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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: The Catskills Irish Arts Week

(Chris Smith)
The Catskills Irish Arts Week

Hang on, Grasshopper!

Impressionistic report on the Catskills Irish Arts Week, July 1999, East Durham, New York.

I knew that we were in for a wild ride from the first few minutes that we drove into town. After having been on the road in a rental car 13 hours essentially non-stop from the central Mid- West, my piper friend Doug and I boomed up Route 145 into East Durham, New York on a hot Sunday morning in July 99, and we were almost all the way through town before we even realized we'd arrived. East Durham is a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it", wide-spot- in-the-road kinda town, a bunch of camps, pubs, and inexpensive hotels strung out along Route 145 in the Northern Catskills, about an hour south of Albany.

Not many folks know it, but ever since the 1930s, this part of the Catskills has been a favorite summer resort area for the New York Irish. Just as there were resorts, hotels, and other leisure activities in the Catskills specifically targeted at the New York Jewish community, East Durham and its sister townships were the Irish equivalent. The town is full of hotels with names like "The Blackthorne Resort," "Daly's Irish Lakes," "McKenna's Irish House," "O'Neill House," and "The Shamrock House," and pubs with names like "Erin's Melody," "McGrath's," and "Furlong's," most of which have been here for better than 40 years, and look it. Like some of the Jewish resorts, these places look like they're a number of years into the "off-season."

But East Durham is also the host site for the Catskills Irish Arts Week, a six-day festival of classes, concerts, and sessions which just might be as close to Clare's fabled Willie Clancy Week as you can get in the States. With a small enrollment, and a world-class faculty consisting of the cream of the New York- and Ireland-based traditional players, Irish Arts Week transforms Durham, the kind of town that would mostly be forgotten if it wasn't for the efforts of a few dedicated staffers at the Michael J. Quill Sports Centre, who did the legwork and the paperwork to develop some grant moneys for "rural reinvestment" from New York State. Talent organizer Don Meade's recruits for past and returning faculty members have included tin whistle virtuoso Mary Bergin, fiddlers James Kelly, Patrick Ourceau, and Kevin Burke, guitarists Ged Foley and Tony Cuffe, flutist Jack Coen, box players Billy McComiskey and Paddy O'Brien, piper Jerry O'Sullivan, concertina players Gearoid O' hAllmhurain and Fr. Charlie Coen, and a host of other first-rank, hard-core traditional players. Here, in late-night pub sessions up and down the highway you can listen to and play with both the faculty members, and members of the international Irish music community who have literally traveled cross-country just to be there in Durham for the sessions and the crack.

Anyway, we pulled into town, and as we boomed past Furlong's, I did a head-swivelling double-take at the pub's marquee, which in ragged letters read "Dinner, 6pm. Irish breakfast 7 days. Joe Banjo Burke." Now, there are two Joe Burkes in Irish traditional music (to say nothing of the probable thousands throughout the Irish Diaspora). There's Joe Box Burke, the B/C accordian player whose late '50s 78s (some of the last 78s recorded in Ireland) translated Michael Coleman's fiddle virtuosity to the box, and transformed other players' conceptions of what was possible. Then there's Joe Banjo Burke, a legendary New York-based singer and banjo player, who recorded with Kerry fiddler Johnny Cronin on an old Shanachie LP. In the late '70s, you couldn't find much in the way of Irish tenor banjo on record. Mick Moloney was just starting to make records with Green Fields of America, as well as James Keane and the other new-generation players, but if you were looking for straight tunes, Joe and Johnny's record was a real lodestone; I've worn out my share of copies.

So here we are screaming up the highway, still in Interstate speed mode as we wind through the Catskills, and there's a marquee out front of this funky little bar with the name of one of my early idols on it. Is it him? Naw, can't be! But . . . who else would be here, in this town, with that name?

So we stop, and pull into the gravel driveway, and get out of the rental car, still pretty rubber-legged from all those hours on Route 80. And we go into the pub, which just looks like your basic resort town bar with the exception of the Guinness and Harp taps, and there's about 5 crusty old guys sitting at the bar and the owner, who's probably in his '70s, behind it. And over there on the miniscule bandstand, with a little Peavey PA and his wife on backup guitar, clad in a T-shirt and jeans with his banjo strap over one shoulder, a little thinner, a little more grey, a little less polyester than in the late '70s LP photo, but nevertheless indisputably Himself, is the Man. He sounds great as ever, craggy voice and Rebel songs all intact, and that unmistakable, rapid-fire picking on tunes. Hardly anybody is in the place on this Sunday mid-morning preceding the actual opening of the festival, but I'm knocked out of my seat, just with the idea that the very first musician we saw in town is somebody on whose record I cut my teeth.

