Monday, May 23, 2016

Beyond the Bog Road: Eileen Ivers

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. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in music
al look back at Eileen Ivers: Christmas tour and album
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain

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