The Celtic Connection
After 18 years, Houston's Irish Session is as much about family as music
By Jim Sherman
Orange, particulate-laden light slants down Norfolk Street as a sweltering Houston day becomes sweltering Houston dusk. Inside McGonigel's Mucky Duck, despite a packed house early on a weekday evening, there's a feeling of being somewhere cooler, somewhere north of Texas and halfway around the world. On the stage in the corner, a seated half-circle of nine musicians with fiddles, guitar, banjo, flute and bodhran play a mystical Celtic air for each other and the lone microphone hanging down from the ceiling.
Animated conversation and peals of laughter from the crowded tables mute the barely amplified band-with-no-name; for those standing among the whirlwind of discussion and beer at the bar, only the four fiddles can be heard. With a break that ripples through the room like waves from a pebble, the pair of bodhran players pound a louder, faster tempo that speaks of matters martial. Suddenly, the music isn't speaking of castles in the mist and little folk in a sun-dappled forest. The mood now is one of memory, not myth -- memories centuries old, of lonely, rain-swept villages along rocky coasts from Brittany to Erin, where the pounding of the hand-held war drums warn that Viking longships are sweeping in from sea, and the flute and fiddles scream a call to arms in defense of home and kin. The hubbub in the audience dies down, attention focusing on the intense faces of the players on the stage, as the music swirls ever louder around the room before coming to a crashing peak, and calling forth subsequent applause.
What's taking place on this Wednesday night, just as it's taken place on every Wednesday night for the last 18 years or so at varying locations around Houston, is the Irish Session. For the people in attendance, it's as much family reunion as performance. Unlike most of the long-standing musical jams around town, here there's no sign-up list, no performer with some degree of local name recognition serving as host. The sharing of a centuries-old tradition and the preservation of cultural heritage seems more important than egos. Indeed, if anyone claimed to be in charge, they would probably be laughed out of the room. I
t was sharing, teaching and learning that started the Session in the first place. Concertina player Gary Coover, whose recently ended stint as longtime host of KPFT/90.1 FM's "Shepherd's Hey" program makes him a reluctant spokesman for the Celtic cultural crowd, remembers, "It all started with the Houston Folklore Society. There were people who knew traditional Celtic music, and musicians who wanted to learn. There were people interested in playing, people who wanted to learn the traditional dances. We would get together at people's houses, 'Sing-along with Uncle Gary,' 'Sing-along with Uncle Mike,' until it got big enough and loud enough for the neighbors to complain. Since then it's been held all over town, at the original Rudyard's on Kipling, where in a year and a half we went from six people on a Wednesday night to a full house. They wouldn't give us a break on beer prices, so we went to Munchies on Bissonnet, to the old Parlor until it burned, the Gingerman, the Heights Diner, the Red Lion until it burned ...."
Coover acknowledges that the direction of the Session has changed with time. "At first it was for learning tunes, people showing each other new tunes and techniques," he says. "It's gone though spells where it's like a school of fish, being lead by whoever is the loudest and strongest, without so many opportunities to ask questions."
The Mucky Duck incarnation of the Session, if for no other reason than the frequent participation of younger musicians, gives a very real sense of tradition passed on and history handed down. Maggie Drennon, singer with Houston's Ceili's Muse, boasts of a County Mayo heritage that surfaced despite a West Texas upbringing. "I refound it myself. I'd never even heard 'Danny Boy' until I was 18," she says. "I've been entranced and stuck ever since." Members of Ceili's Muse, the Gypsies and the Flying Fish Sailors -- the most visible Celtic-influenced traditional bands around Houston -- make participating in the Session a regular, energy-charging part of their regular routine.
Though there is among many of the patrons at the Mucky Duck a passion for the Emerald Isle, the name Irish Session is actually a bit of a misnomer. Nationalist anthems about Thompson guns and the wearing of the green are nowhere to be heard. What is celebrated instead is the whole of Celtic culture, and a musical tradition that, over the centuries, has become as much an American roots music as bottleneck guitar. The drums of western Africa are what gave American music its rhythm; more often than not, though, the melody is Celtic. The diaspora from the British Isles to America, especially to what became the southern United States, was very much a Celtic migration. In trickles and waves over the centuries, Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish settlers seeking land, religious freedom, and a general release from Anglo-Saxon meddling found their way -- by choice or "transportation" -- across the Atlantic.
With them they brought the reels and ballads and jigs and chanteys that preserved their history, traditions and legends. By virtue of numbers, this largest of immigrant groups became perhaps the most assimilated -- or perhaps the Celts assimilated everyone else. The melodies of the highlands and bogs became an integral part of the music that evolved along with the United States' national identity; without the Celtic traditions of Appalachia, Nashville would be just another town in Tennessee. But as the Celts became Americans, and their music became hillbilly, bluegrass and country, that music also somehow, inexplicably, survived as something very close to what it had been in times and places where English was regarded as a foreign language.
