- 14 Jun 21
Happy 79th Birthday, Andy Irvine! To celebrate, we're revisiting a classic interview with the legendary Irish musician – originally published in Hot Press in 1980.
Dermot Stokes records a personal history of Irish Folk through the eyes of Andy Irvine...
I. Early Days
"I started off playing American stuff on the guitar. Woody Guthrie was my idol, and I wanted to play every instrument that he played. So I started playing the mandolin too. Then I met Johnny Moynihan, and he was singing 'Van Diemen's Land' and playing the mandolin as well and I thought, 'Amazing! You can accompany your singing on the mandolin and take it from there!' Which I did. But if I hadn't been into American music in the first place, I don't think I would have arrived at the same starting point for the accompanied singing of Irish songs."
Andy Irvine is a highly acclaimed folk singer, both on his own and in partnership with other singers and musicians, such as Paul Brady, and especially Planxty. Yet he's a lot more also. As the opening quote shows, his musical roots are on another continent, and he also has utilised eastern European music and rhythms, as well as jazz in his personal, and so far open-ended musical odyssey. And while he is best known, and most usually seen as a folk singer, the term does not do him full justice.
"Folk singer" and "traditional musician" are phrases that are heavy with suggestion - old men in smoky corners passing on an age-old inheritance of music and song, a gradual, local and almost anonymous process. It is part of his music, of course, and he has served his times in the smoky sessions too. But his vision, his experience and the music he has written, sung and records transcend the local, the gradual, and the anonymous, because he's . . . Andy Irvine, who while undoubtedly modest, shy and retiring, is also a well-known public figure, one of a number of people basing their music non traditional sources, who have revolutionised both folk and popular music in Ireland. As such, while he sticks to many of the conventions of folk singers, his is a far more individual stance.
The odyssey took its first major stint in the public eye with the near-legendary Sweeneys Men in the later 1960s.
"Sweeneys were a kind of scratch band before the name was stuck on them - we'd known each other for some years when Joe Dolan, who was living in Galway at the time, got this gig in what used to be called the Enda Hotel and later became the Coachman's.
"So we formed a group, Joe and myself and a fiddle player called Jimmy English. We were called to F'o'c'le Folk Group (cringe!). It lasted about two weeks and it was brilliant! Looking back it seems much longer because it was so good. We knew a lot of people who came into the place, and we just sat there and drank and played!
"But Joe was always a bit . . . abrasive . .. He could never stick anything for very long, y'know? So he had a row with the owner and that was that.
"Johnny [Moynihan] used to come down at the weekends - he was working as an architect in Dublin, and he'd come down and play with us at the weekends - and I think it was probably his idea to start a group for the summer - summer 1966. We set out on the road and spent the summer playing gigs for #8 and things like that! And it sorta continued from there. Winter came and we were still together."
Johnny Moynihan, who has moved like an extraordinarily gifted vagrant through the Irish folk scene of the last fifteen years, may well turn out to be one of the most influential figures of all. He was, after all, the man who introduced the bouzouki to Irish music. The simple act of bringing in such an instrument was radical in itself, but the real advance was the sound created by the bouzouki playing in a group context, and especially when coupled with a mandolin, which defined a whole stream of music. (It also established the importation of bouzoukis as a major growth industry!) Yeah, a look at the developments of the 1970s show Sweeneys to have been very influential.
"Well so it turned out - it wasn't intended that way at the time of course, (pausing), Jesus, we had some great times! I was with them two years - it's amazing to say so. Two years is nothing, but it seems like my entire youth was spent in Sweeneys Men."
Quite a few other notables were there too, among them Terry Woods, who joined after Joe Dolan left to wander, and Henry McCullough, who replaced Andy when he too got itchy feet.
Terry joined from the Prentice Folk, and brought a whole new musical area with him - American country - "he was always on at us to play more American stuff," Andy says. Apart from the musical melting pot, the combination of personalities also sounds interesting.
"Well, at the time I always felt that I was . . . a kind of mediator, because neither of them was into giving an inch to the other! Not heavy so much as abrasive.
