Paddy O’Brien Talks About The Sailor’s Cravat
by Helene Dunbar
Reprinted from the August 2011 edition of Irish Music Magazine
While many people are predicting the demise of the CD, County Offaly native and Minneapolis resident button accordionist Paddy O’Brien hasn’t given up on them yet. “I’m very much in favor of them as a way to present the music,” he says. “They keep me on my toes.”
O’Brien isn’t just talking the talk. His new CD, The Sailor’s Cravat (New Folk Records in the US, and Cló Iar-Chonnacht in Ireland), has just been released and he has a host of others in the works, none of which he’s afraid of releasing into an uncertain industry. “People know that my recordings will have particular settings of tunes or new tunes. It won’t be any run-of-the-mill stuff that’s been recorded before. But I don’t do it to impress people or to satisfy anybody other than myself. To me, it’s a project that makes me research some of the tunes, that makes me think about pairing tunes together, that makes me more of a disciplinarian.”
You might think that it would be difficult for an artist who, it has been said, had 4,000 tunes committed to memory, to choose tracks for an album but O’Brien isn’t fazed by the task. While he jokes that he chose the ones he “wanted most to get off my chest,” he admits, “I take them from individual solo artists who are, in my estimation anyway, part of the Irish traditional music underground. People who are not high profile, people that play at home, people that compose music.”
As such, this album relies heavily on the compositions of fiddlers Paddy Fahy from East Donegal and Sean Ryan from County Tipperary. “Of course Sean died back in the 80’s but that’s the way with traditional Irish music, I think if people are dead and gone, it gives more credibility to the reputation of the music, in a kind of a funny way,” O’Brien laughs.
Having toured with Ryan and his accordion-playing wife, Kathleen, in the 1960’s, O’Brien says that he had access to some of Ryan’s tunes that have never been heard publicly or recorded before. “Some of this music, I would have it for maybe twenty or thirty years and, during that time, I wouldn’t be playing them all the time but I would keep in touch with them. This album is a result of that.”
In addition to O’Brien, album features Tom Schaefer on fiddle, Paul Wehling on bouzouki and O’Brien’s wife, crime fiction writer Erin Hart, on three sean–nós tracks. Hart and O’Brien met when he invited her up on stage to sing, but, O’Brien laments, “There’s not a lot of opportunity for sean–nós singing because we’re living in a very unforgiving, commercial world. Anything that’s real and honest is being pushed aside in favor of pretentious entertainment. If you get up and sing a song that has a lot of personal input into it, a lot of feeling and expression, it’s hard to do that nowadays with all of this commercial glamour.”
Also on the docket is a solo CD to be called Mixing the Punch as well as new CDs coming from O’Brien’s group Chulrua, and The Doon Ceili Band.
Two other projects have also played heavily on O’Brien’s schedule. The first is a companion to his mid-90’s release, the “Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection,” adding another five hundred tunes to the initial book. “What’s different about this one is that there’s more of a variety of tunes,” O’Brien explains. “So people that are learning new tunes will have a better variety and people who are learning to play an instrument will have a choice because some of the polkas aren’t too hard to play and are a very good choice to introduce one’s self to a musical instrument. Plus it has a book along with the thirteen disks listing of all the titles and the stories and information about the background of the tunes.”
While O’Brien would love to be able to devote more time to tune-collecting he says the economy is playing a part in his decisions. “It’s the same story with everybody these days. We’re just trying to make out as best we can.” At the same time, he’s heartened the music thrives even in a weak economy. “Irish traditional music has always been a social style of music. It has always offered people a chance to come together, and sit around and have a drink and a chat, and do a bit of dancing. And I hear that in Ireland, with the economy the way it is, it’s bringing people together in a more hospitable way, in a more caring way, in a way that is more like how it used to be. A nice kind of understanding of everybody’s plight. The sad thing is that people in Ireland don’t know about all the music going on in the States. This is why I call it the traditional music underground.”
For example, he points to the house concerts and sessions that thrive through the US. “There’s still a lot of very decent followers of the music. People who love to listen and people who go to house concerts. It’s a pleasure to play for them. It’s a very intimate kind of setting to be playing at. It suits the type of music and singing even better than getting up on a huge stage where you feel separated from the audience and the only way you can connect with them is to throw a whole heap of bullshit into the microphone.”
As for sessions, he says that finding the right pub is the trick. “Sessions are more successful in smaller pubs. The smaller the pub and the darker the pub, the darker the corners, the more cobwebs that there were, the more music you have. Musicians are very funny that way. They like to feel safe, and secure, and comfortable, and accepted, and when all these ingredients are put together, you’ll have an energy that is very hard to repeat.”
One last project that O’Brien has invested himself in is a memoir, “The Road from Castlebarnagh” which details his early life in Offaly through his move to Dublin in 1968. “We were living in a thatched house,” he explains, “my father, and mother, and four sisters. We had no electricity or water. It was a very scanty existence. But there was a great social life in the countryside. I had a wealth of stuff to write about. It’s a cultural insight into what life was like in County Offaly in those days of 1954-65. It’s a memory, a human statement of how it was, a human presentation from the mind’s eye of a child, and then a teenager, and then, as I got into my early 20’s, my adult self.”
Of his introduction to music, O’Brien tells a tale that is indicative of its time. “When the radio was put in the house in 1956, I began learning bits of tunes,” he recounts. “A peddler and his donkey arrived with a sack of mouse traps, black polish, hair pins, and other items. He unloaded a lot of stuff onto the floor and there were a couple of mouth organs in the mix. I was about eight and I started screaming to my mother to get me one and she did – for about a shilling. And that was my first instrument.”
As luck would have it, the donkey decided it didn’t want to leave. The peddler tried beating it, which upset O’Brien’s mother who was going to try to lure it to move with a bowl full of turnips. Instead, according to O’Brien, “When I started playing, the donkey’s ears reared up and he made a run for the road. It was my first public performance and a huge flop.”
Once would guess that he hasn’t had a similar experience since.