What’s up with stage banter? And why all the joking around between tunes in a session?
Explore the on- and offstage chat that surrounds traditional music with storyteller, singer, and bodhran player Máirtín de Cógáin. A concert or a conversation with him is like walking the bogs in the rain. (Which is what Coach Rus Bradburd’s fiddle teacher Paddy Jones told him to do in order to understand Irish music.)
Máirtín and Rus, along with ethnomusicologist and Irish musician Paddy League, flute players Joanie Madden and Jean-Michel Veillon, and fiddle player Liz Carroll share stories about how they dig for, as poet Seamus Heaney called it (inspired by his actual peat-cutting dad), “the good turf.”
Because even when it’s just a corny joke, chat and craic can help tease out the deeper, richer stuff that surrounds nights of traditional music, shared in the company of other players. Books like these, mentioned in Episode 48, can also help the mining process:
Bradburd, Rus. Paddy on the Hardwood. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
Carson, Ciaran. Last Night’s Fun. New York: North Point Press, 1996.
Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Death of a Naturalist. London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1966.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Sharon Murphy, Bill Wolfe, John Kerr, Chris Murphy, Lynn Hayes, Meg and Harry Ferguson, Jack McCreless, Marco Battaglia, Joe Martin, Tom Frederick, Suezen Brown, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Emil Hauptmann, John Ploch, Rick Rubin, Gerry Corr, Jon Duvick, Randy Krajniak, Joel DeLashmit, Susan Walsh, and Jon Duvick.
Episode 48 – Between the Tunes: chat, quips, and craic in Irish music
This Irish Music Stories episode aired December 8, 2020
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Máirtín de Cógáin: Cork-born singer, dancer, bodhrán player, playwright, actor, and competition winning storyteller
>> Panayotis (Paddy) League: Ethnomusicologist and multi-instrumentalist specializing in traditional music of the Greek islands, northeast Brazil, and Ireland
>> Rus Bradburd: Chicago native and basketball coach who worked with Kerry fiddle guru Paddy Jones during a stint in Ireland
>> Seamus Ennis (1919 – 1982): Mid 20th century uilleann piper, singer, music collector, and host of BBC Radio’s “As I Roved Out.”
>> Isaac Alderson: Chicago native (and All-Ireland winner) who has performed, recorded, on uilleann pipers, flute, and whistle with numerous touring bands and dance shows.
>> Joanie Madden: Bronx-based Irish flute and whistle player and composer Joanie Madden who founded internationally acclaimed band Cherish the Ladies
>> Jean-Michel Veillon: Flute player from Brittany who introduced simple system wood flute into Breton folk tunes and played with Breton band Kornog.
>> Jamie McMenemy: Scottish-born singer/bouzouki player with the Battlefield Band and Kornog
>> Liz Carroll: Chicago-based fiddle player and composer who has been named All-Ireland champ, Grammy nominee, National Heritage Fellow, and TG4 Cumadóir
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Máirtín [in a low, breathy voice, very close to the mic]: Hello, everybody. And welcome to Shannon Heaton’s podcast, Irish Music Stories.
>> Shannon: Gross. [laughs].
I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is the season ender of Irish Music Stories.
[ Music: “Redican’s Jig / The Merry Old Woman Jig / The Chapel Bell” from bohola
In this episode, there’s gonna be some singin’. And some talkin’. And some jokin’.
>> Paddy: My grandfather always used to tell this one: what’s red and bad for your teeth?
>> Shannon: A lollipop?
>> Paddy: A brick. Hahaha.
>> Shannon: OK. I’m not gonna fill this episode with corny jokes from Paddy League and weird intros from Máirtín de Cógáin. But as Paddy says, wisecracks can help us find the bigger stories.
>> Paddy: There are few things better than humor, um, to loosen people up and get people to move their faces [laughs]. And their bodies in ways that are, conducive to sharing music with each other.
>> Shannon: So…
>> Máirtín [in a high, silly voice]: Welcome to Shannon Heaton’s podcast, Irish Music Stories. [laughs]
>> Shannon: This is the show about traditional music. And the bigger stories behind it. Like how humor and chat can relax us. Which can allow us to go a bit deeper. And explore. And find the stories…
>> Rus: I think there’s a human need—I think about this all the time, of course as a writer—but I think there’s a human need. We want to be told a story.
>> Shannon: That’s writer, basketball coach, and fiddle player Rus Bradburd. Rus is singing my song here! We all want a STORY. I do anyway. And that’s why I’ve spent the last four years working on this podcast.
Of course, traditional music has been the common thread in all these Irish music stories. But it’s not the ONLY thread. For each episode, I’ve talked to musicians and dancers around the globe. And I’ve also drawn from my own experiences with playing Irish flute.
