Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History

By Colin Harper & Trevor Hodgett

Some time in 2000 or 2001 I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an ‘artistic retreat’ in County Monaghan. I’d won a bursary for two weeks from Belfast City Council and my plan for one of the weeks was to gather interviews and other material together to work on the story of Sweeney’s Men, an Irish folk group of the late sixties – little-known but influential. I envisioned the end product as a kind of stand-alone section of a potential book project I was working on with legendary Irish musician Andy Irvine, who had of course been a member of Sweeney’s Men, and also thought it might be made to work as a feature in Mojo magazine.

After three days I had an 11,000 word piece which I was rather pleased with. The Mojo editor of the time was keen but not at that length, while Andy wasn’t entirely sure the approach would fit within his book (though he later felt differently). Thus, in short, I needed to find a way to use this piece at its full length. And so, it came to pass, that the concept of Lost Gods Of Erin, which later became Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, was formed.

With the estimable Con Collins of the Collins Press interested, I brought my friend Trevor Hodgett – an expert on Irish blues musicians, in particular – on board. The plan was to pull together previously published pieces from our collective ‘back catalogues’ which would fit thematically within the concept of a book on lesser-known byways in Irish music. The concept, of course, twisted and turned a few times during the course of what became a rather more involved gestation period than we’d first imagined. Pieces came and went in the running order; old work was tweaked, added-to, edited; new work was done, some of it substantial; first person prologues were written giving personal background or context to the essays which followed.

Eventually, we came up with a ‘patchwork narrative’ that made sense to us and which was do-able in terms of page count. Dominic Carroll, the designer and editor on the project, was a tremendous help in bringing it all together and rock star/broadcaster Tom Dunne wrote a wonderfully generous foreword, with Christy Moore providing a similarly generous cover quote. It is by no means the ‘complete’ or ‘definitive’ history of Irish music, or indeed of anything else, but it’s a lot of foothills conquered, with great affection and the best of our abilities, for the next guy who fancies scaling the mountain.

Featured below is an interview with Trevor and myself, by David Roy, published in the Irish News in December 2004, shortly after the book came out – and thanks to David and the Irish News for permission to use it here. Following that I’ve reproduced the book’s Introduction along with a few review quotes.

 

Secret Sounds Of The ‘60s

By David Roy

published in The Irish News, December 4 2004

Eire Apparent. Mellow Candle. Sweeney’s Men. These are not names which burn brightly in the popular consciousness when it comes to Irish music. However, all three acts have a story to tell and a role to play in the evolution of modern music in this country. Just because you haven’t heard of a group is no reason to write them off – just ask Colin Harper and Trevor Hodgett.

This pair of music nuts have been conspiring for the past two years, plotting an ambitious re-write of our until now under-reported musical history. Their mission was to focus on unsung heroes, to champion the dedicated underdogs beneath the more established names, to paint a more complete picture of what went on way back when and its effects on the present day.

Packed full of amusing anecdotes and colourful characters, Irish Folk, Trad and Blues: A Secret History should appeal as much to the casual music fan as to the die-hard record collector.

For every startling fact to be filed away under pub quiz trivia (for example, did you know that the first and only album by Belfast band Eire Apparent was produced by Jimi Hendrix?) there’s a fascinating tale of life in an era of excitement and opportunity.

Fully illustrated with 130 photographs, the book is a virtual portal to another time and place, when musicians regularly had an impact on the worldwide music scene.

The reader will learn about both pioneers from every era; Ottilie Patterson in the ‘50s, through Sweeneys Men in the ‘60s and on to the likes of Them, Horslips, Mellow Candle, Skid Row, Clannad, Rory Gallagher, Paddy Keenan, Shaun Davey and Martin Hayes. Visits to these shores by legends such as Muddy Waters, Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan are also accounted for, giving a broad picture of the influence and impact of some of Irish music’s marginalised talent.

With a foreword by former Something Happens man turned Today FM Pet Sounds presenter, Tom Dunne, IFTB: A Secret History is the first authorative account of its kind.

“Sean Body from Helter Skelter Books in London suggested to me that there might be a gap in the market for a serious but popular book on Irish music,” explains Colin. “Not an academic book or a coffee table book, but something in between.

“It did strike me that not a lot of serious music journalism had been collected together on Irish music in general. You’d get the odd biography of a popular figure like Christy Moore or Moya Brennan, but that was about it.

