The Living Tradition
First lady of Irish American Fiddle playing
For someone who has been so acclaimed in the United States for so many years, Liz Carroll is refreshingly free of self-importance. Hailed as one of the greats of Irish fiddle playing from the start, when she won the All-Ireland Senior Championship at the age of 18 in 1975, she has gone on to win recognition outside the Irish music scene. She was chosen to perform at the First American Congress of the Violin, hosted by Yehudi Menuhin in 1988, and awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1994 (presented to her by Hillary Clinton). Last year, Mayor Daley proclaimed September 19th 'Liz Carroll Day' in Chicago!
Yet, here she was apologizing for the fact that she couldn't give me enough time for a full interview during the rigorous rehearsals for the Fiddle Sisters concert at Celtic Connections 2000. Liz was thoroughly enjoying working with her sister fiddle players - but it had been very hard work for them all getting the show together. She made light of the fact that, on this her first ever visit to the UK, she didnt have a solo spot at the festival (through some screw-up in e-mail communications). She still made time for a quick chat to tell me, and also later by e-mail, a bit about her experience and feelings on the past, present and future of Irish music in America.
The only time I'd seen Liz before was way back in 1974 when she won the Junior All-Ireland Fiddle Championship in the Fleadh in Listowel, County Kerry. She did it with a sparkling performance that stuck in my mind for over 25 years, making the fiddle sing and dance like the old masters could. Up to then, the American competitors I'd heard had produced technically impressive performances, but without the real depth of traditional feeling I'd heard from good Irish players (even more untraditional, they turned up on time and well prepared, instead of getting themselves stuck in sessions like many of the good Irish competitors!). I got this image of players who were schooled for competition success, rather than playing mainly for enjoyment. Liz told me that, for her at least, this was far from the truth. "The competition scene wasn't important in Chicago, although sometimes the day itself was intense. I believe New York was much more of a competition scene; probably since it had schools of Irish music competing against each other".
Instead Liz's natural talent was nurtured in an atmosphere where enjoyment of the music came first. She was born in Chicago, and is proud of the fact, but had Irish born parents. Liz started on the button accordion, which her father played, when she was five, taking up the fiddle a few years later. Her parents took her from an early age to the meetings/sessions of the Irish Musicians Association in south-side Chicago. Liz recalls: "The meeting parts of those get-togethers were often hilarious, in particular the treasurer's report. Everyone was just anxious to get on and play. I was the only regular young person at those sessions but I received such a warm reception and got such great encouragement that I loved the scene."
Liz was not only learning in the traditional way, by listening and playing along; she had really top-class musicians to learn from. A few were from Chicago, born of Irish parents, like fiddler Johnny McGreevy and piano player Eleanor Kane Neary. But most were from Ireland - the best known probably being the legendary Galway box-player Joe Cooley, and his brother Seamus Cooley (Flute). Others Liz recalls include "Kevin Keagan - a fabulous box player, contemporary of Joe Cooley's and, according to some tastes, better than Joe, and Kevin Henry, who plays the flute and pipes, and recites. We had wonderful musicians from Ireland in Chicago when I started" she says. "The music had heart and lift. Inspiring!". Of course, it takes a special ability and dedication to the music to absorb these qualities then add your own individuality as Liz has done.
Liz has been recognized as a composer of fine tunes since she was a teenager. I tended to think of her as heir to the fiddler composer tradition of the great Ed Reavey, and wondered if she might have been inspired by him, but in fact composing tunes was something that came from within herself from an early age. "I've made up tunes since I started playing; first on the accordion and then on the fiddle. I think I was always compelled to make up melodies and enjoyed coming up with new sounds. Sometimes I'd hear someone's tunes and then try to write in that style: more minor-y or more or less note-y. None of the older musicians were doing it here and I didn't know about Ed Reavey until I was older though I definitely love his tunes".
Liz wrote good tunes right from the start - her earliest jig (see music on this page) is included on her latest album. Like Ed Reavey, she has had tunes recorded by many other musicians. But, for her, composing also seems to have almost a meditative function - a chance to be alone with herself in what sounds like a pretty packed schedule; considering that until very recently she has had to restrict her musical activities a bit because of the responsibilities of raising two young children. So what has she managed to fit in?
