Gradam Ceoil TG4 : Interview with Mick Moloney

In a recent telephone conversation with Joanie Madden our discussion turned to this year’s Gradam Ceoil recipients and Mick Moloney in particular.  Joanie and Mick go back a long way, and she more than anyone is very aware of his significant contribution to Irish traditional music in the US over a period of 40 years.  During our conversation she spoke so enthusiastically about Mick’s work that it became immediately clear that we, on this side of the water, are a bit in the dark on this matter.  Congratulations must go to TG4 and their independent committee who saw fit to honour Mick. Understanding his impact is not easy and it’s one of those instances when Google simply doesn’t cut it.  Like the music, the real story is at the community level which is not always recorded.  You have to talk to people like Joanie, Jimmy Keane, Liz Carroll, Eileen Ivers and others to get a real understanding.

Not many people will know that the formation of Joanie’s group Cherish the Ladies came about as a result of Mick’s efforts to establish a forum for women in music. It was the early eighties and Joanie, Eileen, Liz and others were starting to make a real impact. They had just returned from Ireland with multiple medals at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.  Mick was the first to pick up on the importance of this new force in Irish music, recognising that their arrival on the scene needed to be recognised and celebrated.

“When I came to the US in 1973 it was almost exclusively a male scene” he says. “That changed dramatically, kind of like a bloodless revolution in a way.  Women said, hey we want to play this music too, and everyone said ok. Before that there was a kind of societal expectation that women didn’t go to pubs.  All that of course changed with the women’s movement in the 70’s.  Women like Joanie Madden, Liz Carroll, Eileen Ivers and others who are household names today were playing at a brilliant level.  However they weren’t getting any visibility at all and I really thought that they deserved a forum.”

Mick was working with a multitude of organisations at the time including the International House of Philadelphia, The Ethnic Arts Center, The World Music Institute and others and through his initiatives concerts were arranged and this new talented group of female musicians received the recognition that they deserved.  From this, Cherish the Ladies were formed and are still on the scene.  They will in fact perform at the award ceremony on Saturday night. Mick says that he simply gave them the ball and they ran with it.

Mick had arrived on the US scene a decade prior to this in 1973. “I arrived at a time when the Irish music scene as we know it today really wasn’t in existence.  There were no Irish music festivals, The Clancy Brothers had broken up and there was no traditional scene as such. I arrived not long after Alex Haley had written his now famous book called Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which dealt with his African-American ancestry.  It got translated into a film series and suddenly people were talking nationwide about culture and heritage.

Overwhelmingly for the first time we celebrated diversity.  Before that we were sort of afraid of diversity and no matter where you were from, if you were in America you were going to be an American. All that relaxed somewhat in 1976 and at this time I was asked to bring 26 performers from different aspects of the tradition to a concert in Washington. We were joined by 26 performers from Ireland that were assembled by Tom Munnelly and Ciarán Mac Mathúna.  That kind of kicked off a new consciousness and suddenly people were talking about traditional Irish music and dance in a new way that hadn’t happened before.”

Mick highlights the fact that one of the dubious benefits of colonialism is our use of the English language.  While some spoke Irish it was predominately English that was used by new emigrants. This allowed for a closer integration, sharing and understanding with songs and stories bringing people closer together.  It strengthened bonds with the homeland and with the existing Irish-American population which according to the 1992 census is over 40 million.

“Suddenly I was in the right place at the right time” he says. “I met all these incredible musicians and my first thought was that everybody must hear them. They were brilliant. I could name names but there are so many that there is no point.  One of those people that I lived close to was Ed Reavy. I met him and was thankfully able to put out an LP of his music some years later. I always felt that people who were really good, that did something valuable and beautiful needed to be made a fuss of and needed to be heard.”

This was the start of a lifelong commitment by Mick to record and document the lives of hundreds of musicians.  “I felt their stories had to be told” he says.  Not since Captain Francis O’ Neill finished his work in 1912 has this aspect of Irish-American life been recorded. O’ Neill painstakingly documented the life story of the people who were around in his era. I was lucky enough to get a Nagra recorder from the Library of Congress and even when I didn’t have that I had my own Sony TCD5 which I brought  with me everywhere.  I asked people did they mind sitting down for a couple of hours and telling their story.  I was interested in the story of their life as well as the story of their music”.

Over the years Mick recorded hundreds of interviews and only really missed a few people in that time. “I’m so glad I did it because the majority of them are dead now. Even the ones that are not, I was able to capture their story as young people. I amassed thousands of hours of interviews and also of sessions. People were so used to me with my recorder that nobody ever said no.  It’s now in an archive at New York University”. Apart from this field work Mick gained a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania. He has also taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at several universities and has recorded and produced over forty albums of traditional music.  He has also served as the artistic director for several major arts tours including The Green Fields of America, an ensemble of Irish musicians, singers and dancers which toured across the United States on several occasions.

