The Musical Life of Mick Moloney

From Limerick Rake to Solid Man:
The Musical Life of Mick Moloney


by Stephen D. Winick

[From Dirty Linen #48 October/November '93]

When Mick Moloney sang "The Limerick Rake," soon after he arrived in America, we could believe the song's boasts about sprees, conquests, and sessions where the craic was mighty and the women were wild. After all, he'd spent the last five years touring the world with a highly successful music group and engaging in unimaginable high-energy debauchery. But after twenty years, two children and a Ph.D., Dr. Moloney has calmed down a bit. Now, he can croon along with the stage-Irish character of Muldoon, the Solid Man, "I am a man of great influence, and educated to a high degree."

Influence? To understand Moloney's influence on the Irish music scene, we can look at what might have happened if he had not made the crossing from Limerick to Philadelphia. Moloney would certainly have remained at the forefront of the Irish music scene. Planxty could have absorbed Moloney's tenor banjo and mandolin along with the guitar of Paul Brady, his former bandmate, or his other former partner, Dónal Lunny, might have invited him to join the Bothy Band. He might have started a group of his own, to rival the two great seventies outfits. The rest, you might say, would have been history.

In America, though, a great deal of history would not have come to pass. Two of the country's best Irish music acts would not exist at all, and others would not have received important encouragement along the way. Major festivals and other events presenting Irish music would not exist in their current forms. Seminal recordings would never have been made. Irish music, while it would undoubtedly still be a vital force in this country's musical landscape, would have an entirely different face.

Moloney's decision to come to the States was partly the result of meeting a folklorist, publisher and record producer named Kenneth S. Goldstein. Long before Moloney ever set foot in America, Goldstein had already had an important role in his development. In 1956, Goldstein produced and recorded the first LP by four unknown Irishmen in New York, the Clancy brothers and Tommy Makem. The record, when played on Irish radio, caused a revolution that had a profound effect on the young Limerickman. "Nothing like it had been heard in Ireland before," Moloney recalls. Irish songs on radio at the time were mired in syrupy pseudoclassical arrangements. All of a sudden, through the Clancys and Makem, people were introduced to Irish songs done in a new way. The young Moloney, whose previous musical influences included the American folk music he heard on Radio Luxembourg and the English skiffle movement, was captivated by the Clancys' sound, which used the vocal harmonies, the guitar and the five-stringed banjo straight out of the American folk revival and applied it to Irish songs. All of this created a consciousness of folk music, within Irish society at large and also within Moloney.

Moloney had started to play skiffle songs about the age of 14, and continued later to sing both traditional and contemporary songs, but it wasn't until his exposure to Irish music as a university student in the early '60s that he became a serious musician. He started on the guitar but, like his future partner Dónal Lunny, he felt it simply didn't work as a melodic tool for playing Irish music. Emulating a trio of musicians he'd known in his childhood called the Dunnes, he picked up a tenor banjo, and seemed to know automatically where his fingers should go. One reason for the relative ease with which Moloney learned to play banjo, he explained, was a simple consequence of the instrument's tuning; a lot of Irish music is fiddle music, and the tenor banjo is tuned like a fiddle, so the left hand has an easier time than on the guitar. The other reason is that Moloney was a good musician. But he didn't know that yet.

The aspiring picker took his banjo and his tape recorder, a relatively new piece of technology, to sessions in County Clare, an important locus where traditional musicians from all over Ireland congregated. "There they were," he says, "literally a half an hour drive away from my house, the greatest musicians in Ireland." Among those he met were flute player Paddy O'Donoghue and other members of the Tulla Ceilidh band, as well as accordionist Tony MacMahon, future chieftain Séan Keane, and master banjo picker Des Mulclair. He also received encouragement from Willie Clancy, the legendary piper from Miltown Malbay. He tried to incorporate what he learned from each model into his own playing. With fondness, he recalls, "I devoted a couple of years of my life just to fanatical playing and practicing and hanging out in sessions." His tape recorder enabled him to listen to various musician's handling of a tune over and over again while he learned the various techniques -- learning faster than previous generations had been able to. The end result was a unique style that combines the rolling fluidity of the flute, pipers' staccato crans, fiddlers' quick triplets, and the lift of a good accordion player. Years later, this style would earn him multiple victories as best tenor banjoist in Frets magazine's prestigious reader's poll.