So Doug and I buy each other a beer, and listen for a while, while Joe and his wife run through their repertoire in leisurely fashion, until the break comes. Joe picks up his Budweiser and steps off the bandstand; I screw up my courage to introduce myself, and explain that I've been an admirer of his music "for almost 20 years." So we talk a little while, and he goes off to say hello to some other folks from the festival who've obviously just arrived early as we have, and with Doug urging me on, I run out to the car to get a copy of the "How to Play Backup" book I wrote. Joe Burke's name heads the (alphabetical) list of dedicatees. I explain to Joe what it is, tell him I'd like him to have it, and he insists on "fair exchange," giving me a copy of his most recent CD with Gabe Donahue.

Durham is that kind of place: where you can hear James Kelly and Billy McComiskey playing screaming electric fiddle/box duets at 3 in the morning and then bump into them in the parlors and barrooms where the daytime classes are held. Where all the old guys who moved out of Brooklyn or the Bronx thirty and forty years ago for the sake of the kids come down from their little Catskills towns because they know they'll see everyone they've missed from last year. Where one of the best sessions of the week is the one where you don't play, but listen instead to young Willie Kelly quietly trading tunes with flutist Mike McGrath, trading stories of fabled players in between tunes. You can watch live simulcasts of Gaelic Football from Belfast and Cork City on big screen TV's in bars that open in the middle of a Saturday morning just for that purpose.

Some of the students fall by the wayside when they discover that the owners of more than 10 different pubs all pride themselves on pulling the best pint of Guinness. After you've played a raging session the pub owner brings out a huge platter of Wonder Bread and Bologna sandwiches to feed all the musicians. Some old boy at McKenna's, not a musician, is so drunk he can barely stand up, but he can still recognize every tune you play within a few bars, and tell you which tune Michael Coleman put with it on those seminal 78s from the 1920s and '30s. Sean nos step dancer Patrick O'Dea and fiddler James Kelly roll in a day late because they've been stranded at Shannon at the end of Willie Week. They walk straight into their classes from the limo, while you sit on the bench outside the funky little general store and listen to Fr. Charlie Coen's soft-voiced reminiscences of Lad O'Beirne in the Bronx in the 1940s.

The opening night session at the Shamrock House, after the organizational meeting, quickly turns into a summit meeting with fiddler Brian Conway, Mary Bergin, Gearoid O hAllmhurain, piper Jerry O'Sullivan, and Billy McComiskey. James Kelly and Paddy O'Brien, who came over to America in 1979 without a dime in their pockets, sit and play duets until Paddy goes to bed early. It's the kind of place where, in the midst of a raging session, while Billy McComiskey sits in with the local Country-and-Irish group at Erin's Melody and turns them for a few minutes into God's Own Ceili Band, James Kelly comes up with a handsome older woman and says "I'd like to introduce you to Michael Coleman's grand- daughter." You sit in a session and slowly realize that you last saw the pianist next to you in Galway City, while Gearoid O hAllmhurain's students fly cross-country from San Francisco just to be there for the Friday and Saturday night sessions that climax the weekend, and during a break in the sessions, you peek into the next room and catch James Kelly giving Mary Bergin an impromptu fiddle lesson.

From the stage at Erin's Melody, Billy McComiskey mentions that he first heard fiddler Paddy Killoran play 40 years ago in this same pub. Durham is where you'll realize that sitting next to you in the tin whistle class is Junior Crehan's niece; another night, you play two hours next to some burning fiddle player who looks about 15 and then realize it's Marie Reilly. Where every staff member, from Kevin Burke to Done Meade to Willie Kelly and more besides, play for the set dances. In the big marquee tent at the local high school football field where the evening concerts are held, you sit, dripping sweat, and hear Jerry O'Sullivan wrestle titanic versions of tunes out his pipes, in a climate the pipes were never made to withstand. The closing gathering, Sunday morning at Furlong's, has music and set-dancing for the ones who still aren't burnt out, while the players drag themselves in from whichever all-night session they've only just now left.

And then you're back on the road, driving northwest on Route 145 through little towns like Potter Holly and Livingstoneville, and the whole mid-summer week seems a little bit like a fevered, sweaty, ecstatic, sleep-deprived dream. For the next 8 or 9 hours, you leave the radio off, because the tunes are still floating in your head, driven by the humming of the wheels.