Banquet of Collective Wisdom

Annotated guide to “So This Is Irish Music”
Episode Trailer

Irish Music Stories is the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. Episodes are often 40-50 minutes long (and 51 seconds).

Here’s a shorter installment. With help from Ellery Klein I delve into collective wisdom; and I revisit a poem that I aired back in Season One. This episode is 26 minutes… and 51 seconds long.

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Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Chris Armstrong, Margaret Finny, Ken Doyle, Susan Walsh, David Vaughan, Lynn Hayes, Brian Benscoter, John Ploch, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Corr, Michael Craine, Kevin Ryall, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Suezen Brown, and The Sofia, Home of B Street Theatre

Episode 54-Banquet of Collective Wisdom
Annotated guide to “So This Is Irish Music”
This Irish Music Stories episode aired August 10, 2021
https://shannonheatonmusic.com/episode-54-banquet-of-collective-wisdom/

Speakers in order of appearance:
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Ellery Klein: Boston-based fiddle player and teacher who toured with various Irish groups and teaches a myriad of fiddle styles
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production
>> Gregor Brinkschulte: Banjo and guitar player in Germany
>> Andy Xuhang: Instrument maker, musician from Beijing, China
>> John Coyne: Limerick-born singer and bouzouki player, now making his home in Melrose, Massachusetts
>> Tommy McCarthy: London-born fiddle player of Irish parents who opened the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Eoin O’Neill: Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare

_______

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

[ Music: “Fun with Colin,” from In Transit

Artist/Composer: Jamie McClennan ]

The much, much bigger stories behind it. As regular listeners know, even with highly edited episodes, most of my stories end up between 40 and 50 minutes long… And 51 seconds

Yeah. So no matter the length, nearly every episode’s run time has ended in 51 seconds. Try adding that unnecessary creative constraint to your project, Ira Glass. 

Anyway, 45 minutes (and 51 seconds) can be hard to find in a busy day. I know that even the deeply trad curious don’t always have time for an entire episode. So here’s a shorter installment. It’s a deeper dive into a poem that I aired back in Season One.

So This is Irish Music was a piece that I wrote to capture some of the feelings and images that my guests had talked about in Episode 3. That was a story about Irish music sessions.  About how they’re organized, musically and socially. And what they mean for all the players and the punters. 

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

>> Ellery: There’s two things that happen when I go out and play tunes. And one is, of course, the obvious one on the surface which is someone plays a tune and you play it with them. And sometimes they’ll play a tune you haven’t thought of in a while, or played in a while and you get to practice it, brush it off.  But then there’s also this mutual memory of the tune. I find it super cool and one of the magic things about community playing.

>> Shannon: That’s fiddle player Ellery Klein. She and I have played lots of tunes together. Every time we meet up, we’ll play some old faves. And then other stuff just comes up. 

After not playing together for almost a year and a half, we had this back porch session. And we fell right back into it.

>> Ellery: So we both got the vaccine. And after, you know, a year and a half of just feeling like it wasn’t safe to do anything, all of a sudden it felt safe. So, you know, we got together. So the first time we played tunes in your backyard, you know we played some tunes and that was great. But then we picked up a tune that you had showed me right before everything shut down—a version of The New Mown Meadow by Mike Rafferty

>> Shannon: Mike Rafferty was a flute player from Galway who emigrated to New Jersey. He was the 2010 National Heritage Fellow, an elegant flute player, and a very welcoming person. I think of this reel as Mike Rafferty’s New Mown Meadows. 

[ Music: “New Mown Meadows,” from quick studio demo

Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

There’s a very similar version of this tune collected by Francis O’Neill in 1903. Chief O’Neill called the tune the Threepenny Bit.  Mike Rafferty called it Paddy Rafferty’s after his brother, who’s lilting the tune with him here

[ Music: “Paddy Rafferty’s AKA New Mown Meadows,” from Douglas Hadden YouTube channel

Artists: Paddy & Mike Rafferty ]

>> Ellery: And it was a sweet little tune. But you know, I’d just not been motivated to keep it going the whole time I was playing by myself. Because there’s something about you learn a tune, and then you’ve got to play it with somebody else. You’ve got to share a tune, really.

>> Shannon: By sharing this music, the tunes get named. There are a lot of tunes named after people.

Maybe they’re named for the person who wrote the tune, like Paddy Fahey’s, or Sean Ryan’s, or Brendan Tonra’s.

But often, they’re just called after the person (or the persons) associated with playing them. Like Padraig O’Keefe’s, Winnie Hayes’, Cronin’s, Willie Coleman’s, or Paddy Rafferty’s.