During his first major period of growth as a musician, Moloney became a part of the Dublin folk music scene. It was 1964, and Moloney was at University College in Dublin, studying economics. He recalls, "That's when the Clancy Brothers boom -- you know, the `ballad boom,' they called it, was in full cry. Everyone who played any instrument was involved in a group of some kind." Moloney, who by now also played the mandolin, fell in with another player, a young art student named Dónal Lunny. Armed with mandolins and banjos for playing tunes, guitars for accompaniment, and Moloney's store of tunes and songs, Moloney and Lunny, along with Brian Bolger, formed a band. "Everyone called groups after patriots.... We called it after Robert Emmet. It was the Emmet Folk Group. At the same time I played with Dónal Lunny in another group called the Parnell folk group, after Charles Stewart Parnell. So there were these two patriotic-sounding groups, and we were both members of both."

The groups sounded patriotic in name, but in fact they steered clear of the average group's repertoire of rowdy rebel songs. Dónal Lunny comments on the Emmet folk's unique repertoire, saying it was "thanks to Mick, mostly." Moloney elaborates "We were very stubborn. We would pick songs that the Clancy Brothers would never do, or the Dubliners would never do. We acknowledged their influence," he says, but adds "we weren't really playing their kind of music." Asked about the difference between the Clancy approach and his early efforts, Moloney singles out the use of melodic instruments and of traditional tunes. "We started playing traditional music with traditional musicians. The Clancy Brothers never did that."

The Emmet folk, sad to say, were never a great commercial success, mainly because they wouldn't pander to the tastes of bar owners. However, some did appreciate them. "There was the little folk club circuit in Dublin, and in that circuit we got a good reputation. That was kind of the hard core of the folk scene." Moloney adds gleefully that the boys got "kind of a ghoulish satisfaction out of being marginal." Marginal or not, however, the Emmet folk and groups like it were influential in defining what Irish music would become. The very innovation that Moloney speaks of, that of combining a ballad-style singing group with traditional instruments capable of supporting Irish melodies and with traditional tunes and traditional musicians, was the germ of groups like Sweeny's Men and Planxty. These groups are still considered the standards, the founding fathers of the folk revival. But they also had predecessors and models, including the Emmet group. Moloney had already taken part in the revitalization of Irish music.

Widespread recognition did not elude Moloney for long. He left the Emmet folk and started his own folk club in Harcourt Street, Dublin. Among the performers he hired to play was a family act called the Johnstons, made up of Luci, Adrienne, and Michael Johnston. While the group had a number-one hit record out, a version of Ewan MacColl's "The Travelling People," they still needed some help, as Moloney recalls. "Adrienne and Luci were two sisters who sang in harmony, and Michael didn't sing at all, he sort of banged away at the 12-string. Michael was never really what you'd call a musician, and they needed more firepower in the music line." They asked Moloney to join them, and shortly after, Michael was replaced by Moloney's roommate Paul Brady, now a famous guitarist, singer and songwriter. This line-up of the Johnstons was to last five years, to tour all over Europe and America, and to record seven albums. Their repertoire was mostly songs, and all four of the members were singers capable of leading or harmonizing. In addition, Moloney and Brady worked out arrangements of a few of their favorite tunes to include in their live sets and on their albums.

The Johnstons topped the charts in Ireland and trod the boards worldwide. "Our first gig in America," Moloney says, "was Boston Common with Joan Baez, in front of twenty thousand people. So we'd a habit of going right in at the top." Despite the massive audiences, the group took everything in stride. None of them developed a rock-star attitude "first of all, we were real young, and having fun, and it was all a blast and we could hardly believe it was true.... People thought we were millionaires, but we basically made no money. You never do." Musically, they felt they were producing strong material; Moloney uses the words "tight," "slick" and "compelling." "We just jumped on stage," he says, "and gave it pure hell for half an hour, and off we went, and people seemed to like it." Like it they did. Ron Kavana, one of today's more progressive Irish guitarists, banjo players and mandolinists, remembers seeing the Johnstons once, and being "positively gobsmacked" by their musical acuity.

