Philadelphia Folk Festival Photo Collage
A Conversation with Mick Moloney
Reprinted from The Folk Life, Vol.. 1, No. 9
This interview took place in Mick Moloney's Philadelphia apartment on May 15, 1977, in front of his bookcase. With the Celtic twilight shimmering in the background - it's contagious, d'ye know that? - we talked over a tape recorder and a cup of tea for an hour or so, and then I took it home and transcribed it.. Mick corrected my spelling of some proper names, and here's the results for you to read.For those of you who don't know, Mick Moloney is the man directly responsible for encouraging Eugene O'Donnell to take up the fiddle again, for which we're all eternally grateful. He's also the chap who ran the Irish American stage for the Smithsonian's Bicentennial Festival; and he's also besides all of that, a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania - and before I forget, he was also the banjo player with The Johnstons in Ireland, before he ever came to this country. He's not the easiest man in the world to be a hold of, is what I'm saying - he's forever doing something or other, and doing all of them so well it should probably be outlawed. Fair makes you sick, doesn't it? But he's got a sharp tongue too, so he keeps you on your toes, which is all for the best, in the final analysis. The clashing of swords in the following dialogue was enjoyable for the both of us.)John: First off, I want to thank you for the piece you gave us on Miles Krassen's re-edition of O'Neill's Music of Ireland.
Mick: Oh, aye.
John: An interesting thing you said there was that you didn't think airs had taken hold over here, they hadn't survived in the way the dance music has.
Mick: No. In terms of the numbers of people playing airs over here, they definitely haven't If you take the number of people who are playing Irish dance music - the jigs, reel, hornpipes and sets - over here. I don't know what number you'd come up with, I suspect if you included all the different players in all strata, I suspect you'd come up with thousands. I can only offhand think of including all the instruments - not more than, oh, half-a-dozen players who play slow airs.
John: One of the things I'm interested in there, I've been listening to an awful lot of American music over the past six months, and the distinction I'm make between ballads and bluegrass, it seems to me that the ballad tradition's really a slow, melancholy tradition, and bluegrass is really fast, "party" kind of music. Do you think it's maybe the influence of bluegrass that makes these people pick up Irish dance music as opposed to Irish slow airs, which are so sad?
Mick: No, I don't think it's got a thing to do with that. I think what it has to do with is the context in which it's appropriate to perform slow airs. Irish music is a social activity, as you know - the session is almost the normative context for performance, where musicians get together and playa tunes. Now, to play a slow air - the very nature of the slow air means that the individual interpretations is really crucial to the performance. It necessitates absolute quietness, and necessitates a situation where people will listen to the person who's performing. Now that's very well in a concert setting, a performance where you have that artist-audience sort of dichotomy. But in the normal situation for playing Irish music that I've just discussed with you - which would by and large take place in a fairly crowded atmosphere, with a lot of background noise - say for instance like a bar -
John: Or a hotel room after a concert?
Mick: All right. Yes, sure. Even though that's a little different, because there I've often noticed that people do sit around in a circle and take turns. And that again is something different. But the normal, regular Irish session makes tha playing of a slow air somewhat different, it means that somebody must, in a way, go on stage, not of course literally, but metaphorically, and most musicians are very sensitive to the nature of the context, and don't want to do that. It might be interpreted as an arrogant step, you know.
John: OK. Of course, I've seen a couple of sessions where there have been some people hogging the floor, so that your better musicians didn't get a chance to play, and in a case like that I have seen a more experienced musician step in and sort of take a hold of it, to balance things out a bit. But they do feel a bit embarrassed about it, too - which is exactly your point, concerning manners in a session.
Mick: That undoubtedly does happen, but I'm talking about what's the norm, and in a normal session good manners is very, very crucial, and I would say the normal thing in these kinds of sessions is for even the very top musicians with huge repertoires to be very considerate towards the younger musicians, who may not have such a big repertoire, and take great care to play only those tunes where everyone can join in and enjoy themselves. And the most outstanding musicians can sometimes be almost invisible in sessions, because they're really so - so well-mannered, in these terms/.
