matt Heaton for the production music; to Nigel Heaton for acknowledging our sponsors; and to all my incredible guests this month. Thank you to this month’s supporters. If you can kick in, PLEASE head to Irish Music 

Thanks for tuning in. And take such good care eveyone.


>> Daniel’s kid: I can’t find it.

>> Daniel: Is it next to… is it behind the TV? Is to on the chair in the TV room? Have you looked at any of those places.

>> Shannon sings: It’s not about the watch… It’s not about the watch…

>> Daniel: Hahaha. That’s right

[ Music: Matt Heaton plays the first eight bars of ‘Darth Vader’s’ “Imperial March” on the banjo ]

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

All-Ireland champion Irish banjo player from County Galway who founded the band We Banjo 3

Cellist from California who plays different fiddle genres and performs with fiddler Alasdair Fraser

Edinburgh-born, New York-based Celtic (lever) harp player who has collaborated with numerous projects

New York-based musician and ethnomusicologist with specialties in the musics of Ireland and Jamaica

Martin Howley


Galway-born banjo and mandolin player who performs with We Banjo 3

Susan Gedutis Lindsay


Massachusetts-based flute/sax player, writer, and educator

Isaac Alderson


Chicago-born, New York-based musician who has performed on pipes, flute, and whistle with numerous bands and dance shows.

The Heaton List