Irish, Scottish, folk, and country music from many different neighbourhoods, and sometimes, from behind the scenes
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Music for the heart of winter: Cathie Ryan
Christmas, and season of Advent which comes before it, are times that invite both celebration and reflection. These cold days of winter when dark comes early invite quiet solitude and well as gathering and sharing in community. Winter and its holidays and holy days have inspired musicians to explore all these things in many ways: through classic songs of the season which have been handed down, through their own ways of interpreting familiar songs, and through creation of their own seasonal stories.
Cathie Ryan is one such musician. The award winning Irish American singer and songwriter tours internationally through the year and has been a guest on winter season programs of other top artists. This is the first year, though, that she will be offering a series of holiday concerts of her own design. It is to be called The Winter’s Heart.
“I love Christmas! The sharing of meals, of gifts, of song, of together time is a blessing,” Ryan says. “We all slow down to be with our family, our community. No matter how stressed we are, Christmas seems to take the edge off, people are more patient and kind. I wanted to bring the band together to make some beautiful Christmas music that we could all share. And to sing to those who may not have anyone to celebrate the holiday with - to ameliorate the loneliness. Music does that. One of my most favorite things about Christmas,” she adds, “is that we celebrate the holiday with song.”
That recognition of connection and community goes deep for Ryan. She grew up in Michigan, the child of parents who had emigrated from Ireland. They’d spend time in summer with family back in Kerry and in Tipperary. In Detroit, her parents loved not only Irish music but country singers such as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, and Ryan also heard music of Motown and of Appalachia. As an adult Ryan has spent time living in both the US and in Ireland. All of this has had influence on how she understands music. She’s chosen the subtitle of the Winter’s Heart series to be An Irish American Christmas.
That duality was one of the things which guided Ryan’s choices of music for the shows. “I love Christmas songs and the impulse was to do lots of songs we all know already, but I’d like to highlight our Irish American traditions through song so that will mean new songs!” she says. “There are some beloved songs that are musts, like Silent Night, and we will be singing those. My guitarist, Patsy O’Brien, and I have written a song called The Winter’s Heart that we’ll do. There are also some lovely Christmas songs sung in Ireland in Irish and in English that aren’t so well known in America, and I look forward to sharing those.”
The spiritual aspects of the season also go deep for Ryan. “The way we open our hearts at Christmas inspired the show’s title. The Winter’s Heart seems to encapsulate everything I believe Christmas is about, including Christ being born at Christmas and all of the heart centered teachings of Christianity. It is beautiful that in this time of cold and barrenness, a time when most of us go inside, we open our hearts, our homes, to new hope, new life and to each other. It raises us up.
“We have a big, beautiful shared songbook, we all join in the music,” Cathie Ryan says. “It is a reminder that we are all connected at the core. I love that.”
On this tour, Ryan will be accompanied by Patsy O’Brien from Cork on guitar and vocals, Patrick Mangan from New York on fiddle, and Kieran O’Hare from Chicago on uillean pipes, Irish flute, and tin whistle. Among them the three men have appeared with a roster of top artists including Eileen Ivers, Don Henley, and the Milwaukee Symphony, and have appeared on stages with shows from from Riverdance to Broadway theater.
Tour graphic courtesy of Cathie Ryan; photos of Ireland in winter and Cathie Ryan with bodhran by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
Dark comes early in winter in Ireland, and sunrise comes late. It’s a time for turning inward, for reflection, for seeking grace, for seeking home. It’s a time as well for celebration of home and hearth, of winter’s beauty in the landscape, in the gifts of friendship and family, and music.
Musician Cathie Ryan knows these things well. First generation Irish American, she has lived out these traditions growing up in the United States and as an adult, living in both the US and Ireland.
Candles in the window to light loved ones home, hunting the wren on Saint Stephen’s Day, telling and retelling of well loved stories and singing of well loved songs, and honoring the winter solstice and the turning of the seasons as well as the time of Advent and Christmas: these are a few of the traditions of Ireland Ryan has received from and shared in her own family. This season, she’s decided to create a series of concerts to bring these things to her audiences. On 30 November Ryan will begin a run of concerts in the US to be called The Winter’s Heart: An Irish American Christmas.
Though she has at times appeared as a guest on holiday concerts with other Irish artists, this will be the first time Ryan is creating a winter themed run of performances of her own. Known for her compelling voice, inspired songwriting, and thoughtful selection of songs from the tradition and from contemporary writers, Ryan is also loved by her audiences for her lively storytelling and fine wit. All of these will be in play for The Winter’s Heart.