The popularity of Celtic folk music is either a testament to the timeless appeal of these sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes jig-inspiring tunes, or perhaps an argument in favor of the nebulous theory of racial memory. A heartbeat that quickens to the pounding of a bodhran may be no proof of an ancestral line that survived the Vikings, the English and the Tennessee Valley Authority, but statistically speaking, many multigenerational Americans whose knowledge of their own ethnic heritage has become somewhat vague could probably find, if they looked hard enough, a Scots-Irish ancestor who mucked through the swamps of colonial Georgia carrying a fiddle or mandolin.
Celtic blood-ties real, suspected and imagined have given many the impetus to learn the folk-arts of the ancient tribes; that's just one reason why the Wednesday night Session at the Mucky Duck is as much a school and tribal gathering as a musical event. The musicians on-stage seem more interested in learning, and passing on, a hard-earned ancient tradition than they are in playing to the crowd. Indeed, away from the tables close to the stage where most of the musicians take their breaks, the Session is as much cultural bonding as music appreciation.
A timeless dance step, learned on the dancer's latest pilgrimage to Dunoon or Dublin, can draw as much rapt attention as the music that fuels the steps. Conversations around the bar lead to information about lessons in Scots Gaelic and tour-group trips to folk-music festivals in Brittany; a comment on the Celtic knot-work logo on someone's T-shirt can lead to a stirring discourse on the merits of the religion of the Druids. And on-stage, the music that introduced this extended family to its common roots plays on.
After each song, the musicians hold their instruments in their laps, heads coming together and beer glasses coming up as the next selection is decided by committee. A fiddle player sets his instrument against the wall and heads toward the bar, a journey that is interrupted several times for handshaking, backslapping and laughter. A pair of musicians, bearing bodhran and tin whistle, come up and take chairs on-stage, inserting themselves into the conversation that splinters and fades as a loud, insistent guitar builds the framework of an air that is soon fleshed out by the other instruments, drowned out a few feet from the stage by the buzzing of the crowd.
When bones and bodhran player Rex Shaver notices that three vocalists with ties to Ceili's Muse are in the audience, he invites Drennon and longtime (although not necessarily current) Muse-mates Melanie O'Sullivan and Mary Maddux on-stage. After warning the crowd that squeamish pet owners should leave, the trio, with soaring harmonies and hysterical gestures, launch into "Nobody's Moggie Now," a soprano-trio tribute to a dearly beloved feline that is now, well ... flat, as in road kill. Returning to their chairs as the audience roars, Maddux is asked what relevance traditional Celtic music has to American culture. Without hesitating, she replies, "If it was relevant it would be a hell of a lot better culture -- and Guinness is very good for you." Meanwhile, on-stage, a cappella harmonies have been replaced with instrumental ones, the harmonizers blissfully uncaring about their alleged irrelevance, playing and passing on something that, to them, is vastly more important than 15 minutes of fame.
There's no need for anyone to be in charge, so no one is. Anyone with the self-confidence to take the stage is welcome to do so when the mood strikes them; it's not unusual to see a performer join in or leave the stage in mid-song on a whim or a mission.
There's no disrespect intended by the patrons who ignore the music to converse, and no offense taken by the performers, who do their share of gabbing when they take their breaks. Standing at the bar, Shaver, who has been a Session regular "only for about ten years," comments, "It's good to have the kids come in and play. I like knowing this music is going to outlive me."
Predominate among the "kids" is Diehl Moran, who, celebrating his 14th birthday, has been playing violin since the age of five, "but only seriously since I was about nine." Still, a balance of classical training and lessons from Greg Harbaur of the Gypsies stands him in good stead, enough so that he's accepted as an equal. To celebrate his birthday, Moran takes the stage to sing his own version of "The Wild Rover" -- detailing the agonies of being a working musician seven years before he can go into a bar unaccompanied by his parents, a prospect which seems not to bother Moran's mother and father a whit.
Most refreshing of all is the presence of musicians whose love of playing is in no way tied to a desire to see themselves aggrandized, or in some cases even known. A fiddler with a shaved head and goatee, caught making a beer run, declines to give his name on the grounds that he's in the Witness Protection Program, on the run from the International Anti-Irish Mafia. In a reasonably authentic Guinness-fueled brogue, he blarneys "... and so is everyone else here, so if they see my name in the paper and track me down, it would be a disaster for everyone involved."
Shyness, rather than questionably real paranoia, seems to influence a blond woman in purple velveteen shorts, who remains on-stage throughout the night, a blissfully ecstatic look on her face as she plays flute and tin whistle. At the evening's close, accompanied only by gentle, rhythmic thumping on guitar and fiddle, she sings in muted tone to a crowd of a dozen stragglers a long tale of the hard life of a woman, blushing gently with the outrageously bawdy double entendres. When asked her name, she blushes again, declines and goes into the night until the next week, another Session player keeping an ancient tradition alive and vibrant.