John McCormack in 1918, without amplification, at the Hippodrome Theatre in New York.


American Irish Musical Interpreters, 1850 - 1975

The Sligo Influence: Master Fiddlers Michael Coleman & James Morrison
Michael Coleman, ca. 1923. (Gene Frain Irish Music Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College)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.

Michael Coleman playing
Lord Gordon*

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 CMichaJackie Roach, James Morrison, and Paddy Sweeny, ca. 1938, from LP cover, Pure Genius of James Morrison. (Shanachie Records Irish Music Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.) el Colemanoleman 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.

PDF File For more information on Michael Coleman and James Morrison, see the select bibliography created for this exhibit.


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