Although they were in fact the most popular Irish music group of their era (barring perhaps the Clancys and the Dubliners), the Johnstons are underrated today, and often not remembered in one breath with Planxty or even Sweeny's Men. The main reason for this is an unfortunate lapse of judgement that changed them from a folk act into a lightweight pop group. At first their songs came from various traditional sources, "either from friends of ours the likes of Séan Corcoran, who was collecting songs around Ireland a lot, or... from Colm O'Lochlainn's books, or from singers like Christy Moore, who was a good friend of ours, or Frankie Lunny, who was Dónal's brother. Myself and Séan Corcoran used to go to the Irish Folklore Commission in Stephen's Green and we used to research songs in there.... We'd take songs from anywhere." The change came later, when executives at Transatlantic Records saw a new potential in the group. "Because we were a four-part harmony group," Moloney explains, "And the Seekers had just disbanded, they felt that our road to fame and fortune would be through contemporary material." The company loaded them down with tapes of hundreds of songs every week. At one point they came across a few nice numbers by someone they'd never heard of. It was Joni Mitchell. "We recorded `Both Sides Now,' and `The Urge for Going,' and we recorded a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, a lot of Gordon Lightfoot songs."

While Moloney feels that the songs are "good quality songwriting," he and the other Johnstons are the least happy with these recordings. "We were very young, we were very impressionable, and the record company had a lot of power over us. They came up with a lot of orchestral arrangements of songs that we did. When I listen back to some of this, it seems there was a lot more of the arranger, and a lot more of the record company in a lot of those songs, than us. And I think, over the long haul, our traditional stuff holds up much better." The CD compilation of Johnstons material that Transatlantic has released is about half traditional material. "Myself and Paul had a lot of input into that, and the producer was very gracious in allowing us to have it. His own initial taste was very much toward the contemporary stuff. Strangely, myself and Paul replied to him independently of each other, and we both wrote almost the same letter with the same suggestions, which meant that over 20 years down the road, myself and Paul had almost exactly the same opinions."

Although their musical ideas were, and continue to be, similar, the Johnstons did eventually split. Moloney was tired of the constant touring and performing. "After traipsing all over the place for five years, you eventually lose your center a bit. It's a very glamorous sort of a life, but in many ways it's kind of an empty life, too. Especially when we were in the pop end of things." The great tragedy of the Johnstons was not the split-up ("that's life," as Moloney puts it), but the mysterious death of Adrienne Johnston some years later. Although the coroner reluctantly returned a verdict of accidental death, many, among them Moloney, believe that she was murdered.

When the Johnstons first split up, however, a different type of tragedy was on Moloney's mind -- the tragedy of poverty, homelessness and racial discrimination. In 1972 he moved to London, where gentrification was causing immigrants to be evicted from their homes to make way for wealthier people. Moloney turned to social work. "I always wanted to do something like work with homeless families. And I did for close to two years in London. It was sort of depressing work, but you got the sense you were helping a little." After two years working with West Indian families, learning the ins and outs of the London housing system, and playing the odd gig with a group that included Séan Cannon, Moloney finally decided to leave for the U.S.

Which brings us back to Kenny Goldstein. Moloney explains, "When I was with the Johnstons in '71, I stayed with Kenny out in Vernon Road, in Philadelphia." Goldstein, then chair of the department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, has an enormous number of books on all areas of folklore. Moloney remembers the pure excitement of discovering Goldstein's library. "God almighty! I couldn't leave it. I used to stay up all night reading these books. I was fascinated with folklore, and all the mysteries behind those books were irresistible." When Goldstein met Moloney again in a London folk club, the two had a chat. Moloney decided to pursue an academic degree in folklore alongside his musical career. Goldstein's encouragement and guidance made him realize that the place to do it was Philadelphia. In 1973, Moloney enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.

