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Come to an Irish Session on July 28

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This summer, the American Folklife Center is hosting a series of informal jams to celebrate our living folk traditions, and to bring to life the collections from our vast ethnographic archive.  The idea grew out of the jam we held to honor our founding director, Alan Jabbour (see a video here), and the series started with an old-time jam led by Grammy-winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, which we held on July 7. All sessions will include a short tour of the resources available to musicians in the Center’s Folklife Reading Room.  We’ll also be cluing people in to some of the tunes that might be played in advance, which will allow us to introduce a few of our collections…so read on to the end for links to some great tunes!

Before we get to that, though, we’re pleased to announce that our second jam is an Irish session, and will be led by the Winch family, brothers Jesse and Terence and Terence’s son Michael. The Winches are among the region’s best known traditional Irish musicians and session leaders. Jesse and Terence, the sons of Irish immigrants, were brought up in an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx. They moved to the Washington, D.C. area in the 1970s, and founded a band called Celtic Thunder, one of the city’s first traditional Irish music bands of the folk revival era, when melodies played on traditional instruments like fiddle, flute, and accordion began to combine with with songs and chords on bouzouki and guitar. The original Celtic Thunder is no more, but Jesse and Terence have remained at the forefront of D.C.’s Irish arts scene.  (In case you’re wondering, the current group called Celtic Thunder is unrelated to the what we might call the “Classic” Celtic Thunder.  The new band just appropriated their name–or you might say, stole their thunder!)

Here’s a little more about each of the Winches: 

Terence plays button accordion and is also known for his songwriting and poetry. His best-known composition, “When New York Was Irish,” was the centerpiece of the original Celtic Thunder’s INDIE-winning album, The Light of Other Days, and is included on his CD compilation, When New York Was Irish: Songs & Tunes by Terence Winch. Terence is the recipient of an NEA poetry fellowship, an American Book Award, and other honors, and his latest poetry collections are The Known Universe and This Way Out.  In 1992, he was named one of “The Top 100 Irish-Americans” by Irish America magazine. 

Jesse is regarded as one of the premier bodhrán (Irish drum) players and teachers in traditional Irish music. He also plays bouzouki, guitar, and harmonica, and was a founding member of Celtic Thunder. He is the organizer of several highly regarded ceili bands, including the Bog Wanderers, which released a CD called Here’s To You. Jesse can also be heard as a member of the Irish Inn Mates on Monday nights at the Irish Inn in Glen Echo, MD. Jesse is also former cathaoirleach (chairman) of the O’Neill Malcom Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), the worldwide traditional Irish music society, and was elected to the CCÉ Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Michael, Terence’s son and Jesse’s nephew, has studied fiddle with some of the best players in Irish music, including Liz and Yvonne Kane, Tony DeMarco, Brian Conway, Patrick Ourceau, and Mitch Fanning.  Born in Washington, D.C., he grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, immersed from birth in Irish music.  Michael has been a vital part of the D.C.-area’s Bog Band, an ensemble of young musicians, and of MAD (Musical Arts and Dance) Week since he was a teenager. Michael has also served as music consultant for a number of Solas Nua’s productions. In 2015 and 2016 he was nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for original scores he wrote for D.C.’s  Pointless Theater.  Michael currently leads a monthly Irish session at the Petworth Citizen in D.C. In 2017, the trio released the CD This Day Too: Music from Irish America.

An Irish music session (sometimes written with the Gaelic spelling seisiún) is an informal gathering at which musicians play music for themselves and one another. While non-playing audience members are welcome, they’re not essential, and the music isn’t played for their entertainment. Typically, tunes will be played in sets featuring two or three of the same rhythmic type; three jigs or four reels, for example. While the first tune in a set is sometimes announced by name, musicians follow the leaders when the tune shifts. A good session therefore involves openness, spontaneity, and communication, as well as skill and knowledge of the tunes. As one great old Philadelphia fiddler once said to me, “it’s not always perfect, but it’s lively!”

To give folks a head start, the Winches suggested a few tunes which are well known locally, and which might show up in this session.  As promised, I’ve found versions of some of these in our collections, which also gives me the opportunity to highlight some of our Irish music collections which live online at the Library of Congress or elsewhere. 

We’ll start with videos from our Homegrown Concert Series.  Obviously, I encourage you to watch each video in its entirety, but I’ll also tell you where to find tunes the Winches mentioned.

The Gannon Family of St. Louis, Missouri, played here in November 2006. At about 7:00 into the video at this link, you’ll find a set of tunes, the second of which is the jig “Out on the Ocean.”

Billy McComiskey played here with his family and friends in June 2016, to celebrate winning the National Heritage Fellowship.  The video is here; at 5:30 hear the reel “The Hare’s Paw,” at 23:25 hear the hornpipe “The Boys of Blue Hill,” and at 27:18 hear Billy switch into the reel “Man of the House.”

The Billy McComiskey Family Band performs traditional Irish music from Maryland as part of the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series, June 28, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Billy also played here with Brendan Mulvihill in 2009 to celebrate the career of folklorist Joe Wilson.  The second tune in the set that begins at 1:43:40 in this video is the hornpipe “The Echo.”

We have many other collections with Irish music, too.  One of the most interesting is the Francis O’Neill cylinder recordings. (Read more about it here!) These are recordings of traditional music made on wax cylinders by Francis O’Neill, chief of police in Chicago, who was also one of the most significant collectors of Irish music in the early 20th century. Although most of his collecting was done in books, he did make a few cylinder recordings, which were lost for years in the attic of a friend, then rediscovered and brought to the Ward Irish Music Museum in Milwaukee. We helped the Ward Museum digitize the cylinders, and retained digital copies for our archive.  You can find the collection on SoundCloud at this linkThe Winches recommend #11, the jig “The Connachtman’s Rambles,” and #31, the reel “The Pigeon on the Gate.”

New York Irish musician Bill Ochs created the Pennywhistler’s Press to disseminate Irish music and information about it.  He was particularly diligent in documenting the repertoire of Micho Russell, the great flute and whistle player and singer from Doolin in County Clare. Bill donated his large collection of Micho Russell tapes to AFC, where they became the Pennywhistler’s Press Collection of recordings of Micho Russell (find the catalog record here) The tapes document Russell’s whole repertoire, including the reel “The Fermoy Lasses,” which you can hear Micho play on the flute at 8:08 in this video on YouTube.

So that’s just 8 tunes recommended by the Winches, out of hundreds of Irish tunes they know, and thousands in our collections at the American Folklife Center.  Once you’ve listened to those tunes, and the rest of the videos and collections they’re part of, you’re more than ready for a session. So grab your fiddle, whistle, accordion, or whatever it is you play, and come on over to the Library of Congress–all skill levels are welcome! Where and when, you ask?  Read on:

Irish Music Session with the Winches
Saturday, July 28, 2018, 2:00 pm-4:00pm
Veterans History Project Info Center LJG-51, Ground Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress
10 First Street SE, Washington, DC
For more information contact Thea Austen (202-707-1743)
Request ADA accommodations 5 days in advance at 202-707-6362 or [email protected]


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