John: Yean, that's struck me as a really striking feature of hotel sessions. It really does circulate around the room, that's the normal thing; and maybe the bar-room sessions are a bit too lively for the slow airs. But if that's the case, then where would somebody learn the slow airs?
Mick: Well, here in America it would be really very difficult, because there's really not the exposure. Now, back home in Ireland, where you have areas where for some reason or other singing might have died out, say, but the tunes to the songs might still remain, or an area where singing might still be strong but where musicians who can't sing might like to learn to play the tunes - then it would be more likely that in the same situation where singing would be liable to occur, that the slow air would very much fit into the sessions - more laid-back kinds of sessions. And sessions where singing's involved is a different kind of session than just a musical session.
John: When you say musical, you mean instrumental?
Mick: Instrumental, right. And in fact the best slow air players back home, I'm thinking of people now like Festy Conlon on the tin whistle, and Seamus Ennis on the pipes, and the late Willy Clancy on the pipes, have an intimate knowledge of the song tradition as well, so that a good "sean nos" singer like Joe Heaney, who lives up in Brooklyn, will put in all of the beautiful embellishments, decorations and grace notes which are all so characteristic of the "sean nos" - the old style way of singing. You will find from listening to the very good musician's the very same embellishments, as in, say, a piper's interpretation of the very same song.
John: That's what I hear in Cathal McConnell's singing.
Mick: Absolutely. Cathal's a very good case in point, because he sings in that style, and he plays in that style too.
John: It's just beautiful. And that new album of the Boys, with "The Shamrock Shore" on it - fair drive men mad! Now, that's one that I did first hear in a hotel room session from Cathal, but it hasn't a conventional session, and I'm thinking back on it, and I think you're right, I can't think of too many sessions where there were many slow airs sung. On the other hand, I've heard American musicians do the kind of round-robin on-stage kind of thing you're talking about , as for example last year when Vera Johnson just blew away everyone in the room with her songs about her Yorkshire background - sad ballads that function like slow airs. They stop the other music in its tracks momentarily, in a way you wouldn't get if people were passing from one fast jig tune to another in an Irish dancing tune session. But it just seems to me that the slow air is expressive of a melancholy that's inside the music. And if you only have dance music played, then people will get a false impression of the range of Irish music.
Mick: How do you mean the range of the music? Do you mean the potential range of the music?
John: Yeah - the potential emotional range of the music.
Mick: Well, this was not a decision which was made by anybody, it just happened.
John: So it's one of those sad accidents, in a sense.
Mick: Aye, it was. It's always very sad to see a corpus of music material, for whatever reason, just disappear, especially if it's so beautiful and expressive. But you see the future is not necessarily so bleak, because in the Comhaltas clubs back home in Ireland, which represent a very formal gathering of musicians, in which people do tak returns, then tere is someone who will say, "Okay, now we'll have so-and-so..." to play a tune, and so on - somebody has to take responsibility for acting in that role.
John: Did you know they do this in the pubs in Glasgow now, where they have a microphone and an NC, and he signs people up to sing?
John: of course, they wind up singing Barbara Strisand songs anyway, so what can you do!
Mick: Och, sure. But in those situations where people have the given opportunity at given points in the evening, then to play a slow air is very appropriate. And a lot of musicians are doing that back home now, and there's every sign that traditional slow air playing will grow stronger over the years. Whether or not it will over here, I don't know. I imagine it will, because of the influence, the contacts between Ireland and America as far as the traditional music scene are very, very strong.
John: One of the things I've noticed is that slow airs are very appropriate as lullabies for children. I find myself singing the ones that I've picked up from you and other people - Cathal, Archie Fisher - as lullabies for my daughter, Niamh. Do you think that might be a "context" in which people might be using them a lot, that doesn't appear in noisy sessions?
Mick: There might be. I'd be very interested in knowing if there might be many other people who are doing that.
John: Well, I know I do it myself, but I don't know how widespread it might be. It just somehow seems very natural. Especially when you're dealing with exiles. You've got to let it out somewhere, you know.