Joining Ryan for the tour will be award winning guitarist Patsy O’Brien. He has brought his soulful playing to work with Eileen Ivers and Paddy Keenan, among others. Patrick Mangan will handle fiddle playing for the tour, as he’s well qualified to do, having twice won All-Ireland fiddle championships and recently toured as a featured soloist with Riverdance. Keiran O’Hare will bring his pipes, flute, and tin whistle into the mix. He’s an internationally renown performer who has appeared with Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Josh Groban and Don Henley.
It is Ryan’s voice and vision which will center each evening’s performance, however. She has been at the forefront of Irish and Irish American music for more than two decades, bringing clarity of voice and the creativity of imagination to creating music which draws on legend and history as well as present day, which intertwines worlds of nature and myth, and which holds elements of both sides of her heritage. All this, Christmas, and flashes of humor as well -- these are bound to be evenings to remember.
Across history, travelers and emigrants have carried fiddles with them. It’s one of the most portable and versatile of instruments. That is one of the reasons that people coming form Scotland to Atlantic Canada brought their fiddles and their music across the ocean. People from Nova Scotia and other parts of the Maritimes, heading south to New England in search for work, brought heir tunes and songs and dance steps and their fiddles along too.
It’s that legacy and connection across landscapes and communities in New England, Atlantic Canada, and Scotland that Katie McNally has chosen to honor in her album The Boston States. In Boston, McNally learned the fiddle with renown Scottish style fiddle player Hanneke Cassel, studied at Tufts University, and listened and played at sessions and dance halls where the musics of these landscapes met and mingled.
With her trio members Neil Pearlman on piano and Shanucey Ali on viola, McNally went to Cape Breton make the album, and enlisted top class Cape Breton fiddle player Wendy MacIsaac to produce the project.
The trio kicks things off with music from contemporary Cape Breton composers Dan R. MacDonald and John Morris Rankin. The tunes Colin McIntosh and Black Horse offer a lively introduction to McNally’s fiddle playing which proves to be at once strong and graceful,. The set also showcases the fine way Pearlman’s fast paced piano and Ali’s low notes on the viola combine with McMaslly’s lead to create a set that evokes fast flying dance steps while showing the musicianship is in good hands with all three members of the trio.
Each musician has varied strengths and musical backgrounds, which work well together across the ten tracks on the disc. Pearlman’s understanding of Cape Breton piano and the way that interacts with fiddle music is bone deep -- yet he also brings in subtle touches of his other interests and projects in Latin msuic and in jazz. Shauncey Ali studied classical music and moved into playing bluegrass. McNally, in addition to learning fiddle in Boston, studied ancient and modern Scottish Literature and Scottish traditional music at Glasgow University and The National Piping Centre in Glasgow.
The three musicians are thus well prepared to take on traditional music of Scotland -- although, as McNally points out in her notes, they often favor versions which came their way through the playing of Cape Breton musicians including Joe Cormier and Troy McGillivray. The trio’s gifts for bringing these ideas together are apparent in the set pairing the jig Scotty Fitzgerald from Cape Breton fiddler Sandy MacIntyre with the traditional tune The Hills of Glen Orchy.
Another good place to hear that at work is the track which joins Scottish composer Niel Gow’s strathspey The Fir Tree with a fast paced piece of McNally’s own composition, Batmoreel, which, does, yes, have a Batman connection which can learn of it the liner notes.
There are five more tunes by McNally herself on the album and one by Pearlman, which stand in good company with the tunes which they have chosen from the tradition. Many of the sets are lively music, but the trio does well with slower pieces also: listen out especially for the traditional tune Down the Burn Davie Lad.
Katie McNally’s family roots go back into Atlantic Canada and to Quebec, and her experiences encompass neighborhood dancehalls in Boston where Cape Breton and Scottish tunes ring out, as well as studying and teaching at fiddle camps across the United States, in Scotland, and elsewhere. As a player and as a composer she understands and respects how these strands come together. On The Boston States, McNally and musical partners Neil Pearlman and Shauncey Ali have created a collection of tunes that will set your feet dancing, and your spirit dancing as well.
“It’s my love letter to the West,” says Aoife Scott of her song All Along with Wild Atlantic Way. That it is, with visits to places from Croagh Patrick to Dingle, framed in the happy memories of a woman long gone from the area. There’s a bit more to that imaginative story -- it’s a love story between husband and wife across time and place really -- but the lively melody and Scott’s fine voice will draw you in however much of the story you catch on to or not.
It makes an excellent choice with which to open Scott’s debut album Carry the Day, showcasing her songwriting ability along with the colors of her voice -- and the fact that she knows well how to use her gorgeous voice in service of a song and its story.
