Written in Mortar

The poetry of legacy
Episode Trailer

Flute player John McKenna left troves of treasures when he recorded 78 RPMS in the 1920s; Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin helped preserve Irish piping; and Dr. Charles Heaton inspired his grandson to play piano with just eight bars of music. Legacy can nestle between bricks, on birch trees, and on manuscript paper… and it can bloom in surprising ways.

In this episode, Liam Kelly, Ivan Goff, Julie Wood Merchant, Wes Merchant,  and Matt Heaton share stories about enduring gifts, with special music from organists Dr. Charles Heaton and Renée Anne Louprette.

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Bright Vision
Renée Anne Louprette, organ
Ivan Goff, uilleann pipes, flute

At Home with McKenna
Liam Kelly, flute
Kevin Brehony, piano

Music Till Midnight
Charles H. Heaton, organ

Full Playlist for Episode 55:

* * * * * * * * * *

Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Nóra Ní Fhlannagáin, Steve Wilson, Mark Haynes, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, Rick Rubin, Susan Walsh, David Vaughan, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Tom Frederick, Brian Benscoter, John Ploch, Jonathan Duvick, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Corr.

Episode 55 – Written in Mortar
The poetry of legacy
This Irish Music Stories episode aired September 14, 2021


Speakers, in order of appearance:

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Liam Kelly: Sligo-born, Leitrim based flute player who has played with the band Dervish since 1989
>> Ivan Goff: Dublin-born, Brooklyn based uilleann piper, flute player, and NYU Ph.D scholar who performs with Danu and others
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Matt Heaton: Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player
>> Julie Wood Merchant: Maryland-based flute player
>> Wes Merchant: Maryland-based fiddle player


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

[ Music: “My Love Is But A Lassie,” From Ballymote To Brooklyn 

John McKenna & James Morrison ]

… Like how flute player John McKenna left troves of treasures when he cut 78 RPMs in New York.

 These old recordings have influenced modern players like Liam Kelly, who’s now based in Leitrim, which is McKenna country.

>> Liam: I think McKenna recorded 44 different commercial recordings in his recording career from 1922 to 1937, I think was the last recording he made. But you know he’s left such a legacy on those tunes, because he was the first to record them.

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

>> Shannon: Before settling in New York, Ivan Goff also received a bounty of tunes from his teacher at the uilleann pipe society.


[ Music: Paddy Rafferty,” from early Chieftain LP

Dan O’Dowd ]

>> Ivan: I remember going to lessons with Dan O’Dowd who was in his eighties at Na Píobairí Uilleann in Dublin, that’s the place on Henrietta Street. They’d just taken over that building, an  old Georgian house. And like there was floorboards up and walls caving in and very, very cold, and a rainy night in Dublin, I can tell you. 

>> Shannon: Weekly tunes from Dan O’Dowd in a Dublin classroom;  44 two-sided records from John McKenna: these rich stores of music have shaped many players today. My young son Nigel has an equally precious gift from his grandpa with just eight bars of music.

[ Music: Scarlet Rocks, A part ]

When Nigel was 8 years old, he came up with the first part—the A part—of this tune. He sent it to his organist grandfather, Charles Heaton and included a little note. It read:

>> Nigel: Hi, Grandpa, Do you want to write 8 more measures?”

>> Shannon: A few days later, Grandpa Charles sent back a B part.

[ Music: Scarlet Rocks, B part ]

My husband Matt told me that there’s a tradition of musical prompts like this in the pipe organ community.

[ Music: “Viva Cariad,” from Llinyn Arian

Composers/Artists: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins ]

>> Matt: Organists are all incredible improvisers. It’s kind of like part of the job description. And there was… my dad used to like to tell a story of, I think it was Edwin Lamar who was a French concert organist. And he would do concerts. And people in the audience were allowed to submit a theme, like an eight bar theme. Which he would then improvise a fugue on. I think he saw him in New York or something, he got one of his themes picked. That is some high level geekery right there!

>> Shannon: Amazing!

[ Music: “Henri Mulet – Carillon-Sortie,” from Music Till Midnight

Artist: Charles Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Organists play music for church services, so they have to come up with all these musical fills on the spot for the different moments of worship. They are trained to improvise, compose, and conduct. They are incredibly versatile, wildly creative. And their numbers are shrinking. A 2020 American Guild of Organists survey noted that most AGO fellows are over 55 years old. And some are much older.

Now, this isn’t quite as dire as the plight of the Irish uilleann piping tradition in, say, 1920. 

[ Music: “Aisling Ghael I,” from Bright Vision

Artists: Renée Anne Louprette & Ivan Goff ]

After holding on to pipe tunes from the 11th century, through famines and Penal Laws, the Irish piping tradition really began to fade by the end of the 1800s. Pipers’ clubs established in Cork and Dublin helped boost interest in the early 1900s. But it was still pretty fringe. And it was hard to get a set of pipes. That’s how it was just a few generations before Ivan Goff started playing.

>>  Ivan: Basically, the art was dying out quite literally. You’d only maybe a couple of makers left. And a lot of kind of older players. Like there wasn’t enough of them, you know?

And you got to remember Irish music back then also wasn’t exactly at its strongest either. I mean, certainly nothing compared to today. Uh, so there was a genuine fear that the next maker that died, their craft would die with them. Because at that time, a lot of makers were just very protective about their craft and wouldn’t share information. So there was a need to get instruments out there. And instruments that kind of worked. So that was one of the main initiatives for piping. And the kind of Renaissance of piping.  

>> Shannon: The rebirth of the uilleann pipes in Ireland really launched in 1968, when piper, collector, and writer Breandán Breathnach pulled a few pipers together to form Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Society of Uilleann Pipers). A central goal was to stimulate pipe making, as a way of promoting uilleann piping, and Irish music in general.

