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!
As I mentioned in last week’s post, all of us at AFC are happy to congratulate Billy McComiskey on winning a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of his appearance here with his sons, nieces, and friends, we recorded an oral history interview. The participants were Billy, his son Sean McComiskey, and their friend Myron Bretholz. After conducting the interview, I realized that a lot of the stories Billy told haven’t made it into journalists’ coverage of his career over the last 40 years, so I thought it might be fun to use some of them in a new profile of one the latest National Heritage Fellows. Videos of the concert and the oral history will be placed online as webcasts in due course, and we’ll let you know when that happens here on the blog. We’ll also have coverage of other events related to the NEA Heritage Fellows in due course. In the meantime, here’s my profile of Billy McComiskey.
Billy McComiskey: Irish American Tradition Bearer
I’d rather get on a stage with Billy McComiskey, unrehearsed and unprepared, than with anyone else after ten rehearsals. That’s how sure I feel about Billy. It’s just going to be right. It’s going to have integrity, it’s going to last, and it’s going to be musically viable, and it might even be some fun.
So said Myron Bretholz, a leading percussionist and producer in Irish music, during our oral history interview on June 28, 2016.
Bretholz is not alone in his opinion of Billy McComiskey, who is undoubtedly one of the foremost players in Irish music today. Billy has been named one of this year’s National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts. He has played at every major festival of Irish music, and most of the prestigious folk music concert series in the country, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Kennedy Center, and here at the Library of Congress. The Irish ethnic press has been equally kind, with the Irish Echo pointing out:
McComiskey over the decades has been pivotal in shattering the long-term, stereotypical, distorted perception of the button accordion as an inferior, obnoxious instrument. He has raised the profile and stature of the button accordion through the sheer luminosity of his playing. Other button accordionists in America and Ireland owe him a huge debt for helping to resuscitate an instrument that never deserved to be put on a ventilator. Every note he plays on the box proves it belongs side by side with the fiddle and flute in both dexterity and prestige. Billy McComiskey makes the accordion sing.
Of course, you don’t have to take our word for it. In the player below is a clip from last week’s concert so can hear Billy’s playing for yourself. Then in the resource list at the end you’ll find a link to a video of a concert Billy gave here in 2009.
Asked about his own story, Billy began by giving the details customary in Irish family narratives, including counties of origin: his grandfather Andy Caplis was from Newport, near Nenagh, in County Tipperary, and his grandmother Nora Sweeney from Castleconnell in County Limerick. They married in America and had three children, including Billy’s mother, who remained so close to her parents that Billy grew up right next door to his maternal grandmother, in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. One thing that kept the family close: as Billy said, “all of them were crazy mad in love with Irish traditional music.”
Billy’s father, Pat McComiskey, had a different story. An Irish Catholic from Northern Ireland, he was born to Patrick McComiskey of Armagh and Elizabeth Cullen of Benburb in County Tyrone. Although generally not happy with British rule in Northern Ireland, Pat made the fateful decision to fight for the Allies during World War II. As Billy explained it:
He had a good talk with his father, and they agreed that what was going on in Ireland with the British, what they were doing to the Irish Catholics, it wasn’t right…but it was nowhere near as bad as what was going on in Nazi Germany.
Billy’s father joined the RAF, and was sent to train as a pilot in America—Oklahoma, to be precise. He loved the wide open spaces, and vowed if he survived the war he would return.
Pat McComiskey did survive, and he did return to America, but he never got farther than Brooklyn. He stayed with his Aunt for a while, then got a good deal on a burnt-out fixer-upper house and settled in.
At the time, a corner of the Catskill mountains centered around East Durham and Leeds, N.Y., was known as “The Irish Alps,” and consisted of resorts, boarding houses, hotels, and restaurants catering largely to Irish immigrants and their families. It was a common summer destination for New York’s large Irish population, and also for Irish people living in New England. One day, another Brooklyn couple asked Pat McComiskey to drive them up to a boarding house in the Irish Alps to hear a visiting musician. When they got there, Pat met the proprietor, Matt Caplis, who invited him to stay the night. “There’s a great box player in town,” he said, using the common Irish-American term for the button accordion. Pointing out a group of attractive young women playing badminton on the lawn, Caplis added “you have the pick of the Catskills right there.”
