First Annual Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival,  September 2002

I write this while flying high over the Atlantic as Joan and I return from a wonderful time in Italy and Ireland. The trip was arranged around a gig at the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival in Longford, Ireland, which ended about 3am last night (about 6 hours before we had to leave for our plane out of Dublin this morning). More on that later, but first just a bit about our travels in Italy.

Rome is quite a ways from Colorado, eight time zones. When we finally settled at our hotel after a full day of travel, we had just enough energy to go for a walk around the incredible Colosseum, a few blocks away. All over Rome are constant reminders of the span of human civilization going back over 2000 years, with Renaissance art everywhere. We reveled in it for four days, with a two-day stay at Venice in the middle. Our two favorite phrases, “Buongiorno” and Parla inglese?” served us well. The Grand Canal, the astounding St. Peter’s Basilicca and Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, the narrow streets and canals of Venice, many beautiful vistas are imbedded in our memories.

Our own little international music festival in Rome

Concerned that our musical chops might suffer if neglected a whole week, Joan and I took our instruments twice to a large and lovely park called Villa Borghese, for a little practice. On arrival one Satuday afternoon we were almost immediately joined by an older gent named Francesco who asked to play Joan’s guitar. Turned out he has a repertoire of fun songs in several languages. We played Oh Susannah, Sweet Georgia Brown, and many other favorites. In time, a little crowd gathered, and Francesco began “working” it. We soon found out there were people from Germany, France, Mexico, England, and Sicily in the group. Much merriment ensued, including Joan and me doing bluegrass, and Francesco doing favorites from the various countries. I never played La Vie En Rose before, but it didn’t sound half-bad on the banjo. The guy from Sicily played guitar for a while and sang in a beautiful, powerful voice. I took out my cassette recorder out of my banjo case and taped it. Joan and several of the folks danced while Francesco and I played. It was a mini-festival there for a few hours in a park in Rome — a good break from your typical sightseeing.

On to Ireland

Longford is located in the center of the country, about 2 hours drive west of Dublin. The festival was a first-year event, in honor of the late Johnny Keenan, a respected and fondly-remembered tenor banjo player in the Irish traditional style. The weekend was organized by Johnny’s wife Christine, an American transplant in Ireland, and her friend Kathy Casey, also an American transplant. What a job they did, assisted by a great corps of volunteers. The lineup was a stellar collection of Irish musical talent, with a healthy dose of American banjo stylists including us and Alison Brown, Bill Keith, Tom Hanway, and Ken Perlman and Alan Jabbour.

As many bluegrassers know, the music of Ireland is a forerunner of bluegrass. The connections are not often spotlighted, but since Johnny Keenan was a fan of bluegrass music, the festival put the two together. We had a chance to see Ireland’s most popular banjoist, Gerry O’Connell, with two of his buddies from one of Ireland’s favorite bands, Four Men and A Dog; the great piper Davy Spillane, the 87-year old speed demon fiddling wonder, Sean McGuire, and Paddy Keenan (Johnny’s brother), whose piping just won him the title of Irish Traditional Musician of the Year. These musicians provided me some of the highest musical experiences I’ve had all year.

The three night-time shows all went long (generally about 6 hours) and late (till 2 or 3 in the morning). But the people stayed, and then there were sessions, at various pubs around town. Not unlike bluegrass jam sessions, but different, with mostly instrumentals being played. They’re just called “tunes” (not “fiddle tunes”), and the format is playing the melody over and over, all together, the flat-picked banjos right along with fiddles, accordions, octave-mandolins, whistles, guitars.

Saturday night, against my better judgement at 1 or 2am, I got a lift to the Longford Arms Hotel, where the sessions were in full force in the lobby. I watched for a while, marvelling at how the players were mostly in their 20’s, males and females alike. A couple of tenor banjos, fiddles, an accordion, all calmly wailing away on tunes I’ve never heard. Lots of triplets just to make things sparkle a little more, all locked in rhythmically. Finally, with some encouragement from Graham, a musician I’d met at the hotel, I sat down and tried to fit in. Graham helped me out with both the etiquette and the keys. Naturally I didn’t know the melodies, but I could generally follow the chords, and rolled along trying to blend into the pulse. I guess I did all right, as I didn’t get any funny looks, and no one packed up and left.

A few things different about Irish sessions and bluegrass jams. In the sessions, people don’t discuss which tune to do. Someone just starts, and people join in. After playing a tune for a while, someone may call out a different key and start right into a different tune. They don’t call out names of tunes, I was told, because people generally don’t know the names of the tunes, they just play them. No one takes “solos”, but just keeps playing all together. Some singing is done, but not a great deal.

Even at 3 or 4am, lots of folks were listening and socializing — and putting away prodigious amounts of “the drink”, still being sold in the bar though the front doors were closed. As the evening went on, it seemed more and more people were knocking over glasses and bottles, and after a while the nice marble floor in the area where we were sitting was awash in broken glass and spilled drink. We kept playing.

With some encouragement, I started up various tunes I knew which weren’t too alien to the other musicians: Bill Cheatham, Blackberry Blossom, Salt Creek, Old Joe Clark. By the time the hotel shut down the session (5am), with staff dutifully cleaning up after the musicians, I was pretty well spent, with a sense of satisfaction that I had participated in my first Irish music session!

The organizers were very pleased with the sets Joan and I did. We leaned especially heavily on instrumentals (the fast stuff, especially Foggy Mt. Breakdown, got a big response) and Joan’s singing (the crowd was perfectly quiet for her unaccompanied songs, and then erupted in applause). One person came up to her afterwards and told her she should become an Irish singer and stop wasting her time playing bluegrass! I don’t think so.

We have already been invited back for next year. Y’all come, sure now!