As your tour guide, I’ve used my American outsider perspective to, I hope, make these stories accessible, whether you play traditional music, or you know NOTHING about the uilleann pipes (the Irish bagpipes).
[ Music: “Behind The Bush In Parkhanna/Battle Of Aughrim,” from Swimming Against The Falls/SnámhIin Aghaidh Easa
Artist: Joey Abarta ]
That’s the instrument Cormac Gaj played, when he participated in the All Ireland music competition in Sligo. For my very first Irish Music Story, I talked to Cormac and his family—and to the other kids who travelled with him from Boston’s subway system to the bog roads of the west of Ireland. I published “Trip to Sligo” on January 10th, 2017.
Back then, Joe Biden was still Vice President of the United States. And Obama was 10 days away from leaving the White House.
Since then, my country has endured an increasingly tumultuous era, ending in a mismanaged pandemic, and an inelegant transition in government.
It’s been—well, my famliy—and Irish music and conversations with musicians and dancers that have gotten me through.
[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
We’re just six weeks away from another Inauguration here in the U.S. And I’m still playing Irish tunes on my flute. Even though I can only play them with my immediate family at the Covid-drenched moment, imagining tunes with other players and pulling together these stories has filled me with even more gratitude and love for this music—the isms, the REASONS, the BIGGER STORIES behind it and why we play it.
For 2021 I hope to widen the reach and accessibility of these stories. I’m going to take what I’ve got and make short highlight reels for each episode. I’ll develop a more comprehensive, beautiful online home for the show, with full transcripts, photos, and additional resources. And I’ll start working on a book with interviews and essays from Irish Music Stories.
[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
Before I head into full mad scientist mode, I’ve got one more parcel of conversations ABOUT… conversations. In this episode, I’ll speak with Máirtín de Cógáin, Paddy League, Joanie Madden, Rus Bradburd, Liz Carroll, and Jean-Michel Veillon about the on- and offstage chat that surrounds traditional music.
Because whether it’s one player teaching an old jig to another player in the kitchen… or it’s a band on a stage… the banter is usually a big part of the event:
>> Paddy: Something that always made an impression on me when I was kid, you know a teenager hanging around Irish music sessions, was again THIS. Was how much talking there was.
>> Shannon: That’s ethnomusicologist and Irish musician Paddy League. In between jokes, we spoke about why there’s so much chat between the tunes.
[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
>> Paddy: The talking would often start out about the music that was just played. You know, somebody would say, “oh, that was a great tune, that second Jig, I’ve never heard that before. Or you played it a bit differently, what’s up with that?” And somebody would launch into some explication about where they learned it and who used to play it and all that. And of course that inevitably leads to stories about great characters who’ve animated the music and brought stuff down to US, the people who are playing it in the moment.
And that always made an impression on me. Because at the same time, I was playing a lot of, like, aggressive Bebop jazz. You know, I would go to a jam session like that, and nobody was talking to each other. People were screaming at each other, but with their instruments a lot of the time. So it just made me feel.. well, I think the most important thing is that when it’s cultivated in the right way, it really turns the session into something very warm and welcoming, and, uh, ideally inclusive of everybody who cares about it.
[ Music: Chimes reprise ]
I mean there are so many social scenes born out of just a bunch of people getting together every week, you know? On a Saturday afternoon or a Tuesday night at some bar somewhere just to play tunes together. And then before you know it, people are getting married and baptising each other’s children. Or…
[ Music: “The House On the Hill,” from Triptych
Artists: Laura Risk, Kieran Jordan & Paddy League ]
>> Shannon: Burying each other? Well, I suppose just ONE person burying another. [laughs]
>> Paddy: Yeah, I don’t think… It reminds me of a joke. Hahaha.
There’s that old jokey slogan that I often hear people say about Old Timey music. “Old Time Music: It’s been better than it sounds.” I love Old Time music. But I think that applies to even the best of Irish music, when it sounds its best. Right? It’s so much more than just what the music sounds like, or the physical experience of playing it or being around it. It’s people. It’s people doing something they really, really love.
>> Shannon: When everybody in the room gets clued in to how connected this community can be, something happens.
>> Paddy: When it really, really works, it’s something that educates everybody present about the music, about what’s going on musically. And by doing that, it includes everybody in a really substantial way. Everybody becomes part of the story. And when it doesn’t work, it can really detract from the experience.
You know, I’ve gone to concerts where there’s no talking at all. And I’m not talking about like classical music or something where it’s not part of the culture to talk from stage, but you know concerts of traditional Irish music where for whatever reason the people on stage just weren’t feeling it. And it was a sublime musical experience. And I’ve seen the same group play basically the same show, but spent half the time talking and telling jokes. And, you know, it’s a different thing.