Pat promptly picked Matt’s sister, Mae Caplis. Eventually, the two fell in love and got married, and Billy was born in Brooklyn on December 21, 1951.
The tale of his parents’ first meeting is a cute family story revealing details of Irish ethnic history, but it also drives home the importance of the Irish accordion in Billy’s life. His parents literally met through accordion music.
The visiting box player they saw that night was Joe Derrane, an important early accordionist and recording star in Irish music. Billy is a great admirer of Derrane’s playing all these years later. He has since become friends with Derrane, and in fact had talked with him on the phone soon before our interview. As he said of the older accordionist:
He was such an inspiration. I listened to Joe Derrane’s music in the house. My mother had all his records. My uncle Matt was an accordion player, and he adored Joe Derrane…. It’s amazing, all these crazy little connections.
(Two more connections involve Derrane: like Billy, he’s a National Heritage Fellow, and he’s played here in the Coolidge auditorium, as part of AFC’s Homegrown Concert Series in 2003!)
Growing up, Billy was lucky in that his uncles, Matt and Andy Caplis, were movers and shakers in Irish music, finding opportunities for great musicians like fiddlers Paddy Killoran and Larry Redican, accordionists Bobby Gardiner and Joe Cooley, and (somewhat later) whistle players Mary Bergin and Angela Crotty, to play in the Catskills. This, coupled with the support Irish music found in Billy’s home and in a few genteel clubs he attended with his grandmother, disguised the fact that Irish traditional music was on the verge of extinction. “There were just a few old men, who were just incredibly good,” he remembered. “I was too young to realize that [Irish traditional music] had almost vanished.”
Billy took up the accordion at six years old, and became serious about it as a teenager. It was still early days for the instrument typically called the Irish button accordion. Originally, button accordions were tuned with a single row of buttons in one diatonic key. By building an instrument with several rows, one could add a second or third key in which the instrument could play. These purely diatonic instruments are often called “melodeons” in Irish music. But when a clever musician tuned two rows a half-step apart, something magical happened: it had all the notes of the chromatic scale. Billy explained:
An Englishman around 1910 discovered that if you take two major scales, two diatonic scales, if they’re a half a step apart, you more or less have the full circle of fifths. It doesn’t make for a great harmony-playing instrument, but it’s ideal for Irish music.
The early part of the 20th century was a time of innovators figuring out how to play tunes on such two-row instruments, typically tuned either B/C or C#/D. From these early experiments, regional styles developed. “I’d be more or less identified, or loosely defined, as an East Galway style accordion player,” Billy said. In that style, he places such players as Paddy O’Brien, Joe Cooley, Kevin Keegan, Raymond Roland, and his own mentor, Sean McGlynn.
Like so many other musicians, McGlynn was brought into Billy’s orbit by his uncle Matt, who had invited Irish accordion champion Joe Burke to play in the Catskills. McGlynn, who had emigrated from Tynagh, County Galway, to Boston, heard about the concert and drove down. Matt became friends with McGlynn, and was impressed with his playing. McGlynn played a rare gray Paolo Soprani accordion, and had the unusual dexterity required for impeccably crisp playing. Matt saw the Boston-based musician’s potential as a mentor for Billy.
My uncle so much wanted him to meet me that he actually gave him a down payment for a house in the New York area, just so he’d be down and we’d get a chance to meet. And he came over to the house. I’d gotten kind of frustrated with these older players. […] I asked one of these players one time, ‘could you show me how to do that?’ And he said, ‘sorry, my hand hurts.’ It was like a joke. And I said, ‘I’m never going to make that mistake again.’ So I would just watch players.
As Billy remembered, Sean McGlynn was very different: “He was my mentor. He was my best friend. And he was my Best Man.”
