March 16-22, 2006
Music : ArticleBack in Seisun
Mick Moloney returns for the big day.
A full-time professorial gig at New York University was hard to resist. Besides, even when he maintained a Germantown residence, our man was just as likely to be on the road purveying traditional Irish music and lore as showing up at the local seisun for a few tunes.
So, can you even say you miss Mick Moloney? "I'm back there every other week!" he cries.
But what was he doing here in the first place? Early in his career, the Limerick-born Moloney played tenor banjo, mandolin and guitar in The Johnstons, a group wildly popular in their native Ireland and the U.K. Moloney says they were certainly Irish-identified, "but we incorporated Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, which sounds very pop today but [in the late '60s and early '70s] was cutting edge. We'd be doing jigs and reels and unaccompanied singing, and then this [contemporary singer/songwriter] stuff." It was, as fellow Johnston Paul Brady terms it, "a minor hit with [Joni Mitchell's] "Both Sides Now'" that got them work in the U.S. including a Philly Folk Festival gig in 1971.
If you saw The Johnstons play the Main Point later that year, you witnessed the end of an era. "That was the last gig we ever did together. We couldn't stand the sight of each other anymore," says Moloney with a laugh. (Paul Brady and Adrienne Johnston did keep the band going for a bit longer.) Encouraged by the Folk Festival's Kenneth Goldstein, whose famous ceilidhs (or ceilistraditional Celtic jam sessions) reintroduced the music to hordes of folkies, Moloney eventually made his way to Philadelphia to study in the folklore department at Penn. "I couldn't believe we could do what we loved for a living," says Moloney. That he could study traditional music and culture, and get paid to share it, seemed too good to be true.
"Between Kenny and Dennis Clark, who pioneered the study of Irish-America, I couldn't have been in a better place." Goldstein, in addition to his scholarly work, produced around 200 albums and consulted on numerous festivals. Moloney followed his mentor's example and turned his hand to every possible opportunity to further folklore and its many manifestations.
At the WXPN studios in the '70s, he produced, wrote and hosted a public radio series titled Across the Western Ocean. Working with the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, he was moved to start the regional version, the Folklife Center, at International House, "not just to preserve but also to promote" traditional art formsoften through festivals. Moloney was also the driving force behind the International Village Fair, the city's nine-day ethnic folklife festival celebrating the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987. It was free, offering music and dance performances from any country that also had a constitution. (Disclosure: If you visited the daytime stage in the southeast corner of the Judge Lewis Quadrangle, I was the sound engineer/stage manager.)
In addition to various professorial gigs, Moloney has continued his own musical career, touring with top Irish performers. Along the way he's aided Seamus Egan of Solas, among many other young Irish-American talents.
In the Folklife Center's early days Moloney initiated an annual Irish extravaganza that has been a sure sign of spring ever since. Over the years the event morphed from strictly Irish to an expansive, extended-Celtic-family folk festival, presenting the Irish roots and all the American musics that thrived upon them, from Canada down to Appalachia. This year the focus narrows to Irish-America, with the coincidental release of Moloney's latest recording McNally's Row of Flats (Compass). The title song sets the tone for a historical snapshot of New York City in the 19th century when half the population was Irish, at the dawn of the American musical theater and the heyday of Harrigan and Hart.
Some songs call for a typical ceili band: fiddle, accordion and Moloney's famous tenor banjo. Sprightly piano and fancy accordion lines embroider a sentimental postcard of a promenade on Sunday. But for the more rousing anthems Moloney felt there was something missing in the arrangements. He sounds gleeful as he speaks of the stroke of inspiration that caused him to invite Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks to travel back in time from their usual hot jazz to evoke a Sousa-like sound. Giordano's tuba is especially effective in urging the marchers along in the "Patrick's Day Parade."
The McNally's tracks were originally written for stage productions that entertained the Irish working class of New York, with a snicker, a smirk and the puncturing of inflated egos. Moloney has had a Harrigan-composed song or two in his repertoire for years. "People loved this stuff, because it was genuinely Irish-American."
Mick Moloney's Irish-American Music and Dance Festival, Fri., March 17, 8 p.m., $23-$47 (optional 6 p.m. dinner lecture $15), Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., 215-898-3900, www.pennpresents.org.