The Tune’s The Thing

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.