That’s equally true when she moves to the rather more serious tone of We Know Where We Stand, as with All along the Wild Atlantic Way a song she wrote with musical collaborator Enda Reilly. It’s a song appropriate for and as Scott writes in the liner notes, somewhat inspired by the marking of the the centenary of the Easter Rising. In just a shade more than three minutes Scott and Reilly call forth many aspects of that hundred years and beyond, with images both familiar and new. “We stand on the hill of Tara with our hurleys in our hands” -- there’s resonance in that image for anyone with a connection to Ireland.
Down by the Shelleybanks is a quiet gem, a reflective piece in celebration of an area near Dublin which Scott knows and loves well. It’s framed in specifics, yes, but will reach all who have found a place to go for quiet reflection and the healing aspects of the natural world.
These are the first three tracks of a dozen Scott offers on the recording. About half the songs are originals. One takes a song her brother Eoghan wrote as a rock song into a folk/country direction. There’s Slan Leat, an original in Irish which is sort of a goodbye but our paths will cross again idea, and a bit of Irish too in Fásaim, a song inspired by her brother’s wedding. Songs by Si Kahn, Adrian Lawlor, and Sharyn Dimmick continue Scott’s interest in story told through character. A standout among these is Briege Murphy’s The Hills of South Armagh with its thoughtful take on the emigrant experience.
Aoife Scott has a fine voice and a clear understanding of ways to use it to tell stories she creates and admires. Though this is her first recording as a solo artist, she is not new to the music business. She has toured with the band The Outside Track and has appeared with Cherish the Ladies, Altan, and the RTE Concert Orchestra among others.
Though Scott originally thought she’d have a career behind the scenes -- and did, working successfully in television production for several years -- eventually music won out.
One reason for that might be family background. Aoife is the daughter of renown singer Frances Black. Her aunt is international star Mary Black, and her uncles Shay, Michael, and Martin have all worked professionally in music. Her brother Eoghan is a guitarist and producer. Her cousins Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas and singer songwriter Roisin O are making own marks in the music business as well.
With Carry the Day Aoife Scott continues to stake out her own place as a creative singer and songwriter in the next generation of ever evolving Irish tradition, and in the next generation of her family legacy as well.
In times of change and seasons of uncertainty, musicians who write their own songs and interpret music from the tradition often have some of the best wisdom to offer and most thought provoking questions to ask. Continuing this series of articles pointing to songs and artists you may want to know in light of these ideas, here are Tish Hinojosa with an original song and Emily Smith with words of a poet from the past set to a new melody.
In Spanish and English, Tish Hinojosa offers what could be an anthem for hope and unity. She has recorded this song, Bandera del Sol, on her album Culture Swing.
On a quieter note, Emily Smith and Jamie McLennan have put the words of poet Thomas Carlyle to melody. The Sower's Song is recorded on Emily's album Echoes.
Musicians and poets and others who create with ideas and music at times have the best and the deepest things to say about what happens in the world. There is such deep and lasting music from the tradition -- the traditions -- of many countries, handed down the generations, changed and adapted and yet holding truth that resonates.
There's music newly written too, pieces that speak to immediacy of event and feeling and yet hold ideas and connections and ways of thinking that last beyond a specific moment.
These two songs, written in very different times and places each from the other and from what is happening in the world as I write this, yet resonate with each other, and offer hope in times of sorrow and anger as well as in times of peace. Take a listen -- take several.
Carrie Newcomer wrote I Heard an Owl as part of her response to the events of September 11. You may find it on her album The Gathering of Spirits.
Walk On is the track Eileen Ivers chose to open her recording Beyond the Bog Road. The fiddle and banjo introduction intertwines a bit of Irish melody and riff within other lines which evoke Cajun, old time, and a shade of blues; Tim Shelton’s singing adds in bluegrass, gospel, and old time ideas. Ivers wrote the piece and in addition to the fiddle plays banjo and mandolin on this track. It is a piece that sets the scene and opens up the ideas she explores across the music on the album among them the experiences of emigration and immigration of Irish people to North America and the connections their music and community found with other communities on the new shores.
One aspect of the lives of those immigrant travelers that Ivers was thinking about was resilience. “There’s heart wrenching stuff but also joyous celebration that can come out of their journey -- even when life dragged them down they just kept moving on in such a positive way. That inspired Walk On, which became a sort of Cajuny Irishy sort of journey. You keep going and you keep the faith, basically, is the spirit of that song,” she says.
That is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of scene to set in the space of a touch more than four minutes. Ivers and her colleagues -- in addition to Shelton they include Buddy Connolly on button accordion, Leo Traversa on bass, Ben Wittman on percussion, and Greg Anderson on guitar -- do a fine job of it, creating a song that both stands in its own right and works as introduction of what’s to come.
What’s to come is an exploration of threads that tie and bind and weave in an out of the music of Irish immigrants in North America, the joy and sorrow that lives in Irish music and connects across time and reaches back to those bog roads in Ireland and out to Cajun, African American, Cape Breton and other communities of people building lives in a new country as well.
