Philadelphia Folk Festival Photo Collage
Interview with Mick Moloney, Part II
Reprinted from The Folk Life, Vol.. 1, No. 10
(For those of you who missed the first part of this interview, which ran in last month's issue of The Folk Life: we had been discussing Mick's early career in Ireland, singing with the Emmett Folk Group while going through Trinity College in Dublin, and then his five years hard traveling on the road with the Johnstons. At the close of last month's segment, the breakup of the Johnstons and his subsequent decision to come to the U.S.A. and study folklore had just been discussed; we pick up the conversation at that point:)
Mick: They made one album, and they moved to Paul's and Chris McCloud's - who was Adrienne's husband - composition. And it was OK. But they never did very well. They never did the transition from doing the kind of material that we used to do to this kind of material, and then they broke up.
John: I see that Paul Brady's around again.
Mick: Oh yes, Paul joined up with Planxty for a while, and he's now playing with Andy Irvine, and he has a record out with Andy which is a magnificent record. Paul has really made incredible musical strides in the last few years. He's an amazing musician. He's a magnificent guitar player - he's very original. He's going from strength to strength musically - some of the things he does on guitar are just unbelievable - outrageous. He did a concert here with Andy Irvine at the Main Point, which was really good. And the record is just superb.
John: Well, as far back as "John Barleycorn," which goes back eight years or so, I thought I was listening to your banjo, and it was Paul's 12-string guitar. And that's a helluvah thing to be able to do with a 12 string.
Mick: Well, I enjoyed playing with Paul, one of the big things for me over those five years was playing with Paul, because we worked out a nice system. With just two instruments backing a whole group you have to do a lot of different things, and we worked out a nice system. I concentrated on the banjo and mandolin, and Paul on the guitar, and I really enjoyed working with him for those years.
John: So you learnt a lot in the car.
Mick: Well, it was a tough apprenticeship in a way. We started off playing in the folk clubs for very little money, and we found it hard to make ends meet for a year or two. But it was a really good circuit to play, because you've a really fine audience in most British folk clubs, very attentive, and they really appreciated Irish music too. But we didn't restrict ourselves to just Irish music. Our reputation was as a group who could combine traditional and contemporary material. And we were booked essentially for that. I mean, Paul and myself really favor the more traditional material, and Adrienne and Lucy favored the more contemporary, even through that wasn't always the case - there were some contemporary songs we really liked, and some traditional songs they really liked.
John: You mentioned Philly, '71, earlier. Had you already met Kenny Goldstein at that time?
Mick: That's where I really met him, at that time. I met him very briefly in London once at a concert, it was one of those things, just hello-goodbye. But then we came out here we stayed at his house, and I became aware that folklore was something you studied!
John: You found that out then? (Laughter)
Mick: Well, of course there was the Folklore Commission in Ireland. It wasn't for teaching, though. They didn't at that stage have a teaching department. If they had, I expect I would have studied folklore at the University College in Dublin. But it was essentially an archive, the Irish Folklore Commission. In the last few years they've moved to the university, and they're a fully-fledged teaching department, which gives classes and so on.
John: Essentially the same idea as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, I think, which seems to have begun as an archiving thing and now has classes too. OK. You had met Kenny by then. At that time did you intend to come to this country to stay?
Mick: Not at all! Couldn't stand the place!
John: Why was that?
Mick: I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was traveling. It was summer, it was very hot, I would spend on or two days in Boston, then down in New York the next day, and then Philadelphia and then back to New York, carrying instruments around the place, and we didn't have a car - under those circumstances someone's initial impression of any place is bound to be unfavorable. But then it was nice being at Kenny's, because I had a chance to relax and stay there for a while, and discovered his library.
John: Hah! That basement!
