NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 25, Nos. 1-4, 1999
CHERISH THE LADIES
by Mick Moloney
In 1987, the Ethnic Folk Arts Center Concert Tour, Cherish the Ladies, changed
the landscape of Irish traditional music in America. This essay by Mick Moloney,
appeared in the program book for the 1989 tour.
The Background: Irish Traditional Music in America
Irish traditional music has endured a long and often difficult, lifetime in
the United States. Brought to this country’s urban industrial centers by
Irish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, traditional Irish music has
developed a unique character in America, and has in turn exerted a profound
effect on the music in Ireland itself.
The traditional music, typically played on instruments such as the fiddle,
accordion, concertina, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, tenor banjo, and
piano, dates back several centuries, and draws on an enormous repertoire
from both Ireland and America. Much of this music—hornpipes, jigs, reels,
and other dance pieces—was composed by musicians in Ireland in the 18th
and 19th centuries, though a considerable number of tunes date from an
earlier time, extending back as far as the early 17th century. In various
regions in Ireland, polkas and mazurkas proliferate, and at one time marches,
schottisches and barn dances were also popular, although these are rarely
played nowadays. Beautifully expressive slow airs, normally played in free
meter, form an important part of the national repertoire, as do the stately
baroque-like compositions of the 17th and 18th century harpers.
By the dawn of the recording era in the early part of this century, traditional
Irish music had already achieved widespread popularity in America,
particularly in the Northeast and North Central U.S. In 1913 Columbia
Records issued the first American recordings of traditional music played by
Irish musicians. At the time, Irish communities clearly felt the need for
such material. Musicians who were popular in Irish neighborhoods found a
large and eager market through the recording industry.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the issuing of hundreds of traditional
instrumental recordings by major and minor record companies. The era
was perhaps most notable for the landmark recordings of the great trio of
County Sligo fiddlers, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and Michael Coleman. Their recordings, as well as those of their contemporaries, such
as fiddler Paddy Sweeney, piper Tom Ennis, flutists John McKenna and
Tom Morrison, and Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band in Boston had a profound
influence on traditional music on both sides of the Atlantic. They helped
maintain and expand repertoires and created stylistic models that were
emulated faithfully by new generations of musicians.
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