Tribute to Irish America
© 2002 Irish Echo Newspaper Corp. By Earle Hitchner
Maybe it takes a native Irish musician raised in the 20th Century to fully appreciate songs about Irish America written in the 19th.
When I came to the United States in 1973, I had no idea there was this huge repository of Irish American songs, said Limerick-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney, a Philadelphia resident teaching two courses at New York University this winter. I was astonished. It was Kenny Goldstein and his matchless collection that led me into that world.
Dr. Kenneth S. Goldstein (1927-1995) was a highly respected folklorist who taught at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His home was filled with chapbooks, broadsides, songsters, folklore literature, field recordings, and prerecorded music, Irish and Irish American included. Moloneys earliest visits to Goldsteins home in Philadelphia sparked what became a lifelong interest in Irish American musical culture, both traditional and popular. It was at Goldsteins urging, in fact, that Moloney decided to study for a doctorate in folklore, which he received from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 after finishing his dissertation, Irish Music in America: Continuity and Change. Now Moloney has issued a new 17-song album, Far From the Shamrock Shore (Shanachie), and a new book of the same title for Crown Publishers that has yet another CD, 16 songs long, tucked in a back flap. This Friday night, he will also be doing a Midtown Manhattan concert drawing on songs from the two CDs and the book. These songs, mainly composed between 1840 and 1900, chronicle the challenges, hardships, patriotism, and even humor of Irish life in America.
The Irish were one of the first ethnic or racial groups to constitute the wretched of the earth in America, Moloney said. The life expectancy of Irish immigrants working on canals and building railroads was very low, something like 7 to 10 years, and there was a tremendous amount of anti-Irish sentiment and discrimination. The way the Irish and blacks were represented in American popular culture in the mid-19th Century was almost identical.
Discrimination against the Irish persisted in America through various forms some subtle, many not. Newspaper cartoons and caricatures, for example, would blatantly exploit stereotypes by depicting the Irish as drunk, fighting, or both. But unlike blacks, whose skin color often provoked knee-jerk racism, the Irish eventually turned the cultural corner in America.
By the 1870s, said Moloney, they were heavily involved in American politics and steadily moving into civil-service jobs, like police and firemen. Its as rapid a transition as any ethnic or racial group has made in this society.
A key to that transition was the American Civil War. No conflicts are more bloody and bitter than civil wars, and many Irish Americans and recent Irish immigrants found themselves caught up in it. On the Shanachie CD, Moloney sings such songs as Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade, a poignant evocation of the Irish soldiers sacrifice, and The Irish Volunteer, a chest-puffing portrayal of Irish loyalty to their adopted land.
For the last 15 years, Ive been collecting songs of the American Civil War, Moloney said. I have file folders bulging with them, and the sheer number of songs written about it shows how important it was to the Irish people. The majority of Irish immigrants who fought in the Civil War fought on the Union side, and they proved to all that the Irish were Americans. Remember, the loyalty of new immigrants to the American republic was still in question at the time, but the 160,000 or so Irish-born soldiers in the Union Army helped to shift American public opinion about the Irish here. It didnt eliminate Know Nothing, anti-Irish attitudes, but it certainly helped to reduce them.
Moloney isnt the only musician to record songs about the Irish involvement in the Civil War. In 1998, David Kincaid released The Irish Volunteer (Ryko), the first album devoted entirely to songs about Irish Union soldiering between 1861 and 1865. In 2001, Bob Conroy and Dan Milner, who ran an Irish traditional music series at Malachy McCourts Bells of Hell and at the Eagle Tavern in Manhattan many years ago, released Irish in America (Folk-Legacy), an album of four instrumentals and 14 songs centering on Irish life in America between 1780 and 1980.
There is so much material out there that you could have a hundred CDs, said Moloney. Its high time, really, that the Irish-American song tradition was highlighted. Im not talking about the nostalgia you hear in Tin Pan Alley songs, either, where Ireland is painted as this paradise that, frankly, many Irish immigrants in the mid-19th Century wouldnt recognize or recall. Im talking about songs focusing on the key role the Irish played in fighting Americas wars and in creating Americas infrastructure: roads, canals, dams, railroads, buildings.