Mick: Legendary! And I used to spend whole nights there, I'd go down there at maybe ten o'clock at night and stay there until maybe eight o'clock the following morning, just reading. I just couldn't believe it was all there - all the resources he had at his disposal. I know at that stage the thought did enter my head that it would be nice to study folklore. But I already had a master's and I knew to do a PhD would take anyway another four years, and I didn't know if at that particular time I was prepared to mortgage that amount of time away. So I went back to London, and then I went to Norway for a while, and I was working with the Education Department in Norway, mainly in the north of Norway going around to schools and training colleges, some universities, Trumso and Oslo as well, some places in the south as well - in fact in the year I was there I got around to most parts of the country, and learnt the language a bit. And I used to play with the fellow, Jan Inge Rasmussen.
John: I met Jan - you brought him down to the Irish Centre one night.
Mick: That's right - he was over here for a while, and we had a good time. And he used to, among other things, translate some of the old Viking sagas into modern Norwegian and write his own tunes to them, and we used to do some of these in the schools and blow the kids' minds apart - they didn't know anything about any of this material! It was savage stuff, I tell ye! Great, though! So I enjoyed that, and then I came back to London and at this stage I was fed up with traveling, I'd really had it. So I decided that I wanted to do something else. And I was a social worker in a place called Shelter. I don't know if you know Shelter; it was a big organization for homeless families in London, it's non -profit, not connected to any official government department, but it does get funded by the government because it does fill a need. In fact it's been very instrumental in changing housing policies in England, changing the Rent Act, that was very much the work of Shelter. It was involved in a lot of these activities, a pressure group, trying to get the government to do something about some of these problems. Conducted studies, did a lot of research, a lot of neighborhood work - it did a lot of work on neighborhood rejuvenation, instead of just accepting the inevitable decay of these neighborhoods, accepting the fact that they would tear down parts of Manchester, for instance, just raze it to the ground and just move the population away-
John: Scottish housing policy to this very day is exactly that! They razed the Gorbals and put these 35-story high rise buildings in their place - my Uncle Arthur, who plays the banjo in the Hundred Fiddlers which was at the Mod last year, lives in one of those things. And they're unbelievable monsters!
Mick: Well, I was working on those problems on a very day-to-day level, on the problems those damned high rise projects had created, which was more homeless families, because people couldn't stand living there! Shelter House was involved in creating neighborhood action projects, and teams would go in there and in large measure try to rebuild neighborhoods, and thereby, by having these projects working on a widespread basis, create the kind of climate where your research was respectable. When you made things work, people were more inclined to listen to you. But I worked on that for a year and a bit, mainly working on a day to day level with homeless families, trying to solve their problems in whatever way we could be solved, and that was a very time consuming job that needed a lot of commitment.
John: I imagine you could get very "burned out" doing that.
Mick: Absolutely! And there was a very high turnover of staff.
John: Sure. When you're dealing with individual or social pathology en masse - I've found this working with mentally retarded adults - there's just a tremendous psychic toll.
Mick: And it never goes away.
John: Because "The poor ye shall always have with you"?
Mick: Well, if you said, "people with problems," I would accept that!
John: Oh sure - I just used the Biblical quote. But the poor - that's maybe a matter of capitalism which might be changed, isn't it?
Mick: All right, then! Well, anyway, I met Kenny again. I used to sing in the folk clubs, mostly in the London area, because I didn't have time to travel, and I didn't want to travel.
John: Was that to give you a break from that damned job?
Mick: No, it was that I still liked singing - I had nothing against singing! I loved singing. I loved performing, I liked playing for people. It eliminated the problem of this damned traveling.
John: Of course, London is a big city.
Mick: It is, so there's a lot of places even if you - I'd restricted myself to a radius of say sixty miles around London. On an odd weekend I might travel someplace else, you know, but only on a very odd weekend. But then I felt I was on top of things again. I was developing a paranoia about traveling, but it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone, because I was driving between 50 and 75,000 miles a year. And having to perform , you know, having to do both, that was the problem.
John: Makes you look very thoughtfully at country-and-western stars with their Greyhound buses and saying, you know, they've got a point!