"I remember one time setting out for Cork, and we stopped to buy sweets and crisps and stuff, and Johnny said, 'Oh Terry, get me a bar of chocolate.' So Terry went in and came back out and handed Johnny a bar of Whole Nut. And Johnny looked at it and threw it back at Terry and roared 'You know I fucking hate nuts!' And they didn't talk to each other for ages!"
Andy left in April 1968 to embark on a new phase of his development. "I conceived this idea of travelling to Eastern Europe, but I can't really remember whether that was the main reason for leaving, or if I was fairly pleased to leave anyway."
It was a time of musical ferment, when barriers came down like never before or since. Andy's replacement in Sweeneys Men was former Grease band guitarist Henry McCullough. Unfortunately he never recorded with the group. "No, there's only one TV show on tape, badly recorded, somewhere. But I can remember being out in Bucharest and somebody sending me out cuttings, and it looked at a distance that they were beginning to do a cross-pollination which didn't really recur until much later."
As with many, if not all seminal influences, Sweeneys Men never really reaped the rewards of the innovation, especially in terms of commercial success, although one must confess surprise at the level of sales Andy mentioned - I would have thought they were considerably higher than 6,000 or so.
In any event, after singles, 'Old Maid In A Garret' and 'Waxies Dargle' and one LP, Andy headed for Eastern Europe, where he encountered a whole new music. But why Eastern Europe?
"I don't know. I remember collecting stamps as a kid, and being fascinated by the name Bulgaria in Cyrillic writing, and all these weird places, I was interested in the countries.
"I'm not sure why I went there, I think it was an unknown part of Europe at the time, totally, I mean it didn't even have a tourist trade with Western Europe and, perhaps I was a bit conservative not going to India, where everybody else went, but Bulgaria seemed far enough to go without actually leaving the continent."
How did he survive?
"Basically I had saved a certain amount of money out of Sweeneys Men and I used it very sparingly - because I wanted to stay away as long as possible and any busking or gigs I did were basically supplementary to the money I had."
And - the obvious question - any security problems?
"No! Actually I didn't. It happened once or twice in Sofia. I looked more or less as I do now - in those days I was tramplike in the extreme! I went into the department store in Sofia and this kind of plainclothes guy came up to me and asked me if I was from Sofia, and I said 'No - tourist', and he backed off saying, 'Oh, Oh! Excuse Me!' But if I had been a local with longish hair and a beard, they might've pulled me in. Actually I never saw anything very different to anything else."
But as for the music - it is obvious from his recordings that his Balkan experience was a major influence, so where did he come into contact with the music?
"Well, I heard quite a bit of music, but I didn't grasp it at the time. Like I thought - 'Wow! That's amazing! But when does it begin and end?!' And it wasn't until I got home with a few tapes and records and listened to it, and figured out exactly how the beat was going, that I actually got into it.
"It's a strange thing, that when I'm playing a reel or a song I never actually tap my foot. The physical thing of tapping my foot while I'm singing is one too many actions, you know what I mean?
"I can't actually think oh-I'm-beating-my-foot-four-to-the-bar - If I do that I'll probably beat five! But as soon as I start playing in 7/16 or 9/16, I really feel like putting the foot down."
As for dancing to it, "It's actually an awful lot more simple than it sounds. 5/16, a paidushko horo, for example, is actually danced two to the bar and at certain points every four bars say, there's a kind of hiatus, which they find extremely exciting."
To judge by the response some of Andy's paidusko horos and babushka horos and mensa et thoros and all the rest of 'em, achieve, the Balkans aren't alone in their excitement.
One of the problems we in trying to talk about music is that everything seems inevitable when you look back at it. Like Planxty - if you look at the sounds being made by second division "traditional groups" nowadays, so much of it is based on Planxty, who took the Sweeneys Men core of mandolin and bouzouki and joined it to the prancing lonesome power of the hippies and to Christy Moore's extraordinary communicativeness.