I just loved the way McGlynn played. There was a certain roughness in it, and he said the people liked that. And he had big…he was a very strong man. But the tips of his fingers were very small, and he had great dexterity in his hands.
I was so intimidated when I met him that I actually went up to my room to do homework. This was not my style at all. And he came up and he said, ‘you’re going to be a great player.’ And Joe Cooley had told me the same thing. They were just so anxious…it was so important to them to share this culture.
McGlynn loved learning technique, and played jazz and continental music as well as Irish music. He even went for formal lessons on classical accordion. Although Billy didn’t follow him into other musical styles, he did share McGlynn’s love of working out technique.
There was no such thing as getting a formal lesson at the time for the Irish accordion. He didn’t show me so much, but after we knew each other for a while, he would say ‘how do you think we could…what would you do there?’ And we’d figure out these finger patterns. Kind of like dancing. Instead of using two feet to dance, we’d use four fingers.
One memory in particular showed how Billy and Sean McGlynn were kindred spirits, and how they differed from others who loved the music:
I remember sitting in my uncle’s house up in Leeds (New York), and Sean’s wife and the Leonards, and my uncle were all in Gilfeather’s Sligo House having a great time with the showbands, and it was great fun. And Sean and I were sitting in the kitchen, talking away. You could hear the crickets outside, and the moths coming up against the screen door, and all the little things you could hear going on out there. And we’re trying to figure out the fingering of a tune that was written by the great Martin Wynne, from Sligo, who lived in the Bronx. He was a fiddle player, and we were trying to figure out, how you could take…how to cover about an octave and a half, or about 9 notes, to get down there…how are you supposed to do that? And we finally figured it out. And Sean says, ‘There’s the difference, right there.’ And I said ‘what’s that?’ And he said, ‘There they are, they’re all down there in the bar, and they’re having a great time singing and dancing, and here we are…worried about one note!’
Billy’s career as a professional musician began in the early 1970s, when fiddler Johnny Cronin suggested Billy join him at the Bunratty Pub on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, which would pay 50 dollars a night plus all the Heineken you could drink. At the time, the idea of getting paid, and playing on a stage, was pretty new for Irish traditional instrumental music, which was otherwise played at informal jam sessions, private clubs, or people’s kitchens. Soon Billy was a regular, not only playing with Cronin, but filling in for Joe Burke alongside fiddler Andy McGann and pianist Felix Dolan, mighty musicians whose playing defined the era’s Irish music in New York. On other nights, fiddler Paddy Reynolds would play, making the Bunratty a destination for Irish music aficionados.
One night, a friend of Billy’s named Peggy Riordan, a good fiddler who had moved from the Bronx to the D.C. area, turned up at the Bunratty Pub along with a Catholic priest named Lou Thompson. Together they convinced Billy to come down to Washington for a music party, where he met Terence and Jesse Winch and Mark Quinn, all native New Yorkers who had moved to Washington, and who played Irish music. The existence of this little nucleus of talent was impressive, while the advent of the Irish-themed bar and restaurant expanded the market for the music. These factors convinced Billy to come down for a longer stay. First he came down with his friend Brendan Mulvihill, a fine Irish fiddler. (Brendan was the son of Martin Mulvihill, the premiere Irish music teacher in New York and another National Heritage Fellow.) A little later, they returned briefly to New York to enlist their friend Andy O’Brien, a singer and guitarist from County Kerry who was a fan of open tunings on the guitar and who sang a wide range of songs from Ireland and Scotland. He made the purely instrumental group into a folk band that could do the full range of traditional songs and tunes, which was important for what was essentially a bar band.
Billy remembered how novel it was to make money playing music:
The first week that we played in the Dubliner, Andy used a subway token [as a guitar pick]. When we got paid, we got 300 dollars, which was very big money at the time. And Andy counted it and counted it. He was from County Kerry, and there was nothing there…there was cows, man! And he was counting it like that, and I said, ‘Andy, what are you going to do with all your money?’ And he said, ‘I’m gonna go out, and I’m gonna buy a pick!’
