by Yuri Andreychuk
Visiting Moscow, March 2008
Paddy O’Brien from Co. Offaly is not just one of the most famous Irish accordionists in the world but also a man who had developed so many abilities that one can hardly put into practice in a lifetime. He is also a recognized musician, collector, composer and even a poet.
Above all, Paddy is a little bit of a philosopher and a very outstanding figure. In Ireland and in the USA they speak of him like we of Peter Mamonov—“a mystery-man.” But everything he got from life – from his name to the instrument he wanted to play—could have made his career very difficult from the very start. It is not a big secret that an accordionist called Paddy O’Brien could have become a prominent and influential figure in Irish music just as well as Ivan Smirnov in Russia, for example. More to say, due to the irony of fate one of the most elder famous accordionists had the same name and surname.
Paddy O’Brien was born September 13, 1945 in Castlebarnagh, Co. Offaly. He started learning accordion on his own. When he was young, Paddy traveled Ireland a lot playing sessions with various older musicians, to name a few prominent: legendary fiddler from Donegal John Doherty, fiddler from Co. Antrim—Frank MacCollum and Paddy Fahy as well. A good experience that proved useful in creating his own manner of play was his cooperation with some pipers, for example, Tom Nolan. From the older musicians he tried to get a special attitude to music—not to look at it as a job but to consider it to be a lifestyle. And he surely managed to remember dozens of dances from those musicians. At the late 1950s, and the beginning of the 1960′s in Ireland, the radio played a great part in stimulation of interest in traditional music. Paddy was especially keen on programs like «Céilí House» and «A Job of Journeywork».
Paddy O’Brien first played in public in 1966, when he was in a band with Peter Kilroe, Dan Cleary, and others from Ballinamere.
In 1968 he decided to go on his first trip to America and toured the eastern United States with Seán and Kathleen Ryan. They played traditional music in community halls and clubs. After returning in April 1969, being already experienced, Paddy moved to Dublin to attend regular pub and club sessions with fiddlers: first of all—John Kelly and Joe Ryan, and also Seán Keane from Chieftains and Tommy Potts. James Keane, who later moved to the USA, was the accordionist who influenced O’Brien most of all. For Paddy all that seemed kind of informal lessons, augmented by various stories about the music and the people who played it. Those lessons were a great value to him. Bars became his universities, as for the majority of Irish traditional musicians. He still speaks about session rules as a good training saying, “lots of bartender girls turned hard of hearing in my lifetime.” Young Paddy O’Brien got much good advice, important records, etc. Living in Dublin, like the majority of the musicians, above sessions, in order to develop his sense of rhythm and to feel dancers on stage, he began playing in ceili-bands at large Irish dancing parties. It was the time when Paddy finally managed to settle down on Dublin music scene. For several years he played with two bands at the same time—the famous Castle Céilí Band since 1969 and Ceoltoiri Laighean (or ‘Leinster Musicians’) since 1971. Each of the bands made records, which were a success with the critics. Both groups were active on TV, radio, gave numerous concerts in Ireland and abroad.
Then O’Brien’s recognizable style of accordion playing was already coming forward. “The way I’m playing is not very delicate,” he says. Many would agree that Paddy O’Brien’s music is remarkable due to its simplicity, clarity and confidence in every phrase. There is time for every note in every ornament under moderate tempo even in the fastest dances, which however doesn’t make them less danceable and slow, but even clearer, stable and especially rural. And that also gives a feeling of the continuity of the dance. In that skill of “hustling unhurriedly” without any bustle and unnecessary notes, as Paddy puts it, is hidden the connection with the old masters’ art, with the very thing they left us with the dance tunes.
It is probably not a fortuity that considering such an attitude in combination with perfect knowledge of the origins of the Irish tunes, the music performed by him was added to the book «Dance Melodies of Ireland» (Ceol Rince na hÉireann) by Breandán Breathnach – the foremost scholarly work on the Irish music. Tearing up with the famous scientist and collector brought Paddy lots of new records.