By 1980 there were more makers and pipers. And now in 2021, there are over 40 makers creating good, playable instruments. And there are players of all levels, all around the world. Weekly piping and reedmaking classes have continued at Henrietta Street, where Ivan Goff learned all those tunes back in the day. And before Covid hit, over 50 students were attending those Tuesday evening classes. When Na Píobairí Uilleann took its annual International Uilleann Piping Day online last year, there were over 65 events worldwide, featuring pipers from the United States, Canada, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and the UK. 

The pipes are back. And with the advocacy of the American Guild of Organists, perhaps pipe organ playing will also enjoy a renaissance. You never know how founding an organization; or cutting grooves in vinyl; or writing an eight bar B part on the piano might shape or inspire someone.

In this episode, I’ll consider the poetry of legacy. And who knows, maybe my conversations with Liam Kelly, Ivan Goff, and Wes & Julie Wood Merchant—and maybe some of Charles Heaton stories and music in this episode will inspire just one more person to create and share an enduring token. 

Or at very least, maybe it’ll get an 11 year old to play the piano for a couple of minutes…


[ Music: “Tir,” from Live at Cwmyoy Church 

Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]

I came upon this big birch tree recently. I was walking around Oak Grove cemetery in Medford, Massachusetts, searching for the grave of the song collector Olive Dame Campbell. This was for Irish Music Stories Episode 52.

On that steamy day in May I saw this tree with an engraving. Someone long ago had carved initials into the bark, with a heart around it. It was hard to make out the letters, because it was totally mossed over. I mentioned the tree to Maryland-based flute player Julie Wood Merchant and her husband Wes, about how someone had etched a heart and initials into this big birch tree.

>> Julie: Right. Cause the Birch tree has very smooth bark. And if you run across a birch tree, sometimes in an older place, you’ll see, you know, hearts, initials. It’s a terrible thing to do to a tree.

>> Shannon: Trees are living beings, and you don’t want cuts to become infected with pests or disease. Although engraved initials probably wouldn’t go deep enough to do any serious damage to a tree’s integrity, unless lots of people got inspired to write on the same tree. That could cause problems.

But on my birch tree there was just the one engraving. It was all mossed over, so I imagine the carving had been done a long time ago. The wound had compartmentalized. Those initials were like permanent scar tissue. And they fit in with the engraved headstones all around the cemetery.

In Celtic lore, the birch tree is known as ‘The Lady of the Woods.’ It’s a sacred, protective tree, used to treat infections. And it’s among the first species to regrow after a forest fire. Birch trees are a symbols of rebirth. And their white bark makes a showy backdrop for etchings.

Carving initials and names into wood and stone—it’s kind of an archetypal impulse. Maybe a little weird in a way. But less reckless and more elegant than getting a tattoo of Calvin peeing on a Chevy logo.

>> Shannon: I mean, what is the impulse behind carving your name on a tree?

>> Wes: I think it’s to be remembered

>> Julie: Or to yeah, to commemorate someone, or something, a love, or a connection, or a life, or a visit.

>> Shannon: There were many visitors to Wes’s ancestral home, this farm that was in his family for many generations. They called the place The Sunny Bank. Like the Sunny Banks—a cheerful reel in D Major that Julie knows on Irish flute, and that Wes plays on his mom’s fiddle. 

[ Music: “Sunny Banks,” from Oil for the Chain instructional book

Aritsts: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

They both learned it in the traditional style—by ear. So it’s etched on theirs hearts. Just like the names of former visitors to the Sunny Bank farm who wrote their names, in pencil, in the mortar between the bricks.

>> Shannon: And so they would sign when they would come to visit?

>> Wes: Yeah. They’d sign in the mortar of the bricks.

>> Julie: With a lead pencil, I guess.

>> Wes: Yeah. It was just a pencil

>> Shannon: And it has endured?

>> Wes: It was on the porch.

>> Julie: Under the porch roof. 

>> Wes: Yeah, ynder the porch roof. So, you know, I guess that protected a little bit. I think there were some up there that were probably illegible.

>> Julie: I imagine, yeah.

>> Wes: That were too light.

>> Julie: Do you know how it got started?

>> Wes: No.

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

>> Julie: So the Sunny Bank Farm is in Western, Maryland. And it was owned by the Cresap family, which is a historic family in Maryland. Michael Cresap was a big deal in the Revolutionary War and in trading out in the west. And Wes will probably correct everything I say! And then it came down through Harriet Cresap about four generations before Wes and then to her children, the Wilsons. So Wes’s mother was the youngest Wilson child that was born there.

>> Wes: The farm in the Cresap family dates back to the 18th century. This is the second house on that site. It was built in the 1840s. Now, I’m not good at counting back how many grandmothers that it was—it was probably great, great, great, great grandmother—Harriet Cresap Wilson had a diary somewhere. She cites in there just a line that said “my house burned today.” 

>> Shannon: They built a second house in the same spot. That’s the one with the front porch, with all those signatures in the mortar, documenting who’d come to visit. 

[ Music: “Robert Cormack of Aberdeen,” from Musical Ties

Artist: Troy MacGillivray ]

It’s like a museum of memories. Like the diary that great, great, great, great, grandmother Harriet kept. Short etchings, capturing details about the Sunny Bank farm.

>> Julie: They were a cattle farm. And they were right next to the Western, Maryland railroad that went right into Cumberland. So they could milk their cows and put the milk right on the train and take it to Cumberland. And they used the train to get into town, to go to school and various events. So it sounds like they kinda lucked out with getting the railroad put right there next to their property.

>> Wes: I think it worked out well for them. 

>> Julie: I mean, it was how many feet from the front porch?

>> Wes: Maybe 50? You know, the stories that mom liked to tell— it sounded like she had kind of an idyllic life. I don’t know if Julie sent you the picture of the tea party in the yard? It’s mom and her sister out there in the ‘20s having this little tea party in the yard. They used to have a pet lamb and pet chickens, you know. And it just sounds like it was a real sweet life, you know, that they had up there. You know, they knew a lot of people. The church was close by, and they were active in that, so….