Life, as the young man from Limerick was soon to discover, can quickly turn into an emigration ballad. Like the characters in so many bittersweet songs, Moloney always expected to return to Ireland, but eventually settled in America with jobs and family. "I understand that better now, having done it myself.... I came for two years, and you know the way it is... you stay on. I used to always think that applied to other people, and then, looking back on it, it's just the very damn same." Moloney remembers America seeming like a strange place in which anything could happen. One night in particular, he seemed about to lose his grip. Having spent hours in the library studying, Moloney was already shell-shocked when, as he tells it, "a man went by me, stark naked, on a bicycle. I said, `This is it. This is how it happens. I've lost it!' " Thinking the hours of study had addled his brain, he was ready to have himself committed. A few seconds later, the naked biker turned around and came back. This time, he wasn't alone. What the unprepared lad had witnessed was the advent of streaking, a phenomenon yet unknown in Ireland.

Between his studies and getting used to the new environment, Moloney was too busy have a full musical life at first. He did, however, meet a fiddler from Derry named Eugene O'Donnell, and the two played local gigs and festivals together. Eugene, an expert set dancer as well as a fiddler, is meticulous about his dance music, but it's his slow airs that will ensure his place among the great fiddlers of all time. This made him a perfect complement for Moloney's songs and quicker tunes, and the two forged a partnership that survives to this day.

After Moloney met O'Donnell, his main musical breakthrough came, interestingly enough, through his academic connections. He was selected as a fieldworker for the Smithsonian's 1976 Festival of American Folklife. "That was the biggie." he recalls. As a gala bicentennial event, the festival was huge, amply funded, and splendidly successful. It was looked on for years as a model of how to put on a folklife event. One strategy was to juxtapose old world traditions with new world counterparts, to demonstrate continuity and change. Moloney was the fieldworker for the Irish-American component, one of the most enjoyable jobs he'd ever had. He was able to spend time with great musicians, and also to offer them the biggest gig of their lives. It was more than a personal pleasure, however, for Moloney sees the 1976 festival as a "major turning point in the whole scene." It gave each musician "the chance to meet Irish musicians from other parts of the country, like the musicians from New York met the musicians from Chicago, and they met the ones from Boston. That had never really happened. There'd been some national conventions of the musicians association, but nothing like this. For a whole week, to be together, and then to meet the crowd coming over from Ireland, too."

Another aspect of the Irish music scene was about to change as well. "Simultaneously, Rounder Records had shown interest in doing some field recordings of Irish music." Moloney, along with some friends, had just gotten a grant from the newly-founded National Endowment for the Arts to do just that. The later 1970s were the most exciting years of the young folklorist's life. "I was going around, hell-for-leather bent, trying to find all the old-timers, before they kicked off. Going round and finding the legends that were still around. Finding the likes of Mike Flanagan, tracking down members of the Dan Sullivan Shamrock Band, and so on." The result of all this time spent collecting is a long discography of field recordings released by Shanachie, Green Linnet, Rounder, Topic, and other major record companies, as well as a huge store of interviews and music on tape that will probably never be released due to the complex ethical issues of copyright in traditional music.

But recordings were only one aspect of Moloney's career. From the revitalization of Irish music in Ireland, he moved into the revitalization of Irish music in America. The group he helped put together to exemplify the best of Irish music in the new world has come to be known as the Green Fields of America. It, too, was a direct outgrowth of the 1976 festival. "At the time there was a big resurgence of interest in various kinds of ethnicity in America with the bicentennial. That was the whole focal point of it, was roots, and pride of heritage." Dick Shea, an attorney and activist with a group called the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, approached Moloney with the idea of asking the NEA for funds to tour some of the music that had been so successful on the mall. The two put together a proposal, and the tour was called "The best of Irish music and dance in America." Moloney describes the experience "a whole bunch of us went off to places that had lost contact with this particular aspect of the heritage. Places like Lincoln, Nebraska and Omaha, Nebraska, where there were no real traditional Irish musicians left." Other places touched by the tour included Irish music centers like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The tour was more successful than anyone had anticipated. "People started to write in from all over the country, asking for the tour, saying `How come we didn't get it?' So, the next time we called it The Green Fields of America. That was in 1978, and in one form or another that group's been in existence ever since."