He continues: “For some reason there didn’t appear to be the same tradition of music writing on Ireland as there was elsewhere, like America or Britain. Usually, any half decent artist has a biography these days.

“I went away and had a think about it. I looked at my back catalogue of published work for magazines and newspapers, including the Irish News, and tried to decide what I could bring together or tweak into an anthology which would form some kind of a patchwork narrative on Irish music.”

Enter Mr Trevor Hodgett, journalist, teacher and music fan extraordinaire. Having grown up in the thick of Belfast’s music scene in the ‘60s, Trevor was perfectly placed to add a little balance to the project.

“Once Collins Press were interested, I went back and looked at the work again. It was fine as far as it went, but I decided it would be even more impressive if there were certain gaps covered.

“I knew Trevor would be the ideal man to cover the whole Belfast R’n’B and blues scene of the mid-60s and some of the ripples from that particular pond,” says Harper. “Consequently the book covers all sorts of ethnic fringes of Irish rock.”

As Hodgett explains, both he and his co-author were driven not just by the desire to fill a glaring hole in the marketplace, but by their own enthusiasm for the material at hand.

“One of the major motivations for the book was that we had a real desire to celebrate the careers of musicians we were passionate about,” enthuses Trevor.

“We’re trying to give credit to people who so far haven’t got the credit they deserve. This book is full of untold stories. We know of trailblazers and pioneers like Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore who have had successful careers, but there are many others who enjoyed only fleeting fame or simply failed to achieve the success they deserved.”

Launched last month, the book has already caused something of a stir in local circles – not only has it caught the imaginations of aficionados of Irish music, it has also been embraced by those who simply had the privilege of growing up during those special times.

“What’s really blowing us away is how the book is being received,” explains Trevor. “We knew music freaks like us would like it, but actually it’s proving popular in a much wider circle.”

Colin elaborates: “There seems to be a lot of people in Belfast who were kind of half-interested in music in the ‘60s. Back then, live music was a much more all-encompassing thing. It was more of a social norm to go out and see a live band. It’s become much more marginalised these days.

“Some of the R’n’B people Trevor is writing about who were involved in the Maritime Club scene would often play two or three venues in one night, which is hard to imagine these days. Back then there was live music on offer six nights a week. The idea of the specialised music fan didn’t even really exist at that stage. Music was something that everyone was aware of.”

However, it’s the stories of the characters behind the music which really make the book a compulsive read, as Hodgett explains: “The careers of some of these guys are real sagas,” he says. “Take guitarist Henry McCullough for example. He tells stories of being in one band where the five of them were living for months at a time in the back of a van, then later he’s playing in front of 500,000 people at Woodstock. Later still he’s off in a private jet on holiday with Paul McCartney to Morocco for two weeks, but later again he’s having more hard times.

“The story of Them is fascinating. Everyone knows about Van Morrison, but the other guys in that band have all had interesting careers as well. For example, Jackie McAuley went on to write songs for Status Quo. It wasn’t just Van and a bunch of faceless session musicians.”

He adds: “These guys showed incredible dedication. They pursued their music with all their heart and soul for all these years, and this book is a celebration of that.”

 
Epilogue: A Plaque For Van Morrison
 
Irish Folk Trad & Blues: A Secret History
 
Introduction
 
Colin Harper
Like Irish mythology, the popular music of the twentieth century has its own legends, heroes, kings and conquerors and, like European history, its own dark ages – a time of great deeds made more wondrous still through the tantalising opacity and dearth of the written record. Though it barely covers a period of fifty years, some of the truest pioneers and ground-breakers in post-war popular music ploughed their lonely furrows at a time when there was little in the way of recording industry or media to document and acclaim their adventures. Nowhere more so than the Ireland of the sixties and seventies.
 