[ Music: “Paddy Rafferty’s,” from Hand Me Downs

Artists: Mike & Mary Rafferty ]

>> Ellery: I was just talking to someone the other day about how there are certain tunes that always make me think of somebody in particular, you know? Or when I think of a particular person then I immediately think of the tune that I associate with them. So this kind of naming, I think, recognizes how much the music is always connected to people.  

And when you play a tune named after someone and you have no idea who that person is anymore, they’re long gone and the tune has been passed along; we play this music because so many generations of people have gotten together. And this music wouldn’t exist without that getting together. 

And all of a sudden after a year of not being able to play together and experience that power of collective memory, I think we can kind of see, like, we owe it to people in the future to play together as much as we can. Because people who play tunes in the future are counting on our memories working together to keep this music alive.

>> Shannon: So Ellery and I sat down to play some tunes. We found that version of the New Mown Meadows again. She played a barndance that she’d emailed me a few months ago. And then we started free associating tunes together. We were remarkably in sync.

[ Music: “Lament for Lost Friends,” from Live at Simpson Street Studios

Artists: Alex Cumming & Nicola Beazley ]

>> Ellery: There’s this weird deeper thing that happens. And it used to freak me out. Like do I have some kind of psychic super powers? Because I’d be like sitting in a session and I’d think of a tune. And I wouldn’t play it. And then within 15 minutes usually, someone else will start the tune that I just thought of. And that’s happened to me a lot of times. And every time it happens it feels super weird. But I’ve talked to people about this. And it happens to them, too. 

So I think it’s like, the action of playing some tunes also triggers your memory of other tunes. And this works at the same time in other people. Like there’s this on the surface learning of tunes, but there there’s also this subconscious mutual memory of the tune. But it’s pretty wacky when it happens.

>> Shannon: It is wacky. And it’s really rewarding. It’s like a payoff for all this time that we’ve spent learning and teaching each other tunes.

>> Ellery: By investing the energy in these connections with other people now and the time playing tunes with them, you know, in another generation or two or three, you know, perhaps there’s just some kind of power in that. It’s just tune magic

So I think intrinsic in this playing of music together is this hope and recognition that this music is always about being with other people, communicating with other people, and just enjoying the company of other people.

  

>> Shannon: When Irish musicians meet up for tunes and songs—in a pub, or a kitchen, or a backyard, or a Zoom room, we have conversation. And some of the chat centers around the tunes or the songs that come up over the course of the hang. You never know what tunes are going to pop into the session. Sometimes it’s a really surprising mix.

[ Music: “Molloy’s Favorite,” from Druid Pub Session

Artists: George Keith, Tina Lech, Shannon Heaton ]

When a session happens regularly in a public space, with consistent leaders, there’s usually a particular vibe or culture that gets established. That’s what I explored in Episode 3. I called the show Every Tuesday at Nine. And I spoke with musicians in Boston, Chicago, Clare, and New York about how they organize their weekly music sessions.

These tune sessions, and the singing that people do together, and the social dancing: these are all social events couched in mutual understanding and appreciation of Irish culture. They’re not all about the music, or the songs, or the dance steps. Because Irish Music is about more than notes and rhythms. 

When Boston producer Brian O’Donovan and singer and bouzouki player John Coyne recited this poem with me, I dropped in a few obscure trad music references in there. I assumed the poem would resonate clearly enough, in the context of these Irish Music Stories. 

[ Music: “The Bonny Light Horseman,” (intro only) from Broken Hearted I’ll Wander

Artists: Dolores Keane & John Faulkner  ]

>> Brian: So…  this is Irish music: Songs about loss and exile, sung by two Galway girls and their niece.

>> Shannon: OK, for me, no one sings about loss and separation like Galway singer Dolores Keane. Dolores was raised by her Aunts Rita and Sarah who sang sean nós songs. Dolores recorded her first track for RTÉ when she was five, and went on to make amazing albums with Dé Dannan, John Faulkner. Her version of Galway Bay is the standard bearer. 

But it’s always the recordings with her Aunties that I imagine first, when I think of Dolores Keane.

[ Music: “Once I Loved,” from the RTE archives

Artists: Dolores, Rita & Sarah Keane ]

>> Shannon: So…  this is Irish music: Songs about loss and exile, sung by two Galway girls and their niece.

>> Shannon & John: East Clare jigs, played on fiddle and pipes in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Berlin.

>> Shannon: These songs, and reels, and jigs have travelled. From little Gaeltacht communities to musical souls all over the world. For Episode 42 of Irish Music Stories, I spoke with Irish musicians in Europe, South America and Asia. Gregor Brinkschulte in Germany and Andy Xuhang in China have both found comfort and community in Irish music.

