At their concerts, folksingers like Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger will sometimes refer to “the folk tradition.” Flutist Mike Rafferty, 80, of Hasbrouck Heights in Bergen County, is, like Guthrie and Seeger, a living embodiment of the folk tradition. He learned his particular brand of Irish flute styling from his father, Tom “Barrel” Rafferty, who played flute and Uilleann pipes.
Rafferty, who came to the United States in 1949 but was raised in Ballinakill, East Galway, in the west of Ireland, will perform at the 33rd annual New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, April 28, in New Brunswick. Since the early 1950s, when he befriended the Clancy Brothers and other Irish traditional musicians around New York City, he has established himself as a premier traditional Irish music performer and teacher.
Rafferty, the youngest of four boys, was raised with their three sisters before the era of television, and says that entertainment was the responsibility of himself, his father, and his extended family. “In those days transportation was very slack and we had no telephones and no TV. My father began teaching me some of what I know about music when I was seven, and when I was seven and a half, I graduated from the tin whistle to the flute,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Hasbrouck Heights. “Both my mother and father were involved in farming. We grew our own crops and vegetables and potatoes and maybe raised a couple of cows. That’s all we knew, how to farm, and it was all done by horses, work, and ploughing,” he says.
At the Rafferty home in Ballinakill, “we’d get together and have house parties with plenty of singing and playing along. We had a little room off the kitchen and there would be some drinking going on, too, if you could afford it,” he says.
While Rafferty credits his father for a good deal of his music education, “there were a lot of other musicians around the area you could listen to and learn from, and many of them were older. But if there was someone around your own age, you might have a little competition going with them. It was the only thing to do for recreation, and two of my older brothers didn’t play any music and my sisters didn’t get into it too much either.” He says one of his brothers was a very good flute player.
At 23, he traveled by ship, the S.S. Washington, to New York, and quickly settled in White Plains, NY. “You come to make a better living and things were kind of slack over there. I had no trade and I was just known as a farm laborer. We came over to look for gold on the streets, but of course, we didn’t find any.”
He worked at a private estate in Purchase, NY, and did vegetable gardening before going to work for the Grand Union Co., where he worked until 1989, when the supermarket went bankrupt.
Once in the New York area, Rafferty fell in with Jack Coen, Joe Madden, Mike Preston, and other traditional Irish musicians, including the Clancy Brothers. “You might have heard of Cherish the Ladies, and Joe’s daughter, Joanie Madden, is a part of that group,” he says. He began gigging out at pubs and ballrooms around New York City, including the hotbed of Irish traditional music, the Bronx.
“I don’t go into the pubs anymore to play, I just do occasional concerts and festival shows,” he says, adding that he often performs with his daughter, Mary Rafferty-Clancy. (Mary married one of Liam Clancy’s sons.) Rafferty has recorded three albums with his Mary including “The Dangerous Reel,” “The Old Fireside Music,” and “The Road from Ballinakill,” and most recently, his solo release, “Speed 78.” Mary also recently recorded an album under her own name.
He says a first big career break came about in 1976, when he was asked to perform with Mick Moloney at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, a free festival held the last weekend in June and first weekend in July on the Mall in Washington, DC. “Mick Moloney was the organizer of all that, and we spent a great, memorable week in Washington, D.C. There were 30-odd countries represented,” he says.
He played flute and penny whistle in a 1979 U.S. tour of a group Moloney organized, Greenfields of America. In 1984, Rafferty was selected to travel with a group of Irish musicians back to Ireland.
Aside from the occasional festival or concert hall show, Rafferty supplements his income with teaching, “but they have to be adults and fairly advanced with flute and want to learn new tunes. I have three or four people during the week,” he says. Rafferty has taught and performed at traditional Irish music camps in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Nova Scotia.
In 2003, Rafferty received the Irish Echo newspaper’s award for traditional musician of the year and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Kerry Men’s Association of New York and the Galway Men’s Association of New York.
Other performers at New Jersey Folk Festival will include Yaya, an a cappella group from the Dominican Republic; the Reed Island Rounders, who play old-time Appalachian music; the Delaware Valley Celtic Harp Orchestra; gospel singers Keia Storey and Call to Worship; blue grassers Mountain Heritage; and Conjunto Folklorico of Alianza Dominicana. Singer-songwriters like Spook Handy, Patrick Fitzsimmons, Pat Guadagno, Arlington Priest, Dave Murphy, Chris Elliot, and Jan Bell and the Cheap Dates will also perform.
At the festival, Rafferty’s daughter Mary will join him for some tunes; he says she does a much better job of explaining the origins of tunes. Mary is the youngest of his five children, “the last of the Mohicans and the only one who decided to take up Irish traditional music,” says her father. “Sometimes, you have to mention the history of a tune and who composed it originally, if I can remember,” he says. “I can remember what I did 50 years ago, but I can’t remember what I did five minutes ago.”
On the main stage at the New Jersey Folk Festival, Rafferty will be honored with a lifetime achievement award by folk festival founder and director, Angus Gillespie, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University. His acceptance of the award will be followed by a musical performance.
“It’s enjoyable, and it’s the chance to travel and meet nice people,” Rafferty says of the musician’s life, “and it provides just a little bit of beer money for you.” Rafferty reveals one secret to his longevity — he says he’s been a lifelong tea drinker who occasionally has a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson’s.
33rd Annual New Jersey Folk Festival, Saturday, April 28, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., rain or shine, Woodlawn, Douglass College campus, George Street and Route 18, New Brunswick. Performers include Mike Rafferty, Reed Island Rounders, Yaya, Conjunto Folklorico of Alianza Dominicana, Delaware Valley Celtic Harp Orchestra, Mountain Heritage, Keia Storey and Call to Worship, Paul Austerlitz, Latin Heat Dance Group, Scarlet Mambo, Eileen Goodman and Daughters, Patrick Fitzsimmons, Pat Guadagno, Dave Murphy, Spook Handy, and others. Free. http://njfolkfest.rutgers.edu or 732-932-5775.