Self-indulgence, or One Man's Musical Education and Development

People like browsing lists, or so I'm told. Probably a lot easier than plowing through tortured prose. With that in mind, here is a sampler of the foundational influences that sparked my initial interest and dabbling in traditional music. Why bother with it? Well, I for one am always interested in hearing how people have chosen their various musical routes, and what signposts they've encountered. Maybe some of you out there have had similar experiences along the road -- or not. Whatever they may be, feel free to share 'em.


Arguably, there could be others here -- listening to, say, Doc Watson, David Bromberg and the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album certainly provided some inspiration for my nascent folk music interest. But during the first several years when I truly began to focus on British Isles and Irish traditional music, this is what wound up on my turntable most often.

Various: "Ireland"; Columbia Records' "Folk and Primitive Music" series--This famous recording, undertaken by and also featuring Seamus Ennis, includes many traditional singers and performers, among them Joe Heaney and Margaret Barry.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand: "Spencer the Rover is Alive and Well and Living In Ithaca"; "Dark Ships in the Forest"--Heard them at the Fox Hollow Festival (q.v.) and was immediately taken by their spirit, wit and, most of all, damn fine singing.

Steeleye Span: "Please to See the King"; "Ten Man Mop"; "Below the Salt"; "Parcel of Rogues"--See, it wasn't just that they used electric guitars and drums, and a rock'n roll sensibility, to play British Isles folk, it was that did so intelligently and creatively.

Martin Carthy: "Prince Heathen" (with David Swarbrick); "Shearwater"; "Sweet Wivelsfield"; "Crown of Horn"--Holds the first throne in my Pantheon of Guitar Gods.

Fairport Convention: "Liege and Lief"; "Full House"; "Angel Delight"--For many, "Liege and Lief" was the seminal folk-rock album, and it's awfully hard to argue.

Pentangle: "Cruel Sister"--Although a "traditional" album in one sense -- all the songs are taken from the British Isles folk tradition -- the characteristic jazz and blues influences Pentangle brought to the table made it near-impossible to pigeonhole them. The familiar phrase "folk rock" fails abjectly.

The Chieftains: "Chieftains 4"; "Bonaparte's Retreat"--OK, was anyone else inspired to play air-bodhran after hearing Peader Mercier's solo during the medley of slides at the end of "4"?

Boys of the Lough: "Boys of the Lough" (first album); "Second Album"; "Live at Passim"--Easy to overlook sometimes, but one of their most important contributions to the revival was their continual exploration of the links, rather than the differences, between Irish, Scottish and Shetland music.

The Silly Sisters: "The Silly Sisters" (first album)--Maddy Prior and June Tabor, accompanied by some of the most prominent figures in the British Isles folk revival (Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan, etc., etc.)

Planxty: "The Well Below the Valley"; "Cold Blow and the Rainy Night"--The combination of Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny on various fretted-string instruments, e.g. mandolin, mandola and bouzouki, set alongside Liam O'Flynn's piping, was, and is, one of the best things to come out of the Irish folk revival. Oh yeah, and then there's Christy Moore.

De Danann: "De Danann" (first album); "Selected Jigs, Reels and Songs"--Alec Finn's innovative bouzouki style was certainly a big attraction for me, but certainly can't ignore Frankie Gavin's zesty fiddling, which for me really came to the fore on "Selected Jigs..." Their ever-changing cast of vocalists, I think, somewhat hindered their overall development, but then again the transition here between Dolores Keane and Johnny Moynihan makes for an arresting and hardly unpleasant contrast.

Nic Jones: "Ballads and Songs"; "The Noah's Ark Trap"--My second Guitar God.

Frankie Armstrong: "Lovely on the Water"; "Ballads and Songs"--Another Fox Hollow discovery. One minute she can practically sing through steel walls, the next she's soft as gossamer.