>> Julie: They were very gracious and warm and, you know, very connected.

>> Wes: And I knew that the extended family used to gather there. So it was kind of a central family hub, I think, at that time. 

>> Shannon: The Sunny Bank was a gathering spot for the Cresap/Wilson family until Wes’s grandpa died. 

>> Wes: He actually died, um, in the 1940s. After that, um, I think the farm went to the oldest son who lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. But I think none of them had any interest in farming.

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

>> Wes: So they kind of held onto it until the 1950s. And then they sold it. Back then I think people were looking at the modern world and all that, and it went out of the family back then.

>> Julie: Even though they sold the farm, they sold it to two brothers who had been hired help on the farm. So so the family knew them. And so when Wes was a child—and later after I joined the picture—we were allowed to go up and visit the house, which is why we have pictures of the writing in the mortar. And also we got to actually go in and see his mother’s bedroom and tour the house.

>> Shannon: Neat. So I love these photos that I saw of the names written on the mortar there.

>> Wes: I think we probably signed at one point. And her signature’s on there, and her sister and stuff.

>> Julie: Talking about your mother’s. And your grandmother’s is on there, too

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

>> Wes: Yeah, grandmother’s on there. There’s one on there that’s Alexander King Wilson, which was my grandfather’s uncle. But he had moved to Oregon in the 1880s. He did well in Oregon. He was a lawyer and a mayor of a small town. And he came east— took the train cross-country and came east. There’s a signature from that visit.

>> Julie: It’s kinda like almost like a little private geocache. You know how people go geocaching, and they’re looking for things that people have left. And people, you know, left their mark on this house because they were connected to the family and connected to the house. And seeing it is like discovering a little present from them almost. Like it’s the closest you can ever come. And it’s a little bit better than just a photograph, because it’s something that they physically touched. You have evidence they were physically there.

>> Shannon: That’s really neat. And it’s really neat that you have gotten to see the physical souvenirs that people have left from those warm community gatherings. And I suppose like what we do, these tunes that we play, we get to kind of inhabit them physically. These tunes that have been passed on and passed on. Like that’s another way to really physical inhabit a piece of history. And something that somebody’s left behind, right?

>> Julie: Absolutely.

>> Wes: Yep. And there’s a record collector that’s very well known that lives here in Frederick that has a lot of 78s. And you’re playing it, and you’re like oh, yeah, Michael Coleman played that in 1920, you know?

[ Music: “The Sunny Banks,” from The Beauty Spot & The Sunny Banks 78 A Side

Artists: Michael Coleman & Michael Walsh ]


>> Wes: I think it’s just interesting and moving in a way, I guess. Just like, wow. This is something that’s been ongoing.

>> Shannon: Michael Coleman was recording the Sunny Banks on his fiddle around the time that Wes’s mom and aunt were having a tea party at the Sunny Bank farm. This recording of Coleman, playing with Michael Walsh, is available to download, copy and redistribute freely at Archive.org

[ Music: “The Flowers of Ballymote,” from Darby’s Farewell

Artist: Josie McDermott ]

Flute and whistle player Josie McDermott also recorded The Sunny Banks. That’s where I learned the tune. He actually called it “The Flowers of Ballymote,” but it’s the same reel. Josie recorded it after the 78 era, on his 1977 LP “Darby’s Farewell.” 

Josie Dermott was from Coolmeen in Sligo, just a couple of miles from Roscommon, and just outside County Leitrim. In those three North Connaught counties  , flute and fiddle were always the central traditional music voices. Josie McDermott definitely added to the musical conversation there.

Here’s Liam Kelly again:

>> Liam: People used to say that Josie McDermott had one foot in Sligo and one foot in Roscommon. He lived right on the border of the two counties. And of course both counties were always claiming that Josie was from Sligo—and the Roscommon ones were like, no, he’s from Roscommon. They said he could stand outside the door and put one leg across to Sligo and one to Roscommon. He could take his pick.

But I remember meeting Josie when I was much younger. He used to come into these sessions in Sligo. There were Comhaltas-run sessions in a place called the Trade Slope. And Josie was a regular in there when I was in my late teens and early twenties. And he was a fantastic player, you know, obviously. He was nearly blind at that point. But a fantastic player and a great singer. People didn’t realize he was a fantastic singer. 

>> Shannon: Josie McDermott was also one hell of a composer, huh? He wrote some beautiful tunes.

>> Liam: He wrote some great tunes, yeah. And he was a great saxophone player! 

[ Music: “Splendid Isolation,” from At the Racket

Composer: Brendan McGlinchey

Aritsts: At the Racket ]

I tried it a bit meself. But never made a great shape out of it. It used to wreck me bottom lip, I found, from gripping the reed at the bottom. It would affect me flute playing for an hour or so after trying to play it. I still have there somewhere, in the spare room. I don’t take it out very often. The wife doesn’t like it very much. And neither does the dog!

>> Shannon: Hahahaha!

>> Shannon: Josie McDermott was born 45 years after John McKenna. So by the time Josie was going to sessions and dances all over the Irish countryside, he would have heard  McKenna’s recordings–all these 78s that McKenna had made for Columbia and Decca records in New York that were then sent back to Ireland.

Certainly, Josie’s playing grew out of hearing flute music with that energetic, pulsing, Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon style, the style that John McKenna helped to define. And he would have known all these tunes ssociated with McKenna, like these polkas played by Liam Kelly.

[ Music: “Up and Away, Merry Girl, The Dark Girl Dressed in Black,” from At Home with McKenna

Artists: Liam Kelly & Kevin Brehony ]

>> Shannon: Liam was born in Sligo. But he now lives in County Leitrim, not far from the old McKenna homestead:

>> Liam: I’m about 20 minutes from where McKenna grew up, the house that is totally restored up there in Tarman. Up on the side of the mountain. Lovely place.

>> Shannon: This is where John McKenna lived until he was 24.