With this background it is difficult to believe that when he arrived in America he wasn’t even sure if he would bring his instruments. He had come to get a degree and become a teacher and didn’t know what chance he would have to play in America.  He admits that he was a beginner at the time and over the years learned from the masters around him. They were generally speaking older emigrant musicians who never received the recognition they deserved.  With time the next generation of emigrant musicians in the 40’s and 50’s arrived and they wanted their sons and daughters to maintain a link with Ireland.  This resulted in a willingness to learn and to send kids back to Ireland to compete in the competitions decades later.

From afar there seems to be a very strong, close knit and supportive community in the US and we put this to Mick. “We don’t take it for granted here” he says.  “We live in a very plural society and traditional music is a gem we have. While I am interested in many other forms of Irish expression, stage, dance etc., Irish traditional music takes preference.  We are very conscious of the fact that every time we sit down in a session we know it’s special. Here we are 3,000 miles away from our homeland with so many people playing, and an awful lot of them at a very high level. Every day of the week here in New York there are different sessions and nobody is competing with one another, nobody is back biting with one another. It’s very friendly and very welcoming.

There is just a limitless amount of music available today and it still has to be learned from person to person.  It’s still passed on socially, communally and everybody who plays traditional Irish music seriously has to go on a certain artistic journey that involves community as well as art. You have to engage with the past and the present and you have to be true to yourself and develop your own voice somewhere along the line”.  There is an acceptance by Mick that the music has moved on over the last number of decades.  “It exhilarating and gratifying and a little bit frightening when you see young musicians today” he says.

His views on modern contemporary traditional music and the recent Riverdance type shows are equally reflective.  “I think it’s natural when people meet each other from parallel or adjacent cultures to experiment with the music. We live in a world of communication that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. It’s the most natural thing in the world for young musicians to borrow things from one another. Nobody lives in a hermitically sealed environment. As long as the cultural core and the cultural values are strong I think experimentation and innovation pose no threat whatsoever.  It might be something that is a passing fad or has some substance but either way it’s ok.  In all art you have lots of different forces pulling at the tradition.  Innovation, commercialisation and a whole lot more. I think that when you see the big dance shows that came out of Riverdance you see a replication of a formula. The original version has a tremendous amount of value but then all the copies after that have less value.  It’s the nature of popular culture that there is a replication that goes on and it can become jaded and tired.  We need to be cautious of the fact that we need to break away from formulas.  Whether it’s the way a group is constructed or a show is constructed.  The way to do that is to look at other models or imagine other models. I think it’s part of any art form, especially one that is thriving for all these forces to exist.”

“Anything that is commercial and that is made strictly to make money is going to be aimed at the common denominator.  In popular culture there is always that element and it’s unavoidable. Those things however don’t last that long. Their shelf life is very short.  If you listen to the real deal, to the great recordings from the 1920’s they are still inspirational. These new shows will be forgotten about in 10 years.”

In addition to his work in the states Mick is also heavily involved in charity work on behalf of Irish Aid and others.  He has worked with the street kids in Bangkok and with the great philanthropist Chuck Feeney has raised serious funds to help their plight. This has spread to other parts of Thailand, Vietnam and now onto Burma where with Michelle and Louise Mulcahy, Liz Hanley, Niall O’Leary and others he continues to bring his music and support.  “You can see immediately the benefits of the funds that you raise and this is gratifying”, he says.

On Gradam Ceoil and his award he is delighted.  “When it is an award from your peers it makes all the difference”, he says.  He will be back for the award ceremony and concert this Saturday night 12th April and will hook up with the Mulcahy family and Joanie Madden once again.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge since he departed for the US in 1973.  For a man that wasn’t even going to bring his instruments with him on that day long ago, even he himself must admit that it’s been quite a journey. To be back in his home city, 40 years later to accept this award is quite the honour. 

This year’s awards ceremony and Gradam Ceoil TG4 Concert will take place in the University Concert Hall, Limerick on Saturday, 12th April.   The concert, hosted by Páidí Ó Lionáird and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, will see the 2014 Gradam recipients joined on stage by their special musical guests. Sibéal Teo have produced the show and it will be recorded for broadcast by TG4 on Easter Sunday, April 20th at 9.30pm with Niamh Ni Bhaoill in the producer seat.  They promise a unique, star-studded line-up of musicians and award-presenters alike.  For more information visit www.gradam.ie

Gradam Ceoil is now available to view worldwide on the TG4 Player. Follow This Link

 

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