The Young Tradition: "The Young Tradition" (Elektra Records compilation of two albums); "Galleries"--Don't know how many people under the age of, say, 35 (or less) even heard of YT, one of the most compelling a cappella groups produced by the folk revival. As individuals, very different voices and temperaments; together, quite powerful, at times mesmerizing. A friend once described "Galleries" as the "Sargeant Pepper" of folk albums.

Peter Bellamy, "Peter Bellamy"--The first "American" album (recorded at and released by Green Linnet) of this former Young Traditioner. Not everyone appreciated Bellamy, not the least because of his "bleating" (even he called it that) vocals, but he was one of those rare individuals who was able to put traditional songs into a quite modern context. So it was that on this album he could place a bittersweet seafaring song, "On Board a 98," and two comic numbers, "Bungay Roger" and "Rag Fair," alongside Al Stewart's "Nostradamus."

The Bothy Band: "The Bothy Band -- 1975"; "Old Hag You Have Killed Me"--I don't think I've ever met anyone who wasn't influenced, to some degree, by the guitar-bouzouki intro to the "Kesh Jig" set on the first Bothy album.

Andy Irvine and Paul Brady: "Andy Irvine and Paul Brady"--There are few albums that have contributed so much to the modern Irish folksinger's repertoire, e.g. "Arthur McBride," "Plains of Kildare," "The Jolly Soldier" and "Martinmas Time."

Robin and Barry Dransfeld: "Lord of All I Behold"--Not very well-known outside the UK, this band of brothers put out some rather low-key but deceptively intricate albums of mainly English folk/trad music during the 1970s.

Five Hand Reel: "For A'That"--Folk rock along the Steeleye and Fairport route, but distinctly Scottish. Dick Gaughan, another guitarist whose work I've admired, was a member of the band for a while and appears on this recording.

The Watersons: "For Pence and Spicy Ale"--This, their 1975 "comeback" album, to my mind deserved attention for reaffirming the importance of vocals, especially unaccompanied, in folk music. In other words, dandy if you can pick a guitar or bow a fiddle, but how are you at singing "Country Life" with a group of friends, and strangers?

The Battlefield Band: "The Battlefield Band" (first album)--The "pre-electrified" version of this band, before the synthesizers and drum machines, amply demonstrates why they wound up becoming so popular: good, solid arrangements that don't overshadow the material, and splendid musicianship.

Alistair Anderson, Jim Hall, Anthony Robb, Carole Robb, Colin Ross: "Cut and Dry Dolly"----I'd never really heard that much Northumbrian piping, or Northumbrian music, for that matter, until I listened to this album. A worthy introduction to both: The musicianship is staggering, and the tunes are some of the best in Northumbrian tradition.

Concerts/Festivals/other events

One of the things I quickly discovered, much to my delight, about folk music was its accessibility, and that of its performers. You could go listen and see your favorite act, and in most cases be able to talk, even drink, with them afterwards. Some of the more memorable events from my initial plunge into folk 'n trad music.

Fox Hollow Festival, Petersburg, NY--I first attended as a 13-year-old and kept going until I was well into college. It started out as a small family-and-friends type of affair and became a major four-day festival that attracted thousands of people. And with good reason, given the performers who regularly played there: Utah Phillips, David Bromberg, Jean Carignon, Jay Ungar, Michael Cooney, Jean Ritchie, Bill Staines, and even the likes of Leon Redbone and Bruce Cockburn. On the UK/Irish/Celtic side of things, Fox Hollow was one of the first American venues for the Boys of the Lough, back when Dick Gaughan was still with the group; Malcolm Daglish and Grey Larson also performed there, and John Roberts and Tony Barrand were practically an annual fixture.