>> Gregor: To me Irish traditional music is more than just a beautiful style of music. It also means social connection to many different kind of people. The music is crossing so many borders—be it international borders, social classes, or be it the border of age. 

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

>> Andy Xuhang: I believe music is boundary-less. And it connects all of us around the world. Because it’s not just simply a bunch of people playing music, but social contact.

>> Shannon: Xuhang or Andy is an Irish musician and flute maker. And with his friend Jay he set out to establish a Comhaltas Ceoltori Éireann (or CCÉ) branch in China to help teach and present Irish traditional music throughout their country. Until recently, Andy travelled to connect with fellow Irish music lovers in his country. And he also spent a lot of time in Japan, where there are sessions in multiple cities. And where there are passionate set dancers.

Dance is also a big part of the musical conversation here in Boston. At our local Druid Pub I’ve enjoyed steps (usually later in the evening) from a dancer who’s climbed on top of a table. It’s so exciting, and celebratory. I wonder if that practice will ever return…

Well, no matter how practices may adjust, I imagine we’ll get back to some sort of regular Tuesday at 9, or Sunday at noon. At places like the Druid. Or the Burren. That’s Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello’s Irish music bar in Somerville, Massachusetts. I talked to Tommy about the Burren in Episode 4, about how he and Louise found this closed up Family Dollar store and decided to build a place for traditional music.

>> Tommy: Obviously I must have seen something and thought what have I got to lose? I mean, I was only 28 at the time. I mean, I’d never run a pub before, I’d never bartended. But I think the only thing in my head is we really wanted to have a place to play music in,. We didn’t really think of the rest of it. The rest of it would just come, you know? So it thankfully has.

>> Shannon: The details did, indeed, fall into place for Tommy and Louise. And there have been lots of tunes, and lots of visiting musicians at the Burren pub over the years. I remember Seamus and his brother Brendan Begley sitting in for tunes on their way through town.

>> Brian: Streams of slides and polkas cascading from the barefoot accordion player with dirty fingernails.

>> Shannon: It always struck me how smooth and light their Kerry tunes sounded on their accordions, above their heavy, sandaled feet stomping on the ground. Crazy. And memorable. Those big feet with curling toenails. So different from our friend Nevin’s little sneakers on top of his dad’s guitar case, which I also referenced in the poem. As small as the accordion seemed in the arms of the Begley men, Nevin’s banjo seemed so long on his young frame. But his music also had beautiful, exciting lift.

[ Music: “Sweeney’s Buttermilk,” from session recording

Composer: Brendan McGlinchy

Artist: Nevin O’Dowd and Colin Farrell ]

As Nevin switched tunes, he may have (as many other musicians do) called out the keys to the guitarists, so the chords could change with the tunes.

But the thing is, D, G, E, and C all rhyme. And when you’re playing in a noisy setting, sometimes it’s helpful to be a little clearer. You might give the key another name like ‘D’ for Dog, ‘E’ for Egg.

There’s a story of the fiddle player Tony DeMarco calling out the key of ‘F.’

>> John: Sligo reels from a gruff, tattooed Italian-American fiddler, “played in the key of ‘F’… fuh LOVE!”

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

>> Shannon:  Playing tunes in different keys—and sharing different stories behind the tunes—it’s my great pleasure and privilege to continue these Irish Music Stories. I’m making new episodes, and revising just a few gems. And I’m so proud of the new online home for the project.

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

If you haven’t visited IrishMusicStories.org recently, please do! You’ll find transcripts, photos, videos, essays. And that’s where you can kick in to keep the Irish Music Stories lights on as well. I really couldn’t do this work without the support of listeners. And I am humbled by the encouragement of this month’s sponsors, recognized here by my son Nigel.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Chris Armstrong, Margaret Finny, Ken Doyle, Susan Walsh, David Vaughan, Lynn Hayes, Brian Benscoter, John Ploch, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Corr, Michael Craine, Kevin Ryall, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, and The Sofia, Home of B Street Theatre.

[ Music: “The Rock Reel,” from Lake Effect

Composer: Liz Carroll

Artist: Liz Carroll & John Doyle ]

>> Shannon: So, Irish tunes are played in private, casual settings. And in formal concerts. And even at the White House. Several Irish Music Stories guests have played for President Obama (Liz Carroll & John Doyle, and Enda & Fergal Scahill and Martin Howley).

No matter the venue, there’s a lot of common repertoire. But musicians don’t always have the same names for the same tunes.