They rescued traditional music from the leather-elbowed ballad groups. They restored credibility to the idea of a small group playing and singing songs that had some chance of commercial success, and that entertained people at both grassroots and 'highbrow' levels. A rare success, and as I've often said before, one of the most important developments in music in Ireland, including any rock band you care to name. As such, they spawned a legion of imitators who devotedly and seriously play (or plot) their trade at Breton folk festivals and elsewhere.
Uninspired they add little or nothing to what Planxty developed, as though they have no sense of where the individuals who made up the group were coming from musically and personally, nor of the accidental nature of what Planxty did.
It is too often assumed that Planxty's music was an inevitable development, whereas it was really a magical coming together of four well-nigh perfectly matched musicians who were part and parcel of the Prosperous LP, which seems to have sowed the seeds of that band that followed.
And the achievements were the result of musicians venturing out into the darkness, from Sweeneys Men onwards, and doing things in a way they had not been done before.
"It was a novel situation at the time. I was playing with Donal [Lunny] at the time and really enjoying it - he was, and still is, the most sympathetic musician I've ever encountered. If you make a mistake, or drop a bar, he can change literally in mid-plectrum stroke, because he's listening all the time.
"This was after Prosperous - and Christy said 'how about a band, you, me, Donal and Liam' . Well no-one had ever asked me to be in a band before - a three-piece wasn't a band! - so I said yes, without thinking was it good or bad. And my first thought was 'oh, Donal and me won't be able to be a duo anymore.'
"There had been numerous four-piece outfits in the ballad boom, like the Ivy Folk (names to conjure with), but they weren't bands, they were just collections of people who played along together and had a bass player that went bumm . . . bumm . . . bumm . . ."
Exactly, and while they served a (limited) function, few of them took up the running Sweeneys Men had suggested, for example, before Prosperous and Planxty. (Obviously some people did, to one degree or another, but without any longterm impact.)
"Well, you see, Sweeneys Men were not a success. We started off very idealistic, and we never really lost that - but we used to die deaths," he explains bluntly.
So Andy feels somewhat cynical when people start to rave about Sweeneys Men, and say how much they were really into them, and for an example of something that really "sickened" him, he referred to the notes by a well-known English folk correspondent on the back of the re-issue of the first Sweeneys Men LP. "I'm sure he didn't notice the group in the '60s."
But to return to Planxty, and the crucial musicality of Donal Lunny: "The thing is that Donal is a great integrator, a great arranger - and within the band he's the only one who isn't a soloist. He's kind of the all-embracing, probably more responsible than anyone else for making Planxty the one sound rather than four solo musicians all standing around the stage."
As a result, when Donal left Planxty, and was followed by Christy, it wasn't the same band at all. The circumstances of their break-up first time around are still shrouded in mystery and innuendo - everybody is supposed to know the story, but nobody ever speaks about it that much - the implication being that whoever it was that did well out of Planxty, it wasn't the musicians.
They themselves generally single out "the machine" they were involved in - the endless cycle of touring and recording, and not for vast riches either. Like a train that has taken over from the driver - the fun had long gone.
The band kept going because datesheets had to be filled simply because the band existed.
As for monies and royalties and all that, the problems start with publishing rights. People recording traditional songs (you'll see trad. arr. on the label instead of a writer's credit) only get 25% of the normal writer's royalty fee. The rest goes back into the pool to be shared out by the Performing Rights Society according to the number of points the trad arranger accumulates. (You don't get a straight sum for every radio play, for example.)
Simply put by Andy, the way it works is as follows: "Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch will get money from my arrangement of a traditional arrangement of a traditional song, from the 75% of the royalty I don't get - whereas they get 100% of their own royalty, and I get none. I don't know what is the best way - perhaps the 75% should go to a library or tapes or something."
As for the question of financial skulduggery at the demise of Planxty: "You never know, like - looking back on the greenness with which we signed that first contract . . . phew!
"But it's the same for every band - there was a guy from Stiff Little Fingers on the radio recently who said basically the same thing. It was a fucking dreadful contract - but we still get a few bob from the first LPs, so . . .