But I do think, especially in Irish music or you know “Celtic” music as a stage phenomenon, there’s definitely an expectation on the part of audiences and promoters that the musicians will be raconteurs to some degree or another. I think that’s true. There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s like stereotypes about the Irish entertainer, you know. Both American ones and Irish ones.
I personally, when I play a concert, I like to talk to the audience. I want people to be involved. But that’s why I do it, you know?
>> Shannon: Seamus Ennis also involved listeners. He was a totally unique piper, singer, and music collector, active in the mid 20th century. He worked with the Irish folklore commission to preserve music in books. And he had a popular radio program, featuring recordings that he’d made of musicians from all over Ireland. When Seamus Ennis performed, the chat was a BIG part of the night. Here’s his jag about how to learn the tok, the grip, and the Truckley Howl of the uilleann pipes:
[ Recitation: “First You Must Learn the Grip,” from Forty Years of Irish Piping
Artist: Seamus Ennis ]
>> Seamus speaking to an audience on recording: You know, there’s an awful lot to be said about this Irish traditional folk music and folklore. Because first of all you have to learn it. And first you must learn the tok, and then you must learn the grip. And after that, you must learn the ‘Truckley Howl.’ And then you have the whole lot. Only just to keep on practicing it. Because Seamus Ennis knows far more about this than even the old folk lordy lordy themselves. Because Seamus Ennis once met a little leprechaun-y Truckley Howl at the bottom of the garden, and up the garden path, which came up from that, in the Limeretty-Limeretty hillhockers. Before the earthian trove, before the leprechaun-her, and before the Argee Faree. And that was in the deep pond doom, before the Emerald Isle was ever dropped [click click] in the water.
>> Shannon: Seamus Ennis died in 1982. And it wasn’t until a bit AFTER that that Chicagoan Isaac Alderson began playing the pipes. And for Isaac, like for pretty much all living pipers, Seamus Ennis was an influence.
There was a night that Isaac and fiddler Sam Amidon performed at Johnny D’s. This was a music venue in Somerville, Mass that’s now a condo complex. But back in the day, Isaac and Sam paid tribute to Seamus Ennis. Instead of TELLING us all about how unusual and mood-setty and important this guy was for Irish music, they SHOWED us.
Isaac started by referencing Séamus Ennis’s Truckley Howl bit. And then he lays down beats while Sam ‘lilts’ the tune in the style of Shooby Taylor. (That’s another totally unique musician who used to scat sing over existing recordings, using syllables like ‘Raw-shaw,’ ‘poppy-poppy,’ ‘splaw.’
>> Isaac [in an old Irish accent]: Back in the day in Ireland, they had no drums, no bodhrans, no instruments even. [laughter from the audience.] So instead of beating on the drum, we’d the old beat boxing. ’Twas back in the day. I learned it from my father. And his father before him, and before him. Back before the Emerald Isle was ever dropped [click, click] in the water.
[ Music recorded Live at Johnny D’s: Isaac beat boxes, Sam lilts Bird in the Bush reel with wild syllables. It disintegrates into laughter and applause.]
>> Shannon: Okay, this is heavy on the entertainment. And heavy on the welcome and fun. It’s steeped in Irish music history. And with the Shooby Taylor thing, it also situates it in Irish music-rich New York, where Sam and Isaac have both logged a lot of time.
For Bronx-based Joanie Madden, the priority onstage with her band Cherish the Ladies is also fun. And connection.
>> Joanie: I think at the end of the day it’s not just “now we’re gonna do three reels, bluh bluh bluh.” Who cares? You know, you have a story or a joke! Who cares what the NAME of them are. You know, play the damn things.
And I think you have to have a front person. I wasn’t, you know as I’ve said, I sat in the back for years. But I realize you HAVE to get over the stage fright of speaking on a microphone. HAVE to connect with your audience. If you don’t get your audience—well, I can tell if it’s gonna be a good night or a bad night in the first ten minutes. If I don’t have them, if they’re not laughing at me, it’s not gonna be a good night.
Flute player Jean Michel Veillon in Brittany talked to me about his band Kornog. For them it was also about connecting with audiences. And connecting them to the songs and tunes that the guys were sharing from Brittany and Scotland. Jean Michel loved the way that guitarist and singer Jamie McMenemy introduced the songs.
>> Jean Michel: I am not sure if I fully realized at the time how special Kornog was. The repertoire to start with, you know. We had a sort of double repertoire, Jamie would come up with Scottish ballads that he carefully selected. And we wanted also tunes that were quiet representative, you know? That would show really the best of the Breton tradition.
