Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies

The Long Road: Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies

by Stephen D. Winick

"It's a long road," Joanie Madden is fond of pointing out. The sentence is more than a truism, it's a philosophy. Life for Madden is a long road. Success is measured by the distance you cover and wealth is measured by the friends you make along the way. For Madden and the others in Cherish the Ladies, the distance has been vast and the friends have been legion. From childhoods spent in Irish ethnic neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Yonkers, Philadelphia and Detroit, they have converged and risen like a great wave to engulf the hearts of audiences from Brooklyn to Belfast and from Boston to Brittany. They have performed on Irish television and at Scottish festivals, and have been praised by media sources as far apart as the Los Angeles Times and Dublin's Hot Press magazine. They are currently in top form, touring the world as a mighty example of the richness of America's Irish music tradition.

The original idea behind Cherish the Ladies was simple: a series of concerts highlighting the contributions of women to Irish music in America. In 1983, folklorist and musician Mick Moloney had a brainstorming session with the directors of New York's Ethnic Folk Arts Center, Martin Koenig and Ethel Raim. Moloney drew their attention to the extraordinary number of young American women involved in Irish traditional music. For the most part, American women had risen to prominence since 1966, when Kathleen Collins became the first American-born player to win the All-Ireland senior fiddle competition. Soon other women champions had followed: Liz Carroll from Chicago, Eileen Ivers from New York, and, ultimately, Joanie Madden. Moloney, an expert on the history of Irish music, knew that, with a few notable exceptions, women had not had a very significant role in Irish instrumental music for decades. Raim and Koenig, in their work with other American ethnic groups, had found that ethnic musicians were almost always men. Both of these trends made the musical accomplishments of Irish-American women stand out as profoundly anomalous.

Fascinated, the three organizers began laboring to create a concert series featuring some of these women. One of the first steps was to sound out some possible performers, some of whom did not share their enthusiasm. To Madden, the very idea of singling out women sounded downright peculiar; what was so clearly unusual to outside observers seemed perfectly natural to insiders. "When you sat down in a seisiún," she says, " was just a matter of 'are you good or not?' Your gender really never came into it." When finally convinced that her tradition was special, she came aboard with enthusiasm. Always a quick wit, she remembered the old jig, "Cherish the Ladies," and jokingly asked Moloney to name the series after it. "I just said it off the top of my head. And he said, 'That's great, that's great! We'll call the series that!'"

It started small, a group of timid soloists playing in various high school auditoriums around New York. "At our first couple of concerts," Madden recounts, "[Ethel Raim] came out and would announce what we were going to do, because none of us would talk on the microphone!" Despite their temerity, the musicians played brilliantly, and the concerts left audiences and critics roaring their approval. Cherish The Ladies's phenomenal popularity surprised everybody, including Moloney, who later commented, "what started off as a very interesting and sort of fun idea became taken very seriously. The New York Times did a big story on it. Suddenly, they were sold-out concerts."

The wild enthusiasm of New York's audiences for Cherish the Ladies eventually led to Madden traveling the world as a professional musician. But her life wasn't always this way. She was born in the Bronx in 1965, to Helen Meade and Joe Madden. Joe, an accordion player from Galway, showed an uncanny prescience by singling out Joanie from among his seven children and offering to send her for music lessons. Joanie's first attempts to learn music went miserably. "I started fiddle lessons when I was about 9, and I hated that, so I quit that. Then I started piano lessons when I was about 11, and I hated that and quit that." Finally, she encountered the instrument that she would make her own: the humble tin whistle. "I heard that instrument and I said, 'this is for me.'"

The Maddens happened to live a few houses away from Jack Coen, a masterful flute player from Woodford in County Galway, not far from Joe's birthplace. Joanie thought Coen would be the perfect whistle teacher. "I told [my father] I wanted to go to Jack, and he said "I'm not wasting any more money on you." So I said I would pay for my own whistle and my own lesson myself. So I called Jack, and I went around the corner to meet him." Madden's first lesson with Coen was strict: "When I got to Jack's house, he was actually on the phone. I had to wait about 15 minutes, and then Jack came and sat me down, and he said 'the only way I'll take you is if you come to me for two years, and you can't quit no matter how much you hate it. That's the only way I'm gonna take you.' So I said, okay I would. I found out years later that when I got to the house, Jack was on the phone with my father!"

Coen's eagle-eyed watchfulness did not last long. It didn't have to. "After the first lesson," Madden remembers happily, "I used to run home from school every day at lunch hour just to play. I used to run home after school and play. I just couldn't wait to get the instrument out. Jack was a wonderful teacher, really terrific...he filled you with so much confidence in yourself."