The trio called itself The Irish Tradition. They were the resident band at the Dubliner on Capitol Hill for several years, and then for several more at Kelly’s Irish Times a few doors down. These were (and are) Irish-themed restaurants, a distinct kind of business from ethnic Irish bars like the Bunratty. As the top local Irish band in Washington, The Irish Tradition played at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in 1976, and in the same year played at the Library of Congress to celebrate the founding of AFC.
In that same era, The Irish Tradition played at a wedding that would change Billy’s life. Their old friend Lou Thompson decided to leave the priesthood, and soon after that he and Peggy Riordan were married. They asked The Irish Tradition, the Winches, and a few others to be their wedding band. As Billy remembered:
Lou loved to teach ceili dancing, and Peggy loved everything about Irish culture, she was an Irish step dance teacher, and she was accredited. So they had all of their students. After they had their wedding ceremony…all of these really nice people showed up. And everyone was dancing all over the place, and it was all the people that Lou and Peggy had showed how to dance. Two girls went by like that, and I said to Brendan, ‘that’s it!’ One of them was my wife Annie! I was like, no question about it, I have to try and get her attention!
Billy recalls that his courtship with Annie threw a slight curveball to Lou and Peggy, who had been trying to set him up with Annie’s sister Franny for years! Still, it was Annie he asked out, and like a good Washingtonian he remembers their courtship according to the political calendar: when they met, Jimmy Carter had just secured the Democratic nomination (June 1976). Their first date was on Election Day, when Carter became President-elect (November 2, 1976).
Billy and Annie married in 1982 and settled in Baltimore. Their eldest son Patrick was born later that year, Sean was born in 1984, and Mikey was born ten years later, in 1994. All three are now accomplished Irish musicians.
The 1970s was a time of great innovation in Irish music. In addition to the kind of music played by The Irish Tradition, which blended the ballad-singing style of the Clancy Brothers and similar acts with traditional dance music, larger ensembles were being put together to combine all elements of Irish music and dance into one show. The best example of this was The Green Fields of America, a large ensemble created by folklorist and musician Mick Moloney, which featured Sean McGlynn on accordion. Billy remembers one fateful night when the Green Fields were passing through Washington and all of them decided to descend on Billy’s apartment to have a party and stay the night. He and McGlynn had a little too much to drink, and an argument ensued:
We got in an argument about who loved who more. He said, ‘OK, well, you think you love me.’ He says, ‘the day I die, you’re getting my gray accordion.’ And that was the end of the argument. That was it.
Sadly, in 1983 Sean McGlynn was murdered in an apparently random act of violence: his body was discovered in his car in Queens, shot through the heart. The accordion did indeed pass to Billy, who plays it to this day. Billy also filled his mentor’s shoes in the Green Fields of America ensemble, which does occasional tours of the United States and has recorded several CDs.
Billy continued to play with The Irish Tradition for some years. They played in AFC’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series in 1982 and again in 1986, marking the tenth anniversary of AFC’s founding. On that occasion, they were introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy.
That same year, they played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, again the tenth anniversary of their first appearance there. They also recorded three critically acclaimed albums. But eventually, like most bands, they broke up:
We had kind of had our time. We weren’t a very good bar band. We were very very lucky that the audience that we had on Capitol Hill at the time was as attuned as they were. It was just a magnificent thing. We had tremendous support, and then all of a sudden we didn’t. We couldn’t really be a concert group. We weren’t travelers, we didn’t have that.
Billy’s next group was formed with Liz Carroll, a longtime friend from Chicago who is one of the foremost fiddlers in Irish music today. His first meeting with her was another funny story:
Before I moved down here [to Washington], I went to a feis in Manhattan, and we thought it was a really big thing. It’s an Irish dance competition, and a few musicians also went to it. And a friend said, ‘there’s some girl, and she’s really tall, and she’s crazy, and she’s been asking…she wants to meet you.’ And I said, ‘really? What’s her name?’ ‘Oh, her name is Liz Carroll.’ I said, really? He said, ‘Yeah, she’s really tall…she’s about 6 feet tall.’ […] And next thing, everybody’s on the elevator…and the doors open, and this girl Patty Moriarty, a box player…she goes ‘THERE HE IS!’ And this girl, she’s about 6 foot 2, says ‘Is that Bi…?’ And the doors close! So that was the first time I met Liz Carroll!