[ Music: “Dans Loudieg,” from Première
Artists: Kornog ]
>> Jean Michel: So we would choose dance tunes of course. But also marches, slow pieces, all that—in order to give the wider possible display of the richness of our Breton music. On top of that, Jamie had a very personal way of introducing these ballads. He was fantastic. He could draw parallels between the past world in which those ballads were written and the world of today. The world where we were performing. He could do that very well.
When we were touring the states, his Glasgow accent on stage—aah, the people loved it! But when we were playing in Brittany or anywhere in France, it would work the same way. Because Jamie would make some hilarious mistakes in French and, and still with his Glasgow accent. And I mean, every time, it just worked great.
[ Music Intro: Jamie McMenemy introducing “Sheriffmuir,” from Première
Artists: Kornog ]
>> Jamie: We’re going to finish off now. This song is about the battle in Scotland called Sheriff Muir, which was about the best battle in Scotland. Because both sides went ai-ya, ai-ya! No wounded. No dead. No nothin’! So that’s a nice battle. When each side got home, they wrote songs “we won the battle! we won the battle!” [Laughter]. That’s what Scotsmen are like! So Robert Burns wrote a song telling the truth about that.
>> Shannon: Now, this personal delivery doesn’t always work for everybody. Not all listeners appreciate the chat between tunes. Chicago fiddle player Liz Carroll shared some criticism that she received after a show one night:
>> Liz: I had a fellow—I’ve told myself since don’t ever look at your email before bed. And uh, I did a concert out in the West Coast. And I came back to my room, and I looked at the email. And I saw something like “my wife and I were at your concert.” And I was like, oh, somebody’s writing from the concert. And they said something like, “While we appreciated your lovely accompanist, we were really disturbed by your”—how did they put it? I enjoyed it. I used it in shows for a while.. “your inane banter.” Your INANE BANTER!
And described I should have been talking about how beautiful Ireland is. And I should have been talking about other things. Now.. so, in fairness, that night there were several people I knew in the audience. And they were sitting close to the stage. And it was more like in a table/drinks setting than it was a concert setting. So I did get happy.
But it’s very hard to talk about your own tunes. Me, being very happy with a crowd of people there and not being comfortable saying “here’s a tune I made up.” I can’t do it. So instead, these names have become my little default. That there’s a name for the tune, and there’s a little story behind the name. So it didn’t occur to me that it could be so disturbing. And the person accompanying that night is just naturally quiet anyway. So there wouldn’t have been much to say. So I was just rambling and having a great time.
[ Music: “Barbra Streisand’s Trip to Saginaw / Michael Connell’s,” from On the Offbeat
Artist: Liz Carroll ]
I can see how it might be fun to do it more like a classical concert. Here’s the playbill, and when you get done they applaud and you go into the next piece. And there’s no talking, because it really is the music. And yet our world has ended up being, it’s supposed to be—if it’s not words, at least it needs to be entertaining on some level. They can’t grasp what we’re grasping. Like when you went from this note to that note, and you sat at your table and laughed with glee because “there’s the note I’ve been looking for that just made the tune.” And you can’t tell that to anybody, because I agree, I think that would be boring
>> Shannon: So sometimes you’re trying to set a mood. To help keep listeners engaged, or to explain a general idea of a tune, in case they aren’t clued in to the finer points of fiddle playing. You’re trying to let them in.
And yeah, sometimes you’re just feeling happy. And you’re chatting away. And sometimes you’re just really silly. And of course, humor can be an effective way to relax people, which can then open their imagination to profound music:
>> Paddy: This is my wife’s favorite joke. I gotta get it right. What did the snail say as she was writing on the turtle’s back?
>> Shannon: [Laughs.] That’s already funny.
>> Paddy: Woooooooooh! There’s a visual to it, too. You flail your arms around. It’s like you’re holding on for dear life.
[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: So far, I’ve hit just a few of Paddy Leagues’s family friendly jokes. And I’ve explored STAGE banter. But as Paddy mentioned earlier, talking about the tunes is a big part of casual music sessions, too. Talking, and listening, and observing the music. And the chat. That’s what Rus Bradburd did when he first arrived in Tralee, in County Kerry.
[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
>> Rus: When I lived in Tralee, I happened to be there for nearly two years. So I had space and time to do that. I didn’t try to play at a session for the first few weeks. I just went and tried to listen. But I do think that, especially in the smaller towns, there is much more of a curiosity about “who’s this new fella?”
>> Shannon: So who was this new fella in town? Learn more about Rus and the fiddle teacher he found during his time in County Kerry after these words of thanks for this month’s sponsors. Nigel, take it away.
