Shared Notes: A Musical Journey, by Martin Hayes, Transworld Ireland, 382 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1848272644
July 20th, 1969, Miltown Malbay: a seven-year-old boy sat on the side of the stage in a small town in Co Clare as astronauts walked on the moon. Martin Hayes’s attention strayed from the crowd enjoying the traditional Irish music, to his father and the Tulla Céilí Band on the stage, to the night sky. The old and the new. “The music on the stage that night was in complete harmony with that old world,” Hayes remembers in his autobiography, “but how would this music stay relevant in the new times ahead?”
His father, PJ, developed his own rhythmic style for the fiddle to suit the dancers who came to hear his band in venues big and small, in Ireland and beyond. In the 1960s, for example, the Tulla Céilí Band could still pack Irish immigrants in London into ballrooms such as the Galtymore in Cricklewood. PJ also played in New York’s Carnegie Hall. The pop idols of that decade, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, did not encroach on the musical world of the Hayes household, rooted in the traditional music of east Clare. Hayes describes his father’s particular way of defining this:
He would describe a piece of music played by someone as either “having” tradition or “not having” tradition. He might say there was no tradition in something, or that something was full of tradition. If he said something was lacking tradition, it was a euphemism for music that didn’t mean anything. If it had tradition, it meant it had soul; it was music that spoke from a place of feeling. If it could bring a tear to your eye or give you goosebumps, you could be sure it was filled with tradition. This tradition is like threads of emotion and feeling handed down to us in the form of melody; a tune is nothing more than a musically encoded feeling waiting to be unlocked.
Hayes, a quiet fourteen-year-old, played the fiddle with his father’s band. A wild, hard-drinking group of musicians it was not. Anything but. Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll did not feature here, he declares. No, for the Tulla Céilí Band on the road it was “tea, biscuits, and prayers”. Formed in 1946, the band made records, appeared on various TV shows, and toured Britain and the US. By the mid-70s, however, the dance halls were closing: the heyday of the céilí bands had been twenty years earlier. While Hayes admits that Seán Ó Riada’s condemnation of céilí bands had some justification – while they could be a “musical abomination – at their best they made ‘elemental’ rhythmic” music that grooved with the dancers. “I loved good set-dancers,” Hayes recalls. “The best ones had their own style, they had personality in their dancing and they connected to the music – not just the basic rhythm but the flow of the melodic line itself … It wasn’t a performance as such; each dancer found his or her way to respond to the music, they could be themselves and they could lose themselves.”
As a novice player, Hayes regularly sought his father’s opinion on a particular tune. PJ never held back. At the risk of hurting his son’s feelings he always said exactly what he thought. “He never responded in technical terms – he’d never talk about tone, intonation, ornamentation or anything technical.” His response was always about how it felt to him, or, more damningly, how it didn’t feel. “The focus was always on what the music was supposed to do for you.” Hayes listened intently to his father’s record collection, often the 78s pressed in America, which were the first widely available recordings of Irish traditional music. These combined technical proficiency with the confident, cheery sound of America’s Jazz Age. Hayes believes the instrumental sean nós (old style) of music – a lamenting version – was at variance with these upbeat recordings, and consequently a big part of “trad” went unacknowledged for decades. “There wasn’t a place in this commercially recorded music for this other musical language; we didn’t hear sean nós singing, we didn’t hear slow airs in the sean nós style.” Hugely attractive for musicians and listeners, Hayes notes, this technically advanced music held sway until the 1960s, when Ó Riada and broadcasters such as Séamus Ennis and Ciarán Mac Mathúna drew attention to a more rugged musical expression.
Playing the fiddle had become a passion for Hayes, something he couldn’t get enough of. Music was his emotional release. When his secondary school peers were playing sport at the weekend, he was playing with his father’s band. “Trad” was not cool, and Hayes did not fit in as a teenager at school. The curriculum could not motivate him in the way that music did; he was an average student. He avoided the attention of teachers, with the exception of one English teacher whose poetry classes he found enthralling. Fond of his own company, and his own thoughts, he often walked home alone when the school bus dropped him off in the evening.
There is something about those dark winter walks that I miss: the inward, private, silent world, the wind, the rain, and the sound of my feet on the road, the lights of houses in the distance that gave a warm, reassuring impression of a huddled family warmth protected from the elements. I loved the wind and rain on those evenings too. Even in the dark of night, I found a satisfaction on that road that I couldn’t get in school, except in my poetry classes.
Hayes is a good storyteller. He writes beautifully about his childhood in the countryside, with its customs and practices, and the distinctive musical culture he inherited from his parents and their friends. He has a musician’s sense of timing and his narrative combines precision and economy – and honesty and passion. In telling his own story, he also explains how significant economic and cultural change had an impact on rural Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s. And he writes sensitively about the musicians he admires, past and present.
Irish folk music mushroomed from the moon landing on and a new generation reached young audiences across Western Europe and North America – the Chieftains, Clannad, Planxty, the Bothy Band, De Dannan and so on. Hayes loved what they did but resolved to remain uninfluenced by their generally faster approach. “The blend of the fiddle, flute and accordion, with harmonic and rhythmic support from piano and drums, was becoming a thing of the past,” Hayes observes of the céilí bands. “There was a new sound, with guitars, bouzoukis and mandolins interwoven with pipes, fiddles and flutes. This music was no longer connected to the communal dance tradition; it was beginning to speak to a new urban and educated audience.”
Having immersed himself in the tradition of his locality, he ended up playing an east Clare style that nobody else played. “I was quite dedicated to delving deeply into how the old musicians played and I wanted to absorb those old forms into my playing.” After hearing him play, aged fifteen, his hero, the accordionist and TV producer Tony MacMahon, told Hayes: “Don’t ever change what you’re doing.” Hayes understood this to mean that he should remain true to the feeling of his music – the music of the heart.