Mick: There's another problem here too, though. Only a limited number of musicians are capable of playing slow airs very well, and also dance music very well. Because there are different techniques which are necessary, and they also vary of course from instrument to instrument. And it is, as I say, very rare that you'll find someone who can do both very well. For instance, Festy Conlon back home, who was considered for years and I suppose still is, considered to be the best slow air player on the tin whistle, did not play dance music at all. Now Willy Clancy of course played slow airs very well and dance music very well. And seamus Ennis too, and there are may other players too.
John: I never thought of Seamus Ennis as doing dance music, I pretty much thought of him as a slow air player.
Mick: Oh, not at all! You should hear his double album, on Innisfree. It's mostly dance music. But he can play both. I think most pipers can play both. Because of t4he very exacting kind of training that learning to play the pipes involves.
John: Would you say the same sort of thing for the flute player?
Mick: I'm not a flute player myself, of course. But I'd say that most flute players who are good in dance music are not so good in airs.
John: That's interesting. Because I had at one point what's probably a very romantic attitude: I associated the slow airs with the emotional side of the music, with the sense of human tragedy ot the pathos in life. And until you'd come to that sense, maybe late in life, like Seamus Ennis, or like that chap David Amram told us about who walked into the Bells of Hell in New York, sung an a capella slow air and just walked out, with people falling on the floor -
Mick: Well, it's very true that a slow air played well can be very beautiful and very expressive, very emotional; but that's not to say that a dance piece played well can't do the same thing! That's not true at all - I mean, the converse doesn't hold! You listen to somebody playing a reel, a very good reel on some instrument, it's just beautiful.
John: Of course, we have a problem, in that I'm crossing a whole semantic, poetic, literary interpretation into the music, from my background in oral literature, and that may be totally irrelevant, totally inappropriate. I think that's a very good possibility, a probability. But there's something else I wanted to bring up: you know McCullough's book on the tin whistle. He talks very nicely about ornamentation, trills and rolls, and he says it's not a question of - he says it's a questions of where it's appropriate.
Mick: Absolutely! I mean, just to put ornamentation in as a piece of technical virtuosity is not necessarily the most tasteful thing to do.
John: On the other hand, it's not necessarily inappropriate either.
Mick: Depends on the tune. Depends on the situation. Depends on the context. And the great players on any instrument, the way they'll play a tune in any one situation is very different from the way they'll play it in another. And if you were playing in a big session towards the end of the night when everybody's flailing away and it's eleven o'clock and everybody's having a fantastic time and the musicians are getting along great with each other - they'll play a reel with a tremendous amount of flourish and style, and it might be the best thing in the world. But on the next night, playing in a much quieter session, it might be done in a much more laid-back sort of way.
John: I'd call that the real oral tradition, where the performance context so dictates the structure of the piece that you can't describe the piece by textual analysis outside of the session itself.
Mick: Sure. Absolutely. And that's why, to take a given piece of music as played by a given musician at a given point in time and say that represents their work, as it were, their creativity, is in a way only a part of the whole story.
John: Like freezing the thing in amber, or cutting a slice across time and making that stand for everything That's one of the things I've been coming to feel from being around people like yourself, it's been a tremendous education, it really has, in the past few years, with that sense there's a process going on all the time, it's not working towards a "work" which is a product, it's the process which goes on and surrounds it.
Mick: To get back to the slow airs: of course we're very lucky to have Eugene in Philadelphia, who plays the slow airs and is one of the few players in the country here who plays a wide repertoire of slow airs with a great deal of expressiveness. And in a way it's because you've heard Eugene play so much, your heart is ruling your head -
Mick: You know, as far as this whole question is concerned, when you hear someone like Eugene playing, in good form and playing one of his fine interpretations of those tunes he's plays in concert -
John: "Killian's Fairy Hill"!
Mick: Right! Well then you feel it would be great if everybody could play like that.
John: When I hear him playing, it just seems that he must come out of a rich context of air-playing. He's not an isolated case.
Mick: I think that's so.
John: And then when you tell me it's dying out in this country, I begin to see Eugene very much as an exile. There I go, being romantic again.
Mick: Well, then again, as far as playing slow airs on the fiddle goes, a great deal of control of tone is necessary to play in the style that Eugene plays. He plays his airs with a tremedous degree of control, over tone and over phrasing.