Received wisdom would have it that before U2 and the exponential growth of the indigenous music industry that followed, Ireland’s contribution to the worldwide history of rock comprised Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. Reverential doffs of the cap may have been reserved, by more informed observers, for Planxty or The Bothy Band, but that was folk music, so no matter how many units they shifted (and ex-Planxty man Andy Irvine believes the figure to currently reside in the millions) it didn’t really count. As for Horslips, well, has anyone who wasn’t Irish ever heard of them?
If a time traveller could zip back and tell the music world of 1970 or thereabouts – driven as it was by the rewards of the here and now and the thrill of finding musical limits and barriers that could still be leapt for the first time – would anyone really believe the idea that a generation down the line, many thousands would be employed in the industry of musical retrospection? Magazines, reissues, compilations, books, digital remasterings, bottom-drawer ransackings of demos, rehearsals and dodgy live tapes by the momentarily famous and websites dedicated to the causes of those who lived the dream testify to the power of the rock era in a popular music world now regulated to within an inch of its life by accountants, marketeers and the transient wiles of multi-channel television format people.
In a business now geared towards homogenising, crushing or banishing to the margins those whose go-getting nous doesn’t at least equal, if not outstrip, their creative worth, or whose face simply doesn’t fit, there is no longer a place for the fragile artist or the raw talent which might take an album or two to realise its potential. Taking the example of traditional singer Cara Dillon’s five years with Warners – wherein whole albums’ worth of would-be pop recordings were created and not one note of it released to the public – the potential musical heroes of today are likelier to spend their time traversing the alternate universe of the ‘development deal’ (which could last just about as long as The Beatles entire career) than anywhere remotely adjacent the public domain. Few mistakes are made in public anymore, and if they are you’re probably finished.
The lost gods of Irish music are those free spirits who bucked the system, rode the lightning and paved their way long enough to leave some kind of legacy which merits acknowledgement and respect. Some have taken their place already in the rose-tinted annals of rock’n’roll; others may yet need a leg up. We hope this book will go some way towards doing that and that, cumulatively, the seemingly disparate tales we’ve brought together will combine as a patchwork history of sorts. It won’t be definitive by any means, but we hope the whole will seem greater than the sum of the parts and that a sense of time, place and the joys of discovery may be found.
Some of those we celebrate, like Anne Briggs, Sweeney’s Men and Davy Graham, can be viewed with hindsight as the shadowy foundation of much that would follow and find greater fame in the seventies and beyond; some, like Henry McCullough, John Wilson, Eric Bell and Jim Daly would be sidemen at the courts of kings; the likes of Ottilie Patterson, an all but forgotten pioneer; Horslips, like Something Happens years later, home-grown heroes whose magic was doomed to work only on the island. Others, like Shaun Davey and Martin Hayes, and even to some extent Paddy Keenan and Kevin Burke, remain maverick stylists whose now assured reputations could surely never have been predicted – and certainly not guaranteed.
From the phenomenal, sustained success of Rory Gallagher – who was, in his own phraseology, the ‘last of the independents’ – to the momentary brilliance of Mellow Candle and Skid Row, or the painfully long caterpillar roads to butterfly careers taken by Clannad or ‘honorary Irishman’ David Gray, this is a book of outsiders who won. It matters not that Mellow Candle’s one album has the simultaneous virtue and ignominy of being the rarest (least bought) folk-rock album to have found release on a major label – all that matters, at this remove, is the quality of the work. Van Gogh, they say, sold only one painting in his lifetime.
On a purely technical level, the way we have chosen to present this book needs some explanation. It is not quite an anthology of two writers’ previously published work, but nor is it a straightforward work of thematic biography, and certainly not an attempted encyclopedia that somehow careered wildly off the rails. No, the bibliography of Irish music already has quite enough encyclopedias peddling potted histories, quite enough academic perusals on the hallowed tradition and quite enough coffee table manuals on the genuinely famous. At the very least, let this claim the novelty of being a coffee table book on the largely obscure!
Much of the work included here has been previously published in some form, although several pieces are entirely new to this volume. Of those pieces that have seen daylight before, every one – without seeking to disguise their original remits as stand-alone features – has been fine-tuned, generally shorn of purely ephemeral references, updated with postscripts or preambles and expanded by anywhere between a few lines and many thousand words. Several pieces are, indeed, several times their original length – bolstered either by material that wouldn’t fit the available space first time around or, in some cases, by material gathered specifically for this book. For example, with regard to my essay on Davy Graham and Trevor’s epic Them and post-Them sagas, the tales as presented here are composites of several previously published pieces on the subjects in question. The result, we hope, will be a patchwork history of Irish music woven of many fine tapestries.
