New York’s drumbeat “death” last year is giving way to a jerky reopening. Amid lingering doubts about fall school openings, lowest rents, vacancies in posh stores, folding monuments, soaring crime and the Bright Young Things exodus, Mayor Bill De Blasio predicted that “it will be the summer of New York”. The mayor’s office looks at the #SummerOfNYC hashtag on Instagram. “Cultural activities are resuming,” notes De Blasio. “People are going to flock to New York because they want to live again.” But millions of people have summer living in the outskirts, keeping the city going last year, and the cultural life of the neighborhoods didn’t stop when Broadway went dark. With COVID restrictions easing, Keane’s Fleadh Cheoil returns to the Bronx this month, moving Irish music from the open windows of “New York”Little Ireland‘back on stage.
Strictly speaking, “Fleadh Cheoil” describes a series of fleadhanna (“Festivals”) dedicated to traditional music and supervised by the Colmhaltas Ceoltóirí Éirann (“Society of Musicians of Ireland”). A ‘not-for-profit cultural movement’ with hundreds of branches serving Ireland and the Irish diaspora, Colmhaltas organizes counties and regions at multiple levels fleadhanna in Ireland and manages overseas, culminating in the All-Ireland Fleadh. In a broader sense, however, fleadh cheoil simply means “a music festival”. Just as it is linked to certain modes – ballads, laments, drinking songs – and to certain types of instruments – the violin, the flute, the bodhrán – fleadh cheoilis also related to certain words such as seisiún (“Session”) and ceilí (‘visit’) which give an idea of its character. The old term for a ceilí‘s MC – fear-a-tight, or “man of the house” – probably gives a closer meaning to “visit” as “house party”. The spirit is communal, improvised and sometimes hoarse. Shane MacGowan, for example, described his own music as “Psycho-Céilí”.
Seamus Keane, singer of the Irish-American folk-punk group, The Narrowback, organize a week fleadh cheoil has been in his Bronx Woodlawn bar since 2017. “It’s hyperlocal,” Keane recalls, “but that’s because of the amount of talent concentrated here. You’ll be at a wedding or having a drink in meeting world class musicians, artists, GAA athletes. This year’s Fleadh Cheoil line includes Joanie madden of Cherish the ladies, Eileen Ivers of Riverdance, Shilelagh’s Law‘s Denny McCarthy, Irish violin champion, Dylan foley, Celtic cross, Padraig Allen and the McLean Avenue Group, and many others. “We get phone calls from Irish musicians, really great,” Keane continues, “and we put them here, help them get gigs.” Keane’s own band, The Narrowbacks, will perform at Fleadh. “It’s like Irish Nashville in New York,” he smiles. “If all the bars here are doing that, it could be like this.”
Like the idea of tradition itself, New York’s Irish music scene has always been a moving target. The Irish heyday of “Upstate Manhattan” put the Clancy Brothers on jukeboxes in Broadway and Dyckman’s “bucket-of-blood” pubs, but it also generated the productive tension present in Jim Carroll‘s Catholic boy, the “last great punk album” of the first wave of the genre. Likewise, the pubs along Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx served as “minor league venues” for acts that later gained national fame. As Larry Kirwan of Black 47 remember, the “consolidation of original music in the Irish Bronx” required “musicians to expand beyond their usual repertoire and showcase their talents to the best of their ability.” The evenings at Keane’s Fleadh Cheoil, which start in the light of day and can stretch into the early hours of the morning, continue this philosophy, providing space and time for musical experimentation, innovation and variation of standards. traditional. “It’s much easier to give ‘Sean South of Garryowen an original twist,’ Kirwan recalls, ‘than’ Cracklin Rosie ‘.
The artistic sense of an “original twist” of traditional Irish music reflects the range of musical influences that make up the distinctive brew of New York’s “Irish-American Songbook”. The same could be said of other important sites in the Irish diaspora. In the UK, for example, ceilíis likely to globalize, reflecting the influences of city life in London through the organic inclusion of ska, electronic and hip-hop elements. Likewise, Keane remarks, “many of us here, the kids who have been to Iona from Pearl River or Queens or the Bronx, first discover The Pogues and The Clash, then come to a new appreciation of the traditional music”. The Narrowbacks, who opened for the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, reflect this trajectory, but with additional infusions of country and American folk. A musical conversation with Keane, for example, swings between alternative country phenomenon Shilelagh Law, Tyler Childers, and ’70s Springsteen. “As a songwriter,” Keane recalls, “Springsteen is the biggest influence. ”
If there is a natural overlap between the lyrical landscape of Springsteen’s music, the DIY “Fleadh Cheoil” scene of the Bronx, and the unique Irish-American New York cultural space, it’s the meaning of the work. “Irish America,” Keane remarks, “is quite its own thing – two parts of civil service, construction and pubs, mix GAA and AOH equally.” And the meaning of professional life and art often bleed together. Director Colin Broderick‘s Emerald city, for example, draws on his experiences of construction work in the community. Ray donovan used McLean Avenue as a stand-in for the working class South Boston of the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, stop by the Fleadh and you’ll hear musicians talking about building back and forth – the meticulous construction of world-class songs and the building site of the next day.
The Narrowbacks’ “Streets of Woodlawn” chorus – “Oh, is there no work today?” – draws its lyrical inspiration from the active life of the neighborhood. “Sunday is the big night in bars,” Keane smiles, “and on Mondays I would see the same guys come in during the day and just say oh there is no work today so, and that would be it. Of course, throughout the pandemic, Keane’s Irish Bronx has felt the brunt of working both ways. Many construction and catering workers could not support their families. At the same time, neighbors who were first responders and healthcare workers have spent 2020 in the proverbial eye of the storm. In the middle of it initiatives like “The Meitheal, or Irish America in Support of Healthcare Workers” raised funds for the community with remote all-star musical performances that drew both local artists and international names like Damien Dempsey, Mundy and novelist Colum McCann.
Meithealis another word on the edges of flee and ceilí. In Irish, it describes a collective effort to help bring in the crops, and it’s a spirit that is seeing Fleadh Cheoil return this summer. “The owner got it last year,” Keane explains, “but we couldn’t do it without the music. The music keeps the bar going. Naturally, Keane is hoping The Narrowbacks can continue performing, recording and playing. to be recognized now that concert halls are reopening across the country. “Even so,” Keane remarks, “nobody cares about your album when they’re waiting for you to bring them a bucket of ice.”
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