"We finally paid off the advance, the measly advance, which in its turn paid off the recording costs - I don't know how they get away with that one!! We'll give you #5,000 per album advance, but you have to pay the recording costs and we'll recoup that money ourselves! Gawd!! "There was a great relief when we split - I remember the day well, phew! Because, it had been in the air for months - people not looking in each other's eyes - but then the next thing that set in was the fear, what in the name of God am I going to do now?
"So Paul and myself found ourselves in the same boat, and we started playing together and that went on for a couple of years. That was a great success. The Mulligan album came out of it, which I look back on with great pleasure.
"At the same time, I was also a member of De Danann - the forgotten man of De Danann! Not for very long, nor very effectively mind you. This was at a time just after I'd started playing with Paul, and I was very insecure about the future.
"I played with him on one hand and with De Danann on the other - and eventually it happened. I was going to do a tour of Brittany with Paul and Liam, and Frankie Gavin rang me and said, 'We've got a couple of TV programmes, isn't that great! June 14th and 15th!' and my heart sank and I thought, 'Jesus Christ - this is it!' So I said, 'Oh yeah! Great,' and put down the phone. And I sat there with my heart beating - and I rang him back and said, 'Sorry . . . can't do it, y'know? Terribly sorry, I'm doing a Breton tour with Paul.'
"He was horrified! Absolutely. Silence at the end of the phone. I could hear all the ether from Dublin to Galway for three minutes!!"
Yeah! But how did he find playing with them?
"Absolutely amazing. I'd come offstage every night with my fingers tingling because of the speed they played at - the adrenaline I had to use up to get even half the notes in at that speed was incredible."
III. Rainy Sundays, Windy Dreams
Recent years have seen the return of Planxty on a less intensive, yet better organised basis. They have reclaimed their position of eminence in the foreground of Irish music, but they are no longer on their own up there.
At the same time the members have continued their other activities. In Andy's case that means playing solo gigs, and recording his first solo album, Rainy Sundays, Windy Dreams.
It's an interesting album on a variety of levels, from the songs written and chosen to the range of instruments used. There is even an interpretation that could see it as divided into two cycles; the A-side devoted to more traditional themes, songs and treatments and the B-side to his Eastern European experiences and a more unorthodox approach to instruments.
"It wasn't really intended that way. The thing is in the last 15 years, off and on, I've toyed with the idea of doing a solo album, and perhaps that's the reason why - I've never had the opportunity to record 'King Bore And The Sandman' before because it never fitted into any context in which I was recording."
On the trilogy of emigrant songs Andy comments: "When I was making a shortlist of tracks for the album I had 'Farewell To Old Ireland' and 'Edward Connors' when I heard Len Graham singing 'Come To The Land Of Sweet Liberty' to the air of 'Farewell', and I just thought - supposing I use that as a kind of intro to the thing, and since they're all on the one subject, why not tie them all together."
Andy isn't thoroughly organised as a collector of songs, instead picking them up from secondary sources.
"I wouldn't hear too many singers by chance - I think I get most of my songs from other people's collections of singers rather than my own. I've been up to see Eddie Butcher a couple of times. I think he's great. I heard songs of his - 'The Longford Weaver', for instance, Franke Harte gave me that, he has an extensive collection. And the other way is from books, which can be very creative, because the notes are only the skeleton of the tune.
"You can think the first seven or eight notes are fantastic then the ninth is a total bummer. So you think, all right, I'll just change that note - to my mind it should go to, say B flat, rather than F.
"Somehow, from a skeleton of a story of music, you can do what you like with it - there's nobody going to say . . . 'that's not traditional - you changed that and messed that about.' Whereas if I take a song by Eddie Butcher, well the next time I'm up in Belleek, I'm not going to dare to sing it!
"I was up there with Eddie and a mutual friend was trying to get me to sing the 'Plains Of Kildare', but I wouldn't. I don't think he would have understood."
The whole idea of reworking a song is in itself interesting and stimulating, especially now, where so many musicians presume you can only be creative by being 'original'. Yet it's also possible to express yourself equally well through traditional songs.