>> Liam: John McKenna went to America back in 1904. He spent five years in America, and then he became a citizen. And came back and married his childhood sweetheart. And when he married her, she automatically became a citizen. as well.

Shannon: Um they had a pile of kids, right? But she died pretty young?

>> Liam: She did. They had eight children, first of all. And then I think during her ninth pregnancy, she got very ill. And she passed away during that pregnancy, which was a very difficult time. So John McKenna was left with eight children in America in the 1920s. I think she died in, was it 1927 or 28? Just before the Great Depression. So it was a tough time to be a single father with that many children. 

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

But I guess McKenna was cued enough. You know, he didn’t just rely on music to survive. He was an electrician by trade. And he ended up working in the fire department in New York for years and years. And then towards the latter part of his working life, I think he worked with the railway system in New York as well. So he always had full-time employment, even though the music kind of supplemented it. I think they used to get paid about $75 per side for recording back then, which was a lot of money back in the twenties. 

Even though during the Depression of 1929 and those years was a really tough time, McKenna actually survived that quite well because he always had full-time employment. But yeah, it must’ve been really hard.

>> Shannon: Must have been really, really hard. Parenting, working full time, recording on the side. And rubbing elbows with Sligo fiddlers Michael Coleman and Jim Morrison. 

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

>> Liam: Coleman and Morrison and a lot of other musicians, they didn’t work at other jobs. They just played all the time, which probably made things much harder for them, you know? And I think it’s well documented that Coleman and Morrison were very heavy drinkers. That they drank a huge amount. Whereas McKenna was not really quite like that. He knew how to enjoy himself. But he always kept himself fairly steady. Maybe family life grounded him, I guess.

>> Shannon: No matter what all those musicians were doing outside the recording studio, when they were in the hot seat cutting those 78s, they had to nail the tunes in one take. And the standard 10-inch 78 rpm record only held about three minutes of sound per side. So they had to fit all the music in in that time.

>> Liam: There must have been somebody there saying “you need to finish up!”

>> Shannon: It’s kind of like recording something for Instagram! You gotta get it in under a minute.

>> Liam: Haha! You know you listen to the old 78s and they one tune, and then they play the second tune, and it seems like it just gets cut. 

>> Shannon: Yep.

>> Liam: Or they just finish it really quickly, you know. And you know, if you think about it, they must have been under a lot of pressure to record things. Before electrification they cut the record straight onto the shellac, or whatever it was made of. I mean they didn’t say “could I have another go at that? I think I could do a better version, like we do today.”

But it must have been a lot of pressure on McKenna and Coleman and Morrison to do it. But I guess… Somebody said that if Coleman and Morrison and McKenna could play that well when they were recording in the studio, imagine what they sounded like when they were just playing for fun. Not under pressure, you know?

[ Music: “Dever the Dancer, Connie the Soldier,” from At Home with McKenna

Artists: Liam Kelly & Kevin Brehony ]

>> Shannon: The McKenna Society recently restored John McKenna’s childhood home. And it’s s there that Liam Kelly recorded an album with piano player Kevin Brehony. It just came out in July 2021: all these tunes that John McKenna used to play, recorded today in McKenna’s own childhood home. And played on McKenna’s very own flute.

>> Liam: You heard about the flute that was found a few years ago, one of John McKenna’s flutes from a man, John McAuliffe, whose uncle knew John McKenna in the ‘30s back in New York. And he actually bought this flute. 

After John McKenna sold it—he sold it to him in 1936 or something, this John McAuliffe played it for few years. And then gave it to a nephew of his, and it was passed down the line. But it was sitting in a house over in Connecticut for like 30 years. He contacted the McKenna Society and said, I’ve got one of John McKenna’s flutes here. It was made in 1830, I believe, over in Litchfield in Connecticut. And they were like, oh my God. We’d love to see it. So he sent it over.  Now it has an ivory head on it. 

>> Shannon: Oh, wow!

>> Liam: But with the ivory head, it was supposed to be sent back to him. But he said, no, don’t send it back. Because he was afraid because of the ivory that it might be taken up by customs. And once it would be taken by them, you’d never see it again. He just said I want to donate it to the McKenna Society. 

So I played a few tunes on it beak in 2017and 2018. But you know, because it hadn’t been played for 30 years or more, I said to the McKenna Society I said, it just needs to be played a bit. It’s been sitting in a box for years. So, I said to them would you be interested in, you know, should I try and maybe record an album with one of the instruments McKenna used? Wouldn’t it be something? 

So I asked them could I borrow it. And I borrowed there in 2019. And then just back in 2020, I went up to McKenna’s house and we recorded at the house, brought in some gear, and did the first half of it. I managed to get 18 tracks done.

If you think back on McKenna when he started recording, you know he recorded a lot of famous tunes back at that time. Like the Kid on the Mountain, and Boil the Breakfast Early, and Dever the Dancer. All those kind of tunes that he would have played here before he left and emigrated to America and brought that music with him, you know? He kind of left that stamp on those tunes because he was the first to record them at way back in 1922, nearly a hundred years ago now.

>> Shannon: Yeah. Just a few years after the flu epidemic. Huh?

>> Liam: That’s right. The last pandemic. Who would have thought??

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

>> Shannon: Liam and Kevin recorded those 18 sets of tunes right before the pandemic put a pause on the project. But in this summer of 2021 they released the album as a CD and download. And as a nod to all McKenna’s 78 LPs, there’s also a vinyl edition.

I asked Liam about re-recording these tunes in the roaring 2020s. Just as he’s starting to do a few gigs again with his band Dervish.

>> Liam: I think sometimes listening to 78s, that you learn to listen to as you get a little bit older, or a bit more mature, And I’d say that about myself, you know?

>> Shannon: For sure.

>> Liam: And maybe it’s… because I’ve done a modern recording versions of them, and a few people who might’ve heard me through the band, they might be more likely to buy it the album and listen back and say, well, this is what this guy was doing a hundred years ago. These are the same tunes, played the same way on the same instrument. So to me that’s the reason I tried to do it this time around, you know?