That is a theme Ivers has been exploring in her live concerts for several years, and for far longer than that in her life and in her music.
“It’s been a lifelong thing, for so many years, trying to put all this together,” Ivers says. “and for so many reasons, from as personal as my parents coming from these bog roads, these little back roads in the west of Ireland and as a kid going to Ireland with the family and my sister and I having our summers there running around on those bog roads and not knowing that was different from any other kind of American kid experience to playing in all these different configurations and with chatting with all these different folks over the years and hearing their stories and music.”
The daughter of parents who came from County Mayo in the west of Ireland to New York, Ivers grew up in the Bronx. She was drawn to the fiddle “and I sort of bothered my mother to rent me one, though she really wanted me to play piano,” Ivers says. She began learning from Martin Mulvihill “who was a brilliant teacher, and such a gentleman, you just wanted to please him,” she says. While still in her teens Ivers won the first of nine All Ireland championships in the fiddle. After a time studying for a degree and doing postgraduate work in mathematics she went into music full tilt, becoming a founding member of Cherish the Ladies and a featured cast member of Riverdance, playing with rock stars, world music ensembles, and symphony orchestra and pairing her Celtic based fiddle in a trio with a classical violinist and another whose specialty was jazz.
For Beyond the Bog Road Ivers felt called to return to her Irish roots, but with a bit of a different perspective than she’d had when exploring Ireland’s connections to other world musics in the past. It was that idea of the lasting faith and community and the changes and connections people from Ireland encountered in North America which guided her research and thinking as she prepared for Beyond the Bog Road concerts and for the album which would come from them. “I’m not like a typical traditional Irish player -- I love learning tunes but I wouldn’t be content just to keep learning more and more Irish tunes and playing them in sessions. I love that but I’ve always loved learning about other cultures,” she says.
Learning about the ways these other cultures met up with the music Irish people brought with them to North America informed her choices for the music on Beyond the Bog Road, both the pieces she wrote herself and those she chose from the tradition. From the Irish/Cajun/faith/bluegrass mix that makes the bones of Walk On, Ivers pairs Kitty’s Wedding from Ireland’s tradition with the American old time tune Smith’s Delight, making a set of tunes which showcases the lively aspects of her playing and reminds that dance rhythm makes a vital part of music making in both communities.
Dance formed a part of the inspiration for Crossroads, too, although in a different way and to a different musical result. In Ireland a few years back, Ivers and her husband Brian Mulligan helped organize a gathering in the village her father had come from. People met at the crossroads “and life was again celebrated through music and dance,” Ivers says. She was struck by a comment from one of the people there that he couldn’t bear to think of the hardships people who had emigrated from Ireland went through. That insight about people who stayed and people who left led Ivers to compose this quietly lyrical piece which readily invites reflection about travels and journeys of all sorts.
The Green Fields of America, sung by Niamh Parsons, is an emigration song which mixes regret and hope, while Linin’ Track is a lively set which pairs two songs of working on the railways at the turn of the nineteenth century, the bluesy Linin’ Track which railroad workers used to help keep the rhythm of their work going on and and the Irish jig Paddy on the Railway. It marks another joining of cultures through music.
Perhaps the least expected piece on the album is one with music composed by Louis Armstrong. It’s a little known -- until now -- piece of his work, celebrating, as Ivers explains in her notes, the dance off traditions which often featured African American and Irish tap dancers and played here with more than a hint of New Orleans in style.
On other songs and tunes Ivers ventures to the music of Quebec, to Galicia, to Cape Breton, and other aspects of her family experience in Ireland and Irish in America. The set which begins with Mackerel Sky pairs an idea from her mother’s home place in County Mayo in Ireland with a Cape Breton idea of strathspey, while the other tunes in the set, all written by Ivers, come from other aspects of her family life.
What began as project about music of the Irish diaspore and connections with other communities in North America took on several different hues as the process unfolded. Ivers was “floored by the amount of stuff I was learning --I probably came out a different player after realizing some of this stuff, “ she says. Life events took hold too. During the course of making the album Ivers and her husband welcomed their son Aidan home, and not long after “our family lost my father John, father in law Barney and mother in law Alice. Just before these sad losses we all welcomed our son home. They all waited and welcomed him with joy.
“I had this big roadmap of the record and the history points I wanted to hit,” she says. “Then these tender life events took hold, and because this record came up from my lifetime, all these things began coming out in what I was writing and how I was playing.”
Circling back in a way to the affirmation of faith found in Walk On, Ivers closes the album with the quietly reflective original tune Waiting for Aidan.
Photograph of bog road by Pamela Norrington; photograph of Eileen Ivers by Kerry Dexter. Thankgn you for respecting copyright.
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