There are two general approaches: one is to sing a song because you like it - simply. The other is to choose songs that have a broader relevance, either to your own life or to the society you move in, or whatever.
"Well, these emigrant songs, I don't sing them because they apply to me - I sing 'Edward Connors' because it's a really great song. It's one of the most descriptive emigrant songs I've ever come across, and I don't know why it hasn't been recorded before.
"I got it off an Eddie Baker collection on the Ulster Folk Museum. Presumably Eddie doesn't sing it often anymore, because I haven't come across anyone else who knew it.
"'Farewell To Old Ireland' is the typical sort of emigration ballad - it doesn't say much tat all, except we're leaving Ireland because there's nothing here for us and let's hope what we've heard about America is true."
And yet, when you have a trilogy of emigrant songs that run from hopeful to despairing, there is a point made.
"Absolutely, but it works by sheer chance. It was only by sheer chance that those two and a half songs came to be on the shortlist!
"In general, it's the sentiment of a song that attracts me or the . . . lyrical . . . poesy, or whatever, of it. It's rarely basically the story of it - if you've a good story cloaked in bad words, it won't work.
"It's hard to say - a song either hits you or it doesn't. The point you're making suggests an interesting dividing line between Christy and myself. In recent years I've noticed him shifting into a very socially conscious man, and presumably consciously now, songs which come into his repertoire are songs of social meaning - which I envy . . . I envy because of the fact that I'm too apathetic to get as involved.
"I remain the . . . kind of . . . folk romantic, as opposed to the socially conscious singer of songs. I love the fact that a bunch of people, anonymous people over the last 150 years, wrote 'Farewell To Ballymoney'. I think it's a great tribute to folkpoetry that people who are probably quite inarticulate and unlettered can come up with beautifully expressing a sentiment. It's fantastic!"
IV. Bags with Holes
Lest anyone should forget, these questions are often a source of great divisions in the traditional world. There are camps and camps, progressive and purists, and all the rest of it. As Brendan Behan said, the first item on the agenda for a new organisation is the Split.
One would assume that Andy Irvine, having written a lot of the music he plays, having welded sets of traditional lyrics to the melodies of others, playing Bulgarian music and so on, would have encountered some flak in his time.
"Funnily enough I haven't, but then - maybe I frighten people off too much to actually say it to my face, or maybe they just wouldn't bother. But my standpoint on it is that now and always I've played whatever music I wanted to play. So when we talk about the living tradition and all that, well that's fine, but as far as I'm concerned, I play the music I want to play, and if I want to play Bulgarian music, I'll play it.
"At the same time I understand people's reactions. I mean you get people going to a concert, which is not a very traditional setting, and sitting there looking up at the stage at a guy playing traditional instruments - and it can be great, but I can understand it if they say, 'Well, Jasus, it'll never take the place of sitting in a pub in Milltown Malbay and listening to Willie Clancy.' Which it won't either - but it's just two different aspects of music, I think."
The problem comes down to identity and identification. People find it easier to think in terms of categories. You have to be in a bag, and if you're not, some bag has a hole in it, or something else wrong with it. Fortunately, for all the divisions among folk musicians, bagism is less entrenched now than in rock, with all its internal barriers and fads. That, and the ease with which musicians can get together is something I've always admired about folk music here.
This is all central to an understanding of Andy's new LP, which features jazz-rock musicians. "Well, a lot of the music I listen to is likely to be a kind of - I hesitate to use the word 'jazz', because it can have fifteen types of music flashing before your eyes . . .
"But there are two kinds I like, one is a kind of ECM style jazz, and the other is known in France as etudes repetites - like Terry Riley, building up sound patterns by repetition, by shifting emphasis. For the last seven or eight years I've listened to that kind of music and I suddenly decided, fuck it, everyone is trying to bridge the gaps between various aspects of rock and traditional music, so why not try and join the strands of music you like.
"So that was the first attempt in that direction - and Planxty are now using Bill Whelan on Fender Rhodes and other assorted keyboards - great! I love that instrument - it's so unobtrusive, like.
"It's not a rhythm instrument as such - the only rhythm you get is off the foot pedal and the actual stopping of the thing, because there's no impact off the note."