Gems from dross
Moloneys fascination with songs of Irish America has not blinded him to the amount of tripe created back in the 19th century.
Many of those songs were ephemeral, he admitted, and an awful lot of songs die because they deserve to. Im surprised that some songs, truly dreadful, were sung even once. But when you pick something to record on an album or perform in concert, it has to cut the mustard on an artistic level and has to appeal to you. Otherwise, theres really no point.
His new Shanachie recording begins, interestingly enough, with an old-timey setting of The Boatmans Dance, a song penned by Dan Emmet (1815-1904), an Irish American better known as the composer of Dixie, Old Dan Tucker, and Blue-Tail Fly. Joining Moloney on the track are co-producer John Doyle on guitar and two old-time musicians: Bruce Molsky on fiddle and five-string banjo and former Heartbeats member Beverley Smith on harmony vocal.
Immigrant music from the north of Ireland and from Scotland in the 18th Century mixed with slave African and other American sounds to spawn old-timey music, which led to early country and bluegrass, Moloney said. So I thought opening with an old-timey-flavored arrangement of an Irish American song would make the connection between the two cultures stronger.
His recording of Muldoon, the Solid Man on the books CD represents his third rendition to date of the Ed Harrigan-David Braham song from 1874. Previously, Moloney covered it on Uncommon Bonds (Green Linnet, 1984) and on the Chieftains Long Journey Home soundtrack (BMG, 1998).
That song went right from vaudeville into the folk tradition, said Moloney, and is important because it signifies how far the Irish came up in American society. Some politicians in New York were actually called Muldoons, a direct reference to the proud content of that song. Then, with a laugh, Moloney added, I have no plans to record it a fourth time.
Other gems on the Shanachie album include My Uncle Dan McCann, an Irish-American stage song Moloney previously recorded on 3-Way Street (Green Linnet, 1993), and You Lovers All, a post-Famine song of immigration to America from Ireland. A lot of these immigration songs provide a kind of catharsis, since many are about people who broke the rules of class or society, such as Irish lovers eloping against their parents wishes, Moloney said.
Whats great about this song is that the woman in it steals money from her father and pursues her lover to America, where she finds him in the first pub she enters. I mean, how could you not record a song like that?
Friday night concert
Far From the Shamrock Shore is the first of a projected four CDs by Mick Moloney for Shanachie on the theme of Irish America.
John [Doyle] and I are already working on arrangements for the next one, he said. It will be strongly focused on the vaudeville stage and include some brass instrumentation, which was prevalent back then. Well start the next CD where we ended the current one, around 1890.
The separate, handsomely packaged book-with-CD from Crown Publishers is a smart blend of accessible scholarship and coffee table entertainment without any hint of patronization.
Its an introduction, a kind of highlights and headlines of the Irish experience in 19th-Century America, filtered through song, said Moloney, recipient of a 1999 National Heritage Fellowship, one of Americas highest honors for folk and traditional culture. Most of the Irish historical topics covered in my books are not covered in American high school curricula. Ive taught college now for over 20 years, and most of my students, Irish American included, come in with a complete void of knowledge about this subject.
That void will be skillfully and entertainingly filled on stage this Friday night, Feb. 15, at an 8 oclock concert sponsored by the World Music Institute. Performing at F.H. LaGuardia High School Concert Hall, 100 Amsterdam Ave. (between 64th and 65th Streets, across from Lincoln Center), Manhattan, will be Mick Moloney, fellow vocalists Robbie OConnell, Beverley Smith, and Jennifer Coates, fiddler Dana Lyn, button accordionist Martin Reilly, harmonica player and singer Saul Broudy, fiddler and five-string banjoist Rafe Stefanini, All-Ireland harp and concertina champion Michelle Mulcahy, and the Golden School of Irish Step Dance. For tickets and further information, call (212) 545-7536.