Mick: Well, some people it doesn't bother at all, but it did bother me. And then I met Kenny Goldstein, and he comes in and says, "What about that application you were going to make to the folklore department that we talked about? After I'd stayed in Kenny's house here, I invited him over, and my parents did too, to Ireland the following Christmas, and Kenny went on a little tour with us, down around County Clare and so on.
John: When was this?
Mick: Christmas '71, going on to New Year's '72. And we began to become very friendly at that stage, he spent a couple of weeks at the house, and he was very relaxed, he really enjoyed the music. He hadn't really heard Irish instrumental music before, he'd heard Irish singing, though, and that really turned him on to Irish music, that did the trick, and he told me a lot about the folklore department, and I was very interested in going there. I still wasn't sure if I wanted to spend four years in a totally different career. Then I met Kenny again in 1972 in England, and I was ready for a change by then.
John: Did you ever run across the term, "metanoia"?
Mick: No, what do you mean by that?
John: It's the process by means of which a student of chemistry becomes a chemist, a student of history becomes an historian. You start to view the universe through the technical perspective of the profession. And it sounds to me as if you'd come pretty far along the road in economics, in politics -
Mick: Oh, yeah!
John: -- but you'd also gone pretty far down that road in music too. And for you to then say, "I'm willing to undergo the discipline, to go from being a student of folklore to being a folklorist - that's a lot of changes, Mick.
Mick: It is. And I even underestimated it, though I finally did it. I was ready for a change, and I said to Kenny, "I'll apply," and I did apply, and luckily I got in, on the strength of the record I had back in the days when I studied economics and politics, because I was a fairly diligent student, I think. I was interested enough in the stuff. It's just that when I came in contact with the nitty-gritty of being an economist, come face to face, after you get the qualifications, with the sort of lifestyle you have to lead in order to become successful in your field, I wasn't prepared at that stage - nor would I be now - to accept the typical lifestyle of a successful businessman - an economist working in the business field. For two reasons: there are many aspects of big business which are contradictory to my own philosophy, and secondly on the level of the lifestyle, I'd always been less than comfortable around those kinds of people.
John: But I've seen some evidence in the past that your background has helped you to keep your head about making a living in this field, though. There are a lot of people in the arts in this country who go through a period of being anti-materialistic, and that's a little unrealistic in terms of making a living. You don't have to make a killing, but you do have to make a living. And I've never seen any evidence that you were ever fooled that way. And maybe that's your background in pure economics and politics that's helped you. I had to work that through myself. But you got into this folklore thing.
Mick: Well, I decided to apply here, and I got a tuition scholarship, which covered my tuition, which is a big thing in a school like the University of Pennsylvania, where it's over $4,000 a year. I was over, I think, $3,500 at that stage. And there was no way I could afford to pay for one semester even, but with the tuition covered, I sold my car, and sundry "goods and chattels," and came here with me suitcase and me instruments in me hand, and decided that for the next four years I was going to study folklore. And I did, and I haven't regretted it - not at all. But it was a bit traumatic. The first class I took was a course in sociolinguistics - the very first class I had was Ethnography of Speaking, taught be Dell Hymes, who's a magnificent instructor and a fine human being. And the readings for the first week had about 20 words that I'd never heard before in my life. I went to the library, to find out that 10 of them weren't even in the dictionaries, and I thought, "What in the name of Jesus have I got myself into?"
John: Well, you're really impressed by Dell Hymes' love of jargon, and I taught in linguistics myself for a few years, and I'm sorry, I just don't think all of that is necessary. I don't like all of the pseudo-scientific terminology that's the bane of modern linguistics as far as I'm concerned.
Mick: Well, every discipline has its jargon, and the jargon doesn't bother me. I think using the jargon in the wrong situations and to the wrong people can be very bad manners and can be very counter-productive.
Mick: But I think every discipline needs its jargon, because there is a need for short-cuts and clarity in communication.