John: He played with Pablo Casals at one time - I've seen a picture of Eugene with Casals in Puerto Rico - is that the classical background that does that to his tone?
Mick: Not necessarily, but a great deal of formal training. That formal classical training can come through classical training or can come through having very good background in terms of having good teaching early on in life. I don't know in Eugene's case what the influences were. You should ask him. But in any case, you do need a lot more technical control than is normal among average fiddle players. Now they'll play slow airs too, and play them very beautifully, but the emphasis won't be so much in their case on tone, as on phrasing or embellishment. Of course Eugene has those as well. But I'm just saying it's not really fair to compare them. Because they come out of different backgrounds and in a sense out of different traditions. Even though the tunes might come out of the same traditions. I think the way of playing is different.
John: That's something else I wantd to ask you about - the tradition you came out of yourself.
Mick: Yes, but the part of Limerick I came out of had very little in the way of traditional music. And it was not until I was about fourteen that I started getting interested in traditional music and in my case, as in a lot of other people's cases, in both Ireland and England, one of the major influences was the "skiffle" movement. I don't know if you'd know of...
John: Lonnie Donegan? Sure?
Mick: Lonnie Donegan - That's right! He was my hero!
John: In what sense do you think he was important?
Mick: I don't know if he was important - but I knew I liked it, and it was very different from most of the stuff I used to hear on Radio Luxembourg and the BBC, and indeed Radio Eireann. And I got interested in Lonnie Donegan, and after that I got interested in Irish music. Of course the Clancy Brothers were hitting it big around 1960, in Ireland, 1961. Before their success in America. So it was Lonnie Donegan to the CLancy Brothers, and then I went up to University College in Dublin. And by that stage I had developed an interest in traditional music, and was spending all my free time in County Clare, where of course there's a great deal of music played on all the instruments. And it's been a continual process since then, of getting more and more interested in traditional music, rather than say the commercial music. Thought I like some of that as well.
John: About what time did you get involved with the Johnstons?
Mick: About - 1966? I opened - I ran a folk club, with a fellow called Sean Corcoran in Dublin, which we called the Tradition Club. And we had it in two or three different places. And it's actually now based in Slattery's Pub in Capel Street. It's been on the go for a good while now. And before that I signed with the group - if you're interested in the chronology, I'll give you the chronology; I played with a group called the Emmet Folk Group. It was a fashionable thing at the time to call the groups in Ireland after patriots - hence groups like The Wolfetones.
John: The Wolfetones are still around.
MIck: They're still around. So we called ourselves The Emmet Folk Group, after Robert Emmet. It was just that we had to come up with a name. We had five minutes to come up with a name because the owner of the bar where we were going to play was screaming to us - he had to have a name to put in the paper, you know. So that group - myself and a fellow called Brian Bolger, Dom Lunney, we were in that group - we played together all through college, and I put myself through college, really playing music at night, three or four nights a week.
John: What were you studying in college?
Mick: I was studying economics. I did a bachelor's in economics, and my master's in politics. And just about the time I was coming near my master's I met up with Paul Brady, and I moved into an apartment with him, in Dublin. And we had the sort of place where musicians were floating through all the time. And the Dublin folk scene at the time was a cery vibrant sort of thing. There were different things going on. The singing bar, the lounge, was really the big context, where people would earn a few bob and the cover charge of five shillings or whatever it was was split between the musicians who would play that particular night. A lot of the groups around that scene - like the Wolfetones - they had their beginnings in that, in the 60's in Dublin. But I was getting more interested in playing the traditional music that in playing in lounge bars where you had to sing more or less songs out of the Clancy Brothers-Dubliners tradition - in other words, fulfil audience expectations.
John: "I'm a Rover"?
Mick: Right! Otherwise you wouldn't last a night.
John: Bluegrass bands have the same problem - they've all got to do "The Orange Blossom Special."
Mick: I got a bit sick of that, Not that I didn't like the songs. I think they're all good songs - to become that popular there must be something good about them.
John: I'd call that arguable. Some pure crap appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Mick: But because of going there night after night and just, you know, pandering to that demand.
John: I would think it could limit your repertoire after a while.
