American Irish Musical Interpreters,
1850 - 1975
The Sligo Influence:
Master Fiddlers Michael Coleman & James Morrison
In New York City, two exceptional
fiddle players from Ireland revitalized traditional Irish
music during the 1920s and 1930s through their recordings.
Michael Coleman (1891-1945) and James Morrison (1893-1947)
had brought to New York a memorized repertoire of traditional
Irish reels, jigs, and hornpipes from their native County
Sligo, and there were paid opportunities to perform these
traditional tunes in dance halls and other New York venues.
Both Coleman and Morrison were also invited to record
some of these tunes, and the skill and artistry on these
78rpm recordings established standards for traditional
Irish dance music that still inspire Irish musicians.
While the two fiddle players did not perform or record
together, their lives had many parallels. In Sligo, where
Coleman and Morrison grew up eight miles apart, there
was a thriving community of traditional dance music and
fiddle players. Coleman and Morrison learned their fiddle
music by ear, absorbing influences from fiddle players
and pipers who lived in or traveled through their rural
communities. Coleman and Morrison also knew the traditional
dance steps that accompanied these tunes. Within the Sligo
style and repertoire, each player had his own individual
sound; historian Harry Bradshaw has noted that Michael
Coleman had a full and sweeping use of the bow, whereas
James Morrison was known for his rhythmic, danceable style
using the upper part of the bow.
Potential employment prospects in the U.S. compelled
both Coleman and Morrison to emigrate within a year of
each other (1914 and 1915). Both became active in New
York as performers, and Morrison was in demand as a teacher
on various instruments, yet it was their recordings that
had the greatest and most unexpected impact. Coleman and
Morrison were each recruited in the wave of Irish musicians
to be recorded in New York by such companies as Vocalion,
Victor, Columbia, New Republic, O’Beirne DeWitt,
and others. These and other “ethnic” recordings
were part of a marketing strategy to expand sales to immigrant
communities. By being in the right place at the right
time, Coleman and Morrison were able to share their music
with a much larger audience than anyone anticipated.
The technology of recordings helped traditional dance
music from Irish rural areas take its place in an urban
setting. The technical brilliance and emotional depth
of these fiddle recordings also had a profound effect
on musicians in isolated rural Irish areas, where the
Sligo style of fiddling had not been heard before. The
impact of Coleman, Morrison, and others continues today,
as many traditional Irish instrumentalists worldwide still
emulate the style and repertoire recorded in New York
in the early part of the 20th century.
For more information on Michael Coleman and James Morrison, see the select bibliography created for this exhibit.
* RealPlayer required for audio playback.