Old-timey sound emanated from the stage and was brought into the present. Recorded from ages long before our own, their imperfections and grainy nature audibly tethered listeners into the spirits of Irish music as it existed in early 20th century Boston. This notion of a tether, to the connections of past and present, was pervasive during ethnomusicologist Daniel Neely’s talk From the Variety Stage to the Shamrock Band: A Brief History of Irish Music in Boston. Documenting the rich and interconnected history of Irish musicians in Boston, Neely described his findings as he sought to piece together a community lost in time.
Neely, a Newton native, received his Ph.D. from New York University in 2008—his dissertation was on the development and evolution of Jamaican music. His affinity for music history extends into Irish culture as he as attempted to explore the same kind of development in Boston.
Through newspaper clippings, personal accounts, recordings, and archival research, Neely hoped to show in a substantial way the nature of the Irish music community in the early 20th century. Proving the interconnected nature of musicians—in personal lives and performances—was a difficult task to substantiate, given that more than a century has passed since the era about which he spoke. But the findings Neely presented helped create a cohesive and intelligible narrative.
Recounting the history of Irish music in Boston, Neely set a scene that was markedly neither ethnic nor Irish. In the beginning, Neely said, many Irish musicians found work through stage shows. These shows were less about their musical content and more concerned with broader entertainment. This was often fulfilled through less refined variety shows and minstrels. Though this offered many musicians an entry into work in Boston, it was a far cry from anything culturally groundbreaking.
In relaying these ideas, Neely focused on the journey of one family in particular—the Sullivans. Daniel Sullivan, Sr. and Daniel Sullivan, Jr. were key figures in developing the craft in Boston. Sullivan, Sr., an immigrant from Ireland, had come to the U.S. and worked in many of shows and become a prominent figure, collaborating with many other artists du jour as well as extending into other spheres within the Greater Boston area. Initially his son worked as a piano salesman and composer. Sullivan, Jr. strayed away from the performance in dance-halls his father adopted and began to compose pieces of sheet music for various events and shows instead of proper performance.
Later on in his career, Sullivan, Jr. began a foray into the performance with a unique ethno-centric lens. After penning a few Irish-themed pieces, he began to find success and recognition within the community. Through this attraction, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band was formed in the 20s. Many of the groups of the time enjoyed record deals and more success within their genre until the beginning of the Great Depression, when many record labels cut their smaller niche markets signings.
The speaking portion of the night was an was a compelling wealth of information about the nature of Irish music in Boston in the early 20th century. The findings Neely presented were in many cases newly verified, as many of the connections between performance, groups, and individuals could be verified for the first time. Additionally, the visuals Neely brought were also new, giving viewers a taste of photos of individuals that could not have been found in public records. The night’s speech adopted a sense of intrigue and investigation as Neely shared what he found.
Though individually each shred of evidence, whether a newspaper fragments, a small excerpt from a book, or a photograph, may seem insignificant, they help paint the larger canvas of this transgenerational story.
The night ended with Neely, Joey Abarta, and Sean Clohessy treating the audience to renditions of songs from the Shamrock Band and its members. Playing banjo, uilleann pipe, and violin/piano respectively, the renditions were the ultimate form of reverence to the recounted histories.
Showing the versatility of such music, the trio graced listeners with two jaunty jigs, enveloping crowd in a warm and welcoming sound. Strong stamping of the feet and hearty yowls brought a flavor of authenticity to the songs as these would be traditionally danced to. A waltz saw the pace slow and tenderly progress with folkish embellishments of the pipes and banjo.
As the last notes of the pipes rang true and Abarta’s flurry of fingers ceased to dance about the instrument, the admiration for this kind of music was palpable. Throughout the performance, the visual expressions between the trio and the sideways glances and smiles offered testament to a heritage being kept alive in word and in practice.
Featured Image By Caleb Griego / Arts & Review Editor