The Green fields of America is an institution in Irish music today. It's a vision that transcends any particular line-up, "the concept of presenting Irish traditional music, singing and dancing from American based performers." It is a flexible group, comprising any number of talented musicians and dancers -- the total number of people who have been in the band is over 40. As to who might be in the group at any given time, it's rather loosely determined. "There's kind of a network of about maybe 20 musicians around, and then people come over from Ireland, like Tommy Sands, to join us now and again. At a moment's notice, a group can evolve." Any fan of Irish music will recognize names like Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Billy McComiskey, Eugene O'Donnell, Eileen Ivers, Tim Britton, Joanie Madden, Charlie Coen, Donny Golden, Jerry O'Sullivan, Seamus Egan, Robbie O'Connell, Jimmy Keane. Musicians and dancers of every age and description, whose common ground is impeccable technical skill and a love for traditional music and dance.

Like the Green Fields of America, another important Irish-American group began when Moloney put on his thinking cap. The Green Fields had participated in a festival honoring the Statue of Liberty put on by New York's Ethnic Folk Arts Center, and the center asked Moloney for further suggestions. He thought of a series of concerts featuring the young women that were becoming a major force on the Irish-American music scene. Like the first Green Fields tour, this concert series attracted a lot of attention. "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 series, called Cherish the Ladies, soon spawned a Shanachie album of the same name. It also produced another concept album, this one called Fathers and Daughters. On each track, a young woman played a duet with her father. "Here was a new phenomenon again," Moloney adds, "daughters learning from fathers." Eventually, the center procured funds to sponsor a tour, and the band named Cherish the Ladies was born. Since then, Moloney has been pretty hands-off about his brainchild. "I stepped back from the scene years ago," he says, "it's their group and their music.... They're a tremendous group now." Their frequent festival appearances, and their one album as a band, The Back Door, show them to be one of the most exquisite traditional groups in this country today.

Teams of which Moloney himself has been a member include Moloney, O'Connell and Keane, who perform more or less a pared-down version of the Green Fields act, and of course the duo of Moloney and O'Donnell. He has also toured with fiddler Séamus Connolly, reaching places as far away as Alaska, where the pair were delighted to find a thriving Irish music community. Recently, the multi-instrumental wizard Séamus Egan has joined Moloney and O'Donnell to form a trio.

Each of Moloney's recording projects has its own personality. His Transatlantic solo album We Have Met Together shows the influences of 1970s London, with a Leon Rosselson number and a Ewan MacColl song along with the Irish material. His first album with O'Donnell concentrates on traditional material, the tunes outweighing the songs. It's a lovely introduction to Moloney's style, including a set of tunes from his native West Limerick as well as many learned in the States along with classic songs like "The Limerick Rake" and "The Bantry Girl's Lament." Strings Attached is an all-instrumental, all-solo recording foregrounding Moloney's excellent banjo and mandolin playing. Uncommon Bonds, recorded with O'Donnell, concentrates on songs more than tunes, and an eclectic array of them at that. It includes originals by Robbie O'Connell and Tommy Sands, Irish American stage numbers like "Muldoon, the Solid Man," and traditional pieces. It also features a huge number of guest performers, including Norman and Nancy Blake, Saul Broudy, and even the Clancy Brothers, whose appearance, in Moloney's words "fulfilled a twenty-year fantasy of mine." The two recordings made with O'Connell and Keane (one of them also features fiddler Liz Carroll) are eclectic, adding O'Connell's gentler voice to Moloney's more strident singing, and Keane's piano accordion to Moloney's banjo and mandolin, in a variety of traditional and contemporary tunes and songs.