Mick: And there's this constant tension between the musicians who felt the way I didn, and the audience. So we'd try to put one over on them, we'd try to slip in songs that we liked, and if they liked it we sort of felt that we'd cindicated our integrity.
John: Yes, that's a tension there.
Mick: Well, it's something that all performers who play for money to audiences who may lag a little in experience - there's this lag between performers' esthetic and audience esthetic.
John: That's a good way of putting it - esthetic tension. Because I saw something of the same thing in American coffeehouses in the early 60's. There was a tension between the enunciated values of teh people who ran the coffeehouses - you know, love and brotherhood - and at the same time, especially when they got involved in that in-groupy tell-off the Child ballads by number, there was a tremendous kind of ingroupiness among them - a tremendous dichotomy between "the tourists" and the inner circle of hip "folkies." And that's not a very healthy syndrome afte a while - it's practically self-contradictory.
Mick: Well, I can't comment on the example you give, but the tension that's characteristic as between the Irish and the bluegrass scene here is a sort of dialectical process, and out of it comes something new all the time. Mostly because musicians for the most part are unwilling to stand still. They want to move.
John: To explore the instrument?
Mick: Well, they just want to move, you know. To try something different - whether it's better or not, that's not the point. That's open to question, and the answer would vary from case to case. Musicians in general do like to do something different, and audiences do tire of the same old things. So you have this tension between the need to be original - audiences do respond well to that, you nkow - and the need to operated within safe lines.
John: And that's another thing that has interested me, when someone in your position would pick up a song by let's say Joni Mitchell, but not just cop the albut cut, but actually rework it in some traditional or quasi-traditional way - it's an interesting process.
Mick: Well, that came later. At that time I wouldn't even have thought of doing something like that, that was written by somebody in the contemporary idiom. Even recording that kind of material came out of another sort of dialectical process, which came when I was with a different group. I'm talking rigtht now about when I was with the Emmet Folk Group, back in Dublin, playing in the bars. There was a festival down in Wexford, for "ballad groups." That was the name. If you got a few fellows together and got a few guitars ot a few instruments, you were called a ballad group. The term ballad was sort of an all emcompassing generic term which covered everything. The pubs would adcertise "Ballads!" And ballads could mean literally anything - not necessarily songs that told a - But anyway there was a competition for ballad groups down in Wexford. We went down, and slept in haybarns and everything, and we competed in the heats, and we won. And then we got into the final eventually, and there were a few groups in the final. And the adjudicator finally came up and he said about us, "The Emmet Folk Group,: he said, "Fine singing. However," he said, "presentation: terrible," And I always remember these words. "It is not in any Irish tradition of which I am aware to appear scruffy, untidy and apparently unwashed, in a ballad competition."!
So we got second place by one mark.
John: Because you weren't shaved?
Mick: Well, he said we lost marks by presentation,l adn as we only lost by one mark, we concluded that was the reason why we lost. But the group that got first were a family group from County Meath called The Johnstons, and that's where I met them first. And a little later on then, in this coffeehouse basement folk club that myself and Sean Corcoran and a fellow called Paddy EcEvoy were running, they used to come down there after their gigs and we got to know one another. And they finally asked me to join, and I did. And around that time, Michael, who was their brother - there were three members of the group. Lucy and Adrienne and Michael - he decided to do something else - he was going through one of those stages where he didn't want to be a musician any more - so Paul Brady, whom I knew - I was living in an apartment with him at the time - was encouraged to join, because he was getting very interested in Irish traditional music at that time too, and we used to play in a lot of sessions - I was playing a lot of tenor banjo and mandolin at that particular time with musicians like, oh, James Keene, who lives in New York now, who were very frequent visitors to our apartment. James is a great accordion player - he's a brother to John Keene, who's in the Chieftains- a very musical family, a great player. I've seen him up in New York a couple of times. Through James and his contacts we were getting to know all the great musicions, and we were getting exposed to an awful lot of good music, getting fantastically interested in it. So when we joined with the Johnstons then, they were at that time operating out of what you might call an American pop-folk kind of Tom Paxton tradition. Paxton's songs were fine, and they did a cery good job ot them, but right at that particular time we didn't want to do that kind of material. We'd continue to do them, because there were four members of the broup now, Adrienne and Lucy and Paul and myself, but we also wanted to get into some of our own songs - and they were very interested in that too. so we got on very well for about four or five years, just fine.