>> Nigel: Thank you to Sharon Murphy, Bill Wolf, John Kerr, Chris Murphy, Lynn Hayes, Meg and Harry Ferguson, Jack McCreless, Marco Battaglia, Joe Martin, Tom Frederick, Suezen Brown, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Emil Hauptmann, John Ploch, Rick Rubin, Gerry Corr, Jon Duvick, Randy Krajniak, Joel DeLashmit, Susan Walsh, and Jon Duvick.
>> Shannon: Thank you. This is the last new story for a while. I’m going to overhaul and expand the Irish Music Stories infrastructure, so I can share these stories more widely and more elegantly. I couldn’t make this show without folks listening, donating, and connecting with me. I’m so grateful for all your ideas and support. And I look forward to compiling and developing Irish Music Stories for all of us. I hope you’ll stay tuned to discover what shape these stories will take next—and to learn how you can help out. Just go to IrishMusicStories.org
[ Music: “Polkas Medley: John Collins’ Fancy / Eileen’s Polka / Ned Kelly’s Polka,” from The Burren Backroom Series, Vol. 1 (Live)
Artist: Sliabh Notes ]
In 2002, Rus Bradburd went to Ireland to work with the Tralee Tigers. His book, Paddy on the Hardwood, is a great basketball story. It’s chock full of underdog transcendence, Irish history, and County Kerry culture, and accounts of his music lessons with fiddle teacher Paddy Jones:
>> Shannon: So you’re in Ireland, you’re coaching basketball, you’re going to the local session. And then you find Paddy Jones.
>> Rus: You know, I was looking for a fiddle teacher, and the name Paddy Jones kept coming up. But it was strange the way people talked about him. They would say, you know, it was often like, “Well, you know, there’s Paddy Jones. But he’s going to talk to you about the meaning of life, and philosophy, and Celtic myth, and how it all fits into the music.” And, you know, of course the implication was that some people just want to learn the tunes. Well, I was at a strange place in my life trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And so that idea of talking about the meaning of life, and what the music is about, and what we’re all doing here on earth, that was very appealing to me. And so I figured I’d better find this Paddy Jones character.
I’m not a Buddhist, but there’s that Buddhist idea that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And I think in my life, Paddy Jones happened to appear just at the right time.
>> Shannon: You remember Seamus Ennis? The uilleann piper and music collector who talked about the Truckley Howl and who inspired that beatbox performance with Isaac and Sam? Well, Seamus was a big reason why Paddy Jones’s fiddle teacher, Padraig O’Keefe, became known throughout Ireland.
Tune: “Kerry Reel,” from fiddler comp
Artist: Padraig O’Keefe ]
After Padraig O’Keeffe died in 1963, Seamus Ennis wrote this memoir praising his repertoire of tunes and his dedication to teaching. But also his wit and his laugh, which he called it “a sort of snort—a nasal explosion—which was itself a further cause for mirth.”
And then he went on to write the Padraig O’Keefe was versatile. And he was a “good mimic of local characters and learned folk in his anecdotes, of which he had a remarkable fund.”
According to Coach Bradburd, Paddy Jones, who was Padraig O’Keefe’s FINAL student also had a remarkable fund of anecdotes. But he’d usually take things into much more involved territory.
>> Rus: Paddy Jones instantly fell into this meaning of life, and the music of the music, and what are we doing here on earth kind of thing. You know, with Paddy Jones it was always about the big issues, it was never about, “Jeeze, it’s been very rainy lately,” or, you know, “Did you see the match between Kerry and Cork?” or that kind of thing. There was no frivolous talk with Paddy Jones. It was .. he always, you know, pretty quickly dug deep into the heavy stuff.
>> Shannon: And so how much fiddle playing did you guys do, and how much talking did you do?
>> Rus: It was always start with identify the name of the tune. What was the name of that tune, or where did you get that tune? And that always leads to a story.
[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
And I do think that it’s just the way we’re wired. Of course the tunes often tell a story, uh, in themselves. Even the wordless tunes tell a story as, as do ballads and songs But there has to be a story connected to it. And so I think if you say, “oh, that’s from the first bothy band CD. Kevin Burke always plays that tune.” That’s one thing. But, you know, I want to hear a story about Kevin Burke. You know, the story on that tune goes that he learned it from Bobby Casey when he was going to the London sessions. Or whatever it is. I think we all want to be told a story. And just hearing the facts don’t really do it justice.
>> Shannon: Everywhere he went, whether it was playing at the local Tralee session, or sitting in the kitchen with Paddy, he encountered these stories.
[ Music: “Tonn Cliodhna,” from FYH
Artists: Caoimhin O Raghallaigh & Brendan Begley ]
>> Rus: You know the best sessions encompass that. The session has to breathe a little bit. You know, like we’ve been at work all day—most of us have been at work all day. Let’s, you know, catch up and do some chitchat. I think people are wired for chitchat, but also wired to hear these stories.
>> Shannon: Like the stories in Ciaran Carson’s beautiful book Last Night’s Fun. It’s an amazing collection of essays about traditional music.
>> Rus: I remember when I read Last Night’s Fun. I remember the first time I read it, I was like kind of disjointed and it jumps from this to that. And it doesn’t really, you know, there’s no pattern to it. And then I thought it’s kind of just like an Irish music session that way. You know, there’s no complete storyline through it. It’s just a mix—you could think of it as a mix of jigs and reels and hornpipes and polkas.
>> Shannon: There’s a bit in Last Night’s Fun where the author Ciaran Carson is hanging out with fellow flute player Cathal McConnell. They’re talking about this tune, Dowd’s #9.
[ Music: Dowd’s Number Nine,” Ómós Do Joe Cooley
Artists: Frankie Gavin, Paul Brock, and Charlie Lennon ]
Cathal is saying that Hughie Gunn would have played it this way, and his nephew Big John would have had another turn in it. Carson writes:
“The tune becomes a family tree. It is a conversation piece, a modus operandi, a way of negotiating lost time. Our knowledge of the past is changed each time we hear it; our present time, imbued with yesterday, comes out with bent dimensions. Slipping in and out of nodes of time, we find our circles sometimes intersect with others. Yet there is a wider circle we can only dimly comprehend, whose congregation is uncountable, whose brains and hands have shaped this tune in ways unknowable to us.”
[ Music level comes up ]
>> Shannon: So this is the tune, “Dowd’s #9,” played here by Frankie Gavin, Charlie Brock, and Charlie Lennon. We don’t know the Dowd in Dowd’s #9, whether he wrote the tune or just borrowed it and thought he’d written it. But as Ciaran writes, “the tune has been passed to us by a series of invisible and visible presences, and we like to think of the man who made it or purloined it or dreamed it up. So I imagine O’Dowd in a slouch hat and a gaberdine, extracting a Player’s No. 6 from its packet of ten. He’s just played ‘No. 9.’ In fact, he’s just come from the fiddle competition where he witnessed some new boy playing ‘Dowd’s No. 9,’ and getting nowhere, for it is indeed the way you play them that’s important.”
>> Rus: I love that book. I think it’s sort of the Bible of writing about Irish music.
>> Shannon: Yeah. So this is what’s going on in a session: this conversational thing going, because it’s a social event I guess, right?
>> Rus: There’s also sort of a hierarchy. Like the more mediocre players like myself are waiting to hear some sort of pearl of wisdom, or some story or joke from the great players. And particularly after a tune, I think. There’s times when a tune gets played, and someone will say, what’s the name of that one? And where did you get that one from? And then we’re sort of expecting this pearl of wisdom, you know, from the person or two who runs the session. And that’s often the case, I think.
>> Shannon: So it’s kind of, um, like an educational thing in a session too, huh?
>> Rus: Well, yeah, I think so. I think often the banter between tunes, you know, centers on what was that tune we just played.
>> Shannon: Yeah. It gives you something to talk about. It’s a jumping off point.
>> Rus: Right. I think it’s like watching a ball game or watching, you know, watching a basketball game or baseball game on TV. We’re going to talk about what we just saw. And that can often sort of lead down the trail into where the tune came from. And then, you know, remembering how you learned the tune, who you learned the tune from, or those kinds of things.
The way I think of it as a writer is instead of going horizontally sort of digging deeper. You know, there’s a great Seamus Haney poem called Digging where he talks about watching his father go deep down into the earth to get the good sod. And I think that’s what we’re doing at sessions, too, is we’re digging down deeper. In my experience there wouldn’t be so much talk about politics or world history. It’s often centered on the music itself and the people who played it. Maybe even what happened to this fella, or did his father die kind of thing. But I think it’s usually pointed at the tunes.
[ Music: Triptych reprise]
You know, Paddy passed away at the end of may in 2020.
[ Music:“Rockabye by Firelight,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
At one point he asked me, have you walked in the bogs in the rain? Which I thought, well, that’s an odd thing to ask. And that was my first year with him. I lived there for a couple— two basketball seasons anyway, it wasn’t quite two years—and you know asking a student, “have you gone for a walk in the bogs in the rain?” He felt like I needed a background and an understanding that it wasn’t just learning (he was very big on this) that it, wasn’t just learning the notes. I think what he was suggesting for me that I didn’t understand at the time when I first met him, is that you really have to get ingrained into the culture and into the the Irish mindset and the history and the land and the people and the food. That it was not something about just learning the music.