In Coen's corner of east Galway, the whistle was only a toy, a child's instrument that you played until you were ready for the flute. It wasn't long before Madden had her own flute, although it was not the wooden flute she had always hoped for. Sean McGlynn, an accordion player from the same area of Galway as Joe Madden and Jack Coen, had been asked by Joe to keep an eye out for a flute. He found one, and brought it over to the Madden house one day. Joanie tells the story wistfully: "I opened up the case, and it was a silver flute. But he just said to me, 'This gets put in the right hands, it could be just as good as the wooden one,' and he said if anybody could do it, I could. So he gave it to me, and my father wrote him a check, and he ripped it up, so my father wrote him another check, and he ripped that up. And they went all the way out the driveway. But he said he always wanted to be the one who gave me the first flute. He said when people ask you twenty years from now, who gave you your first flute, you can always tell them Sean McGlynn did."

The McGlynn flute is long gone. In a fit of mechanical hubris, Madden thought she could take it apart and put it back together again. The first operation was successful; the second was not. But the memory of that flute is a good one, and has special meaning for Madden; McGlynn, a shining light in the world of Irish music and the world in general, has since been murdered, gunned down on the streets of New York.

A few years after Joanie started lessons, the Maddens moved away from where Coen lived. Joanie continued her musical education alone, practicing in the bathroom, laboriously teaching herself how the flute's fingering system differed from the whistle's. In the meantime, she had begun to win competitions playing her whistle, but had never dreamed how far the little instrument could be taken. The revelation, she says, came at a house party in 1979: "Somebody was playing a tape, and I said, 'what instrument is that?' And they said, 'That's the whistle.' I said, 'no, no. I play the whistle, that's not the whistle.' And then they said, 'That's Mary Bergin.'" The very next day, Madden went out and bought Bergin's album Feadóga Stáin, which she learned to play in its entirety. "I could still do you side A and side B," Madden says. "I really could say that, even though I never sat down with her for a lesson, [Mary Bergin] taught me how to play the whistle."

After honing her technique for a few years, Madden was ready to take on the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, the music competition that awards the All-Ireland championships. Madden describes the experience of the fleadh: "Pressure's really on. There's four provinces in Ireland...and they only get to send two people from [each] province. So you're dealing with the eight top musicians from Ireland. There's two from Chicago, two from New York. So that's another four. And then you have two from England, and sometimes from Scotland, and sometimes France. Usually you have about sixteen or eighteen competitors. It was the cream of the crop. Anybody there was a brilliant musician." For the unflaggingly sociable flute player, the chance to meet and play with great musicians was far more important than competing: "I really didn't give a crap, to tell you the truth, about the competitions. I really went more for the fun of it. Because you got to meet musicians from everywhere, and it was such a social outing. And we were all in the same age group, and...we were all from different countries, like the crowd from England. You get to meet these people that you'd never meet!"

Like her first attempts at music, Madden's first trip to the fleadh was less than perfect; she went after only a short time of taking lessons and came away with a score of 78 percent. "It was pretty crappy," she admits, "It's a C." Her second journey to the All-Irelands, four years later, was more successful; she took second place. Two years after that, in 1983, Madden finally won in her age group. "Actually," she clarifies, "in 1983 I won the whistle and I won the flute, and I won a duet championship with Kathy McGinty, the fiddle player; I got three gold medals that year. It was a great day for me, because it was actually 25 years to the day since my dad had won the All-Ireland." For Madden, the success of winning three gold medals was made all the sweeter by the nascent career awaiting her at home. It was in the same year, 1983, that Mick Moloney called her to be part of Cherish the Ladies.

When the original series of sold-out concerts ended, the participants assumed that Cherish the Ladies was over. In 1984, Madden concluded her competitive career by winning the All-Ireland senior tin whistle championship. Had it not been for Moloney's continued support, music would be just a hobby for her today. "Without Mick," she muses. "...I'd probably be an accountant somewhere." But Cherish the Ladies, she found out, was far from a one-shot deal. In 1985, Moloney convinced the National Endowment for the Arts to fund an album, Cherish the Ladies. Like the concerts, it featured instrumental soloists with a few duets and trios, plus singing in the Irish language. Like the concerts, it included over a dozen women, three of whom (Madden, accordionist Maureen Doherty Macken and guitarist Mary Coogan) are still a part of Cherish the Ladies today. And like the concerts, it was a tremendous success; it was chosen by the Library of Congress as one of the best folk albums of 1985. Also in 1985, the group recorded Fathers and Daughters, a charming album on which each young woman played a duet with her father.

The NEA knew a good thing when they saw it, and decided to sponsor a tour for Cherish the Ladies. The paring down of dozens of musicians and singers to a manageably-sized touring ensemble was a big step in the group's evolution. Madden, already the group's unofficial leader, was consulted. "Mick called me up, and we went through a few names, and threw a group together." This line-up of the group included Madden, Coogan and Doherty Macken, as well as singer Cathie Ryan and fiddlers Siobhan Egan and Eileen Ivers (Ivers has since been replaced by Winifred Horan). "We met on Wednesday," Madden recalls, "and went out on tour on Thursday." Their journey down the long road had begun.

