My wife and I are becoming regulars at our local, The Four Provinces in Falls Church, Virginia, where they host a Monday night session, or seisiún, of Irish traditional music. We love hearing live music of all kinds and have tried a number of the other local venues as well, including Daniel O'Connells in Alexandria, Virginia. However, as is probably true for most folks, we find that we prefer our local (despite the increasing danger of finding myself called upon to contribute my ‘party piece’ to the gathered musicians). My appreciation comes honestly, it turns out, for in addition to family roots in County Tyrone my Mother recently confessed that she’d seen the Clancy Brothers perform live back in their very earliest days at a club in Gaslight Square in St. Louis.
It was actually Irish music that launched my interest in Irish history, society, culture, etc. At the age of 12, I discovered an early album from The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in a sales bin at the local Woolworths. I’m pretty sure it was one of their first albums with Columbia Records and I went on to happily collect almost all of their albums, including my recent find of an album I never knew existed before finding it in a shop - Uprising. Their songs introduced me to many of the stories of Irish history. Hearing the the songs, I wanted to know more about the real history behind each one and learn about Kevin Barry, the Inniskilling Dragoons, Robert Emmet, the bridge at Toome, Dr. Johnson, etc. I also learned that a lot of what were popularly presented as “Irish” songs were actually the products of Tin Pan Alley – a fact that Mick Moloney recently celebrated in one of his CDs, "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews".
Digging through library and bookstore shelves over the years, I remember seeing the title “Military Music is to Music as Military Justice is to Justice” in which the author was discussing how the military justice system worked and how it differed from the regular legal system. He was referring critically, of course, to the military marching band and its body of music, which I like but the tunes of which have long since been institutionalized. The British army, for example, has long included in its collection the French revolutionary tune “Ca Ira” (played by American Civil War bands as “The Downfall of Paris”). But the songs I really wanted to find were those written or rewritten by the soldiers themselves and sung by them, these were are not usually politically correct. Book by book, I dug into the history behind songs like “D-Day Dodger” and older ballads like “Johnny, I hardly Knew Ye”. I just recently read with amusement how the latter was once proposed to become Ireland’s national anthem. It was also reported to be John F. Kennedy’s favorite Irish song.
The release of the film “Oh, What A Lovely War” was another breakthrough. Like the stage review upon which it was based, it was based upon the actual songs and music sung and parodied by the soldiers of the First World War – the Great War. Of course, like “The D-Day Dodgers” as recorded by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, these songs were presented and recorded in the show in cleaned up versions rather than the original unexpurgated versions actually song by the troops. I’ve since tracked down some half dozen modern collections of Trench songs from British, French, Canadian, and U.S. sources.
When I became a reenactor with a recreated unit of The Irish Brigade, I began to focus upon the original actual songs and parodies song by those original soldiers who fought that war. Fortunately, a lot of research has already been published which was very helpful and by now there was there internet. I was not alone in my quest and discovered the recordings released on CD by David Kincaid and Haunted Field Music. David recorded himself performing the original songs he had uncovered in something close to their original arrangements. [With one significant exception as he recorded one modern song with a Civil War storyline on the first CD – and it became a personal if inauthentic favorite except when I was in the field wearing my blue uniform.] I worked with two other members of our unit to also identify and gather in a songbook a collection of original Irish ballads and songs from period songbooks. One of the sources we drew upon was “The Spirit of the Nation” which collected and published poetry, verse, and songs of Ireland collected by “The Nation”
Most recently, I’ve been researching songs mentioned in firsthand accounts as being written and or sung by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army members during the 1916-1923 period. Most of these have not been recorded but I’ve been able to track down the lyrics and other information.
But to get back to live music, over the years I’ve had the opportunity to hear Tommy Makem perform at his place in New York and elsewhere and I would hear Tommy and Liam Clancy perform at different venues in Ireland and in the U.S. I’ve heard the Chieftains (and met many of them) live several times over the year. In Ireland, I had a chance to hear De Danaan with Maura O’Connell at one of the festivals. But some of the best times were hearing local musicians play live for themselves and their friends and neighbors. You should start checking out your neighborhood through the internet, the newspapers, ask around at your local, you may be surprised at what you’ll find out there and the craic is grand, I guarantee it!