In the early 1970s Paddy worked his way up to professional Irish musician from amateur—by way of regional contests and festivals. His skill of playing two-row accordion or as they call it in Ireland, “button box”, was rewarded: he won many contests—for example, the Oireachtas—four times. The main goal for every Irish musician or dancer is always a victory in the open championship of Ireland (All-Ireland), in fact the most difficult, and not proclaimed all over the world championship, which gathers together the best artists once a year. It opens the way to new prestigious contracts and gives a professional status. Also a victory in All Ireland or Fleádh Cheoil championship in Ireland stays with the musician forever, like the Olympic champion title. The All-Ireland of his own Paddy O’Brien of Offaly won in 1975, in Buncrana.
His further career, as well as many other famous Irish musicians, who hadn’t found any funds for traditional music projects at home, no support and understanding from cultural officials, is connected with America. The interest towards Irish music was growing constantly in the USA. But its standard still stayed rather low. Paddy never pinned any hopes upon America: “Yes. They want to play Irish music but the question is the way they are doing it.” Living in two houses, being rather poor, Irish musicians were to put Irish music and its idea to new high standards in the USA. And they partly succeeded.
In 1978 Paddy returned to the USA to make an album «Is It Yourself?» for Shanachie with fiddler James Kelly, John Kelly’s son, and guitarist Dáithí Sproule. The trio became known as «Bowhand». They gave plenty concerts, played at different festivals in Washington, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Fransisco, Boston, New York and others—all over the United States. «Bowhand» recorded the second record «Spring in the Air» in 1980 and several times appeared at National Public Radio in Saint Paul. The project lived about 5 years, was recognized among Irish music lovers all over the world and is surely worth another article.
In 1983 Paddy O’Brien settled in Minnesota. He began touring the USA with Cork banjo player Seán O’Driscoll and Saint Paul singer and guitarist Tom Dahill. That group, known as «Hill 16», released an album of the same name in 1984.
From the middle of 1980s Paddy toured with different musicians. In 1988 he made his first solo album “Stranger at the Gate” on the Green Linnet label along with Dáithí Sproule. Various dances were included in the album: not only jigs and reels but also marches and “highlands” (an Irish version of Scottish dance ‘strathspey’). Many dances that Paddy has written perfectly match the traditional tunes of the musicians of the past.
In June 1992 Paddy O’Brien was invited to appear on a traditional music showcase «The Pure Drop» on Irish national TV. Along with other musicians, like Clare fiddler Martin Hayes and Dublin piper Pat Broaders, Paddy O’Brien in between times became one of the anchor musicians for “John D. McGurk’s” pub in Saint Louis, the only pub in the USA that could boast Irish traditional music seven nights a week. Since the very day not a single large Irish arrangement in Saint Louis could do without them. But having linked himself with the USA, he hadn’t become an American at all and continued to carry out many interesting projects—not only in the States but also in Ireland.
In 1993, Paddy published two poems dedicated to the legendary pipers, Seamus Ennis and Willy Clancy, in Dal gCais magazine in Co. Clare (associated with the Willie Clancy Summer School).
In 1994, Paddy succeeded as a teacher. He conducted a weeklong workshop at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. He also made an education program for the school. There he also gave concerts. That year he organized a concert tour all over Ireland, which was a great success.
Among musicians and Irish traditional music collectors Paddy O’Brien was and still is one of the most important keepers of the tradition. During his almost 40-year career he collected more than 3,000 different jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches and slow airs, among which there are lots of rare and unusual ones, and many famous ones exist in different versions. Not so long ago his collection hasn’t been recorded at all—with a perfect memory, Paddy simply remembered every one by heart! In autumn 1994, Paddy got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to record and annotate more than 500 jigs and reels from his wide repertoire in a compilation called “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection” (unfortunately not in Ireland, but in the USA).
Afterwards he spent the rest of the fall and the most part of the winter to record 500 selected tunes to be added to “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection.” It was released in July 1995 and at once has been hailed as a precious and indispensable resource by Irish musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. In late 1995, along with the famous fiddler Martin Hayes and Aidan Brennan Paddy gave a tour and a series of master-classes in Alaska.
Soon afterwards Paddy made a band known as Chulrua (as the legend goes, that was the name for one of Finn MacCumhaill’s dogs from the Irish myths). He plays with them to this day. The project is Irish-American again. It includes guitarist and singer from Tipperary Pat Egan, and American uilleann piper Tim Britton.