>> Shannon: Is to keep up his legacy?

>> Liam: Yeah. Younger musicians of today, they don’t realize maybe where these tunes were first recorded. And who used to play them. And because I’m living a few miles away from it. You know, I remember coming out here in 1980 with me father and he was on about this John McKenna. And I’d barely heard of him really at that point.

I feel very privileged to have got the chance to do this at all. It’s like history in your hands. And you hope that you can do the instrument justice and do the music that McKenna recorded justice. I tried to capture most of the versions of the tunes that he played back at that time. They’re a little bit different, hopefully they’re okay. 

[ Music: “Lucky in Love,” from At Home with McKenna

Artists: Liam Kelly & Kevin Brehony ]

>> Shannon: I’d love to see the flute if it’s around. 

>> Liam: Will you give me a second?

>> Shannon: Liam went to the spare room and got the McKenna flute (not the saxophone, to his dog’s relief.)

>> Liam: Yeah. So here we go.

>> Shannon: Wow. OK. It’s great key work on the bottom. Let’s see. Let’s go from the bottom up. So it’s fully keyed on the bottom is it, the eight keys?

>> Liam: Yep, pewter.

>> Shannon: How do those work, those bottom plugs? They okay?

>> Liam: They work very well. They get a little bit sticky, but not too bad.

>> Shannon: That’s great, uh huh. Two middle sections. The barrel up on the top…

>> Liam: Knd of a ribbed or whatever you call

>> Shannon: Yeah, weird.

>> Liam: I don’t know if you can see the crack that runs right up there?

>> Shannon: It’s right near the tone hole, yep.

>> Liam: It was very large. 

>> Shannon: So That’s a real team effort, you know. The guy holding onto it in Connecticut all those years. And then knowing to pass it on to like a Hammy Hamilton to restore it. So that he’d do so and not sort of destroy the original integrity of the instrument. 

>> Liam: Yeah, it’s fantastic. So there you go!

>> Shannon: And what does it sound like?

>> Liam: It’s a nice instrument. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to come to Ireland if you wanted to play it. Cause I don’t think I can never take it out of the country with the head on it. I say if I got stopped, I’d probably be arrested.

>> Shannon: Hahaha!

>> Liam: See if we can knock a tone off of it. [ Plays a few notes. ]

>> Shannon: This episode is going to center around this tune, the Sunny Banks. Do you know [ plays a few notes ]

>> Liam: Oh, yeah. I can try it, yeah.

[ Music: “Sunny Banks,” from Irish Music Stories interview

Artist: Liam Kelly ]

>> Liam: Nice tune!

>> Shannon: Recording these old tunes in a Zoom room— or more like etching them into vinyls discs is, in some ways like carving initials on a birch tree. Or it’s like writing names on the mortar between bricks. It’s about leaving a mark.

Like writing names on granite stones.

[ Music: “Last of the Leaves,” from Half Day Road

Composer & Artist: Jake Charron ]

Wilbur Estle Heaton was born in 1898 in Southern Indiana. Eventually he settled in Centralia, Illinois, where he took over his father-in-law’s monument business. Talk about leaving a mark.

The C.S. Huddleston Monument Shop was in downtown Centralia, across from the post office. A few people did the carving for Wilbur. But he would set the stones in the cemetery. His daughter Jane (she’s my Aunt by marriage) told me that sometimes he’d come back with phrases he’d seen on monuments, like the inscription “Talked to death by his wife.”



On Saturdays, Jane and her big brother Charles would go with their dad to the cemetery. They’d ride out on the truck and play in the cemetery while Wilbur set the monuments. At this point, Wilbur’s siblings had scattered all around the U.S. But when they were kids, they had a family “orchestra.” A five-piece band with Wilbur on mandolin, Bill on banjo, Oakella and Leone on violin. Bob played something, Aunt Jane couldn’t remember what. Their dad, Wilbur Sr., probably sat in with them on his fiddle.

Wilbur Jr.’s kids, Jane and Charles (the siblings who would play un the cemetery on Saturdays), they also took up music. Jane played piano, violin. And trumpet, like her Cousin Babe, who was an excellent trumpet player and toured for four years in an all girl band in the 1940s. But Jane never practiced  piano when her brother Charles was home, because he’d always correct her. 

Janemajored in Music Education in college. She could play all the instruments. But clarinet was her favorite. And then, after teaching music at church camps, she ended up working in Religious Education, which took her to Zaire (back when it was the Belgian Congo) and later to Zambia.

Meanwhile, Jane Heaton’s brother Charles had moved to New York to start his musical life as a church organist, soloist, and composer. And to start a family with his wife Jane. They eventually relocated to Pittsburgh.

Charles was also fond of Irish songs. He loved the singing of Irish tenor John McCormack. I remember sitting in the Heaton Pittsburgh living room while he played McCormack albums. At one point he grabbed his wife (my mother in law) Jane to waltz to Kathleen Mavourneen.

[ Music: “Kathleen Mavourneen,” from Ballads of an Irish Tenor

Artists: John McCormack & Edwin Schneider ]

>> Shannon: When I got to play music with my father-in-law Charles Heaton, I always knew that if I played a melody John McCormack had sung, Charles would be happy to come up with something on the pipe organ or the piano. He was an incredibly creative musician. And there was always a bit of elegance and drama in his playing, whether he was playing an Irish melody on the pipe organ, or the 16 bar piano tune he wrote with his grandson Nigel.

[ Music: Scarlet Rocks reprise ]

Charles also had a profound impact on my husband Matt’s music. 

>> Matt: So I play Irish guitar which, if there is an opposite to the pipe organ, might be that. But the organ, that’s the sound that I grew up hearing. That was the music I really grew up with. And part of that sound is the space around it. Like the church that my dad played in had like a seven or eight second reverb, just naturally. So things would echo around and drone and whatnot. 

