Associate Dean for Student Development D. Michael Ryan '67, second from left, at his "other" job: performing traditional American and British Isles music with The Jolly Rogues. Other members of the group are (L-R) Jim Murray, Al Hicks and Paul Harty.
In His Heart, He's Just a Jolly Rogue
Singing about 'pirates and sailors' is not just an act for Ryan
By Sean Smith
His thespian uncle once called him "a frustrated actor," but Associate Dean for Student Development D. Michael Ryan '67 begs to differ.
While Ryan chose student affairs instead of the stage as his full-time career, he would hardly consider himself frustrated.
After all, he regularly assumes the roles of assorted Colonial America-era characters such as Captain William Smith, commander of the 1775 Lincoln Minute Company, for historical reenactments and other events. It's a task that often requires a degree of discipline and concentration worthy of method acting.
Now Ryan has added another facet to his raconteurial resume as a vocalist and percussionist with The Jolly Rogues, a quartet that performs popular English and American songs from the 18th and 19th century, often wearing breeches, buckled shoes, tri-corn hats and other period clothes for their gigs.
Ryan's musical venture is threatening to overshadow his vocation as a student affairs profession. Besides doing a slew of gigs throughout New England, during the past year the Rogues released their second CD, headlined a special benefit concert in Tewkesbury, England, to help save an historic battleground and are gearing up for more local performances - their most recent was at the New England Folk Festival Association in Natick this past weekend - and an overseas tour this summer.
Although Ryan has plenty of public singing experience - he appeared with the West Point glee club on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and dabbled in 1960s folk music - he says performing with The Jolly Rogues enhances his "other" job as an historical interpreter, a characteristic he shares with the rest of the group.
"It's different than portraying an historical character, but you do have to be able to give people an idea of what the songs are about and where they came from," he said. "You can't turn the performance into a lecture, either, so it's a healthy challenge for us."
The Rogues' repertoire, comprising sea shanties, maritime and tavern songs as well as children's ditties, historical ballads and music from the Underground Railroad and Civil War, invites audience participation. Most of their songs feature upbeat, infectious and easy-to-remember choruses, and Ryan and his band mates deliver them with a robust vocal style.
"We try to give the audience a sense of the times through voice and spirit, and in such a way that they feel like taking part," he said.
In an area like New England where historical sites and reenactments abound, The Jolly Rogues seldom have trouble finding gigs. They have performed at such venues as the Boston Seaport Festival, Minute Man National Park, the Old South Meeting House and the Bunker Hill Monument site.
Fittingly enough, Ryan first took an interest in historical interpretation and reenactment around the time of the American bicentennial in 1976. Ryan, who had served in Vietnam with the US Army and was working for the Department of Defense at the time, participated in some Colonial Era parades held as part of the bicentennial celebrations.
It was during one bicentennial event that he discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. Ryan was intrigued by the SCA's full-immersion philosophy of historical interpretation.
"You didn't just dress up in a costume, you were expected to find a persona," said Ryan, who assumed the identity of a 15th-century Irish knight in his SCA activities.
Ryan deepened his involvement in historical interpretation when he returned to Boston and began working at BC in 1977. But the turning point came when he moved to Concord 11 years ago and began doing authentic first-person recreations, notably that of Captain Smith.
"Doing the research on the character and the time is critical," he said, "but you have to concentrate on staying in character. I have to get the audience in the right frame of mind, so in their eyes they can see that I am Captain Smith, or whichever character I am portraying. When I walk around a site, such as Minute Man National Park, I really need to psych myself up to be that person.
"The most important thing is, when someone asks, 'Who are you?,' that I have an answer for that question."
This work brought Ryan into contact with the other Jolly Rogues, Jim Murray, Al Hicks and Paul Harty, all of whom are members of the Guild of Historical Interpreters, as is Ryan. The four began playing together about five years ago as part of a larger, more informal group before forming the Rogues in 2001. Shortly thereafter, they recorded their first CD, "The Road to Boston."
The release of their second CD, "Captain Billy's Privateers," suggests that the Rogues are not going to fade into history any time soon. Ryan certainly doesn't see that happening.
"We genuinely like doing this, and we enjoy each other's company," he said. "You can find a lot of groups who play this kind of music, but not many who do it quite as we do, with period dress and a kind of anecdotal, personal-view historical context."
While the group does well enough promoting its material, added Ryan, the popularity of recent movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Master and Commander" hasn't hurt.
"It's a good time to be doing songs about pirates and sailors," he quipped.