John: Well, I respond negatively to jargon when I recognize that there is in common currency already a decent substitute, and it becomes, hypothetically, unnecessary. You have a problem with notation of something on a different level from verbal communication, like music, but not otherwise. Och well. You started this process.
Mick: It was hard, let me tell you. The worst thing too was having to write term papers. I'd gone through a whole five years of university back home without having to write one single term paper, because the system is based on exams over there. And - I'm not getting into the whole question of the relative merits or demerits of examinations as a means of finding out how much you know or how good you are - but it was a very unfamiliar medium for me to write term papers. And the pressure of graduate school, even though Kenny had warned me about that and I'd said, "Sure, I'm prepared to work," for the first term it was very hard work. Because I was going into a discipline where I had very little intellectual or scholarly background. I had a lot of background in the raw materials, you might say, in the sense that I knew a lot of songs and tunes, the histories and the stories about some of the songs, but that's not quite what the study of folklore is all about, as I discovered very quickly. But even at that stage I never thought of turning back. Dammit, I was going to stick it! It was a challenge. And I liked it anyway. Once I began to get on top of the materials I began to like it. But of course in a four- year span there are times when a certain tedium is attached to grinding out those term papers. Sometimes you just stand back and say, "What in the name of Christ is this all about?"
John: But then of course once you have the basic courses you're involved in your own research, in your own fieldwork. You've been doing some collecting recently, haven't you?
Mick: I took about twenty courses. But I would say that for the last six or seven courses I was just grinding it out. Just getting through. I learned the most in the first ten or twelve, the first three or four semesters. And that's not to say that I still don't have an awful lot more to learn! But I could have learned a damned sight better without having to take the last few courses.
John: I personally think that's too many courses on a graduate level. But what I do think you need is the kind of thing I've seen you doing recently, is the fieldwork.
Mick: Aye, well, that's lovely, and that's where I wish I'd started, with more intensive fieldwork. In the Philadelphia area and on the East coat generally. I just got into that about a year and a half ago. But before that time I was catching up on a lot of reading that I hadn't done, and getting acquainted with a lot of stuff that you have to be familiar with if you're going to be a practicing folklorist, if you're going to teach in a university, which is my aim, and if folklore is going to be your career. Then you have to cover a lot of things that you might not be personally interested in at that given point in time, but that you ought to know something about. And the fieldwork came later. And when I got along towards the end of my coursework, I was lucky enough to be asked by the Smithsonian, last Summer, to help them get together their Irish presentation for the big presentation they had in Washington, the Festival of American Folklife, the Bicentennial one, which featured I think people from thirty different countries. And I was involved in trying to get a representation for the Irish-Americans. This all took place in one part of the festival called, "Old Ways in the New World," where a certain number of performers are brought over from the old country, performers in the traditional arts and crafts. Traditionally in this sense meaning informally learned from family and friends rather than learnt in school.
Mick: No, records, that's OK too, but rather than learnt in the musical conservatory, or for instance art studied in an art school. I've always found it hard to hit on the dividing line between "folk" and "popular," because there's very fuzzy borders between them. But you get a certain intuition after a while about what it is that you're looking for.
John: You know, I'd go back to Greenough and Kittredge's "Words and Their Ways in English Speech," for that one distinction between "learned" and "popular," and that's one distinction that I see, in vocabulary for example. There are things that you couldn't learn except in school, because they just wouldn't deal with it at home - Latin-derived vocabulary, for instance - as opposed to things that you wouldn't get in school and you could get at home - the old songs and games. Schooling is the big dividing line there.
Mick: Yes, but the trouble is you can always think of exceptions. For instance, in Irish dancing, step dancing. That's taught in formal schools, yet all the steps have clear antecedents in a more informal method of learning. So it's very hard to say - it's very hard to make a hard and fast distinction. The media through which various forms of behavior are transmitted can also be a determining factor. There can be something which is presented on television all the time, and you get the feeling that, no matter what its antecedents, that's taken care of by the popular media, irrespective of what it is. So there are a lot of things which are operative when you sit down and try to decide what's "popular" and what's "folk" and what's "elite."