Paddy O’Brien is untiring. That man was destined to be the embodiment of the living Irish tradition. He had enough attention, perfect ear and memory, and supple fingers as well to collect and adopt the legacy of the musicians and collectors of the past times. He had skillful mind, kindness and sensitiveness to give all that to young generations in different countries in the modern language and to let them know that every traditional music is not a set of inert standards and techniques, but a whole world, alive and following its own rules. And here it seems quite natural that there is a place for an author to appear, not to keep within the strict borders, to bring something bright and individual, and at the same time not to destroy the law with excess experiments, to value that inner integrity that keeps Irish music alive for so many generations. Each and every generation of Irish musicians has its way. But in fact it is the one and only road. One for all. Critics and listeners often quote Paddy O’Brien. And we will follow the tradition choosing the most popular and clear one as our epigraph.
[i] That is why Paddy O’Brien is known with the additional name from his native Co. Offaly or «Paddy O’Brien Jr.». All that – in order to distinguish him and legendary accordionist Paddy O’Brien from Co. Tipperary («Paddy Senior»), long passed away. But, as it goes for the elder and younger, two Paddies’ ages vary a lot, and they are not relatives but only namesakes. It is interesting that Paddy O’Brien Jr. of Offaly is more or less known here—both solo and in compilations of “Celtic music,” and also for his Bowhand albums, his name is almost common and means “Irish accordionist,” while the senior one is not known at all, despite the fact that he was the man to develop and improve manner of playing Irish two-row accordion and became epochal figure in Ireland.
Music on the Boil: A Singing & Dancing Kettle from Chulrua
by Tom Clancy
Originally published in Irish Music Magazine, January/February 2008. Reprinted with permission.
The glowing reviews of Chulrua’s new album, The Singing Kettle, are steaming in. It’s a strong brew, rich and sweet, like a good pot of Irish tea. Chulrua is one of the musical combinations graced with the presence of box player Paddy O’Brien.
The band had a successful tour of Ireland in August and September, including performances at the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry. There’s something beautifully pristine about the music on this second Chulrua recording–it leaps into life every time. O’Brien has an unyielding respect, even reverence, for the melody. He insists that you hear it in its purest, most memorable form. Not a single melody on the album sounds rushed–the reels have a definite, delicate forward momentum, the jigs jog along delightfully, and the hornpipes are deftly played. In Patrick Ourceau and Pat Egan, O’Brien has found two like-minded collaborators.
Ourceau plays the reels of the title track solo on the fiddle with memorable, maple-syrup sweetness. He seems to reach in and bring out the heart and soul of the melody for our consideration. It’s paired with “Gooseberry Fair,” a tune delightfully ornamented with a round of chiming double-stops.
I asked O’Brien to take us inside the making of the album. Where does that vivid, vibrant sound come from? “Our sound has a lot to do with the combination of the warm tone from the fiddle (Patrick plays a wonderful instrument) and the accordion specially tuned to blend with the fiddle tone. It’s the choice of tunes, and how they are matched together, really, that determines the pace and speed at which they should be played. This in turn allows the notes to breathe, or make their musical statement. If tunes are played too fast, it can choke the phrasing, if you’re not careful. It’s all about interpretation, which is so important in getting the feel and emotion out of Irish traditional music.”
O’Brien also talks about “…tuning the tune.” What does that mean, I wondered? “It helps the phrasing knowing the tune very well, so you can develop the melody for more appeal, i.e., the inclusion of certain variations, as in “The Gander at the Pratie Hole.” There are nice ‘filler notes’ in “Wellington’s Advance” which give it a better flow and more body, and the few variations enhance the melody. I do this kind of thing as I developed individual tunes, especially tunes I know a long time. There’s always something new to discover. I didn’t develop “Wellington’s Advance” just for the CD; I did it over a long period of time because I enjoyed the tune, and later decided to use it on the recording. I believe Patrick does the same with some of his tunes, e.g., “Eddie Moloney’s/Roll Her on the Mountain.” That selection I learned from Patrick.”
The version of “The Morning Dew” is especially brilliant. “There is an old three-part version of “The Morning Dew” recorded by Michael Coleman. The version on The Singing Kettle is a two-part version from Joe Cooley. Where he got it, I’ve no idea. These two Morning Dews are an example of two settings of the same tune.”