>> Brian: There’s the reel that the fiddle player knows by one name, and the flute player who’s never had a title for a tune, though he’s known it forever.

>> Shannon: Irish music is a living tradition. It’s an aural tradition. And tunes are passed on by ear. So the music and the stories about the tunes can morph as they pass from one player to another.  

[ Music: “John Dwyer’s,” from Caitlin

Composer: John Dwyer

Artist: Caitlin Nic Gabhann ]

For example, this tune that I call “Murty’s G reel” (since I learned it from Murt Ryan), I think Matt Heaton knows it as the one that goes before the Galtee Rangers. And if I asked Don Meade in New York, or Myron Bretholz in Baltimore, or Alan Ng in Madison, they’d be able to clarify. Or I could check Alan’s irishtune.info site, or other online tune resources.  

But the real sweetness to me is knowing how the tune goes. And sometimes remembering where I learned it. And knowing just who to ask when I really need the proper name.

The proper name, by the way, is John Dwyer’s. And it was written by the late great John Dwyer, a wonderful fiddle player and composer. And it’s played here by Caitlin Nic Gabhann

(music swells and ends)

Fiddle player Tina Lech and multi-instrumentalist Ted Davis were regular session hosts at the Druid Tuesday night session. That’s how how Episode 3 got its name, Every Tuesday at Nine.

At Ted and Tina’s wedding, we played tunes all night. 

[ Music: “Coming of Spring,” from Backroom of the Burren

Artist: Tina Lech ]

And they led a few sets, just as they’ve done many times at the Druid pub. There are tunes I associate with Ted and Tina, like The Caucus Reel, and The Coming of Spring. That’s a great jig.

And when I think of jigs.

>> Shannon/Brian: There’s the Old “Irish Washerwoman,” played by ancient hands that stopped trembling as soon as they grasped the concertina.

[ Music: “Irish Washerwoman, Pipe on the Hob” from Two Gentleman of Clare Music

Artist: Gerdie Commane]

>> Shannon: Do you know this one—The Irish Washerwoman? It’s a tune that’s been through the ringer. It’s been played in really corny ways like on the vaudeville circuit, in a 1940s orchestral suite by Leroy Anderson, in a Coors beer ad. Was it in the Irish Spring soap commercial?

If I had never heard sweet, sublime, rhythmically complex traditional music, if the only Irish tune I’d heard was one of these renditions of the Irish Washerwoman,  I’d probably be a punk rock drummer instead of an Irish flute player. So when I heard Gerdie Commane’s version of the Irish Washerwoman, well… my heart grew a few sizes that day. 

This is from a special recording captured by John O’Connor and Eoin O’Neill in Clare. They went over to Gerdie’s farmhouse with sound gear on a miserable November evening in 2001 to record Gerdie with his good friend, fiddle player Joe Ryan.  They called the album Two Gentleman of Clare Music. Indeed!

( music swells)

A few years after the Gerdie Commane and Joe Ryan CD came out, I was in Clare at Brogan’s pub. There were just a few of us playing tunes. And Eoin was there. Shortly after we’d started, this old guy came over and asked to sit in. I got him a chair, and I helped him with his concertina. He needed help getting the instrument out of the case, since his hands trembled a bit. Turns out it was Gerdie Commane, and he asked me to start a tune.

I told him I’d love to play the Irish Washerwoman with him, though I’ll admit I thought it might be a bit rough going with his shaky hands. But as soon as we started to play, we fell into this rhythm together. We must have played that tune ten times around. I think of that every time I play the tune.

[ Music: “Irish Washerwoman,” from Blue Dress

Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

John and Eoin have recorded, and supported, and welcomed countless musicians of all ages. Eoin  really takes his job as facilitator and host seriously.

>> Eoin: My basic livelihood and my basic interest is welcoming people into a pub and allowing a group of people to play music together. And I would look at my job in the same way as a plumber or a carpenter, or any kind of trade.

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

>> Shannon: Welcoming people. Allowing them to play music together. It’s all about finding a rhythm… together. And sometimes it’s about pushing people along. Or even, maybe, nudging them. Teasing them a little. Encouraging them.

When I used to play tunes with my friends Sean Gannon and George Keith, Sean would sometimes say to us, “Play it like you Mean it!” Sometimes it was a bit of a slag. Maybe one of us in the session was a bit bored, or uninspired, or not playing our best. Sometimes it was kind of funny. But mostly it really was a call to action. To play it like you mean it. 

A few years later, at Sean’s funeral, we all stood around with our instruments. And George started up a reel called the Whistling Postman—that was one of our faves back in the day. We all knew George would go into the Mullingar Races after that.