John: My response goes back to the two words, "tradition," and "novelty." I think the people who're committed to tradition are quite distinct from the people who're committed to novelty. The deliberate maintenance of a repertoire in a tradition is at the opposite pole from an urge for the new, which really strikes me as a "pop" toothpaste-factory attitude - use once, throw it away.
Mick: I think I'm with you in spirit. But then everything has a tradition and comes out of a tradition - even novelty comes out of new configurations of old things.
John: Are we limited to discussing tradition and creativity in individuals?
Mick: And then within traditions there are certain kinds of creativity which are highly valued, and that in fact distinguish the great from the mediocre. In every tradition, no matter how "bound" it might be.
John: Yeah, this seems to be at the hub of the problem, when you get into discussions of folklore, as for example why we "do not play no rock and roll" in our magazine - and it's not just that there already is a Rolling Stone in existence. It's also that rock-and-roll seems to have a "novelty" set of values. Everything wears off, and then it's deliberately changed to re-stimulate mass consumption. That seems to be an addictive stimulation, and it seems to me that it lies at the opposite pole from the values that underlie the traditional crafts. I just don't see them in the same way. As I say, at the outer edges that's very easy to see, it's when they get in the middle that they blur together.
Mick: Yes, that's where the fuzziness lies. But in any case, I did fieldwork for the Smithsonian, and helped to do the presentation for the Irish part of the festival, and helped to tour with the Irish group that came over for the festival, and we had a good time.
John: What was the name of the group? Was that Siamsa?
Mick: There was no name, it was just a collection of 23 different singers, dancers, musicians, from different parts of Ireland, who were chosen by Tom Munelly of the Folklore Department of University College, Dublin, and then the people who were selected from here, on the basis of my fieldwork, who were singers, dancers, musicians, craftspeople. The idea of the festival was to show both continuities and discontinuities, and it was very interesting and everybody had a great time. Most important of all. And the musicians had a great time, and so did the audience. So that was nice. And at the same time, and slightly before that, Miles Krassen and Larery McMullen and I, the three of us, got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to do collecting of Irish traditional music here in America, for the Archives of Traditional Music, in Indiana. Now, one of the stipulations of the National Endowment's policies is that you, as well as doing the collecting in a project of this nature, inject something back into the community as well. Through whatever means is appropriate. In this case, that's radio programs and records. So the initial idea was to present two records, one from the East Coast and one from Chicago. And what I have done, through Rounder Records, we have put together a record of twenty-two different musicians, from Washington, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Boston. The Philadelphia crowd you might be interested in. Eugene O'Donnell is playing. And ah�.
John: Ed Reavy?
Mick: No, Eugene's playing one of Ed's tunes. Ed isn't playing too much any more. I think he wouldn't want to play on a record, because I think he feels he played better in years gone by.
John: Yes, we saw him here one night, and that's exactly what he was doing - he was encouraging Eugene to carry it on for him.
Mick: Yes, well Eugene and I did a track on a record I'm getting together of Ed's which is also going to be issued on Rounder - different people across the country doing Ed Reavy's music. And that's going to be coming out for Christmas on Rounder, and Eugene's on that, and Liz Carroll, and Paddy Cronin, and a lot of musicians from New York. And the nice thing about this record is that I'm going to include on the sleeve notes Ed's original settings of these tunes, the do a set of new transcriptions of the settings - because there'll always be slightly different ones, you know - from the different musicians on the record, for a very concise illustration of what can happen to music within the traditional process. Because here we have a very unique case where we know the composer of tunes that are considered traditional, and a lot of people didn't even know these were Reavy tunes.
John: They picked them up by -
Mick: They picked them up in the normal way, from other people or by tape cassette.
John: In sessions?
