October 7, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 3
Moloney a Real Music Man
Burns Scholar relishing his time at BC, and so are his musical colleagues
By Sean Smith Chronicle Editor
Mick Moloney knows there are few better places than Boston College for a guitar-strumming, banjo-playing, mandolin-picking scholar of Irish music to spend a semester.
A highly respected musician who has recorded and produced more than 40 albums, Moloney is the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies this fall, and looks forward to making the rounds of Boston's legendary Irish music scene and its multitude of sessions, concerts and other events.
But Moloney, who also has cultivated a lofty reputation as a folklorist and author, is equally, if not more, enthused at the prospect of utilizing the Burns Library's Irish Collection to put finishing touches on his book about the history of Irish traditional music in America.
Moloney gave a public lecture in Burns Library on Sept. 29, "The Mulligan Guard: Irish America and the Musical Theater of Harrigan and Hart," in which he discussed the legacy of 19th-century composers Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart, who drew on lower class Irish American life to create a backdrop for most of their of their popular musical comedy.
"Music is one of the most important, and fascinating, aspects of Irish immigration to America," said Moloney, a Limerick native who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1973 to pursue a graduate degree and wound up staying permanently.
"What I want to do is take a look at how the music changed and evolved here over the past 100 years, through the advent of the recording industry and mass media. The Burns Irish Collection will be most helpful in tracing this development, and I feel very fortunate at having this opportunity for research."
If Moloney is happy to be at BC for an extended period, his Boston-area friends, acquaintances and admirers are positively delighted. They cite him as a major influence in the modern revival of Irish traditional music, notably for his seminal work on popular fretted-string instruments like the mandolin and tenor banjo. He is similarly revered as a collector and interpreter of songs in the Irish American tradition, the warmth and clarity of his singing appreciated by audiences far and wide.
"It's wonderful to have Mick here, and the energy and vitality that he brings with him," said Sullivan Artist in Residence in Irish Music Seamus Connolly, a frequent collaborator of Moloney's. "There are so many ways in which he's contributed to Irish music. One of the most important was how he reached out to older musicians who came from the tradition itself, like Eugene O'Donnell and Ed Reavy, and played and recorded with them.
"But he also focused a lot on the younger musicians, who had a different sort of introduction to the tradition. So he really has helped to bridge the generations of Irish music."
As a budding musician, John McGann, who performs with Connolly and in several other ensembles, says he was struck by how Moloney's playing, for all its modernity, evoked the styles of traditional musicians from earlier eras.
"Mick really influenced me to try to find my own voice within the music, which sent me directly to the other instruments and players in the tradition as sources for material, and to develop my own techniques."
When not performing himself, Moloney has helped organize other musical endeavors, such as the Green Fields of America, an ensemble of Irish musicians, singers and dancers that toured the US on several occasions. In 1999 he received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest official honor a traditional artist can receive in the United States.
Moloney's academic career is as distinguished as his musical one. A member of the New York University Irish Studies faculty, Moloney also has taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown and Villanova universities. He is a frequent lecturer and has authored several articles and publications, notably Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish American History Through Song, which chronicles Irish immigration to America in words and lyrics, with an accompanying CD.
Moloney is no stranger to Boston - one of his visits was in 1970, when the band in which he was playing opened for Joan Baez on the Boston Common - or to Boston College, having appeared several times at campus concerts as well as the Gaelic Roots Music, Song and Dance Summer School and Festival.
"It's wonderful to be in a place like Boston, which has such a great range of resources - like BC - for so many fields, whether it's politics, arts, music or cultural studies," said Moloney.