All of these recordings have been influential in shaping Irish-American music, and "Celtic" music, broadly defined. Moloney first became aware of his recordings' influence on the music scene at a tenor banjo workshop that included Andy M. Stewart, then a member of Silly Wizard, and Roy Gullane, frontman for the Tannahill Weavers. Innocently enough, Moloney asked each musician to tell the audience how they learned to play the banjo. Both Gullane and Stewart replied "by listening to Mick Moloney records!" "I wished the ground would open and swallow me up," Moloney remembers with embarrassment, "It looked like I'd set up the whole thing!" Leading workshops, acting as emcee at festivals and concerts, or performing with any of his groups, Moloney can be heard on the radio, seen on TV, or seen live at festivals and clubs all over the country and abroad as well.

The music will never stop for Moloney, but alongside playing and recording music he has another career that is intimately bound up with his musical life. As a folklorist, he is involved in cultural productions and presentations, in teaching and writing, and in fundraising and research. As the director of the folklife center at International House in Philadelphia, he is involved in programs that present the folk arts, including a concert series of truly international folk music, to the public. As a grantwriter, he ensures the center's future each year by obtaining adequate funding. As a teacher, he passes on knowledge about Irish music and culture, as well as other areas like emigrant folklore, to students at the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova and other schools. His lectures are always fascinating.

In 1982, Moloney's teaching skills were first employed at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. The original teaching staff was Moloney, fiddler Liz Carroll and accordionist Billy McComiskey, and the Irish music was a very small part of the curriculum. Now, Augusta features an "Irish Week," teaching not only music but also folklore and other arts. Last year, there were twenty-three people on the staff and over two hundred students registered. It is all coordinated and presented by Moloney, who also teaches the Irish Folklore course. In McComiskey's words, "It's intense!"

Moloney obviously takes great pride in this achievement, not only for the growth of the program, but for the fantastic progress of the students. Many of them return time and again, looking forward all year to Irish week, which serves as a combination of vacation, music lessons, and therapy. "If you look at the informal sessions," Moloney glows, "At the start of it, it was just the staff playing, because the students couldn't play. And then as the years went on, the students started to get better and better. And now, going over the hill, down toward where the sessions take place, you don't know if it's the staff or the students half the time."

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Moloney's career as a folklorist came in 1992, when he finally finished his dissertation, a 650-page opus on the history and development of Irish music in America. Almost 20 years after coming to America with the intention of earning his Ph.D., he finally achieved that lofty goal. He had been turned from the path of academics by his success in other areas, but there were important reasons to finish. His thoughts first turn to Goldstein, whose retirement came shortly after Moloney's official acceptance by the academy. "I really didn't want to let Kenny down, because his friendship is real important, and he put a lot of trust in me. And also, I just wanted to get the damn thing done and not have to say that I didn't do it. And then when I got into it, I really started to enjoy it. It was never easy, but it was fun to look back and see that I'd actually written that stuff."

"That stuff," as Moloney modestly puts it, is currently being re-worked for publication as a book, and it will surely be a classic survey text for anyone interested in the subject. Whether it will change Moloney's life at all to have this statement, and his degree, completed is another story. On the one hand, no major career change is likely. His current balance of teaching, presenting, and performing suits him just fine. On the other hand, the credentials do make certain jobs easier. He has, for example, begun organizing "folklore tours" of Ireland, on which he takes tourists to see and hear Ireland from a professional folklorist's perspective.

A man with an extremely nimble mind, Moloney never runs short of ideas or projects to advance public knowledge of Irish music and culture. One of his interests is in the Irish and Irish-American stage traditions Vaudeville, Music-Hall, Minstrel-Shows, variety theatre, and the like. He has an idea to write a screenplay and make a movie about a prominent Irish stage performer who'd led a particularly entertaining life. Then, he said, he'd take the money he made, buy the performer's former home in Ireland, and convert it into an Irish Theatre Museum. He just might do it; his greatest success in America has always been as the idea man as well as the musician. From Limerick Rake to Solid Man, his whole career can be summed up in his own words -- "It was a cute idea, and it was a really compelling idea, and in addition to it all it was great music."

All writing on stevewinick.com © Stephen D. Winick. The copyright on all images remains with the artist or photographer.