And once a year they would bring in a bagpipe band to play. And the sound of bagpipes in that space was just incredible.

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

You know, the drones never stop because you’re adding this reverb. And the way everything bounced around. It was just an incredible sonic experience. I love drones, I love droning sounds, I love droning accompaniments. And I kind of credit that to hearing the pipes in that setting.

>> Shannon: And to Big Country?

>> Matt: Definitely to Big Country

>> Shannon: Haha.

[ Song: “In a Big Country,” from King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents

Artist: Big Country ]

>> Matt: In my family it was kind of a coming of age thing, when you were able to read music, you got drafted to turn pages for Dad when he would play a concert or service or something. Because, you know, organists are busy enough. They’ve got two feet and two hands, it’s kind of hard to grab pages on top of it all. 

[ Music: “César Franck – Pastorale In E Major,” from Music Till Midnight ]

Artist: Charles Heaton ]

>> Matt: But I always found being page turner to be the most stressful job imaginable. Because a lot of his music was really old and kind of brittle. And you know, the binding was maybe kind of giving way. And I was always terrified that I was gonna grab one and fling it off the edge. And turning pages feels like being a referee for some sport: you’re not really contributing anything, but you could really mess things up. He was a man who didn’t like the pages of his magazines to get snubbed, let alone the music, so…

>> Shannon: Yeah, I learned that term from your dad, I’d never heard “snubbed.”

Yes Snub the pages. I think he made it up

>> Shannon: Hashtag not a thing. 

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

>> Shannon: But he did appreciate that old sheet music. And he appreciated the great music contained therein. And he really appreciated clever, literate people.

>> Matt: True. In fact, the minister that he worked with I think the longest was a man named Charles Robshaw, who was originally from Belfast. And Robshaw was just, he was brilliant. He was just a really soft spoken, extremely intellectual guy. He was a good enough chess player to go to chess matches and watch, you know. And apparently at these chess tournaments, you know you’d have informal games at the hotel afterwards, you know like a session.

And he once was playing an internationally ranked player. He was losing. Because he was a very fine player, but he was not a professional chess player. And he was sort of looking at the board and seeing the inevitable demise. And he just, just to do something he moved this one piece to this other place. And everyone around him went aaaah! And there was a smattering of applause. And the guy like shook his hand and conceded the game. And he never knew what he did.

>> Shannon: That’s amazing! Well, speaking of an amateur playing with a pro, there were times that our son Nigel played with your father on the piano. Very very dear. And I remember in those moments sort of seeing young Nigel just watching his grandpa play the piano.

>> Matt: Yeah, I mean, Nigel was, well both of them were fortunate enough to overlap enough to get to play together once or twice. And again, one of my father’s incredible skill sets was harmony. He could harmonize anything in very interesting and creative ways.

>> Shannon: Like Happy Birthday. Even when the piano was out of tune, Dr. Charles Heaton played with panache.

[ Music: “Happy Birthday,” from Phone Video for Nigel

Artist: Charles Heaton ]

>> Matt: Nigel was — well both of them were fortunate enough to get to overlap enough to play together once or twice.

>> Shannon: Every once in a while Nigel would play something for your dad. And I remember as your dad was watching Nigel play, he would do what he would do with his hands.

>> Matt: Yeah. It’s hard to show in a podcast. But when he was listening to music and he would get kind of lost into it or really enjoy it, one hand would sort of conduct. I mean he wasn’t literally conducting, he was just sort of like moving with the music. 

>> Shannon: Yeah, And he would do that when he was listening to John McCormack’s recordings. He loved those recordings.

>> Matt: Oh yeah. Yes he did. He really loved recordings of singers from kind of the dawn of recording, I guess. And … yeah, he loved it a lot.

[ Music: McCormack reprise ]

>> Nigel: Thank you for tuning in to this Irish Music story. Before we pull out all the stops, here’s a thank you to this month’s sponsors. 

[ Music: “Henri Mulet – Carillon-Sortie,” from Music Til Midnight

Artist: Charles Heaton ]

Thank you to Nóra Ní Fhlannagáin, Steve Wilson, Mark Haynes, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, Rick Rubin, Susan Walsh, David Vaughan, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Tom Frederick, Brian Benscoter, John Ploch, Jonathan Duvick, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Cor

* * * * *

>> Shannon:  The mechanical aspects of the pipe organ are pretty involved. You press the keys down, and wind moves through all these pipes. One single pipe produces just one pitch. So you assign a bunch of pipes with a similar sound and volume into a rank.

And you can change ranks as you play on the keyboards with your hands, and on the pedal keyboard with your feet. It’s like rubbing your head and patting your stomach, while chewing gum and doing a handstand. Kind of like the Irish bagpipes. There’s a lot to coordinate.

If you’re playing a quiet, meditative melody on the pipe organ, maybe you choose a few soft, sweet flute or string ranks. If you’ve got a festive, declamatory anthem, you might pull out the trumpet stops.

And the more stops you pull out, the bigger the sound.

>> Matt: As a kid, one of my goals was when we came home from church to do it via the MacDonald’s that was between the church and our house. People can change. I don’t want to go to the MacDonald’s now, Shannon.

>> Shannon: Haha. Thank goodness!

>> Matt; But I really did when I was a kid. And I sort of started to realize that sometimes when my father would play the postlude after the service, people would hang around and listen. And sometimes they would clap. And he was in a good mood when they would clap. And I kinda realized that they definitely were more likely to clap for something big and loud, than for something subtle and quieter. And so if I saw that it was a piece that was big and loud, I knew that I could hit him up for some MacDonald’s on the way home. And sometimes he would just improvise for the postlude. And then if he were improvising, I would just go up and whisper in his ear “louder, louder, more, bigger, louder” to try and get him to work himself up into a lather so that he could get some applause, so that I could get a Big Mac.