"I've been playing around Chicago and the States. There are a lot of great festivals here - Milwaukee Irish Fest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, The National Folk Festival (different venue every couple of years). I've played a lot with Mick Moloney and friends - we toured as the Greenfields of America three times. I've done loads of gigs and festivals with Trian [Liz with box player Billy McComiskey and guitarist Daithi Sproule]. And around Chicago I've done everything from feises and funerals to Orchestra Hall and The Chicago Celtic Fest."
And that's not even touching on what she's done to help pass on the tradition to others - something she's been involved in from early on in her playing career. "I started teaching in Chicago when Noel Rice, a flute player here, asked me. Then I taught mostly kids (I was about seventeen myself). Over here we have loads of fiddle camps. They are usually a week long, and usually different styles of fiddling are taught ... cajun, bluegrass, Texas swing. I taught for five years at the Augusta Workshops in West Virginia, in the eighties. In the nineties, I taught for two years at the Mark O'Connor Camp outside Nashville. So, I keep doing one or two a year. Last year I taught at the Rocky Mountain Camp outside Denver and at the Gaelic Roots in Boston. I don't do ongoing lessons anymore in Chicago, but fiddlers are free to come over anytime for a lesson or even just a get together."
Nobody talking to
Liz could have any doubts that she really would make time for anyone who
shared her enthusiasm for the music. I got a good example of how she manages
to juggle music and family activities when I e-mailed her my attempt at
the music for her jig. She came back to me instantly with corrections
to a couple of phrases Id got wrong - shed just managed to
squeeze it in before going off for the day to take her son Pat to a chess
tournament. Happily he managed to get well placed in the tournament, to
the delight of his proud parents. With her two children just on the threshold
of teenage years Liz may feel free to travel a bit wider, but its
clear that much as she loves the music, theres still no way she
is going to put her career ahead of her family.
Lizs other great pride is her native city of Chicago, and while she doesn't take Liz Carroll Day that seriously, it definitely gave her a bit of a kick. "People with the city who work on Chicago's Celtic Fest somehow pulled that one off. I'm not sure how, but they surprised me after my set at the festival. Quite a thing. My band that day was Jackie Moran and John Doyle - must say it was enjoyable watching them crack up. I've always loved being from Chicago, and I brag about it often, so it meant a lot to have that happen. Chicago is a great place for Irish musicians to be today", Liz says, "there are so many venues right now for Irish music; we have people moving here who've dropped their jobs as they can make as good a living playing music if they want to."
Liz is excited by the sheer quantity and diversity of quality music on the Irish scene. She lists just a few of the many players who have impressed her: "I just think the scene is booming. There's an Irish music for all tastes - for ballad lovers, new age enthusiasts, purists. Over here you have Eileen Ivers and you also have Andy McGann (fiddle) - stylistically different, I mean, but both wonderful. You have Billy McComiskey and you also have John Whelan (accordions). You have Seamus Egan, Laurence Nugent - and you have Jack Coen (flutes). All of the bands going right now are so innovative and classy - Solas, Lunasa, Afro-Celt... I'm impressed. I'm impressed that traditional musicians can make a living playing this music. It wasn't so long ago that everyone had a job besides. Playing full time allows you to get as good as you can, so I think the quality of the playing is just going to go up and up."
Liz herself deserves to feature highly in any list of names to watch for the future. Her latest album 'Lost in the Loop' shows her playing as well as ever and ready to go on further. Listening to her in full flight on a set of reels, it's easy to hear why she has become a legend amongst many fellow musicians. Rolls and bow triplets carried out so effortlessly that they never get in the way of the forward drive of the tune; melodic and rhythmic variations giving the feeling she is coming to the tune afresh each time around; it's all there. Above all there is the sheer musicality of her tone and phrasing - at speed as well as on her slower tunes.
Liz was typically enthusiastic about all that was going on in Glasgow at the Celtic Connections festival, and was keen that this, her first visit to this country should be followed up by another in the not too distant future. Her lack of concern for promoting her career in the past (typified by her leaving about a decade between each solo album!) has left her too little known among traditional music fans here. Let's hope somebody gets her back soon so that more of us can enjoy the infectious enjoyment of her playing - still there from the days when she was a young girl in Chicago.
Links, further information and recordings: