Chips and cheese… Cheese fries… cheesy chips. Is there something truly nourishing about a pile of potatoes and melted cheddar? This month’s Irish Music Stories episode digs in to investigate.
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Matthew Olwell, Jamie McClennan, and Matt Heaton help digest the meaning behind the menu… and what all the cups of tea and session snacks surrounding Irish music and dance are really about. There are also short, tasty tales from Kevin Doyle, Liz Carroll, John Williams, and Kathleen Conneely.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to Mark Johnson, Lynn Cox, Sharon Murphy, Valerie Watt, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, and Gerry Corr for underwriting this episode.
Episode 51-Depot of Expected Needs
Packing the traditional music bag (and website)
This Irish Music Stories episode aired May 11, 2021
Speakers, in order of appearance:
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Matt Heaton: Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player
>> Laura Cortese: San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Cormac Gaj:Boston-based musician who had formative years with Boston’s Comhaltas music school
>> Mairin Ui Chiede: Conamara-born, Boston-based sean nos singer from a long line of poets and singer
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. Like the power of a supportive community. And a well-packed bag.
[ Music: “The Boy in the Boat and Wind that Shakes the Barley,” from Rehearsal
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton
>> Matt: Wow, that backpack of yours looks disgusting
>> Shannon: Thank you!
>> Matt: I have to speak my truth
>> Shannon: Matt Heaton may be a little put off by my bag. But he’s stuck with it, here, in Medford, Massachusetts, while Covid restricts travel. No live gigs or in-person interviews for me yet. But I’m still not ready to wash my backpack. There’s a lot of history in there. I’ve carried that thing to all the interviews contained in these Irish Music Stories. And I’ve taken it to hundreds and hundreds of music sessions before Irish Music Stories ever launched.
Before I made over 50 podcast episodes about Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic traditions. Before I began writing companion essays that spin off the shows. Before I got to connect with all these interesting guests and listeners, people who share a passion for traditional music and dance.
So with that bag resting in the corner of my studio, before I make another 50 shows, I knew it was time to build a better online home for Irish Music Stories. As your tour guide, I wanted to create a beautiful, comprehensive website with transcripts, bios, related essays and videos, photos and artwork, playlists.
So I rolled up my sleeves, and I started to pull it all together. More on that in a bit… but first, since Matt Heaton mentioned my filthy backpack, that carries my flute, whistles, and recording gear, I thought I’d ask him about his case.
>> Shannon: Since you mentioned my filthy backpack, I thought I’d ask you about your Caulton case over there in the corner. It is gross. It’s got like stickers peeling off the outside of it.
>> Matt: Hahaha.
>> Shannon: And it looks like there’s gunk inside the latches?
>> Matt: Well, that case has been through a lot, it’s true. Caulton is a company that makes these very heavy duty guitar cases that you can put on an airplane without worrying quite as much. And over the years I have plastered every sticker I got onto it, because I don’t have anywhere else to put stickers.
>> Shannon: So you’ve got that going on. And then you have, what, like a bag that you carry as well for your personal items and gear.
>> Matt: I proudly carry a purse. People call it a man-bag. Either way I don’t mind. But that’s where I keep my phone and wallet and keys. And a little notebook and that kind of stuff. And I carry that all the time, because I don’t like stuff in my pockets. And then I have, well I had, the best packed gear bag imaginable. It just.. everything I could possibly need: cables, microphones, stand, everything I would need. Which, over that last year as things shifted to more at-home endeavors, I’ve cannibalized it.
>> Shannon: Yeah, well we reappropriated a lot of that gear for live-streaming and stuff. So now what? You’re starting to do some outdoor gigs?
>> Matt: Yeah, and I’m going to have to confront it all. I’m going to have to confront it anew. I’m going to have to repack my bag, and make sure I have the stuff i need in it. I might have to buy some more stuff, Shannon!
>> Shannon: hahaha.
>> Shannon: Well, my flute is a lot more compact than Matt’s guitar. And any stuff that he might “add” to his gear bag in the coming weeks. But we still each gotta carry our stuff around. For me that usually means putting the flute (in its case) in a bag, maybe with some other stuff.
[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Just like a podcast. If you want to share episodes along with show notes and other extras, you gotta build a site to share everything. So that folks can see and learn more about people like Matt (the owner of that guitar case). And Laura Cortese, singer and fiddle player who’s featured on several Irish Music Stories episodes.
[ Music: “Hielen’ Laddie,” from Hush
Artist: Laura Cortese ]
Now, fiddle is an interesting puzzle when it comes to travel. You can get backpack straps for the fiddle case, but then you can’t really carry a backpack to carry other stuff.
Laura’s case is an ultra thin one shaped like a fiddle that has just enough room for her microphone, shoulder rest, mute pedal, fiddle hanger, and a set of extra strings. And she also carries a soft second-hand cashmere sweater, because that’s nice to have on the plane just in case. And because it sort of snuggles the fiddle for extra protection. But for the rest of her personal items, Laura has this tiny backpack that she found at a sport store. She likes it small so her back never gets tired. And because she really has to think hard about what she wants to carry with her.
That’s a different approach to my backpack. Which is heavy. And has everything.
But it’s the suitcase where Laura puts her weight.
[ Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Laura: Wow. Packing a suitcase is something I haven’t had the chance to do in a while. And something I actually really love. When I did travel home this year last year 2020 from Belgium to California and got to pack the suitcase again, I feel like ah this is something I’m good at! I’ve been stuck sitting in a house for a whole year. It gave me, yeah, pleasure.
I pack my bag (this is super nerdy ) just like I pack my drawers. I’m one of those people that read the Kon Mari book on the Japanese art of, yeah, tidying up… I can’t remember the name. But I pack everything vertically, all my clothes vertically. Everything stands on its own. And I actually do go with three pairs of shoes. I have street shoes, performing shoes, and a sort of sport shoe. You can fit a lot in a suitcase. I tend to have more trouble with the weight of my bags than how much I can bring. So I try to take the smallest suitcase possible and cram it full. Hahaha!
>> Shannon: Before people were magically packing plane luggage or building clean, compact websites. they were using packs to carry food, money, gifts, sweet herbs to mask body odor.
In 1945, Swiss writer Anita Daniel wrote an essay in the New York Times using the term “Bagology,” the study of handbags and their contents.
[ Music: “Mångatskrinna,” from All in Always
Artist/Composer: Laura Cortese ]
She writes about women with bloated, untidy handbags, who spend two minutes to find the crap they buried inside. And about men enjoying this display of disorganization. And then she praises Eleanor Roosevelt for her sleek handbag. Although I’m sure that she had a team ready to supply anything she didn’t have on hand.
The binary thrust of the piece does not land neatly today. But Daniel’s depiction of bag carriers does have some great lines in it. She calls the handbag “a movable base of supplies, a depot of expected needs.”
When I set out to build a new depot for Irish Music Stories, I really wanted to pack in lots of little pieces, all in their own pockets. I designed the site on paper. And then enlisted fiddle and guitar player and fantastic designer Jamie McClennan to build the site. Jamie transformed my ambitious and slightly clunky concepts into elegant, sensible design. And then I buckled down to fill it with all the treasures contained in these stories, from over 160 musicians, dancers, and scholars.
It seemed like such a good idea. Like this could be an amazing resource. But once I really got into the work, I was pretty overwhelmed. I started to despair and to question the project. And I admitted my overwhelm to the Irish Music Stories email list.
And I got some help.
With the kind and excellent support of my friends John Ploch, Beth Sweeney, Tom Frederick, Susan Middlestadt, Mark Johnson, Bob Suchor, Ian Bittle, and Ed Schilling, I was able to get through more transcriptions of the episodes. More are going up every week. And then with Sally Tucker’s help I had a spreadsheet for organizing playlists and bios. And with Matt and Nigel Heaton, I created thumbnails for all the episodes.
With everybody pitching in, we made progress. I was able to put up one podcast episode with all the trimmings. And then another. And then another. We inched our way to the finish line of the new chapter for Irish Music Stories.
[ Music: “Peggy’s Waltz,” from In Transit
Artist/Composer: Jamie McClennan ]
With podcast production suspended, so I could work away at the site, folks still supported the project. I’m so grateful to this month’s underwriter’s, acknowledged here by my son Nigel:
>> Nigel: Thank you to Nancy Kearney, Peter Lee, Tom Frederick, Brian Benscoter, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Gerry Corr, Joel DeLashmit, David Vaughan, Chris Armstrong, Irish and Celtic Music Podcast, Robert Levelle, Mark Haynes, Bob Suchor, Jon Duvick, Chris Murphy, Ken Doyle, Randy Krajniak, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, John Ploch, Charlie Durfee, and Ian Bittle.
>> Shannon: Thank you. I hope you’ll be able to stop by the expansive new IrishMusicStories.org and immerse yourself in the IMS world.
Meanwhile, I’m back to podcasting. My interviews will still be conducted remotely for now. But my trusty backpack is still here, in the corner of my studio, ready to hit the road again when the Covid coast is a little clearer.
I wrote an essay about that carry-on piece of luggage. It’s one of the Companion Chapters on the new site. I asked Laura Cortese if she’d read it for us. So here’s Laura reading The Bag and the Cup of Tea.
* * * * * *
>> Laura reads essay:
[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Mosquito repellent. Green curry. Fireplace smoke. She could detect faint notes of each, as soon as she’d spilled the dregs of her airport tea on the side of her backpack.
Stupid. Why rush? The plane is already delayed.
Fellow travellers in Gate 15C, even the ones out of olfactory reach, watched as she piled small electronics, flute case, extra clothing, notebooks, and tubes of toothpaste and face lotion on the floor of Shannon Airport.
No, I wasn’t named for the airport. Yes, it’s a common surname—it’s also a common Irish American first name. Why is this reaction to my name so annoying?
She dabbed at the dark spot on the side of the pack with a T-shirt she’d pulled from the bag and amused herself by identifying the onlookers:
Concerned Compassionates (older Irish); Chucklers (other Irish); Eye Rollers (Young Urban Irish); and The Guy Who Said “Way, to Go, Chief” (Boston Irish).
[ Music: “Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
Her carry-on was damp. It was also well appointed. This one was about nine years old, only her third backpack since childhood. It fit her flute with the long middle section, And it had a reinforced leather bottom and just enough zippered pockets to keep track of. This edition also had a padded compartment in the back for the laptop. But except for the back segment, the design and contents of the packs had been pretty consistent for decades.
Shannon had the backpack down. But for all her globetrotting, she still agonized about how to pack the suitcase. Shoes were the hardest. Running shoes were bulky but essential. But she wasn’t about to walk around Europe or Asia all day in ugly sport shoes. And then there was the issue of what to wear for gigs. Life got easier when she settled on street-to-stage boots instead of packing a third pair for performing. But packing was still a struggle. How do you find comfort and convenience on the road? Carry everything you want, or move around easily with truly lightweight luggage?
For this trip she’d gone with the wheelie bag, so she could fit a few extra items. But she’d forgotten about all the uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets. From Ennis to Dublin, she cursed her suitcase choice.
But the backpack was perfect. If stained.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When she was going to Ireland every year, she’d used a different pack. Similar, a little smaller, no laptop sleeve in the back. But it had been almost eight years since the last trip (funds were tight). So this time around she did her best to see everybody she could.
[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]
If the suitcase wasn’t ideal, the nights of music and the kitchen visits set the stage for an epic holiday. And since she’d decided to record a bunch of her reunions, she ended up with a rich collection of stories.
This turned into a massive oral history project and culture podcast, starting with the story of Realta Gaela, a band of 8-15 year olds from Boston who competed in the 2015 All Ireland Fleadh, with tens of thousands of other traditional musicians from around the globe. Shannon spoke to a few folks on that Ireland trip—friends and mentors of the young Boston group. When she got home, Cormac Gaj, who’d played ﬂute and pipes with Realta Gaela talked about the Sligo Fleadh.
>> Cormac: It was massive! They took over this giant auditorium. There must have been at least 1500 people there. All there for this one competition.
>> Laura: Singer and Boston Comhaltas music school teacher Mairin Ui Chiede also reflected on the kids’ experience.
>> Mairin: You can go across the Atlantic to Ireland to participate. And it’s an experience that’s forever with you. The competition is just the minor part of it. It’s the people you meet, the music you hear, and the relationships you build. And the community that you belong to after going to a Fleadh, you know, you may have been the slowest one in the marathon, but that’s okay. You ﬁnished! You reached your goal. You got to the end!
>> Shannon: Right.
>> Mairin: And that’s what sustains you as a human being, to belong.
>> Shannon: The Trip to Sligo episode ended up being a great underdog tale. An Irish music story. I went on to gather stories from kitchens, backstages, festivals, pubs, rest areas, and airports all over Ireland, North America, Europe and Japan. When I did remote interviews (there were a few of those pre-2020, and all of them were online during Covid times), the backpack stayed at home. And I got a break from the suitcase dilemma.
But there’s still a hint of bug spray, curry, and smoke in the old bag. Maybe if these Irish music stories do their job, you’ll get a sense of the spills and essence of this well-travelled music tradition.
[ Music: Tune: “Fun with Colin,” from In Transit
Artist/Composer: Jamie McClennan ]
This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton.
Thank you to all who kicked in this month to help underwrite the project. You can donate and find episodes and much more at IrishMusicStories.org. Thank you, Matt for the production music (on a guitar housed in a filthy Caulton case.) Thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging our generous supporters. Thank you, Laura, for reading the essay.
And thanks again to everybody who’s helped me build the site, especially Jamie McClennan of WhiteFallDesign. And Jamie’s family, thank you for putting up with all my video calls, as Jamie taught me how to use Elementor.
>> Shannon: Why isn’t this working? Why isn’t this working? Jamie!!!!!!
Episode guests in order of appearance
San Francisco-born, Belgium-based singer, songwriter, and fiddle player with a Scottish fiddle background who spent years in Boston
Boston-based musician who had formative years with Boston’s Comhaltas music school
Conamara-born, Boston-based sean nos singer from a long line of poets and singers