But what of the added spice, gall or distraction of what can only be described as slabs of autobiography in the guise of prologues? Why have we dared to do this – opening ourselves up to accusations of giving the world an unasked-for sequel to the Diary Of A Nobody? Well, as Roy Harper once put it to me, so simply and yet profoundly, any time we meet somebody we do so historically – we each of us influence, to a greater or lesser degree, the course and substance of others’ lives. Were Trevor and I the sort of writers whose subjects were hugely successful, popular artistes of the world-conquering U2 variety it would be highly unlikely indeed that anything we could say to or about such people would have any lasting impact whatsoever on either them or their audience. Published words on an artist of such stature will generally only serve as a long-winded advert to let people know that some product is out there, upon the sales of which the opinion of some little-known writer will have no meaningful effect either one way of the other. But the lower one sets one’s sights down the scale of success, the more likely it is that a writer can, intentionally or otherwise, make a difference.
It would be inappropriate to list any examples of how my enthusiasms for this or that artist, translated into the written word, have had a tangible effect on the course of that artist’s life or career. But there are several examples I could give, and perhaps many more that I’m as yet unaware of. And I’m sure that Trevor’s position is just the same. In a way, the story of, say, Martin Hayes contains within it the story of Colin Harper writing about Martin Hayes; similarly, the story of all those (bar Van) who spent a few months of their lives in Them – and have consequently, for better or worse, been defined by it – contains the story of Trevor Hodgett writing about Them.
How and why did we come to embark upon these crusades – crusades which have, by now, spanned several years of our own lives? These are questions which I know that I, as a reader, would be fascinated to hear answered. Indeed, just before work on this book was completed I chanced upon a second-hand copy of Peter Guralnick’s anthology of essays on early blues and rock’n’roll, Feel Like Going Home. If I had been at all worried that the concept of using first-person introductions to largely third-person portraiture was an untried or unacceptable device, I should have known better – Guralnick’s work, with its fascinating introductory essay on his own experience of growing up in the fifties and sixties, specifically given to provide the reader with a sense of where his biographical perspective was coming from, was first published in 1971 and deservedly received acclaim. If a literary device is good enough for Peter Guralnick, the master, it’s good enough for us!
Insofar as the enthusiasms, aspirations and adventures of Trevor and myself have increased the public’s knowledge about the people we’ve chosen to champion, to chronicle and to celebrate – initially in diverse newspapers and magazines, now revamped and re-presented in the relative immortality of book form – I hope that we’ve managed to share a little of how, in the first place, these people have had an impact on us. In simple terms, there are easier ways to make a living (and certainly more obvious ways to spend one’s leisure time) than writing about the time Kevin Burke met Arlo Guthrie, the weekend Sweeney’s Men rocked Cambridge or the day Muddy Waters came to Belfast. But there are surely few that can be spiritually so rewarding.
This book is, in short, a celebration of free spirits – musical priests who came from or to Ireland, and mostly did so during a loosely defined golden age of music where TV shows were not the making or breaking of careers but rather an occasional, transient diversion from the real business of touring, of taking music to the people. Even records took second place – airwave adverts for the live experience. And now all we have, in many cases, are the records. In some cases, not even those. So in the terminology of rock, then, let us glorify these people as the Lost Gods of Erin, and find herein the reminiscence of how it all happened and where it all went to, in an Ireland long ago and far away.
Irish Folk Trad & Blues: A Secret History
Some Reviews
“There’s plenty of interest here, and anyone who thinks Irish music begins with Thin Lizzy and ends with U2 could definitely use this as an education.”
* * * Nigel Williamson, Uncut
“If your record collection contains just one release by Horslips, Sweeney’s Men or Planxty this book will be an essential acquisition.”
Fred Dellar, Mojo
“This hefty and heavily illustrated book is a sort of greatest hits with bonus tracks, in that much of the material has appeared elsewhere but has been reworked with new intros and codas. I had intended to skim through it… but having settled into the first of the ten themed sections that proved to be impossible. Colin Harper is a man after my own heart: a music-lover and an enthusiastic amateur who became a professional writer… I’ve devoured the book and, more importantly, it’s drawn me back to some CDs that have languished unplayed in my collection for far too long, and suggested several that I really should own. Orders have already been placed.”
Dai Jeffries, Songbook
“Exhaustively researched, it is 420 pages long and packed with more than 100 archive photographs, many of which have never been seen publicly before… An endlessly fascinating volume which succeeds in being both entertainingly and authoritatively written, it is required reading for anyone interested in the music which really matters in Ireland and the background from which it emerged. The two authors are to be congratulated on what is undoubtedly a major achievement.’
Neil Johnston, Belfast Telegraph
“This is first rate and you should own a copy yesterday, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A true achievement, destined to be read time and again.”
Simon Jones, fRoots
“In short? Required reading for anyone who professes to have an interest in Irish music.”
Tony Clayton-Lea, Irish Times