But you can achieve effects with pedals, phasing for example, creating shifting sounds behind the music. At the same time most people would have thought of Planxty using bass and drums before keyboards. On the other hand, a drummer in such a situation has to be good - it's one of the great things about De Danann's Johnny Ringo that he's a drummer in the fullest sense of the word, but is also a bass player. At the same time, because of the nature of his instrument, and his own musicality, he maintains the fluidity that is crucial to the music.
"Exactly. I'm afraid of drummers, because I instantly see a Folk-Rock band, which has never worked. I see a Dave Mattacks-type drummer underpinning the band to four beats . . . four solid beats to the bar and . . . good-night!!
"I've never played with a drummer, except in Nyon this year, when our sound man Matt Keleghan got up for a mad jam with Stockton's Wing and ourselves - and he opened my eyes. Didn't intrude . . . Didn't make me feel I was underpinned. It was good drumming, but it remains an area I don't understand really."
There's no doubt that the drummer - as metronome - is very limiting. Perhaps what is needed is more a percussionist playing ht, for example, John Ware played behind Emmylou Harris at Lisdoonvarna - much lighter and more fluid than drums.
"I was just thinking that - I don't know what the difference is, but sometimes I think a drum kit can be more restrictive."
Obviously, of course, while the intent of the central performer is crucial, he also is relying on the musicians he has alongside, because even an orthodox range of instruments can be used innovatively if the players are up to it.
So Frankie Gavin is there, playing fiddle and viola, a man whose scything almost rock and rolling chordwork and slides electrified the house when De Danann played the Project recently.
Yeah. Frankie is just about the only harmonically inclined traditional fiddler in the country. That's an amazing fact about traditional fiddlers here - give them a reel and they'll play it inside out but give them an arrangement of 'Happy Birthday' and they haven't a clue! Think it's going to bite them!
"Frankie's a great musician - he can play a harmony to a tune before he even knows the tune! It's as if he thinks in chord patterns. It's a gift, you know - he just has it."
Andy's longtime associate Paul Brady also contributes some notable textures, his crystal picking on 'Farewell To Old Ireland', for example. Then there's 'Farewell To Ballymoney', where Brady plays piano, an instrument long out of favour as an accompaniment to such a traditional song.
"Yeah, well I had my doubts about it in the beginning - I remember when I gave Paul a tape of the song he thought in terms of a piano and I was desperately trying to compromise, suggesting a clarinet, say - asking does it have to be a concert piano?
"And Paul said, 'I think it's better on the piano,' and he was right. That's largely Paul's arrangement - that riff on the piano is beautiful, y'know? And a year ago, I wouldn't have thought of it myself, but one changes . ."
V. The Dreaded Overview
With all the experimentation implicit in so much of what Andy said, as well as what many other people involved in folk music in a broad sense are doing, does he see changes ahead?
"Yes, I do - there's a definite opening up of attitudes. Obviously I'm talking from my own point of view, but . . .
"As I said before, I've always kept folk music separated from a lot of other music I listen to - until recently when I decided to put it all together, and that opens up entirely new vistas.
"I mean, to be doing some song and have Bill Whelan playing 13th and major 11ths and so on - I'd love to get into that. Rainy Sundays is a first attempt to get away from straight chords."
It's a most heartening thing to find such a commitment to development in (relatively) mature musicians - the irony being that it is not reflected by many younger musicians, in any genre, most of whom seem purely concerned with getting a formula organised for themselves - a set of sonic, visual and stylistic clichis that will define them strongly enough to capture an audience. To get into a bag, in other words.
People like Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, among others, could carry on playing safe for the rest of their lives, yet they're out there challenging their audiences with innovations, which is a creative act in itself.
"Yeah - that reminds me. When the record came out first I met a fan from Skibbereen who said - 'I heard most of the record on the radio the other night' . . . I said, 'did you like it?' . . . and he said . . . 'mmm, well . . . I likes some of it . . . That "Rainy Sundays" is a bit jazzy, isn't it?'" (laughter)