Calling Mick Moloney a premier Irish musician is almost an insult.
Not that he would take offense at the description, but Moloney is so much more than that. An author, producer of records and festivals, New York University professor with a Ph.D. in folklore, historian, archivist — let’s just say that anyone involved with Irish traditional music over the last 30years should tip his or her hat to Mick Moloney.
Moloney will appear in concert for the Middlesex County Cultural & Heritage Commission on Wednesday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at North Brunswick High School. Musicians will include top-ranked singer/songwriter Robbie O’Connell, former Riverdance fiddler Athena Tergis, button accordionist Billy McComiskey, world champion Irish dancer Niall O’Leary, and one of the premier guitarists in Irish music, John Doyle. “It’s an extended family, and fluid — there’s anywhere from 10 to 20 people who join in at various times and places,” says Moloney in a phone interview from Florida, where he is busy driving from gig to gig. “It’s great fun. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the music more.”
It’s just part of a dizzying pace of activity that the 65-year-old Moloney has maintained since his arrival in America over 30 years ago. As a boy in Ireland’s County Limerick back in the ’50s, he listened to Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle music from England and American folk music on the radio — Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers were among his favorites. That opened his eyes to the possibilities of roots music.
“The music told a story and was part of ordinary people’s perceptions of history,” says Moloney. “When you’re a kid, you don’t analyze it, you just like it. It led me to seek out the traditional music of southwest Ireland, where I grew up. And it wasn’t hard to find. Not on the radio, but out in the country in Limerick and Clare. And when you started meeting the people who were playing it, you realized what amazing musicians they were, and what great people, too. It’s the personal connection to the culture as well as the art itself that makes it so attractive.”
The experience led Moloney to take up the guitar and the tenor banjo, not a very popular instrument at the time. “There were only fewer than 10 banjo players in Ireland working at a reasonable level — now there are over 7,000,” Moloney says. He moved on to study at University College Dublin, and soon he was playing with groups like the Emmett Folk. The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem had just started their legendary conquest of America, introducing their Yankee cousins to the Irish folk ballads that had fallen into disrepute in both America and Ireland. When they returned home to Ireland in the early ’60s, it was as conquering heroes. Before long, every pub in the country featured an earnest group singing the old songs.
“A lot of us were involved with the Clancy Brothers imitators,” says Moloney, “but we quickly moved beyond that.”
In 1966, Moloney joined another group, the Johnstons. With the addition shortly after of Paul Brady on vocals and guitar, the group moved to the forefront of the growing Irish traditional music scene. Their early albums, in 1968 and ‘69, are prized by folk collectors and led to their first tour of America. At first Moloney wasn’t terribly impressed by the other side of the Atlantic. “Well, it was just huge and chaotic and we were traveling all the time,” Moloney remembers. “Hauling gear around — that’s not exactly a romantic way to enter a country.”
By 1971 the group was leaning towards heavily orchestrated versions of the songs of contemporary writers like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and Moloney left for other climes. A stint as a social worker in London followed, and then, in 1973, he moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania and study Irish-American folklore. He’s been here ever since.
“It was a natural evolution of being interested in folk songs and interested in history. Kenny Goldstein [an American folklorist, folk record producer and educator] had gotten me interested in the academic study of folklore when I came to Philadelphia with the Johnstons in 1971. He helped me get a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.”
Moloney’s interests moved into the area of Irish-Amercian music, starting with the early immigrant songs of the early 19th century, full of longing for a homeland left far behind and unlikely to be seen again. He sees it all as part and parcel of an interest in the Irish folklore experience, stating that you really can’t separate one from the other. For example, he has studied the songs of the Irish in the American Civil War. “A pivotal moment in the history of the Irish,” says Moloney, “Because we fought on the Union side in such numbers that we basically made a public statement — ‘We’re American; we’re not just immigrants whose loyalty is questionable.’ It silenced a lot of the anti-Irish criticism. So it was a very important milestone for us.”
That new found confidence was reflected in the Irish vaudeville music of the late 19th and early 20th century, an area on which Moloney has become a recognized expert. “My interest really developed when I moved to New York, to Greenwich Village,” he says, “And I was there where all those vaudeville houses had been, yards from where acts like Harrigan and Hart had flourished. The Irish were a dominant force of the American stage right through the 19th century, from minstrel shows all the way to vaudeville. To understand the kind of material that they would have done, you have to know about the history of the Irish in America.”
Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart were one of the most important theater acts of the late 19th century. Featuring songs by Harrigan with music by David Braham, they depicted the mores of lower class Irish-American life in a way that, in Moloney’s words, “contained deep social insights.” In 2006 he recorded “McNally’s Row of Flats,” a CD entirely devoted to the songs of Harrigan and Braham.
Prior to that, in 2002, Moloney published “Far From the Shamrock Shore: the Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song,” with an accompanying CD. In it, he states that the book is “the story of how the Irish in America stored their historical memories in the songs they brought with them and also in the songs that they wrote and sang in their new home.” Do the Irish do that more than other immigrant groups? “Absolutely,” Moloney states flatly. “We have a long history of doing that in Ireland itself, in the home country, going right back to the bardic era. And people were writing at a high level, the songs and poems of an oppressed people. So that propensity to document our journey and our concerns in song exists more than any other ethnic group that I’m aware of. And in one of the great ironies, we wrote in English, the language of our oppressor.”
Moloney’s involvement in Irish-American music is by no means limited to musings on the printed page. His off-again, on-again group, the Green Fields of America — which he formed in 1978 with the help of Robbie O’Connell and Seamus Egan, a Philadelphia based musician best known as the leader of Solas — has just released a new CD. Over the years Moloney has helped organize the Philadelphia Irish Festival, now in its 34th year; put together Cherish the Ladies, an all-female traditional group, which has flourished for more than 20 years; and helped bring new awareness of Irish-American players who toiled in obscurity for years, such as Ed Reavy and New Jersey’s own Mike Rafferty. He has hosted and consulted on numerous folk music specials on public television, including “Absolutely Irish,” which collected more notable Irish-American musicians in one place than ever before — except perhaps at Mick’s home on a Saturday night.
He is no old fogy, either. Of the new groups which have brought elements of rock ‘n’ roll to traditional music, he says firmly, “I think that the very fact that people like the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly and all those other groups are taking an interest in Irish culture and Irish music, however they might perform it, is a good thing. It’s introducing a new audience to the music and if that audience wants to progress beyond the particular interpretation, then they can. But without those groups, maybe they never would have been aware of the music in the first place.”
Printing out Moloney’s discography as musician and producer takes up four pages of type. Small wonder, then, that he has no time to conduct his famous tours of Ireland anymore, but his friend and collaborator Robbie O’Connell still does. O’Connell’s Celtica Tours takes a group each year to explore the history and scenic beauties of Ireland, and to listen to wonderful Irish music at night, played by Robbie and friends, one of whom just might include Mick.
In 1999 Moloney was honored with the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. More recently, NYU has received a grant from the GRAMMY Foundation to digitalize and preserve approximately 180 hours of field recordings and interviews that Moloney taped in the 1980s and ’90s. They are just the tip of the iceberg; 811 hours of taped performances and oral histories that he made between 1961 and 2005 are collected in the school’s Archives of Irish America.
“I’m very lucky that a 25-year endeavor ended up with a major commitment from a major university to digitize and to provide public access. You know, a lot of collections just end up gathering dust,” says Moloney.
One of the Edward Harrigan songs that Moloney has recorded is titled “Muldoon the Solid Man.” In it, the singer points out his credentials as “a man of great influence and educated to a high degree..and all along the street all the friends I meet saying there goes Muldoon he’s a solid man.” No one who knows, or has been helped and influenced by Mick Moloney, would hesitate to give him the same props.
He says modestly, “I’ve always enjoyed helping out in whatever way I can. When I hear something wonderful, my first inclination is that people should know about this. I think any of us would do that. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I suppose.”
Mick Moloney: Traditional Irish Music, Song, and Dance, Middlesex County Cultural Commission, North Brunswick High School, Raider Road and Route 130. Wednesday, March 4, 7 p.m. Irish folk music on fiddle, guitar, and concertina. Register. Free. 732-745-4489 or www.co.middlesex.nj.us/cultureheritage.
Directions: Route 1 North to the exit for Route 130 South. Travel one mile on Route 130 South to 1 Raider Road.