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The reel deal

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Preserving the sounds of Ireland

A birthday party at the Boston-area Music Club, 1948. Accordionist Joe Derrane is seated in the front row, center. Margaret (Peggy) Clancy Irish Music Collection, Irish Music Center, John J. Burns Library

A birthday party at the Boston-area Music Club, 1948. Accordionist Joe Derrane is seated in the front row, center. Margaret (Peggy) Clancy Irish Music Collection, Irish Music Center, John J. Burns Library

Nine days before 74-year-old button accordionist Joe Derrane learned he had won a National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship—America's highest honor in folk and traditional arts—the Randolph, Massachusetts, musician was sitting before a tape recorder in a Gasson Hall classroom at Boston College. He was the May 3rd guest of associate English professor Marjorie Howes, codirector of Boston College's Irish Studies program, and Ann Morrison Spinney, assistant professor of music, who together were teaching a graduate English course entitled "Irish-American Atlantic."

Derrane captivated the students with his recollections of the thriving Irish dance-hall scene during the 1940s and '50s along Dudley Street in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. He spoke in colorful detail about five halls—the Hibernian, Rose Croix, Intercolonial, Dudley Street Opera House, and Winslow Hall—located within 300 yards of one another, and how several thousand Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans arrived by bus and elevated train to dance on Thursday ("Maids' Night Out") and weekend evenings. To punctuate his points, Derrane played a few tunes, including "The Southern Shore" and "The Showman's Fancy" hornpipes as well as "Contentment Is Wealth" and "The Butcher's March" jigs, all popular during the Dudley Street era.

The recording of Derrane's visit will be added to the archives of the Irish Music Center at the University's John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, illustrating the center's commitment not just to preserve the past but also to seize the present. "It's part of what makes us unique," says Elizabeth Sweeney, the center's director. "Having musicians perform or talk about their music and lives is vitally important. It's a living tradition, after all, and we need to keep that in mind as we expand the collection." The center is also committed to increasing access to its archives, and work has begun on digitizing the collection with the aim of making at least some of its contents available on the Internet.


MORE THAN 9,000 hours of recorded music, 300 videotapes, 1,900 books, and 1,300 other items of historical interest—from photographs to instruments—occupy the Irish Music Center's secure, climate-controlled archives, which are widely regarded as the most important college repository of Irish traditional music in America. The center was founded in 1998, and the archives were jointly established in 1990 by the Irish Studies program, Music Department, and Burns Library, with seminal input from Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, currently director of the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick.

During the 1989–90 academic year, Ó Súilleabháin, then head of the Irish Music Program at University College Cork, was a visiting professor of music at BC. He organized the Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival, an epic campus gathering of 16 Irish and Irish-American fiddlers over a March weekend in 1990. "The archives are really an offshoot of that festival," he recalls. Ó Súilleabháin deposited audiotapes of the performances with the Burns Library, along with videotaped interviews he'd conducted with some of the artists. (A compact disc, My Love Is in America, was produced from the festival and released by Green Linnet Records in 1991.)

The Irish Music Center is also the repository for more than 70 digital audiotapes, or roughly 140 hours, of live music originally compiled on reel-to-reel tapes over five decades by Séamus Connolly, BC's Sullivan Artist in Residence in Irish Music. These include rare, private recordings of Tipperary's Paddy O'Brien (1922–91), a hugely influential button accordionist with whom Connolly performed for 14 years; Sligo's Paddy Killoran (1904–65), a fiddle master whom Connolly taped at a concert in Ireland in 1958; and New York City's Andy McGann (1928–2004), perhaps America's finest native-born fiddler in the Irish traditional style.

"I met Andy at a house party in the Bronx two nights after I arrived in America for a tour in 1972," says Connolly, a Clare-born fiddler and himself the winner of an unprecedented 10 All-Ireland solo titles. "Andy played all night long, and I recorded the whole thing." The recording contains a priceless gem: the sound of McGann dancing, at 5:45 in the morning, to an old hop jig he learned directly from Sligo fiddling legend Michael Coleman. All of these recordings are now being transferred onto compact disc at the Irish Music Center.


OTHER notable holdings in the archives have come from Philip McNiff '33, former director of the Boston Public Library; Michael Bowles, director of the RTÉ Symphony in Ireland; Myron Bretholz, a Maryland master on bodhrán (the handheld Irish frame drum) who donated more than 1,400 LPs; and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the world's largest organization of Irish traditional musicians, which chose the Irish Music Center as a repository for its North American archive.

Also in the archives are recordings of benefit concerts held on campus in November 2001 for Scots singer Tony Cuffe, who died shortly thereafter, and the concerts, lectures, and artist interviews conducted during 10 years of Gaelic Roots, BC's internationally renowned summer festival and music school organized by Séamus Connolly between 1993 and 2003. (Boston College Irish Studies Program Celebrates Gaelic Roots, a two-CD package of live performances recorded in 1993 and 1995, was released by Kells Music in 1997.)

Another Irish Music Center jewel is the Frederick M. Manning Collection of the Irish tenor John McCormack's recordings and memorabilia. "Archivists are very reluctant to use the word 'definitive' in describing a collection," Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill says, "but I do think that one is the premier collection of its kind." On June 4, 1996, O'Neill and Connolly traveled together to the Manning home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to look over the collection. "It was just brilliant," O'Neill says. "Séamus could barely contain his enthusiasm for what he saw there."

No other Irish tenor in history achieved the popularity and influence of Athlone, County Westmeath-born John McCormack (1884–1945), who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1919. McCormack's stirring renditions of operatic arias, lieder, and Irish parlor songs such as "Macushla," "Mother Machree," and "Ireland, Mother Ireland" made him a household name and, for a time, the highest-paid concert performer in America.

The Manning collection includes McCormack's unpublished, mainly handwritten memoirs, photographs, recordings, contracts, letters from dignitaries, telegrams, and other correspondence, 468 pieces of sheet music, and one of the tenor's little black books. "McCormack had song lyrics in them that he used as prompts on stage," explains O'Neill. During a performance the singer would hold or keep a book nearby and consult it if he forgot any of the words. "It would be the equivalent of today's teleprompter," adds O'Neill.

Among other Burns Library treasures are two harps handcrafted in the early 19th century by noted Dublin harp-maker John Egan, and a first-edition book of music from the late 18th century by Armagh collector and transcriber Edward Bunting that sheds critical light on the ancient Gaelic harp tradition of Ireland. Bunting diligently notated old melodies performed at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival, and he began to publish them three years later, creating a rare source for tunes and techniques then rapidly receding from Irish society.

Ann Morrison Spinney doesn't hesitate in steering her students to the center's resources. "I find the archives to be very user-friendly," she says. "This year I am teaching a course on the English-language ballad traditions in England, Scotland, Ireland, North America, and Australia. We have recordings from the 1960s and '70s that will be essential in putting that together."

Access on a broader scale remains a key goal of the Irish Music Center, though harder to achieve. "We have already in operation a number of digitization projects, and we've invested heavily in duplication equipment," Robert O'Neill notes. "But when we consider making music available online, we run smack into copyright and permission issues."

Even so, there are plans to launch an online, interactive exhibit about Irish music in America by September 2005. "It would include sound samples and visual images, providing a history of Irish music stateside and sampling the resources of the Irish Music Center," says director Sweeney. The audiovisual tour will be available on the center's website.

Earle Hitchner

 

Earle Hitchner is a music columnist for the Irish Echo and a contributing music writer for the Wall Street Journal.

 

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