I love their version of “The Drunken Sailor;” what’s the modern history of that piece? “”The Drunken Sailor” is usually played in G minor, however, I play it in A minor. The original five-part version is in O’Neill’s. Tommy Potts made the tune his own; he played it in G minor, and put in little variations here and there that enhanced it greatly. He was the one who composed the sixth part that I play solo on the recording, and much of the way I play it is from Tommy Potts.”
Patrick Ourceau is a lovely fiddle player. His solo on the title track is a very fine bit of playing. I particularly like the tight unison playing on those tracks where you and he go note for note. Where does he get those chops from? “Patrick Ourceau is no doubt a great fiddle player, and has a great sense of melody. He is very good at honing into the notes and settings of tunes from East County Clare players like Paddy Canny and people like Joe Bane.”
How do you go about selecting tunes and combinations/sets for a recording? “As far as the selections are concerned, I usually come up with a basic outline, and we each choose our own solo material. Sometimes we record more than we need, so we’re able to pick and choose the best tracks. We do the layout of the tunes in order as part of the mixing, and I do it according to how I feel about the selections. They’re all in my mind as I work, and I try to create a mood and a sense of life throughout the album, a sense of movement from one selection to the next. It’s a matter of trying to keep the energy of the album up at a certain level. This is not a crowd-pleasing energy I’m talking about now, but the natural energy of the tunes themselves and the way they’re played.”
O’Brien is also on record stating that not every jig or reel can be used in track selection. Often a lot of research is involved to find the right tunes. You’re looking for a tuneful blend and older tunes are often better because they may be less contaminated by outside influences.
Pat Egan handles the songs with grace and conviction. Egan is a great collector with a magpie’s eye for shiny little gems. He has two fine songs from Dubliner Mick Fitzgerald. One, “Asha, Asha” turns the old childhood rhyme into a meditation on aging and dying. The other is “The Ballad of Capel Street”–a street that’s heard a lot of ballads over the years, now has one of its own. That song is plucked from Fitzgerald’s brilliant 2003 album, Light Sleeper, but delivered in a more straightforward version. It’s a modern Dublin song with a little Molly Malone tribute in the chorus. “Ashfields in Brine” is from the pen of Archie Fisher, the outstanding Scottish singer-songwriter. And, on the less serious side, a Percy French song, “Bridget Flynn” is given a lively makeover.
Paddy O’Brien is like a seasoned worker who has toiled in the vineyard for many years. His musical journey took him from Offaly to Dublin, London, New York and many other places where the old players plied their trade. In time, he settled in Saint Paul, Minnesota where he became the custodian of a large section of the vineyard that he has tended faithfully over the years. One thing O’Brien learned well from listening to and playing with some of the older masters was how to prune and preserve notes so the tune could bloom and blossom. And he believes in putting old wine into fine, antique glasses. The Singing Kettle is another hearty harvest, another O’Brien vintage.
IRISH MUSIC MAGAZINE
Chulrua • The Singing Kettle
Paddy O’Brien, Accordion
Patrick Ourceau, Fiddle
Pat Egan, Guitar and Vocals
17 tracks; 54 minutes
by Sally K. Sommers Smith
Paddy O’Brien has long been known and celebrated for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish traditional repertoire. He is adept at finding unusual tunes and variants, and in celebrating the individual voice in the flow of traditional practice. On this, his newest recording, he offers a tasty mélange of carefully chosen gems from a wide variety of sources. Tipperary fiddler, Séan Ryan, is recalled in the title track, a duo of the reels “The Singing Kettle/Gooseberry Fair.”
An unusual setting of “Drowsy Maggie,” credited to Mrs. Crotty but also known as “The Reel With the Birl,” appears alongside a resurrection of a fine old tune that was a favourite of Clare fiddler John Kelly.
Paddy O’Brien’s fondness for the music of one of the most original of traditional musicians, Dublin fiddler, Tommy Potts, is evident in his six-part version of” The Drunken Sailor.” The inclusion of “Wellington’s Advance,” a fine jig associated with the playing of the other Paddy O’Brien (from Tipperary), is a welcome addition to this collection.