Since those days, Cherish the Ladies have taken their raw individual skills and smoothed, blended and distilled them. The result is one of Irish music's most consistently entertaining bands. Madden recalls that it took a lot of "that 'practice' word that we never heard before" to turn a group of soloists into a band. It also helped that the members had so much in common to begin with. Irish traditional music and dance is a vibrant subculture in the United states, a world where Gaelic words like feis, seisiún, ceili and fleadh cheoil are used in English sentences, where you often invite friends over for a tune rather than a meal. For the women in Cherish the Ladies, this world has always been home. They are all first generation Irish Americans; Coogan's mother came from Roscommon, and Doherty Macken's father from Donegal, Ryan's parents were from Tipperary and Kerry, and Egan grew up in Co. Mayo. They all heard plenty of Irish music growing up, and learned tunes and songs constantly, unconsciously. In the excellent documentary From Shore to Shore, Doherty Macken remembered growing up Irish: "There was always music around in the house.... I think even before I started to take lessons, I knew the tunes. You heard them over and over and over again." After formal lessons had started, living in Irish neighborhoods made the music and musicians extremely accessible. "When I took lessons with Maureen Glynn," Doherty Macken continued, "she would have an awful lot of people over at the house for seisiúns and that sort of thing. Johnny Cronin was there, and it was just great, learning tunes right left and center. There was always somebody over, and Johnny would be on the phone: 'Maureen Doherty, come on down to the house! There's somebody over and we'll play a few tunes!'"

In addition to similar childhood experiences, the members of Cherish the Ladies shared a common network of friends that made the social aspects of band life easier. Madden had known some of them for years. She remembers her first encounter with Ryan: "I found Cathie Ryan singing at a barbecue. And I remembered her three years later. I said, 'I remember that girl being a great singer.'" Coogan had played with Madden previously, and Doherty Macken was also a friend. Although Horan and Madden never met growing up, they knew one another by reputation; and Horan and Doherty Macken had both taken lessons with music teacher Maureen Glynn. Eileen Ivers, too, was part of this intimate New York circle. The only outsider was Egan, a Philadelphian raised in Foxford, Co. Mayo, who was introduced to the group by Moloney.

However long she's known them, Madden is fond of all of her bandmates. "They're all my best friends. You know, you have your fights and your ups and downs, like anybody whenever you're living in a household with anybody or when you're on the road with anybody. People get moody, but all you can do is get it off your chest and clear the air and go back at it again." This sensible approach has kept the band's line-up stable from its inception almost until today, with only Ivers departing to pursue her solo career, and Horan, who had joined as a step-dancer, replacing her on fiddle.

Each band member has an important role to play in the creative process. As a classically trained musician, for example, Horan has the greatest facility with written music, and she and Egan are good at finding fresh tunes in books. Madden, on the other hand, remembers a lot of older tunes. Most recently, Madden, Egan, Horan, and Doherty Macken have been composing tunes together. Madden comments, "to write with four people is kind of strange, but it's been really working and I'm very happy the way it's worked out. I think we've written some very nice tunes."

One of the most visible and charming features of Cherish the Ladies' sound has been the singing of Cathie Ryan. Ryan grew up in Detroit, but spent her summers in Ireland. While there, she became interested in the Irish language and in sean-nós, or old-style Irish singing. At the same time, an indelible impression was made on her. In an interview in the October, 1994 issue of Acoustic Musician, Ryan spoke of her time in Ireland: "I was in this wonderful, beautiful country where so many of the songs on the radio were about leaving. And when there would be seisiúns in my grandmothers' houses, there would inevitably be a few songs sung about emigration." In 1979 she moved to Madden's neighborhood of Woodlawn in the Bronx. There she encountered the other side of Irish emigration: U.S. immigration. Much of the Irish population of New York is illegal, and Ryan's friendships with such immigrants inspired her to write "The Back Door," her first song in an Irish style. A superb and haunting song, the band chose it as the title track for their first album as an ensemble, released in 1992.

In New York, Ryan was also able to develop her talents as a traditional singer. She met and learned from Joe Heaney, one of the great sean-nós singers of the twentieth century, and went on to win the North American traditional Irish singing title. She brought to the group a wonderful versatility, handling Irish-language and Anglo-Irish folksongs as well as writing moving songs herself. She delivered them all in a strong and clear voice that is at once pretty and powerful. With Ryan's vocals and songs added to the precise playing and sparkling compositions of the instrumentalists, Cherish the Ladies were sure to captivate audiences.