Years went by, during which Liz and Billy actually met and played together occasionally, and Billy developed a healthy respect for Liz’s playing: “I think she’s a genius. I think she’s a preeminent player, period.” (I agree–Liz won a National Heritage Fellowship in 2004 and performed in AFC’s Homegrown concert series in 2005–the first concert I worked on as a member of the AFC staff!)
One day during the last days of The Irish Tradition, Liz asked if Billy would form a group with her. The two of them thought of Minneapolis-based guitarist Dáithí Sproule as a third member, remembering a similar trio he had been in with accordionist Paddy O’Brien and fiddler James Kelly. Sproule is a master of open-tuned guitar, and a great singer in both English and Irish. (Sproule performed in AFC’s 2007 Discover Northern Ireland series on his birthday. Find a link to that video in the resource list below.)
The resulting trio, eventually known as Trian, was one of the foremost groups on the Irish American scene throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, toured the U.S. and Ireland, and recorded two well regarded CDs of traditional music. “We were able to come up with some really nice settings of traditional tunes, and Liz and I were both composing tunes,” Billy said.
In the 2000s and 2010s, Billy has continued to play music both alone and in various groups. The Pride of New York, for example, brings Billy together with Brian Conway (protégé of the great Andy McGann), Brendan Dolan (son of Felix Dolan, McGann’s regular accompanist, who reinvented the art of piano accompaniment for Irish music), and Joanie Madden (daughter of Joe Madden and leader of the band Cherish the Ladies). They play old-style New York Irish music with skill, verve, and unfailing good taste. Billy also continues teaching at Irish music programs all over the country.
Most importantly, Billy has imparted his love of music to his children. Patrick, Mikey, and Sean McComiskey have all become accomplished Irish musicians, with Sean in particular achieving recognition for his work with several groups.
Sean, for example, is the longtime accordion player in O’Malley’s March, the Irish folk-rock band fronted by former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. As the story goes, O’Malley wanted to hire Billy, but as soon as he heard Sean he hired him instead. (It didn’t hurt that Billy could make it to only one of the three gigs O’Malley was booking!) Sean credits his father for imbuing him with both the skills and the attitude for a music career:
I remember being a little kid, and going to these festivals, and [my father] would always say, ‘you never know where the music is going to take you. And wherever you go, you’ll always have a friend.’ So in the past 5-10 years, I’ve toured Germany with Josh Dukes, and played in Spain, and all over the country here. I learned a very wide majority of my musical technique and style from him, and in recent years I’ve kind of taken that and gone in different directions with it, experimentally. I’m from Baltimore. I’m an American, and around me is a lot of American music. […] I’ve taken what I’ve learned from my father and gone into collaborations with people like Christylez Bacon, a resident D.C. Hip Hop artist, playing Go-Go and jazz and hip-hop music. And more recently I’ve gone into Appalachian music and bluegrass. For the past couple of years I’ve been playing with a group called Charm City Junction, which hearkens back to Baltimore as Charm City and the junction where all our music meets. It’s a collaboration with a blugrass fiddler named Patrick McAvinue, old-time banjo player Brad Kolodner, and a jazz bassist, Alex Lacquement.
Asked to sum up his father’s impact, Sean found a perfect way:
The simplest thing I can say about my father is thank you for teaching me and my brothers and my cousins all the good things you taught us about music. When I was listening to you talking about Sean McGlynn, I was reminded of some of the things that you do.
For Billy McComiskey, there’s surely no higher compliment than that.
Billy McComiskey, Brendan Mulvihill, Mick Moloney and Josh Dukes performed at the Library of Congress in 2009. Find a video of that performance here.
Dáithí Sproule performed at the Library of Congress in 2007. Find a video of that performance here.