>> Shannon: The pipe organ and the uilleann pipes are both wind instruments. The pipe organ blows wind through large pipes, and the uilleann pipes blows wind through reeds. A piper pumps a bellows with one arm, or kind of with the elbow. That’s why they’re called the uilleann or the ‘elbow’ pipes. So, the pumping the bellows with the arm, his fills a bag with air. And then with the other arm, the piper pushes air through the various reeds. The result is melodies played on the chanter, singing harmony with the constant drone sound.

[ Music: “To Inishkea/The Bright Lady/Was It You/The Kaiser,” from Bright Vision

Artists: Renée Anne Louprette And Ivan Goff ]

And then like the organist’s foot pedal board, the uilleann piper also has regulators that come out of the side of the instrument. And those are playable with the side of the hand. So in addition to the drones, the regulatory can bark out percussive chords.

Both instruments—the pipe organ and the uilleann pipes—have a lot of moving parts and tonal possibilities. And though Irish pipers and liturgical musicians may roll with different traditions, they are both masterful at creating atmospheric sound scapes.

When piper and flute player Ivan Goff met organist Renée Anne Louprette at a piper’s gathering, they found a lot in common.

>> Ivan: We met at a Tionol. And we were kind of talking about our shared interests in, you know, pipes and organ and so on. She plays pipes as well. I did my music degree in Maynooth actually, which is a big organ spot. Gerard Gillen was heading the department there at the time I was there. So there were a lot of organists coming through studying with him. Just around all these organists and that fantastic sound, this was just something that was kind of  in my ear for some time. 

>> Shannon: Ivan had also heard piper Liam O’Flynn perform with Gerard Gillen—the organ teacher at Maynooth and with organist Katherine Ennis. So not an unheard of combination of instruments. But still quite unusual. And there’s not, like, an existing repertoire or template for uilleann pipes and pipe organ. 

Ivan and Renée decided to collaborate and ended up recording their duo at The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York with its 109 rank N. P. Mander pipe organ.


>> Ivan: One of the things we thought of going into the collaboration was that the organ and pipes kind of co-equal in some sort of way. There’s parts where Renée would have taken the lead, And I think that might’ve been something that is new-ish about what we did, you know? Having composed a few pieces for it, but also just trying to integrate them, you know, really make it more of a duet as such. I mean that was the intention anyway.

>> Shannon: So some of the music you guys composed? And then some of it is just like these well-worn tunes handed down for generations, yeah? I don’t know, is there anything about playing old music on maybe an older instrument in an older space, in a sacred space that affects anything? 

>> Ivan: I mean, the pipes always, for me anyway, sounded well in churches. And especially old churches with all that stone. And of course you have this natural reverberation. I mean, you go in and you play in there and it feels like an occasion, even when you’re just rehearsing. But one of the difficulties with recording is that spacing in the church. So depending on what pipes she’s using at certain times, there might be a delay between what I’m playing and what she’s playing.

>> Shannon: Mmmm.. Of course in Irish music, there’s a real premium on rhythmic exactness. It’s kind of a very demanding, rhythmic style of music to begin with. And add on top of that, the mechanical challenges of the organ.

>> Ivan: Absolutely.

 >> Shannon: The keys trigger a whole network that is wrapped around the church. And so if you were to coordinate yourself based on watching physical cues, that you could coordinate with an accordion player, let’s say. It doesn’t work that way, does it?

>> Ivan: No Not at all. And that was the, probably the biggest challenge for me in this. It was a challenge to play,  being in that space with the organ. But it was doubly challenging then to kind of sync it all up!

>> Ivan: Yeah, another fun element to that recording is that being that it is in Manhattan, there was a subway right underneath the church. So, like, we had to time some of the recordings between trains. 

>> Shannon: That’s amazing.

[ Music: “The Angel’s Share,” from Bright Vision

Artists: Renée Anne Louprette And Ivan Goff ]

>> Ivan: Yeah. We had to scratch a couple of the recordings. That flute track, that’s only one pass. That that was it. We just literally didn’t have time to do, to do any more than that. 

Another challenge actually in the whole thing was the tuning of the organ. So, as the space heats up, of course then the instrument goes flat. And of course my instrument will go sharp. So there’s this kind of like a perfect storm of kind of tuning going on. And even though she kind of brought in a tuner before the recording actually, we still had problems as the space kind of warmed up throughout the recording. Um, so these were really tricky things to negotiate. Yeah. I’ve a whole new found appreciation for, you know, the skill of organists. And the job that they do. And especially a kind of a world-class player like Renée. 

>> Shannon: Nowadays, there are a number great uilleann pipe makers. But even fine, stable instruments can be temperamental. All the connecting parts need to, well, connect perfectly. And different climates and temperature changes can make pipes and reeds unreliable. So to hear a piper express wonder about unpredictability is kind of amazing.

[ Music: “Cofio,” from Llinyn Arian

Composers & Artists: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins ]

>> Shannon: Of course the pipes, the uilleann pipes, like the pipe organ, kind of… they’re kind of mutually mysterious.

>> Ivan: Indeed.

>> Shannon: Like sort of magically mechanical instruments.

>> Ivan: Absolutely, yeah. And I think that’s part of the fascination with them, all right. And in fact, like the pipes were used in churches as a kind of a surrogate or even a substitute for organ back in their early history as well. Yeah, the organ is surprisingly mercurial. You know,  I guess, just the difficulty of doing it, you’ve all these kinds of technical kind of issues to kind of deal with. There’s a ton of things to take into consideration. But, um, it was something I wanted to do. It was kind of on the bucket list.

[ Music: Aisling Ghaeal I reprise ]

>> Shannon: Obviously, making recordings now—much more accessible, many more people do it than back when John McKenna and Michael Coleman were recording.

>> Ivan: Yep.

>> Shannon: Those ended up being really influential recording that those guys made.

>> Ivan: Absolutely.

>> Shannon: Making a record today — it’s a different kind of an endeavor.

>> Ivan: It really is.