Lisdoonvarna and Ballisodaire festivals, Ireland--Yes, that's the same Lisdoonvarna Festival evoked so lovingly and hilariously by Christy Moore's song. Can't say I encountered exactly the same kind of lunacy and revelry the year I went (1979), but it was certainly memorable because of a rare appearance by Seamus Ennis, and a stunning performance by De Danann, who did four encores. Paul Brady had the unenviable task of following them, but did a damn good job -- in spite of the fact that in the midst of one song the wind began playing smoke from a bonfire directly at him. And oh yes, also appearing were Martin Carthy, Richard and Linda Thompson, Dick Gaughan and even Loudon Wainwright III.
As for Ballisodaire, what can you say when you get the Bothy Band and Planxty performing the same night? You say you've been to a great festival, is what. But one of my vivid memories is jamming with a septugenarian (octogenarian?) flute player under a big tent in the midst of a continual cold drizzle. At one point, he rhapsodized about the festival and the fine people there, then paused and said, "Ach, it's greet tah be aloive!" After the festival, I hitched a ride with three drunken Fermanagh businessmen, but that's another story.

Epping and Norwich Folk festivals, England--Epping was noteworthy for me in that it served as an introduction to Brits who took interest in the music traditions from my country, namely Martin Simpson and Hot Vultures (Folk Roots magazine founder Ian A. Anderson and his then-wife, Maggie Holland). Turnabout's fair play.
Norwich was held on the campus of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, so it was less remote and bucolic than Lisdoonvarna and Ballisodaire. Among the performers at the 1979 edition were Peter Bellamy, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Tannahill Weavers, plus the inimitable Les Barker and Mrs. Ackroyd. Also present was a fellah named John Townsend, a singer I'd gotten to know from my frequent visits to the Hammersmith Folk Club [q.v.], and he invited me to accompany him on mandolin during his set. The Tannahills, whom I'd met at Hammersmith a few weeks before, gave their characteristically high-energy performance, but for me Peter Bellamy was the highlight of the festival. He organized his patented, hilarious Celebrity Folk Quiz, and singlehandedly wrested the main festival lounge from an instrumental session so he could start a songfest.

Other experiences

Pinewoods--This is an enormously popular and dearly loved music and dance camp near Plymouth, Mass., operated by the Country Dance and Song Society. During my late teens I attended a couple of their Folk Music weeks and found it to be a tremendously supportive and encouraging place, where you could learn all kinds of things during the day and try them out at night.

WSCB--During the two-plus years I studied at Buffalo State College, I was an ardent volunteer at the campus radio station, and wrangled a few slots on the broadcast schedule. Naturally, one of my weekly shows focused on folk, both British Isles and American, and this gave me the opportunity to broaden my familiarity with the music and the performers that played it. After all, if you're going to babble over the airwaves in between playing album cuts, it helps if you have at least some idea what you're going on about. That said, I should point out that WSCB broadcast on closed circuit to maybe about half of the buildings on campus. Not exactly a bully pulpit.

Year in the UK and Ireland, 1979--Well, technically I suppose it was more like 11 months. But whatever the duration, it felt like a life-time. I've related bits and pieces of the experience elsewhere on the site, but this really deserves its own free-standing citation. Ostensibly, I went on an independent study from Buffalo State, but this was something like an internship, apprenticeship and walkabout all wrapped into one. I got to go to folk clubs every week. I got to see, and meet, many of the performers who had inspired me to pursue this kind of music. I got to read about and discuss concerns and issues of the day -- as well as the joys and delights -- shared by other folk aficianados.
Perhaps even more importantly, I got some regular performance experience under my belt by signing up at the London folk clubs to be one of the "floor singers" -- people from the audience who would get to sing one or two songs before the main act; at most places, you got in for free doing that, no small consideration for me. People seemed to like what I did, which of course was quite heartening. And, in fact, I landed the odd gig or two, usually playing back-up for someone; I even was part of the opening act for a Tannahill Weavers concert (after which came a soccer game with the Tannies outside the pub to which we all had repaired). Those folk clubs were an absolute treat: The Hammersmith, Dingle's and The Chestnuts of Walthamstow were my favorites, and while they -- and some of the people who graced them -- may be long gone, I'll certainly never forget 'em.

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