[ Music: “Mullingar Races,” from Live at Blue

Artist: George Keith ]

Ay-hey! A little shout out for George Keith there! A little shout out for a nice set of tunes. A little cheer for the music, for the celebration of being together, for the easy hour or two of company and community. 

[ Music: “Ballyea,” from Hangin’ at the Crossroads
Artist: The Céilí Bandits ]

Or maybe during a set of tunes someone might might call out Hup! for a nice turn of phrase, or if the rhythm really settles in an exciting way, or if there’s a nice change from one tune to the next. 

But that’s not the same as applause, like at a concert. It’s more… conversational. And when it really is deeper than all that, it’s just so nice to sit with it for a second, maybe have a sip of something celebratory. And save the big cheers for New Year’s Eve. Or the festival stage.

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

That really struck me at a folk festival one year—I was at the hotel where all the musicians were staying. There was a nice Irish session. There was chat and pause between the tunes.

And then there was this bluegrass/old time session in another part of the building. You couldn’t totally hear the American session from the Irish side of the building, except between tunes, when all those guys would clap and cheer. And it just struck me that we must look really dour, with our heads bowed, just drinking beer between the tunes or talking. 

Is it superstition? We don’t want to jinx anything by being too celebratory or calling too much attention to it? Maybe. Superstition can be part of the story. And that’s a topic for another day. But for now, since you have a bit more backstory, here’s the full poem So This is Irish Music, with help from Brian O’Donovan and John Coyne.

>> Brian: So this is Irish music…

Songs about loss and exile, sung by two Galway girls and their niece.

>> John: East Clare jigs, played on fiddle and pipes in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Berlin.

>> Shannon: Dance steps on a Boston tabletop, as a session gets its second wind.

>> Brian: Streams of slides and polkas cascading from the barefoot accordion player with dirty fingernails.

>> Shannon: Hornpipes from the banjo player, resting his feet on his dad’s guitar case — because the floor is still too far away.

>> John: Sligo reels from a gruff, tattooed Italian-American fiddler, “played in the key of ‘F’… fuh LOVE!”

 * * *

>> Brian: The tunes and songs and steps and stories–these are the units of currency in the Irish tradition

>> John: What players collect to play and pass on, to teach in kitchens, to perform in folk clubs, to present at the White House.

>> Brian: There’s the reel that the fiddle player (who just bought the round of drinks) knows by one name, and the flute player (who calls it something else) are playing with the box player leading the session (who’s never had a title for the tune, though he’s known it forever).

>> Shannon: There’s the E minor jig that the fiddler in the wedding gown starts after cueing her guitar-strumming groom.

>> Brian: There’s the old “Irish Washerwoman,” played by ancient hands that stopped trembling as soon as they grasped the concertina.

 

>> John: There’s the lullaby the flute player sings, just as the baby in her lap begins to squirm.

>> Brian: There’s the “Whistling Postman,” the reel that one of us started, followed by the tune we all knew would follow it, as our friend’s coffin was lowered into the ground beside us. And we played it like we meant it, since it was for Sean, and that’s what he always called out to do.

  * * *

>> John: At the end of the day, it’s the table of musicians, looking at the floor or into the Guinness after a satisfying set of tunes,

>> Shannon: not daring to dilute the moment of shared contentment with unnecessary congratulations.

>> Brian: All the nods and encouraging utterances of “Hup!!” while playing, led to this deeper, subtler moment, while the tunes settle, before new ones get called up.

[ Music: “Midnight Sojourn,” from Lovers’ Well

Composer: Shannon Heaton

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton with Dan Gurney ]

>> Shannon: Thank you for tuning in. For transcripts, playlists, bios, and more digital content each month, please visit Irish Music Stories.org

Thank you as always to Matt Heaton for the production music, to Nigel Heaton for acknowledging our sponsors, and to the generous listeners who have chipped in to keep these stories free and even more available for everybody.

>> Nigel: 47, 48, 49, 50, 51!

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Boston-based fiddle player and teacher who toured with various Irish groups and teaches a myriad of fiddle styles

Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production

Gregor Brinkschulte

Banjo and guitar player in Germany

Instrument maker, musician from Beijing, China

John Coyne

BOUZOUKI/SINGING

Limerick-born singer and bouzouki player, now making his home in Melrose, Massachusetts

London-born fiddle player of Irish parents who opened the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts

Eoin O'Neill

BOUZOUKI

Bouzouki player, radio host, and music mentor who grew up in Dublin and lives in Clare

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