Mick: Yeah. And I felt very committed to this, because of Ed, I like him so much and I respect him so much. He's a great man, and I feel he hasn't had enough acclaim, really. Here, there hasn't been an Irish organization in this city which has honored Ed in any way. And Ed is nearly 80 years old, and he's been composing music for thirty-forty years. And he's a household word among musicians in Ireland, everybody knows Ed Reavy from Philadelphia, and yet no Irish organization here - besides of course the Irish Musicians Association, of which he was the president - no other Irish organization has seen fit to honor him. And I'm very concerned about that. But I think that this record will be a great testimonial to his skills, he's a great composer. But to get back to this other record... Eugene is on this, Tim Britton from Philadelphia -
John: Timmy Britton?
Mick: Oh sure, he's a fine piper, is Timmy.
John: I know about a year and a half ago - February '76 - I heard Tim playing with Ben Ruth at International House for the dancing.
Mick: Timmy has made enormous strides. He went back to the Willy Clancy School of Piping last year in Ireland, and created quite a stir, there, because people couldn't believe that a piper of his age could be so far advanced.
John: How old is Tim now?
Mick: I believe he's about sixteen now?
John: And I know he's been playing the tin whistle, anyway, for two or three years now.
Mick: Aye, he's a fine player. And also on the record, from Philadelphia, is John Vesey, a very fine fiddle player, and Eddie Cahill, who's a flute player who lives just up around Broad Street, about ten minutes drive from here. And he's been in the woodwork for the last few years, he doesn't play out at all. He doesn't drink, you see, so he doesn't come out to play in bars.
John: Where the regular sessions are.
Mick: Aye. He's a great flute player, in the Sligo style - he's from Sligo, and he's on the record too, and I'm really delighted he is. And he's going to be making a record with John Vesey soon.
John: It seems to me that the fact you're a musician yourself must facilitate this kind of fieldwork.
Mick: In a way, yes. It also creates a kind of unusual, and in a way an amusing problem. In a way I want to dispassionately represent these traditions, what's going on - "tell it like it is."? But a lot of Irish musicians - and I guess musicians in other idioms too - don't like to play without accompaniment, especially when they're playing solo. So they say, "Ah, come on, play. Join in." So there's two possibilities, you see, here. If I refuse to play - and this has happened in one or two cases - the musicians will get the piano player from down the block, who'll come up and play all the wrong chords, and frequently in the wrong key, and ruin the session. Now, you might say, that's an expression of a value judgment on my behalf. Well, it is. But I happen to think that a tune that's in D that's accompanied in G or C, that's wrong. People might say, "Well, who are you to make that judgment?" But it's all the same criterion I'm using.
John: Well, it's along the same lines that Richard Dorson did his collecting of "American Negro Folktales," for his collection. He says that one of the things he found was that when he was able to tell tales himself, the people often told better tales than they might otherwise have done. The context was provided by his involvement, and that's what I was getting at here.
Mick: Right. Well, I end up in many cases, because I know the tunes and I know the chords for them because I play the tunes myself, I back them up with a guitar. So I provide backing on I suppose fifty percent of the tracks on this recording from the East coast. But in all cases I leave that up to the musician. Most musicians do not want to be recorded without an accompaniment. And the reason for this is that when Irish music began to be recorded in this country, it invariably was recorded with a piano. Now there's a certain amount of argument as to who started it - whether it was the musicians who wanted it, or whether it was the studio who told them that they should have a piano to fill out the sound. Michael Coleman's records, now, they're practically all with accompaniment. And as a result then, when these records became popular, the sort of expectations created by having these records around, the musicians now invariably want some kind of accompaniment. Now there are some exceptions - I shouldn't say invariably - almost invariably. Musicians who just like to play alone - a piper will usually want to play alone, because a piper has his own accompaniment in the regulators.
John: The drones.
Mick: Aye, well - the drones and the regulators. But a fiddler or a flute player or a tin whistle player usually will want accompaniment. That's okay, that's their decision. I'm not interfering in that sense - but I am interfering in that I am giving the accompaniment. I'm rationalizing it, but the thing is that they know I play the guitar, so they want it.