Although Paddy’s splendid playing and deep immersion in the tradition form the sturdy backbone of Chulrua, Patrick Ourceau contributes soulful, stylish fiddling, and Pat Egan’s excellent guitar accompaniment capably supports their melodies. Pat also possesses a wonderful singing voice, but it is shown to less advantage than it could be by the choice of almost uniformly doleful songs, which strike a somewhat lugubrious note in contrast to the exuberance of the dance tunes. The pace of the playing is relaxed enough to underscore the trio’s masterful variations and ornamentations, and serves as a graceful reminder that we often move too fast to appreciate the measured, cyclic passage of time. In its recalling of past masters, in its thoughtful and well-crafted performances, this recording is at once a wakeup call and a reminder of the things that matter in Irish traditional music.
by Susan Gedutis Lindsay, Boston Irish Reporter
Chulrua — The Singing Kettle
Chulrua (pronounced cool-ROO-ah), translates from the Irish as “red back,” and was the name and distinguishing feature of the favorite wolfhound belonging to ancient Irish hero Fionn MacCumhaill. It’s also the name of the musical trio fronted by button accordion player Paddy O’Brien, with fiddler Patrick Orceau and guitarist Pat Egan.
The Singing Kettle is Chulrua’s third album, and features beautiful and instinctive duo work on a rake of traditional tunes. Their playing together is stellar; it’s like listening to a conversation between old friends, backed throughout by the no-nonsense rhythm guitar of Pat Egan.
The recording features unusual versions of familiar tunes as well as a number of less-often-heard pieces, reflective of the enormous repertoire for which O’Brien has become well known. A native of County Offaly in the Midlands of Ireland, O’Brien now makes St. Paul, Minnesota his home. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to record and annotate 500 dance tunes—a small fraction of his repertoire. Like O’Brien, fiddler Patrick Orceau is an avid student of the old masters and a virtuoso fiddler in the Clare and East Galway style. Originally from France, he has toured extensively in Europe and North America, and taught at many respected Irish traditional music schools. Though they live in cities thousands of miles apart, they think alike musically, according to O’Brien.
“Patrick and I are on the same page about the music—we respond to the same musical instincts. We like the music played not overly fast with a lot of expression and we have a particular taste in kind of tunes we like to play together. We’re very close as musicians and we think very much the same way.”
Most of the tunes selected for this recording are from the southwest of Ireland, mostly from East Clare, West Clare, and North Tipperary. Among the thousands and thousands of Irish tunes, there are varied degrees of recognizable melody, so O’Brien and Orceau chose catchy tunes with their listeners in mind.
One of the most interesting on the recording is also O’Brien’s personal favorite, a colorful take on the wellknown jig “The Gander at the Pratie Hole.” Originally a piper’s tune, Chulrua’s version here was influenced by the wildly experimental—in Irish traditional terms—Tommy Potts, a Dublin-based fiddler who passed on to the Big Session in the Sky in 1988. While O’Brien lived in Dublin, he was a neighbor of Potts and this version of the tune, O’Brien says, is inspired by learning the tune Potts-style—with melodic variations that suggest a different underlying harmonic vocabulary. Typically a two-part tune, the version here is played as a three-part tune, though the “third” part was played by Potts merely as a variation. “My version is kind of half from memory and half from my own feelings about the tune. I made up what I could not remember and just ended up making that third part.” The way they play the tune is not the way one would recognize it necessarily, and includes a number of subtleties that give the tune unique color. “That give you an idea of the way we think of the music,” O’Brien says. (Shanachie Records)
by Bill Margeson
Irish Music Magazine, July 2004
Reprinted with permission
The music. Button box wizard Paddy O’Brien gets it. Really gets it. “What I like in a musician now,” states Paddy, “is the one who plays the nicest tune, even more than the technical musicianship.”
In that one sentence the legendary Offaly-born button box player encapsulates a life spent in the center and soul of Irish music. And that center is the music itself. Not the current fashion. Not the current “hot” group. Not “the buzz.” The music. Period. Full stop.
Born in Offaly in Castlebarnagh, he remembers his first instrument being a mouth organ purchased for him by his parents. Fondly recalling his Mother taking him to local ceilis to hear the music, even as a young lad he knew he had a natural love, memory and understanding of the reels and jigs cascading forth in the local venues. This memory was to serve him well. His parents again bought him another critical instrument—his first button box, a single row Hohner. Receiving it at age 12, Paddy remembers, “The idea of buying an accordion would be a real luxury!” Getting these precepts in hand is critical to understanding the foundation that led to one of the truly encompassing personalities and foundations in traditional music. It starts there. The knowledge. He could hear it. And, as he says, “there was a sweetness inside me for it.”
