One of the best things about traditional music festivals is, in my opinion, that they blend the new with the old. Just as music of different genres doesn’t exist in a vacuum – be it country, blues, folk or metal, traditional and contemporary, or some fusion thereof - neither do the cultures in which said music is created, and enjoyed. They blend, they evolve, they develop and they usually have a good time doing so.
Festivals are by definition celebrations, and they celebrate creativity in all its guises. The North Texas Irish Festival is well known for its eclectic line-up and is one of the best loved festivals in the United States, both by those who attend it and those who perform at it.
The theme of this year’s NTIF was ‘Ireland, I am coming home’ and the line-up certainly reflected that with artists like Ciarán Curran, Ciarán Tourish, Dermot Byrne, Daithí Sproule, Brian McDonagh, Liam Kennedy, Shane Mitchell, Tom Morrow and the irrepressible Cathy Jordan to name but a few.
However to come home ,you must first go travelling, just like the Brock McGuire Band who played at the NTIF en-route to Lubbock, Texas- the birthplace of Buddy Holly, and often called the ‘Music Crossroads of West Texas’ – and that renowned Tennessee bastion of country music the Grande Ol’ Opry.
During their performance at the Ol’ Opry the Brock McGuire Band released their latest album ‘Green Grass Blue Grass’, collaboration with Ricky Skaggs, and other notable Americana musicians. ‘Green Grass Blue Grass, as the name suggests, is a celebration of Irish and Appalachian music traditions.
“The collaboration came about through a great friend of ours called Jeff Taylor,” fiddler Manus McGuire explained.
“He was able to organize for some of the Nashville musicians to come on board. Ricky was very interested in the whole Irish music scene, and the relationship of that with the Appalachian music. So there was big crossover there, and he was able to readily identify that there, and he was influenced as a young man himself growing up in western Kentucky - the Old Style and the Old Timey fiddlers who were heavily influenced by Irish music. Both kinds of music are characterized by their common drive and vibrancy. They work very well together; there is no reason why they wouldn’t. There is a huge cross-over of the actual tunes involved and they may have different titles because of the travel they have done, in both countries but, by and large, a lot of them are the same tunes.”
“So he was very interested in what we were doing,” he said. “And we were very interested in what he was doing, and he had the idea, like we did, of why don’t we just get together and do a little CD, and as it turned out we came out to record the album in October at Ricky’s studio and he ended up staying and playing on around nine tracks, great mandolin. And so it was lovely, and we were delighted to have him on board. He and Bryan Sutton on guitar, Aubrey Henley on fiddle, Mark Fain on double bass and Jeff Taylor himself as a mutual contact - he did pump-organ and accordion. It was great fun to do, it was really tremendous, and it was great gelling of musical influences… it was a really happy marriage of them all.”
For many of the featured regional Irish-born musicians playing at the NTIF America is now home, not Ireland. One such featured musician was Jim Flanagan, who has lived in the United States for over 37 years.
Originally from Ballyvourney, Ireland, Flanagan is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern Mississippi. According to him he came to live in the Deep South due to bad planning.
“There was no graduate work in Ireland at the time,” he said. “So I thought I would do two years and then go back. And then I came here to the job at the USM and I thought I would stay there for two years and then I would go home. That was thirty something years ago, my planning is not good.”
If you wait long enough then most old things come round again. One of the old things that seem to be coming around again in Ireland is an increasing amount of emigration. As both an Irish immigrant to America himself and an anthropologist, how would he describe the current exodus from Ireland in relation to its history?
“The so-called Celtic tiger in the 1990’s rocketed some people, not everybody, but some people to immense wealth in Ireland,” he said. “And now with the banks running essentially into the same problems as the banks over here, too many easy mortgages and the people defaulting, it’s a real mess in Ireland right now. “
“Obviously the safety valve of Irish society was emigration, so between the middle of the 19th Century, and the middle of the 20th Century the population of Ireland declined at each consecutive census, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 1960s that that began to turn around. Now with the new downturn in the economy, it’s the leaving again, many immigrants have since turned round and gone home to their native countries because the prospects in Ireland are dismal. That’s the problem, that there is no where good to go anymore, but I guess that we will see a good deal of Irish emigration in the next decade or so, as the situation in Ireland sorts itself out. ”
“There is certainly a continuing tradition of song writing,” he went on. “So there is no reason to think that these people won’t tackle the problems of the new economy. There were a number of songs that came from the Northern Ireland troubles situation in the 30 years, from the 60s to the 90s. So I expect that, yes, some of the writers will turn their attentions to today’s world as well. Songs are a railway for getting views across. I think that that is the difference between folk music in general, and modern type pop music. Folk songs tend to have a message, they are story songs, not just sort of a vacuous set of words set to rhythm.”