Pity poor Irish music. Gone are the glory days of Riverdance, when everyone wanted to learn Irish fiddling or stepdancing. Instead we have the waning moon of Celtic Women, or Celtic Waves, or Celtic Treacle, or whatever new PBS special has been thought up to cater to the large Irish-American population. The real stuff, the pure drop, the traditional music of Ireland however, rests as it always has: mercurial and flowing deeply underground.
Chances are there’s an Irish pub near you with a weekly or monthly Irish music session. These informal gatherings, fueled by inside jokes, free pints of Guinness, and rapid-fire tunes at breakneck speeds, became the 20th century engine that spread Irish traditional music (or Irish trad for short) to the far ends of the Earth. When I was living in Western France, I played weekly at the local Irish session with French players who all spoke English with an Irish accent from their travels and a box player who learned Irish accordion in Zimbabwe of all places. But the global nature of Irish trad today almost completely obscures the fact that America has long been the homeland of Irish music, not Ireland. The massive emigration of Irish to America led to powerful pockets of Irish trad formed in major American cities, pockets whose influence extended all the way back to depopulated Ireland. Chief Francis O’Neil fought the mob and corrupt cops in Chicago in the early 20th century and in his spare time compiled books of Irish tunes notated by hand. He hired Irish musicians to the ranks of the police force and was known to patrol the streets of Chicago listening for Irish music coming from apartments. His books made their way back to Ireland and influenced generations of musicians there. Michael Coleman was a seminal Irish recording fiddler, cutting 78s from his home in New York City. His fiddling codified the famed “Sligo style” and influenced nearly every other Irish fiddler in both the 20th and the 21st centuries. So it’s about time we start to think of Irish America as its own place with its own music, and in that spirit, here are six of the best albums released by Irish-American traditional artists in the past five years.
Down the Green Fields
Self Released, 2011
I’m of the firm conviction that this album from young band BUA can claim the title of Best Irish-American Album of the Last Five Years without much effort. The musicianship on this album is off-the-charts, but also remarkably restrained, and young Irish Gaelic (and American) singer Brian O hAirt is a revelation here. I just don’t know of another band that’s so perfectly nailed the traditional heart of Irish music in America so well. The fact that they self-released this, well… It makes me want to start my own record label. Anyways, Down the Green Fields benefits greatly from the sum of all the parts of the band– O hAirt’s fragile and sensitive vocals, Devin Shepherd’s absolutely monstrous fiddling, Brian Miller’s quick-as-a-flash guitar work, and Sean Gavin’s pulsing flute playing. Each player is born and raised in the United States and each are among the very best of their generation. Try the tracks “Soldier, Soldier” or the opening set of tunes to get an idea what I’m talking about. I’m not sure what BUA are up to now, which greatly distresses me. I know Brian is recording and touring with elder Irish singer Len Graham, and that Brian Miller is making fascinating albums about Irish logging music in Minnesotan history, and Devin is touring around with harpist Marta Stone, but dammit boys I WANT MORE GIGS FROM BUA! Get working on that!