Employment with the national peat board, Bord na Móna in Boora, Co. Offaly and other efforts never took him far from the music. He didn’t ever want to be far from the music. The early gigs revolved around fondly remembered stints with fiddler Dan Cleary and The Ballinamere Ceili Band in Offaly, and then a transitional moment when Paddy joined The Castle Ceili Band upon moving to Dublin in 1968. It was around this time that he had his first tour with Sean and Kathleen Ryan. He laughingly recalls, “I got stung by the American bug.” Along the road, he found the button box still closest to his heart. It is a Paolo Soprani, tuned to B/C, “before Christ,” laughs Paddy. It is one of the rarest—the gray model, made in 1948, when the company still made them by hand. It originally belonged to the well-remembered and regarded Sonny Brogan.
Needless to say, the amazing amassing of tunes in that memory had become fully formed, and they kept pouring in. Much more on that particular encyclopedia later. He moved to America and New York full-time in 1978 with fiddler James Kelly and guitarist/singer Dáithí Sproule. Their first regular gig was in the famous Dubliner Pub in Washington D.C. This is the fond stuff of memory. A gifted musician meets America and the Irish community there, loves it and makes a career of it.
That would surely be enough for most. We are the beneficiaries of these musicians’ talents. That is really all that is necessary. But not if you’re Paddy O’Brien.
Here comes the “memory thing” again. Brace yourself. It is no exaggeration to say that there are over 4,000 tunes inside his brain and musician’s hands. 4,000. And, he good-naturedly corrects the acolytes who refer to him as a “collector.” Most would consider that he would be listed among the great collectors such as O’Neill, Frank Harte, Breathnach, and the Clancys. But Paddy does not see it that way. Paddy says: “I don’t collect. I accumulate.” The difference? He continues, “I’m not a collector. I never set out to collect in an academic sense. I’m not a crusader. Never planned on a book or anything like that. I guess I’m an accumulator. I’m surely a student. I love the tunes. Maybe it is that easy.” Well, love or not, 4,000 is a staggering amount. Oh, he had his idols as a young player, all right. Joe Burke and Tony MacMahon come quickly to mind. But again and again as one speaks to this musician, there is a quick shedding of the personal, the introspective. If you want Paddy O’Brien to talk, ask him about the music. “There are still geographical, stylistic differences within Ireland but they are disappearing. That is sad. I fear a lot of the music is coming out of books today, and is not being heard and understood before being played. This music takes time; it’s a long-term listening process. Simply playing notes is not enough.”
Asked what styles, or tunes still hold him Paddy shares another insight gained from the decades with those tunes. “A lot of the tunes were originally simple. Dance tunes. Then there were some wonderful pipe players and fiddlers who got hold of those tunes, as an example in West Clare, and actually added variations, phrasings, and filigrees and turned them into masterpieces. I especially love the West Clare way of playing jigs.” Does he still hear a tune that really hits him that he hasn’t heard before? “Well, not often, but sometimes. That is great, really great when it happens. You also hear wonderful and different styles of playing the same tune. Those tunes change titles so often. I first heard a famous tune as, ‘Around The World For Sport,’ but then years later Matt Molloy played it for me and titled it, ‘The Sword In The Hand.’ That also is fascinating.”
We caught up with him just back from a national tour in America. He had returned to his home in Minneapolis and reflected on his group, Chulrua. It includes Patrick Ourceau on fiddle, and Pat Egan on guitar and vocals. Chulrua’s first album was 2000’s, “Barefoot On The Altar” on an independent label. The group was picked up by Shanachie for its second album, “Down The Back Lane,” released six months ago.
“We really want to do a new one and we will release it sometime next year. I also am working along on a solo album, but that is still a ways off.”
So, then, there it is. All done, all down. Wrong! There is so much to say, and the main new plan comes forth in an excited rush. “What I’m really working on now is an ongoing project with Patrick Ourceau. He is a really marvelous fiddler, wonderful. He has such a deep knowledge of the music and he also favors the East Clare style of fiddling. He really is extraordinary, how he deals with a tune, how he deals with the sensitivity he has with the heart of a great tune. What we are really into now is melody making. It is our goal to play the music by putting the expression into it that is normally only offered by a solo musician. This is really difficult, but we feel deeply it is worthy of the music, if we do it right. We are going to do a CD, and we are also touring Ireland in September and October of this year.”