John: Did they ever ask you for, not just accompaniment, but a tune that they wanted to pick up?
Mick: To play for them? Oh sure, it happens a lot, once the tape recorder is shut off. If I'm recording for the record we'll get that out of the way, and then we'll just sit down and play tunes with one another. That's what makes it so enjoyable.
John: You spoke of "interfering," before. Were you wondering about that, in a sense, "contaminating" the process of "tradition"?
Mick: I'm not in the slightest bit worried about contamination. In fact, I would delete the word contamination from my folkloristic vocabulary! I'm just saying that I would alter the shape of things to a certain extent. I'm not saying that it is "contamination." But I know the way you're using it.
John: It's an obviously high voltage word, isn't it?
Mick: Sure. It's a value-laden term. It's a word that's been used to describe the direction in which, say, songs have gone. Bu Child ballad scholars who have a literary esthetic, a high literature esthetic. Whereas the people themselves don't feel that way.
John: Obviously not. You know, it didn't seem to me that a musician playing with other musicians "contaminates." I don't se that at all. But I was trying to put it in terms that thought were current in the Penn school of folklore -
Mick: Oh, sure, you'll alter - any time you enter into a context you're going to alter the shape of that context by your presence. That goes without saying. The next question is what you alter, and to what degree and in what direction.
John: Well, I'm trying to fill in here, you say on the one hand you're trying to "dispassionately" record it, and on the other hand, "I entered�" -
Mick: Perhaps I shouldn't have used the term "dispassionately." I'd say I tried to interfere as little as possible.
John: There's another social matter you mentioned once, in another conversation we had once. You mentioned being kept up half the night by the guys. Drinking half the night because that's when the playing started.
Mick: Well, sometimes I've had to go into a place and refrain from even thinking about recording for six or seven hours - until it was appropriate. This isn't just a question of coming in and slam-bang, half-an-hour recording session. You have to be very sensitive to the individuals you're interacting with. You don't just bang a recorder down and - well, unfortunately, some people do! But it's not very wise to bang a tape recorder down and say, "Play for me." And then put that on a record? Because you might not be representing a player at his or her best. In fact, you probably won't be.
John: I don't see how you could possibly be. It reminds me of those NPR kids bustling around with their old-fashioned grapefruit mikes backstage at Philly a couple of years ago, butting in where they weren't invited! I think it very possible that the musician would just tell you to take your tape recorder and leave, if you were doing that. I just can't see why they would be interested in that, and of course that's not what they'd get from as fellow musician such as yourself.
Mick: But I've found the musicians I've met to be really delightful people, very hospitable and great company.
John: Well, it's what you said earlier, about manners in a session. Especially when you're going to be recording the session for some future use, future publication or whatever, that's a legitimate concern. What do you see for yourself, in the immediate future?
Mick: Well, in the very immediate future, what I want to do is, I've been recording a lot of material, and want to try to get different record companies interested in trying to get them out. I try to establish contact between the record company and the artist, and then step out of it so they can negotiate whatever. I'm very lucky I'm working with very fine companies, Topic, in England, and Rounder, here in America, a very fine company. And shanchie, a very fine Irish company, from New York, and Innisfree, a new label. So what I try to do is get the record companies in touch with the performers. And get performers like, say, Martin Mulvihill up in the Bronx, with his School of Music - he's got over 250 kids learning Irish music up there, and they win the competitions, the fleadhs, and many of them go back home, and many of them beat the Irish kids.
John: You mention those labels. One of the biggest problems for people is just getting access to already-recorded Irish music. Distribution is just not very good. That's a real problem.
Mick: There's a real need for availability of stuff even in the Philadelphia area.
John: When I see Topic LPs and so forth, it's almost exotic - not to speak of Mulligan, Tara and Shanachie!