With the set-dancing tradition dying out, and consequently an opportunity for musicians and dancers to create a euphoric energy between them, MacMahon and the concertina player Noel Hill decided to record an album together to capture such moments. They gathered the best set dancers they could find into a pub in Co Cork, and the result, In Knocknagree, captures the sound of the musicians connecting with the natural rhythm of the dancers, something generations of “trad” musicians would never have as their musical world changed.
The economy changed too. Ireland had a rough time during the 1980s, and unemployment and emigration soared again. Hayes stumbled through three years of a business course in Limerick, unable to apply himself to his studies. At a low ebb in his life, he crashed out of college in 1983. He also quit the political party of his father, telling a Fianna Fáil meeting that it had nothing to offer to his generation, having lost its republican ideals. Self-employment did not work out, so Hayes moved to Chicago, where, of course, he ended up in construction, “unable to hammer a straight nail”. He was glad, then, to have a go at playing rebel songs and Irish-American favourites in the Irish club circuit. A recognised musician in Ireland among those in the know, in Chicago he was “just Martin”. With “trad” marginal to begin with, his subtle and nuanced style now sounded even more marginal. Hayes’s breaking point came on St Patrick’s Day, 1988, when he broke his fiddle, and then the bow, over the head of his musical partner in front of around 400 people. “[A]ll the songs I didn’t want to play, the heartfelt music I’d abandoned, the banks I owed money to, the businesses that didn’t work out, the college opportunity I’d blown, all condensed into one moment of fury.”
Around this time, questioning his music and almost everything else, and struggling to find an artistic road, Hayes found inspiration in Rory Gallagher. Introduced as a teenager to this blues-rock guitarist and singer, Hayes went to some trouble to see the legendary Irish performer when he played Chicago, that “great blues town”. Fiercely independent – Gallagher refused, for example, to release singles for the charts – he doggedly did his own thing for his very loyal fans. “I was proud of him. Just watching him onstage, giving 100 per cent, holding absolutely nothing back, and unreservedly revealing himself, was totally inspiring to me,” Hayes remembers. “I knew right then that to perform well I’d have to be willing to freely open myself emotionally to the audience and freely give with the same level of trust that Rory did that night.”
In 1992, now legal in the US, Hayes went home and played in Miltown Malbay at the Willie Clancy Summer School. People shook his hand when he left the hall and asked why had they never hear of him before? Hayes made a recording with his father – combining powerful rhythm and well-constructed melody – which aimed to recreate the sounds they made together in PJ’s kitchen. The following year he recorded his own album, the way he wanted to, with Randal Bays on guitar, in order to express the music he had grown up with. Before he explored any other musical paths he felt he had to lay down the foundations. “This was the moment that I knew I’d finally managed to shoulder the gift I’d been handed. I had found my way back from the wilderness.”
An Irish tour followed, during which he had to stop playing, in Athlone, and offer a group of animated talkers their money back if they insisted on chattering. The stand-off proved to be important in the long term: “I had now established in my mind that if I was going to perform this music, it was going to be on my terms … Just knowing this inside myself somehow produced an energy that from then on conveyed to people that I’d be prepared to put my fiddle in the case and walk away with a smile if the situation wasn’t right. I’ve never had to offer anyone their money back again.”
A second album, with his father playing on one track, attracted serious media attention in Ireland, including a radio interview with the country’s leading broadcaster, Gay Byrne. They got off to a bad start, partly because Hayes did not have a copy of the CD with him and could not play live in the studio. Knowing “Gaybo” was no trad fan, Hayes decided to pitch his musical message in jazz terms, to another jazz fan, and it worked. “I left the studio feeling as though I’d been heard and understood, certainly not the outcome I would have predicted.” Having laid down more foundations with this second album, Under the Moon, Hayes could explore a new direction.
His guitarist friend Dennis Cahill, who could play different styles – folk, jazz, country, bluegrass – but had no direct experience of Irish traditional music, wanted to work with him. Hayes believed the harmonic and chordal side of trad had not been explored. “Maybe, instead of becoming a traditional guitarist in a generic sense, there was a way in which he could see the tunes less as idiomatic pieces of music but rather as universal melodic ideas.” They made three albums together and toured around the world.
With The Gloaming, a quintet, the artistic journey of Cahill and Hayes took an even more adventurous turn. A New York-based pianist, Thomas Bartlett, who had worked with David Byrne, and The National, but had no background in Irish music, joined up, alongside sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and another fiddle player, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, both from West Cork. They shared an interest in jazz, in particular: “Thomas and I were both fans of the American jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Dennis loved the music of Bill Evans, and we all loved the guitarist and composer Bill Frisell.” The Gloaming has a modern take on trad, Hayes says with considerable understatement – diehard purists dislike the group – but The Gloaming, he explains, also pays homage to “the older and more rustic strains” of the music. “Opening Set” – a sixteen-minute(ish) medley combining melody, singing, improvisation, a reel – is arguably the most powerful piece in the group’s repertoire. President Michael D Higgins requested it as the penultimate performance at the 2017 Royal Albert Hall concert during his state visit to Britain. With “Opening Set”, The Gloaming brought the house down, so to speak, thus illustrating how the old world, and the new, can be blended to create an exhilarating sonic experience. Almost half a century after the moon landing, Martin Hayes, with more than a little help from his friends, proved that the music he grew up with was relevant in the wider world.
John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left (Liverpool University Press), which is now available in paperback.