>> Shannon: Immersing audiences in Irish culture—and specifically in CORK culture— is storyteller, singer, and bodhran player Máirtín de Cógáin’s shtick. A concert or a conversation with him is like walking the bogs in the rain. But with ample hair product, so your hair doesn’t get too frizzy
>> Shannon: Unlike your stage banter, our chat on banter will be a little concise. Hahaha.
So… you’re performing music for people. Why can’t you just sing some songs and play some tunes and call ‘er a day?
>> Máirtín: You know, there’s, people say that. Like, just play the song. Just play the song. And that’s grand. And I think, you know, if you’re coming from Ireland and you’re singing a song about this local place, you don’t have to paint the rest of the picture, because people know it. Do you know what I mean? If you’re up in Cape Breton, and you’re playing a tune that everybody knows because they all play that tune in Cape Breton, what do you say about it?
But when you’re going into a place with brand new stuff from a different tradition that they mightn’t have the full connection with, are you really that confident that the music is enough for them to connect on a kind of higher plain? That’s why I talk too much during the show.
[ Music: “Pretty Girls of Mayo, the Steeplechase,” (AKA ‘Reel Cork, Like!’) from From Cork with Love
Artist: The Máirtín de Cógáin Project ]
>> Shannon: So you’re setting the stage. You’re giving a little bit of information about the thing that you’re about to present, so that they can experience it more deeply?
>> Máirtín: Yeah, I mean I talk funny and I talk fast. Um, whether they pick it up or not, I dunno. I do my best to go for ‘electrocution’ lessons. [Shannon laughs. But you know, for songs, I mean there’s so much history in a lot of the songs that I tell. A lot of the backstory is nearly more fascinating than the song itself. Like the story that builds up to the song sometimes can make the song more poignant—and can have a deeper emotional effect on the people. When you get them into that place of thought.. not that all songs should be making you cry (the same for laughter or contemplation).. but if you can get them into the right mind space when you sing the song, I think it can be more effective.
[ Music: Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: So onstage for you, it ain’t all backstory about the music that you’re about to sing.
>> Máirtín: No. Sometimes it’s good to get people to laugh a bit and to relax, you know. Because concerts can be very stuffy. And people don’t know what to say, and people wonder why they’re there. And if you get them to laugh, you know, it just becomes a more human connection.
Like storytelling: a story teller should usually be telling up to the people. It’s not a lecture down to the people, you know? If you go into a Mosque, the mulla steps down into a step. There’s a small step cut out of the ground where he is at a lower level to everybody else, telling a story up to the people. And if you’re on the stage—when you’re on a stage you’re looking down to the people. But if you can put yourself in that more humble position than the people, then what you have to say, well, they might be more accepting.
>> Shannon: There’s an agenda with that, right? You’re trying to make people comfortable to allow them to enjoy the song, maybe on a deeper level. Is there also just sport?
>> Máirtín: Yeah, I mean it’s a bit of craic, like. You’d be trying to pull their leg. And to see how long they’ll go along with it. But I mean, at the end of the day, like we’re all trying to just pass the time. And have a bit of a better time than we did yesterday, you know? And people come to a concert to have a nice time. They come to a gig for storytelling, to go home with kind of that they’ve left this world. This world can be hard going, you know? And if you’ve gone into a gig, if you can make them relax and to give people that magical space when they’re hanging on eery world and they want to go on this journey where the performer’s taking them. And that’s beautiful. And I find a bit of banter between the sounds helps build that rapport between you and the audience.
>> Shannon: Yeah
[Recitation: “How To Make Proper Tea!” from From Cork with Love
Artist: Máirtín de Cógáin Live ]
>> Mairtin on the live recording: Ladies and gentleman, I want to tell ye a story about tea. And when tea came to Ireland, the Irish took to it like ducks to water. And they’ve been it ever since by like gallons. And I know here in America, tea has been unconstitutional since the late 1700s after some celebration they had on the East Coast where people dressed up and had a party and things. [Audience laughs.]
I know coffee is the, I suppose, the untaxable fruit here in America. And you sent all the tea back. And you’ve made bad tea on the grounds of that ever since. [laughter]
>> Shannon: This is about this relationship between you and the listeners there. And then what about a bit of banter between you and say other people with whom you’re playing onstage?
>> Máirtín: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, I suppose we’re trying to relax on stage as well. You know, like any band, you’re out onstage in this midday heat. And you’re trying to tune guitars and mandolin and banjos. It takes a while, like. So you have to say something. And it can get quite boring talking about the website all the time, you know? And Irish lads love to slag each other on stage quite a lot. And that kind of friendly banter where it’s all kind of jockeying for position, like “who’s the Alpha male on the stage here, you know?” And everyone kinda goes along with that. And that bit of laughter on stage, if you SHOW the audience that you’re having a good time, then they feel like they’re part of that circle up there on the stage. That they’re also having a good time.