Mick: Well, Rounder does distribute it, on a mail order basis. So if you get their catalog, you're doing pretty well, I think. But if you just want to browse in a record store�.
John: Well, I'm thinking of young musicians who want to learn in sessions, like the ones down at the Irish Centre, and then they want to go home and learn more, to practice. Where do they get records? That's a very valuable learning tool for them. Just in pure educational terms, that's very important. I don't see how you can learn the music without the presence of a musician, in person or on record somehow.
Mick: I think it's very important to get the good Irish and Irish-American players in this country on record. As you realize, they're a valuable resource for the younger players. They also should be on record because they deserve to be, because they're fine players. I think it gives them a great boost too - it really enhances them, their self-esteem, and it enhances their prestige among their peers, and among their neighbors, and it's altogether a fine idea to get the god players on. And that's why I think it's very important, and I've been putting a lot of work into that area myself.
John: And getting it out.
Mick: Well, that's up to the companies. - and I must say I'm very lucky - and not only myself, the musicians are very luck - in being associated with companies like Rounder and Shanachie and Innisfree and Topic back home, who're interested in getting it out. And at no great profit to themselves! Hardly any, in fact! But what I've been doing, and for this I can thank the National Endowment for the Arts, I've been using the materials I've been able to collect under the Endowment grant to get the companies interested. Now that's not to say that the materials recorded in sessions would be actually the materials that would go on record, but it's very useful to be able to put the material in front of the record company and say, "Here, this is the kind of music that's going on around you, you haven't been hearing it, but would you be interested in putting this out?" It really fills a great need.
John: You're also working on a radio series, aren't you?
Mick: I've already applied for funding on this, with Anne Mintz, who's a radio producer for WXPN and WUHY. We've submitted a grant proposal to the NEA, for funding to do a 13 week radio program series next year, on Itish music and dance. I mean, when I say dance, I don't mean the dance itself would actually be on the radio, there's a logistical media problem there! But dance music and interviews with dance teachers and interviews with people in the Irish community. The focus will be on ways to express Irish identity through forms of Irish or Irish American culture. To try to document that in a 13 week series, and get that on the national radio network with distribution all over the country - that's something, if we get the funding for it, that we'll be working on next year. I'm very excited about that project too, because you get to an awful lot of people.
John: You might call that "applied folklore" - somewhat like our publishing of The Folk Life - as opposed to more formal or "theoretical folklore." How about what you're doing in that area?
Mick: Well there's a time and a place for everything, and there's certain kinds of articles I'd like to write, which are very vital to my own career and to the subject matter of folklore, Irish and American culture, that's one of my major interests, that I'd like to do for professional journals. I have to finish my dissertation, which is on Irish music in America. I also have a contract from the University of Pennsylvania to publish a book on the wame subject. That's also something in the field, which I think is important. But apart from that, there are other things, as a folklorist, and folklorists more that other academicians draw their materials from ordinary people, and I feel a great responsibility, and I think folklorists in general should, towards giving something back as well. And I see this as an opportunity to give something back to the communities that are providing me with my career.
John: How do you mean?
Mick: Through the public media or whatever channels are appropriate. Because otherwise it's just a question of take-take all the time. And if I can balance my duties, in the field and career of folklore, alongside the personal advancement in a personal and scholarly sense, increasing my own knowledge and competence in the area, you know, being a good teacher and publishing material in the domain of the discipline, if I can balance that with producing stuff through whatever means might be appropriate, channeling some of the back into the communities somehow, that would be my aim.
John: There's one final thing I'm wondering about. I see Teresa Pyott is involved in booking people for the Philadelphia Folk Festival this year. Do you see this as an avenue through which there might be more "traditional" people coming through, given the known interests of Teresa?
Mick: I think whoever is involved in booking for anything is going to influence the nature of the event by their own personal tastes. That's bound to happen. I happen to like Teresa's personal taste! And of course she knows many of these people through performing with them over the years, too. So I'm really looking forward to the Philadelphia Festival this year.