The following post is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!
The American Folklife Center is thrilled to congratulate Billy McComiskey, one of the country’s top button accordion players in Irish traditional music, for winning a 2016 National Heritage Fellowship award. The Fellowship is a lifetime honor presented to master folk and traditional artists by our colleagues at the National Endowment for the Arts, recognizing a lifetime of excellence in a traditional art form. We generally consider it to be highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States.
Of course, AFC is proud of all the recipients, and we congratulate them all. But Billy’s award is something special, for me personally as well for AFC. My own connection is easy to explain: as a New Yorker who began listening to Irish music in the 1980s, I heard about Billy all the time. He was by then a legendary figure who had taken New York Irish music to the nation’s capital. When I got more seriously involved in the music, as a singer, a journalist, and a folklorist, I met Billy in person and have known him for about 25 years. One of my best friends even wrote a doctoral dissertation about Billy, which is soon to be published as a book.
Billy’s award is special for AFC as well, because Billy is among the people who have been associated with the Center for all 40 years of its existence. On January 2, 1976, President Ford signed into law the American Folklife Preservation Act, which the Congress had previously passed. It established the American Folklife Center here in the Library of Congress with the mission to preserve and present American folklife. (Read the law here!) One of the first things the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Daniel Boorstin, did was to throw a party to celebrate the new Center. On February 19, 1976, there was a fabulous reception in the Great Hall, at which a number of high-profile folk and traditional musicians played. It was a stellar lineup, including Elizabeth Cotten, John Jackson, Tony Alderman, The Country Gentlemen, and Mariachi America. Finally, there was a group called The Irish Tradition, a local D.C.- area Irish band featuring Billy McComiskey.
To celebrate our 40-year connection with Billy, we invited him to headline a concert featuring his sons Patrick, Sean, and Mikey, his nieces Catriona and Angela Fee, and his friends Myron Bretholz and Josh Dukes, as part of our 40th anniversary celebrations. Since literally one of our first acts in support of the folk arts was to hire him, we couldn’t think of a better symbol of our 40 years spent preserving and presenting folk arts than Billy: a man who has raised children in the culture of traditional music, nurtured it in others, and played it to the highest standard of excellence for all that time.
The concert happened the day before yesterday: Tuesday, June 28, 2016. In case you missed it, it was captured on video and will eventually be featured as a streaming webcast on the Library of Congress website. But for now, here’s a brief audio segment recorded straight off the board, a set of jigs from Billy and friends, including one of Billy’s compositions. Hear it in the player below.
By the way, we invited Billy to play in the 2016 Homegrown series before we even knew of his National Heritage Fellowship, and by pure bad luck the concert was scheduled just two days before the public announcement of his award. For that reason, we couldn’t mention the award at all at the concert. So if you did happen to be in the audience, that’s why we didn’t let on!
After the concert, I conducted an oral history interview with Billy, which I’ll use to inform a written profile of him. We’ll post that next week. In the meantime, you can read his biography and hear a few more audio clips on the National Endowment for the Arts website.
Congratulations, Billy! Here’s to 40 more years!