>> Shannon: Yeah, Ivan and Renée recording their album Bright Vision in the church in New York, while the subway rattled underneath. Or even me producing this podcast in my little studio—a very different game than recording 78 rpms back in the day. But I suppose it’s not all that different from what Patsy Touhey was doing, when he was recording his own custom order wax cylinders.

>> Shannon: So what’s your hope for making a recording today?

>> Ivan: If you look at Patsy Touhey, I mean, he was sending off cylinders like a mail order situation. So he would literally—I mean, you couldn’t get more bespoke than that. He would take a couple of tunes, literally record it, and mail it to you. You know, a one of a kind. I mean, just a brilliant kind of entrepreneur from that point of view. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking at that time about, you know, posterity. You know, he just thought this was a great idea to kind of sell stuff, get himself out there, promote himself, all these these things. I don’t see much that has really changed.

I think the archival type of recording, that’s maybe something you could see maybe in the latter half of the 20th century that people are more tuned in to actually recording themselves for posterity. And probably egged on by the likes of Mick Moloney over here, for example. You know, encouraging people to record. 

>> Shannon: Yeah. Thank goodness for the archivists and the folklorists indeed.

>> Ivan: Yeah. I mean, we’ll see where it is in another 50 years.


>> Shannon: I hope that 50 years from now, John McKenna’s old flute with the ivory head joint is still being played.

I hope my mom’s fiddle, which my husband Matt now plays, will be used regularly. 

And Wes has played a lot of fiddle tunes with his wife Julie on his mom’s fiddle. I hope that instrument will continue to live a happy, musical life.

[ Music: Viva Cariad reprise ]

>> Wes: My mom played violin when she was in high school. Her instrument came down to me, and I still play it today. 

>> Julie: I was always interested in like doing duets with my friends. And I was thinking about the connection of how the music helps you connect to the past. But it also helps you connect to the past with other people, and to other people. 

>> Shannon: Yeah!

>> Ivan: I think the legacy is just about kind of contributing to the… to the scene. Contributing to the music. And, you know, doing it justice maybe.

>> Shannon: Yeah, it does seem like there’s quiet power and, uh, just taking maybe a rare little old tune that you learned from a pal who learned from her neighbor and passing that on to somebody else.

>> Ivan: Yeah. It is a big part of the tradition that we kind of hand it on to the people that are interested in it. 

[ Music: Tir reprise ]

>> Shannon: It’s not just the tunes. It’s the stories and the context behind the tunes that we hand to our friends, our students, our family. 

When Charles Heaton was in grade school, when he and his sister Jane were still riding on the back of that  monument truck every Saturday, he got into the habit of writing in a diary each night. Like Wes’s great, great, great, great grandmother Harriet Cresap Wilson used to do. 

Charles kept up his diary habit right through to 2021. (He died on June 11th.)

His short, no-nonsense journal entries helped him track of his musical days. And they offered context. These jottings were a shorthand to the bigger stories surrounding all the concerts, and church services, and ceremonies, and parties, and births, and deaths. 

A few years ago, Charles was looking up a name in his 1954 book. He got this idea to publish a few of these entries in the Diapason (that’s the magazine published by the American Guild of Organists). He wanted to help bring bring back memories for older players, and to share a taste of what the church music scene was like in New York City in the 50s. Just a few short passages like:

Sept. 14th. Spent quite a little time going to New Brunswick and auditioning for the job of Chapel Organist for Rutgers University. They wouldn’t say for sure, but I believe I got the job.

Sept. 19th. Played the service at Rutgers this morning, and got the job permanently!

Oct. 11. Went to the broadcast of the Bell Telephone Hour concert tonight with Robert Casadesus. Splendid. 

Nov. 8. Attended a longish, dullish lecture by Archibald Davison tonight.

Nov 17. Went to a recital by Jack Ossewaarde at St. Bart’s which was quite fine on the modern stuff, but not too good on the Bach.

Jan. 5. Ben and Dan and I went down to the 8th Street Wanamaker store to see the old organ today. It is to be sold. A great old monster—110 ranks. We couldn’t play it, though, the thing was disconnected.

Mar. 14. The music school had a fine party tonight—Searle Wright played jazz until 12:30, to Jane’s delight.

Apr. 7. Jane had a little girl this morning about 4:30. We named her Rebecca Lynn.

>> Shannon: That impulse to record something, whether it’s by writing your name in a lead pencil on the mortar on the porch of the Sunny Bank, or, you know, etching grooves in a 78.

>> Julie: Thank goodness that they’ve, you know, passed it down both written and oral. Because the music doesn’t come alive on the page. You know, it comes alive when you play it. 

[ Music: “Clancy’s Farewell To Whiskey/Dance Of The Little Boats,” from Bright Vision

Artists: Renée Anne Louprette And Ivan Goff ]

>> Shannon: Yeah. And I love Julie that you’re saying, like, you can’t really get it from the page.   Buuut…. having recordings, as well as having a physical instrument that you can sort of see and feel, AND having it on the page does give this amazing complete picture.

>> Wes: Yeah.

>> Julie: And the gestalt of all of it makes it better than just the sum of the parts.

Irish Music Stories is produced by me, Shannon Heaton. For playlists, transcripts, links to videos, companion essays, and to contribute to this project, please head to IrishMusicStories.org. Thank you to all the donors this month. And thank you to my fine guests, Liam Kelly, Julie Wood Merchant, Wes, Ivan Goff; to Aunt Jane Heaton for the family stories; and to Nigel and Matt Heaton for all the help and support.

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Grid-Style Goodbye

Reflections on remote interviews–and the close of grid style gatherings

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Sligo-born, Leitrim based flute player who has played with the band Dervish since 1989

Ivan Goff


Dublin-born, Brooklyn based uilleann piper, flute player, and NYU Ph.D scholar who performs with Danu and others

Matt Heaton


Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player

Julie Wood Merchant & Wes Merchant


Maryland-based musicians

The Heaton List