John: Out of that come the "John Barleycorn" album, didn't it?
Mick: Right. Out of those two different tradtions, two different ways of looking at material, came two different albums. One album, which was called"Give a Damn," which was essentially contemporary material, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot - we always like Gordon Lightfotr - Ewan MacColl too - and a few other people - that was an album we used orchestras for, and strings, quartets - spent a lot of money! The other albums were more traditional ones, we recorded four or five of them.
John: "John Barleycorn" was given to me by my brother who's in the Scottish Nationalist Party, and it was one of the things that made him very interested in the idea that before you can talk political nationalism you have to have a real sense of a culture that's worth saving - and in danger of being lost - cultural nationalism has to come first. But the problem he's running into now, because of the violence over there, is a lot of anti-Irish feeling - ecen in my own family, which is of Scots-Irish background originally, and that's a real problem, when the politics get in the way of enjoying one another's music at all.
Mick: Oh, yes.
John: You were with the Johnstons what, four or five years?
Mick: Oh, about five years, I think. We made seven LP's. I only have a few on them, because most of them are deleted from stock now. People borrow them and they never give them back, and I can't remember who the hell borrowed them. I have, I think, three.
John: I know you have "Give a Damn" because I gave that to you - I got it in the "Barras," in Glasgow. Which is pretty funny too.
Mick: Well, then after five years I left the group. We were moving apart, really , musically and personally too, after geing with people for five years. It becomes a strain: the travelling really got to me in a big way. Just being on the road - being on the road for three years was the most exciting experience that I could possibly have had. And I really needed to do it. It was my dream, from the moment I went to the University in Dublin, to get on the road. To play, and to make records, and to be on television and radio - and then, after three or four years it didn't seem to matter any more. I could take it or leave it. But had I not done it, I wonder if I wouldn't have gone around with this ache, this gnawing feeling that maybe I should have done it. I don't know, it's very hard to say in retrospect. I'm glad I actually did it, and I had a great time, I wouldn't swap any moment of it, of the first three years again. But the final two years were, in a sense, marking time. Just doing the job - pounding the beat - putting in the hours. And it wasn't so much that I didn't enjoy playing, I still enjoyed playing. It was the traveling, it was being away from any kind of base, and that became more important to me. at a particular stage, I wanted not to travel. I was the only driver in the group, and that made a abig difference. A regular night for us might be - because we weren't getting paid all that much, people thought we were getting paid an awful lot, but even at our tops we weren't getting paid more than a hundred pounds, and people used to think we were making a fortune.
John: It's an automatic assumption.
Mick: And we weren't making any more than a skilled tradesman would have made. When you delete expenses, tracelling expenses - you had to pay a manager fifteen percent - so we really weren't making - so on an average night - no this wouldn't be an average night, a not unexceptional night: I'd have to drive up to Newcastle. We'd do a concert up in Newcastle, I'd have a cup of tea, and drive right back home again. Now, that's 280 miles there and 280 miles back.
John: Home was were then?
Mick: We were libing in London at that time. So that was close to 600 miles traveling, plus having to do a solo concert in front of maybe 500 to a thousand people. And that was a strain, since I was the only driver. That got to me. And also I was beginning to be worried at that particular time as to where all this was leading. Here was I, at one time I was convinved I was going to use my degree to some effect, I didn't quite know what, and here I was traipsing around the place and it didn't seem to be leading anywhere. We were making a living, but we weren't saving anything! And the group was moving apart, personally and musically. Paul wanted to get into some of his own material, Adrienne got married to an American who wanted us to do his songs, and did do one album doing some of his songs. And funnily enough the last gig we ever did was here in Philadelphia. at the Main Point. Back in 1971. And that was the end of our American tour. And I said, "Look, this is it." And I went back to Europe and the two of them carried on for a while and they got a bass player in.
End of part one. "So I landed with me suitcase andme instruments in my hand....
To Buy Mick Moloney's Recordings:
Mick Moloney with Eugene O'Donnell
Slow Airs and Set Dances
and The Best of Irish Folk