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Remembering Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Mick Moloney, a beloved musician and folklorist who revived centuries-old, forgotten Irish songs, died last week at the age of 77 at his home in Manhattan. A colleague at New York University's Glucksman Ireland House where Moloney taught said upon hearing of Moloney's death, a great flame of musical joy and friendship has been extinguished. Moloney is credited with bringing traditional Irish music to a wider audience and with encouraging female instrumentalists in the male-dominated field of music. He sang and played guitar, mandolin and banjo and recorded or produced more than 70 albums of Irish music.

Moloney was born in Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. In 1999, he received a National Heritage Award for his work in public folklore from the National Endowment for the Arts. Moloney was passionate about exploring connections between Irish, African and American roots music. He wrote the book "Far From The Shamrock Shore: The Story Of Irish-American Immigration Through Song," which was accompanied by a CD of songs.

We're going to listen to excerpts of two of his interviews with Terry Gross. The first was recorded in 2006 after the release of his album "McNally's Row Of Flats," which featured Irish American songs of New York in the 1870s and '80s by the songwriting team Ed Harrigan and David Braham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Mick Moloney, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to introduce the first track on the new CD, which is called "McNally's Row Of Flats." Would you describe this as an - one of the really early songs about city life in America?

MICK MOLONEY: It is indeed one of the early songs about city life in America, and it comes out of the context of Lower East Side Manhattan where Ed Harrigan lived along with David Braham. This was a time in the early 1880s - when the song was written - when Irish immigrants were living beside Italian immigrants. And they were also living beside African Americans and Chinese immigrants, Eastern European immigrants arriving - mostly Jewish - from Russia and Ukraine. And the whole thing was a real multicultural mosaic. And the song gives a very good flavor of that.

GROSS: OK. A song about multiculturalism long before anybody invented the word. (Laughter) Here it is, "McNally's Row Of Flats."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MCNALLY'S ROW OF FLATS")

MOLONEY: (Singing) Down in Bottle Alley lived Timothy McNally, a decent politician and a gentleman at that - beloved by all the ladies, the garsuns (ph) and the babies that occupy the building called McNally's row of flats. And it's Ireland and Italy, Jerusalem and Germany, Chinese and Africans and a paradise for rats. All jumbled up together in the snow and rainy weather, they constitute the tenants in McNally's row of flats. That great conglomeration of men from every nation, the tower of Babylonium (ph), it couldn't equal that. A peculiar institution where the brogues without dilution, they rattled on together in McNally's row of flats. And it's Ireland and Italy, Jerusalem and Germany, Chinese and Africans and a paradise for rats. All jumbled up together in the snow and rainy weather, they constitute the tenants in McNally's row of flats.

GROSS: Would you just place us musically here? I mean, this is an era - we're talking, like, 18 seven - 1870s to 1890s?

MOLONEY: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: And so it kind of precedes Tin Pan Alley.

MOLONEY: It does, yes.

GROSS: So what are the entertainments of that time?

MOLONEY: Well, you would think of Gilbert and Sullivan around that era. That's the late 1870s. Actually, Harrigan and Braham started writing songs about six or seven years before Gilbert and Sullivan. Some of the songs have somewhat of the same feel to them. Of course, Gilbert and Sullivan go into opera and operetta, and Harrigan and Braham and Hart, they stick with musical comedy, musical theater. Let's say a song like, say, "The Mulligan Guard," which was their first big hit - if you look at the sheet music, it'll go something like this.

(Singing) We crave your condescension. We'll tell you what we know from marching in the Mulligan Guard in the Sligo Ward below. Our captain's name was Hussey, a Tipperary man. He shouldered his sword like a Russian duke whenever he took command. We shouldered guns and marched and marched away. From Baxter Street, we marched to Avenue A. Our fifes and drums, so sweetly they did play as we marched, marched, marched in the Mulligan Guard.

Now, when I went and listened to that in sheet music, it didn't sound like that much of a big deal. And I knew that it needed something as a window into the past to make it more evocative of the original feel of the music in this context. This was the era of marching bands, of course. So I went to Vince Giordano, who has a band, the Nighthawks, and...

GROSS: They do swing tunes and early jazz.

MOLONEY: Yeah, early jazz. And this was a little bit before his time. With him and his arranger, John Gill, who also plays in the band, we sort of stepped back another few decades, said, what might this have sounded like in a pit orchestra in the Harrigan and Hart and Braham era? You're talking about the 1870s. And we did what we felt would be a fairly decent reconstruction of what it would have sounded like then with the feel, however, of today as well. Because the intent was never - when I started making this CD, the intent was never to reconstruct anything but to, more or less, get the flavor of what it was like and then do it as if it would have been done today by Harrigan.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear how it sounds on your CD...

MOLONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...With Vince Giordano's band behind you? So this is "The Mulligan Guards" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MULLIGAN GUARDS")

MOLONEY: (Singing) We crave your condescension. We'll tell you what we know of marching in the Mulligan Guard from the Sligo Ward below. Our captain's name was Hussey, a Tipperary man. He carried his sword like a Russian duke whenever he took command.

Forward. March.

(Singing) We shouldered guns and marched and marched away. From Baxter Street, we marched to Avenue A. Our fifes and drums, so sweetly they did play as we marched, marched, marched in the Mulligan Guard.

GROSS: Now, this song is about - what? - a neighborhood militia?

MOLONEY: A neighborhood militia. Because after the Civil War, there were a lot of people dressed up with nowhere to go. And the whole idea of having militias that were going to target shooting really proliferated New York. Dickens wrote a lot about it. He was appalled by the number of people who clogged up the arterial routes of Manhattan any given Sunday - basically an excuse to have a big picnic and drink a lot. And a lot of these target companies, as they were called, were ethnically and fraternally based and often based in particular neighborhoods. So they were very competitive. So the whole idea was really to go and do some target shooting. But that somehow got overwhelmed by the idea of having a big party, lots of drunkenness. This was very New York, very urban New York.

So this was satire from the very start. And the strange thing about it was that the song became the most popular song ever for Ed Harrigan and David Braham. And it was taken up by almost all the military bands. John Philip Sousa's band played it. Gilmore's band played it. It was even played in all the British regimental bands. And Kipling in his novel "Kim" even mentions a regimental British band in India playing "The Mulligan Guard," even calls the first chorus. I doubt if that old imperialists would have known it was written by an Irish American as a send up of the military.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Mick Moloney speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. He died last week at the age of 77. After a break, we'll listen to portions of their 2009 interview. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICK MOLONEY'S "REELS: DUNMORE LASSIES/MCFADDEN'S HANDSOME DAUGHTER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to our interviews with musician and folklorist Mick Moloney, who died last week at the age of 77. He spoke with Terry Gross in 2009 after the release of his CD "If It Wasn't For The Irish And The Jews," which featured Tin Pan Alley collaborations between Irish and Jewish songwriters. They began with the title track, written in 1912 by William Jerome, who was Irish, and Jean Schwartz, who was Jewish. Moloney sings on the track and is accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT WASN'T FOR THE IRISH AND THE JEWS")

MOLONEY: (Singing) I've just returned from Europe. I've seen London and Paris. And I'm glad to get back home to Yankee land. In fact, the little USA looks better now to me. It's the real place for the real folks. Understand? But still, I often sit and think, what would this country do if it hadn't men like Rosenstein and Hughes? We'd surely have a kingdom. There'd be no democracy if it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews. What would this great Yankee nation really, really ever do if it wasn't for a Levy, a Monahan or Donohue? Where would we get our policemen? Why, Uncle Sam would have the blues without the Pats and Isadores. There'd be no big department stores if it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.

GROSS: Mick Moloney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Was the pairing between Irish and Jewish songwriters different than any other pairing in Tin Pan Alley?

MOLONEY: I think it was because, first of all, the Irish had dominated American popular music, really, for the whole of the 19th century. You think of major figures like Thomas Moore. You think of Dan Emmett, who wrote "Dixie." You think of Stephen Foster, who would have been Scotch-Irish. You think of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who wrote "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." You think of Victor Herbert, who introduced operetta to America. The list goes on and on. And I think the Irish would have come from a performing arts culture where music and dance and storytelling were always highly valued.

And suddenly, you have new immigration from a very similar culture, a culture that - where it's very vocal. It's very much involved in the arts. It's a diaspora, like the Irish. They're not going back to where they came from for, perhaps, different reasons. And they take to the stage, you know, right away. And in the 1890s, you see people like Al Dubin arriving in Philadelphia. He's only three at the time. And he won't go to school. He wants to be a songwriter. And music was declasse. It was on the fringes. And both the Irish and the Jews at various times were on the fringes of society. And I think the entertainment world - the sports world, perhaps, in another way - has been a place where people who can't get on so easily in other aspects of life, that they tend to gravitate towards. So I think it was a very good mix.

GROSS: You mentioned Al Dubin. And he's, you know, a Jewish lyricist who worked a lot with Harry Warren in the '20s and '30s. And he wrote lyrics for, like, Busby Berkeley musicals, lyrics for songs like "Lullaby Of Broadway," "42nd Street," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "We're In The Money." But he also writes this, like, Irish song that you have featured on your CD. It's called 'Twas Only An Irishman's Dream. And the lyric includes, oh, the shamrocks are blooming on Broadway.