And people often remark “it’s great to see ye enjoying yourselves so much.” Which CAN be true.
>> Shannon: So all kidding aside, oftentimes it is fun. What about the times that maybe it isn’t so fun up onstage and yet you’re carrying on with the banter? Are you being genuine? Like what’s that all about?
>> Máirtín Yeah. You know, like you’d laugh your way across Texas. And you’d have the best of times and the worst of times. It can be trying. Being in a band is very hard. Being in, like, a family is hard. Being in a group of friends is hard, you know what I mean? But yeah, you kind of keep it together for the show, all right. Sometimes you just have to put your shoulders back and get the work done, right? Like there are sometimes I’ve been asked to tell a story in a scenario that is not conducive for storytelling. But you just have to get through it, best you can,
>> Shannon: And what about canned shtick?
>> Máirtín: Love it.
>> Shannon: Love it?
>> Máirtín: Yeah.
>> Shannon: Love it!?
>> Máirtín: Yeah. I’d have a lot of the same intros for the songs. And sometimes, like a story, you’d change out bits and pieces of it. But if it’s good, why would you change it? Right? I mean, it’s part of the intro. And if you know it’s going to get a laugh if you say it the right way, then why would you throw that away?
>> Shannon: Haha. She laughs.
>> Máirtín: Hahaha. Yeah, so.. That’s all part of the stage craft. That you build up that banter. That you have those stories ready to fire, especially when you’re tired. Because when you’re on the road, you drive 500 miles. You may have a bowl of soup, and you’re expected to perform for two hours. You’d better know what you’re doing and be able to do it on autopilot.
>> Shannon: Yeah.
>> Máirtín: You know, that’s the life of the road. Yeah. Sometimes the canned ones are the best. They’re full of preservative.
>> Shannon: Haha. Guaranteed.
>> Máirtín: Bit Salty, maybe. [Sings] Never tire of the road!
>> Shannon: Yeah. Well thanks for keeping it fresh!
>> Máirtín: Let’s be real man. Sorry for my novels.
>> Shannon: There are big stories in little quips. There are big stories in little tunes.
All the jigs and reels that have survived and gotten passed around the globe (because trad music is big in lots of countries outside of Ireland now).. well all of these tunes, and the ballads, and the dance steps, and the practitioners who keep them circulating: this all carries a whole lot.
At least 48 episodes worth of Irish Music Stories.
If you haven’t heard all of the episodes in this podcast series, I hope you’ll check out some of the treasures that got ME through the last four years. And as a new year dawns, I’ll be developing each episode with transcripts, short teaser excerpts, photos, backstories. You’ll be able to see and hear stuff digitally, and eventually in print.
I really hope you’ll keep in touch and follow the Irish Music Stories project. In the meantime, thank you for listening. And thank you to my musical and life partner, the abundantly creative, capable, and compassionate Matt Heaton, the musician and the mind who helped me devise sound design for the show; who listened to many drafts of scripts; and who helped with research; and handled the bulk of domestic duties as I neared deadlines each month. Thank you, Matt Heaton.
And a big thank you to Nigel who started acknowledging our sponsors when he was six, and who went on to offer input on the stories, and even co-produced Episode Twenty-Four: Fairy Forts and Changelings, an exploration of supernatural songs and stories.
[ Music: “Ballyea,” from Hangin’ at the Crossroads
Artist: The Céilí Bandits]
Other friends have helped along the way, too: Brian oHairt helped me learn more about Irish language. Carol Zall and the Sonic Soiree taught me more about writing and cutting in to tape. Kieran Jordan helped with dance details. Sally Tucker and Jacob Deck helped with transcriptions. Brian O’Donovan, Laura Cortese, and Beth Sweeney helped me strategize. Jesse Voigts and Jamie McClennan helped with the website. Ryoko Murakami and Tomoaki Hatekeyama translated the first episode into Japanese. And the Massachusetts Cultural Council and many listeners encouraged me with financial and moral support.
Thank you, everybody. I can’t wait to develop these stories for all of us.
>> Paddy: Oh, this is a classic. These two muffins—do you know this joke?
>> Shannon: No.
>> Paddy: There are these two muffins in the oven. And the one of them turns to the other one and says “whew, it’s really getting hot in here, isn’t it?” And the other one says “Jesus Christ, a talking muffin!”
>> Shannon: hahahaha!
>> Paddy: I’ll be here all week until they take this episode down.
Episode guests in order of appearance
(1919 – 1982): Mid 20th century uilleann piper, singer, music collector, and host of BBC Radio’s “As I Roved Out.”