If traditional music is anything like it is thought to be; if it is respectful of its history, if it is sharing with other players, if it is important, then it is worthy itself of people like this. No hype. A love of the sharing with other musicians. Need help? Need a tune? A note? A grace? There are these fountainheads. The aforementioned Frank Harte. Kevin Henry in Chicago. Thank God, there are still these men and women around. Musicians come and go. Styles do, too. Everything changes. But to the Paddy O’Briens of the world, before anything else—albums, money, tours, teaching, learning—there is one light over the whole adventure. The notes. The tunes themselves. The music.
Alpha and omega.
by Jim Walsh, Music Critic
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Friday, March 10, 1995
In the 1500s, during the time of the Gaelic chiefs in Ireland, there were people populating the Emerald Isle known as “carriers.” They possessed extraordinary memories and communication skills and, as such, were entrusted with passing down stories, tunes and folklore to the next generations.
Paddy O’Brien is such a person. Among his many credits, including world-champion accordion player, recording artist and perhaps the most respected player on the Twin Cities traditional Irish music scene, O’Brien has an ability to recall thousands of traditional Irish tunes. Over the years, this transplant from Ireland has amassed a staggering repertoire of material, and many of his contemporaries see O’Brien as a modern-day carrier.
“I don’t know why, but I’ve just always been like that,” he said the other day, sitting in the South Minneapolis apartment he shares with his wife, writer Erin Hart. “I woke up this morning thinking of a way to play a tune. I was just five minutes awake, and I was pondering this jig. I’ve always been taken with this stuff. It just flows through me, like blood.”
Recently, his lifeblood has been flowing with a focused sense of purpose. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, O’Brien has just finished recording 500 reels he has been playing for most of his life. The Minnesota Folklife Society and Irish Music and Dance Association are co-sponsors of the project.
“Over the years, individuals have been urging me to record these things, for fear that they will get lost,” he said. “Because there’s always the worry that things like that – since there are so many of them – will get lost. A lot of great songs are buried in Ireland, literally, in some graveyard somewhere. And that’s a shame. I think music is worth saving.”
Thanks to O’Brien, some very important music will be saved. For most of last December and January, he was holed up in his apartment with a reel -to- reel field recorder on loan from the Library of Congress. The reels he recorded – 500 is only the tip of O’Brien’s iceberg – will be released by an independent patron in the spring and will be available only through folk clubs and Irish music associations.
In this project is a perfect illustration of why arts funding is essential – not only to further the current landscape of arts and music, but to maintain archival material. Still, the 50-year-old O’Brien contends that the $6,500 grant he received from the NEA barely covered basic recording and production costs.
“The money I got wasn’t even close enough to pay me for my time and effort,” he said. “And as far as having the arts cut off from federal money – it’s wacky, it’s crazy. They can’t be given enough money, in my opinion. I could do another project of a thousand tunes, but I need money to do it.”
After the recording process was completed, O’Brien set about the task of writing an accompanying booklet, which contains stories about the reels vital as the music itself. “I felt like I was writing `War and Peace’ or something,” he said. “It just seemed to go on forever.”
Thanks to O’Brien and the NEA, some significant music will be preserved and passed on to the next army of carriers.
“This is the way we always learned tunes in Ireland; we never bothered with sheet music or anything like that,” he said. “We learned by ear. And the tunes here are chosen fairly carefully. They’re chosen with the idea of either reviving the interest in a worn-out tune, or making people go at a different interpretation of a tune they already know. And there’s a lot of tunes that’ve never been heard before; probably the vast amount of them have never been recorded before.
“There’s a younger generation who’ve not heard these tunes at all,” he said. “They’re in New York, St. Louis, Boston, St. Paul, San Francisco and Ireland, and I know who they are, because I was just like them. They can’t wait to get their hands on this, because they’re crazy for a new tune. A new old tune. And I’d be the same, if I was in their position. I would have been first in the queue. I would have camped out all night to get these tapes.”