MOLONEY: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: Every girl is an Irish colleen. And it's so funny to think of this, like, Jewish songwriter writing from the point of view of an Irish American who's, like, dreaming that everything in Manhattan is really Irish. On one level, it's really phony because he's writing from a point of view that he doesn't have. (Laughter) He's not he's not Irish American. He's Jewish American. His story is so different. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that the song would mean any less to the people who hear it.

MOLONEY: When I discovered it first, I thought it was complete, absolute nonsense, you know? Growing up in Ireland and growing up in the rain and digging potatoes - all these Tin Pan Alley songs, they had no connection with any kind of reality that I would have known in Ireland growing up. But, you know, my attitude to all that changed. In 1995, I was part of a team of a lot of Irish academics, historians, sports writers and musicians who travelled across America commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine. And I was in places that I hadn't been before - Peoria, Ill., Mauldin, Des Moines, to mention but many. And after the talk, people in their 80s came up to me in shock and said, now we know for the first time why our grandparents never talked about Ireland.

And, you know, the penny dropped right away that these people were trauma victims. They were refugees. And, you know, my friends and colleagues tell me that there's the same kind of survivor guilt among Holocaust victims. It would have been that, perhaps, among the Irish. What are you going to tell your children, that you guarded your food supply when you watched your neighbors die or other members of your family die, that you were one of the lucky ones who came to America? And suddenly, I realized why Tin Pan Alley, these images, which are invented images of kind of an imagined wholeness, why they were attractive to people. It was good stuff. It was really good stuff. There was nothing bad about it. And I'm sure people realized that, you know, this was kind of a fantasy world. But, you know, we need good things to think about and good things to tell our children and our grandchildren. So I think that they were catering for a market. They were expert craftsmen. They knew how to construct sounds. The melodies are beautiful. The lyrics are clever. And "'Twas Only An Irishman's Dream," I think is one of the great songs of Tin Pan Alley and one of Al Dubin's greatest.

MOLONEY: Mick, I'm going to ask you to perform an excerpt of one of the songs on your CD called "The Old Bog Road." And I think this is a really good example of the you know, I'm in New York, but I'm yearning for my home in Ireland kind of song. And it's not a song I've heard before. So tell us the story behind this one and why you chose it.

MOLONEY: Yes, a song I heard, in fact, far too many times before. Every bad tenor in my native Limerick when he got drunk felt obliged to sing it and inflict it on the whole population. So I hated the song with a passion. I always thought it was a Tin Pan Alley song from Broadway, and in a sense it was because it was written by a woman called Teresa Brayton, who was a poet. And she was married in - her maiden name was Boyle (ph). She was married and living in Broadway and had a real strong sense of being detached from home and meeting people who never had gone home and couldn't go home. And she wrote it, and the music was put on later. But my great mentor, Frank Harte, sang it with a mournful style, not melodramatic at all. And I suddenly realized the beauty of the song. And all my resistance went away.

And it goes, (playing guitar, singing) my feet are here on Broadway this blessed harvest morn. But oh, the ache that's in my heart for the spot where I was born. My weary hands are blistered through work in cold and heat. But oh, to swing a scythe today through fields of Irish wheat. Had I the chance to journey back or own a king's abode, I'd sooner see the hawthorn tree by the old bog road.

GROSS: And growing up in Ireland, did this song make no sense to you? Because, like, were you thinking, exactly what are you yearning for?

MOLONEY: Well, it made sense on one level because almost everybody I knew in Ireland had emigrants in England or America. So the idea of being away from home, of being in an exile, as we called it, culturally, that made sense. But it was kind of schmaltzy. You know, and when you're young, you're not nostalgic, generally speaking. You want to get on with things. And I was more into listening to The Beatles and the rock and The Rolling Stones than I was listening to "The Old Bog Road." Then when I came to America, my attitude to the song changed, and the more years I spent here, the more I can empathize with those people who never could go home.

GROSS: Well, Mick Moloney, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

MOLONEY: It's a pleasure.

DAVIES: Mick Moloney speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. He died last week at the age of 77. At the time of his death, he was working on a film called "Two Roads Diverged" about how Irish Americans and African Americans in the 19th and 20th century America found common ground through music and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN GROWS THE LAUREL")

MOLONEY: (Singing) Green grows the laurel. Soft falls the dew. Sorry am I, love, I'm parted with you. Sorry am I, love, contented must be. She loves another far better than me. I passed my love's window early and late. The look that she gave me - it made my heart break. The look that she gave me would 10,000 kill. She loves another, but I love her still. Green grows the laurel. Soft falls the dew. Sorry am I, love, I'm parted with you. Sorry am I, love, contented must be. She loves another far better than me.

DAVIES: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Beyonce's first studio album in six years. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACK BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.