The Pluck of the Irish

From traditional reels to Celt rave-ups, local Irish music addresses the troubled times of its homeland

Smith jumps in with his Groundskeeper Willie diction: "It really bores the tits off me, you know, if I don't hear somebody singin' occasionally."

"In something other than Gaelic," adds guitarist John Sjogren with a laugh. Smith reports that he loves jigs and reels, but listens to them in the house, not in the bar. "He's our spokesman, right or wrong," Sjogren says of Smith.

"Yeah," says Stemple. "Because no one can understand what he says." Another round of laughs.

For Smith, the song's the thing, as it was in his native Scotland even before punk. "We went to school in the morning," he says, "and all the young guys on the bus, as young as 6 or 7 years old, would be singing old songs. We have our own Catholic-Protestant conflict, and we'd go by Protestant schools on the way and we'd be fucking hanging out the window singin' these songs. These songs have always been there. There'd be parties every week where everybody sings, and most often there wasn't even any musicians."

After moving with his family to rural Wisconsin four years ago, Smith worked on a farm driving tractors for six months before he moved with his wife to the Cities. Smith soon hooked up with bass player Neil Johnston, and within a few months the two were gigging in Irish bars around town with Sjogren, who still plays with another Celtic rock outfit, Bedlam. (For his part, Stemple produced the band's live album for St. Patrick's Day of '96, and was brought on board as a member three months later.) "When I met Brian," Johnston says, "I said, 'Let's do something a little bit different than anyone's been doing around town, something a little bit more contemporary.'"

If the band's punk ties are rooted in Johnny Rotten, the Irish Londoner who inserted an "IRA" mention into 1977's "Anarchy in the U.K.," then its political allegiances are firmly rooted in a long history of resistance to what songwriter Jack Warshaw called the "well-mannered thugs" of colonialism. "We all take a healthy interest in politics," says Smith, who points out members of Minnesotans for a United Ireland in his audience. "When we sing rebel songs, we know what we're singing about."

The group interrupts our interview to pose for photos with Skip Humphrey, who's launching his post-Democratic-convention campaign for governor, and whom Smith doesn't know from Adam. Fifteen minutes later, the band is singing the pro-IRA anthem "Boys of the Old Brigade" to a large crowd of middle-class American families. The Skipper's moved on.

While Brian Smith found his musical epiphany in the music of the Damned, traditional-music pillar Paddy O'Brien found his one night in the early 1950s back home in rural County Offaly, in the Republic of Ireland, when his father brought home a waylaid accordion player. "My father wanted to sober him up because it was winter time, and he was afraid to let him bicycle the rest of the way home. But the man had an accordion with him, and began playing these tunes. I was just fascinated by it, I couldn't get that sound out of my head."

Three years later, O'Brien got an accordion of his own and painstakingly practiced the jigs and reels he heard on the radio. "I didn't have a record player and there were no musicians where I lived who played this type of music," he says. "And because I was a kid, nobody took me seriously anyway. Once in a while, though, my mother would take me to a ceili [an Irish dance party, pronounced "kay-lee"], and I'd sit on the upper deck of the dance hall and listen to the musicians who'd come from out of town."

O'Brien later joined a ceili band himself, toured Ireland in the late '60s, and even made it to the States in 1968. The folk revival had been going steady for years, but an interest in traditional Irish tunes flamed up on both sides of the Atlantic in August of 1969 after the eruption of "the troubles" in Ireland, when pro-British marauders burned Catholic neighborhoods. "Traditional music was just about dying out in the North," O'Brien says. "Then the troubles started, and their whole lifestyle there, socially speaking, was put to a standstill. I was in the North a few times and was stopped by the British Army. You couldn't be mobile with all the roadblocks everywhere. And so people started having sessions [traditional jams] at home, and young people started getting interested in traditional music. I only knew one or two flute players before the troubles started. Now they're everywhere."

Meanwhile, in the Twin Cities, locals started holding ceilis to benefit the political cause of Irish nationalism, and the traditional-music scene blossomed as it entered the 1970s. Martin McHugh, a godfather of the current Twin Cities Irish-music scene, had emigrated from Ireland as a teenager in the '50s, and found a thriving traditional-music community in St. Paul. But by the early '70s, some of the old-timers he'd learned from had passed away, and he found himself surrounded by a new generation of traditional-music enthusiasts.

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