And so they have. Everywhere they go, Cherish the Ladies earn high praise. Their performances are always stunning and full of energy, featuring powerful melodies, unusual songs, and usually spectacular dancing as well. On stage, Madden takes charge, chatting with the audience in her gregarious and hearty way, powering through tunes with her shrill whistle and robust flute. But although she directs the traffic, the band does a lot of the driving; Egan and Horan set their twin fiddles ablaze, Doherty Macken adds the infectiously jaunty lift of the accordion, and Coogan's nimble guitar accompaniment propels them onward with precise rhythm and harmonic subtlety. When their force is momentarily spent, Ryan enthralls the audience with a lively song. Periodically, world-class step dancers arrive on stage unannounced, springing up, kicking high, and bringing the audience's involvement to the level of wide-eyed wonder. I have seen Cherish the Ladies many times and at every stage of their career. They have never failed to excite and delight the audience.

Twice along the road, they have taken a few days to capture some of their music on disc. The two experiences could not have been more different. The first time they went to the studio as a band, Madden recalls, "we didn't have a clue what we were doing. We did 'okay, I'll do my solo track now,' then we'd go 'Okay, let's do a group tune!' We were forever setting up and taking down microphones and stands instead of knowing to do all the group things [at once]." But the consternation didn't stop there. Their contract with Green Linnet Records stipulated that The Back Door had to be 45 minutes long. At 1:00 in the morning, the night before the DAT master was due, they finished recording. Casually, Madden asked the engineer how long the album was. It was only thirty-eight minutes. "So," Madden concludes, "we wound up going back in at 2:00 in the morning and recorded stuff we hadn't even heard before." Despite these difficulties, the album is a strong musical statement featuring a lot of vibrant tunes and songs both serious and whimsical. It demonstrated the new group ethic and established the band as a major presence on the American Irish music scene.

The second album, Out and About, had far more organized beginnings. Produced by Johnny Cunningham, it was recorded and mixed in 48 hours. "It was brilliant working with Johnny," Madden enthuses. "And we had a lot of our homework done before we went into the studio." Like The Back Door, Out and About has earned considerable praise from critics. Some of the material it contains is near and dear to the group's heart; a Polka and several waltzes written in a French style commemorate a trip to Brittany. Ryan's second song about Irish emigration, "Missing Pieces," shows that the sincerity and depth of feeling in her songwriting has continued to grow. "Where you've been and where you come from," Madden points out, "really influence where your brain is at the time."

Most of the members of Cherish the Ladies are too busy for solo music careers. Egan has recorded an album with her brother Seamus and her sister Rory Ann, Doherty Macken has appeared on her father Tom Doherty's album, Coogan's excellent playing makes her a sought-after accompanist who has appeared on several people's albums, and Horan has guested on Eileen Ivers' recording. But so far only Madden has recorded her own solo CD, A Whistle on the Wind. It all started, she recounts, when bodhrán player Johnny McDonagh, who had played on Mary Bergin's Feadóga Stáin, came to New York and had the day off. Seizing the opportunity to get McDonagh in the studio, Madden hastily recorded some tracks. She assumed that she would go back and re-record the flute and whistle parts, "because there was a few squeaks and squawks that I would never have left. But I tried to go back in and do my own parts and I just couldn't capture the same feel, so I just wound up saying, 'aah, leave it!'" She doesn't worry too much about the squeaks now: "The music's gotten too perfect in a way. There was always something nice about having a rough edge to it, I think." Laughing, she concludes, "there's plenty of roughness on my album!"

Like everything Madden does, she treated recording as a social affair, inviting friends along. "I'm glad I got my father to do a couple of tracks with me. It meant a lot to me. And there's a lot of people on the record that I was happy to have." Most special of all, pehaps, is a poetry reading by Liam Clancy. Madden and Clancy met on a cruise ship, and became fast friends. They learned to combine their talents: "He started reciting poems and I just started doing an air one day," Madden reflects. "Or maybe it was vice versa, I was playing an air and he started reciting." In any case, she declares, "it was just great that he sat in and did that with me."

Madden does look forward to another solo album some day, but her main focus is still the band. "I used to travel, I used to play a lot more with other people, but I was making too many pieces of myself. Because I really book the group now and I do all the management and take care of the lawyers the accountants, the record company." As both manager and musician, she plans to keep the band alive no matter what. Recently, Ryan decided to leave the group in order to pursue her solo career and her private life more fully. But Madden will keep it going: "Ten years down the line," she says, "I'll still be here. People might change...but I'm here for the long run. It's been a long road. This group started out as a weekend fling...but [now] I can't see myself doing anything else except music. I just love what I do, and I've made so many great friends, and enjoyed the music.

"It's a long road," she says again, "and you just try and take the right path."