A Brief Overview of Irish Music in America

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March 17, 2015

Last week I wrote about Séamus Pender, who performs Irish music throughout this region and Massachusetts.  During the course of our conversation, I asked Séamus about how Irish music became popular in the United States.  He began with a little background about its music traditions. Irish instrumental music that features the fiddle, as well as mouth music (also known as lilting) was dance music.  Ballads, which often evoked sadness or longing, were unaccompanied. Nowadays, the ballads are considered old fashioned.

Bing Crosby album

In the early 1900’s Chauncey Olcott (along with George Graff) wrote When Irish Eyes are Smiling. “Neither had been to Ireland,” Séamus explained, “but as its popularity grew, especially when Bing Crosby recorded it in the 1930’s, it became considered Irish American music.  And people growing up in the 1950’s only knew this Tin Pan Alley, schmaltzy version of Irish music.”  Other songs of this genre that were popular include novelty songs like My Little Blarney Stone (Or Tipperary Mary Cary) and If I Knock The "L" Out of Kelly.

Sean O Riada

During this time, in the 1950’s, the Chieftains formed. “Seán Ó Riada was a classical composer who wanted more authenticity in Irish classical music, just as many other composers brought in folk music from their culture, like Dvorak for example.  Seán Ó Riada died young, and Paddy Maloney (founder of the Chieftains) carried on this tradition of including Irish folk music into musical pieces.  The Chieftains helped to move Irish music from dance tunes to something you listened to.”

Chieftains

“Then in 1960’s the Clancy Brothers came to America.  Originally they wanted to become actors although they didn’t make it.  Tommy Clancy lived in Dover, NH and worked in a mill.”  The four brothers played in Greenwich Village. After a performance in 1962 a scout invited them to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.  “That night the following act cancelled at the last minute, so they were able to play for two slots on the show.  They performed traditional Irish music with gusto. It created an interest in this genre so Irish pubs started opening up and they would bring over singers from Ireland.”