A Cubs Tradition Across Generations 

A Cubs Tradition Across Generations 

By Sam Friend 

Witnessing the multitudes of people writing the names of their loved ones on the red brick walls of Wrigley Field was one of the most powerful scenes from this last week of Cubs euphoria. America’s national pastime, baseball has remained a cherished tradition in this country, an unbreakable bond across generations. Despite my being raised in New York, my father David passed on his Cubs fandom to me. David brought me to Wrigley many times from the age of 6 onward, and I was truly fortunate to have the opportunity to return to Wrigley for the 2016 World Series. And that scene by the red brick wall stuck with me—As I watched people scrawling the names of their loved ones in chalk, I thought of my early trips to Wrigley with my dad, and of how my grandfather Marty brought David when he was a kid, and of how my namesake and great-grandfather Samuel Friend took Marty to Cubs games during his childhood. I thought of how my twin sister Molly, who passed a year ago this October, couldn’t share this moment with me. And I thought of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Harry Carey, and all the Cubs legends who bled Cubby blue but were no longer on this earth. On this momentous occasion, after watching the greatest, most unbelievable baseball game of my life, I felt the spirits of those Cubs fans and players whose faith and love for the team could never die. And I thought of how lucky I was to have an opportunity to respect that unbroken tradition and watch Game 7 with my Grandpa Marty. 

My great-grandfather Sam, a furniture salesman, started taking Marty to Cubs games in 1935 at the age of 7. On Sunday mornings they would hop on the Devon Avenue street car to see Charlie Root pitch at Wrigley. Marty told me how he would stand on the back of the old cable car for fresh air because he would always get carsick. During the summers, Marty would partake in the oft-remembered routine of that generation of Cubs fans— cleaning up the seats at the end of a game in order to get a free ticket to the game the next day. In those days, a bleacher ticket cost 55 cents and Marty related to me how he would love to watch Gabby Hartnett play, his favorite Cub of all time, along with Cubs greats like Stan Hack and Phil Cavaretta. When Marty was a teenager he worked at a shoe store sewing shoes, and with the money he made from this job he was able to buy a ticket to World Series Game 6 in 1945 against the Detroit Tigers. As Marty tells it, he and a buddy got in line for the tickets at 10 Pm and waited by that same brick wall on Waveland Avenue for 12 hours until the ticket window opened the next morning. At 10 AM he bought his two tickets and sold one of them, while his friend sold both and went home to sleep! Marty himself experienced the after-effects of that long night, falling asleep during the 7th inning of the game because he was so exhausted. He couldn’t have known that the next time he watched the Cubs in the World Series would be 71 years later with his grandson! In the coming decades, Marty (working as an attorney in Chicago) would become a Cubs season ticket holder for over 40 years, and he says he has followed the Cubs every day since his dad got him hooked in 1935. 

Marty began taking my father to Cubs games at that same early age, in around 1960. David recalls how he formed an attachment to Ernie Banks almost immediately because they both shared the same birthday, January 31st. By 1969, at age 14, David was in the ranks of the now-famous “Bleacher Bums,” attending one hundred games from 69-71. He would work a high-school night job as a dishwasher, and then in the morning he would head to Wrigley on the Chicago & Northwestern commuter train from Highland Park, followed by the the El to Addison, carrying a corned beef sandwich, a 7-Up, and some Ring-Dings. All summer long he would line up along that same brick wall on Sheffield Avenue, waiting to buy his $1 bleacher ticket with the other die-hard Cubs fans. Led by Ron Grousl, a twenty-something bartender who worked at Murphy’s Bleachers, David relates how they would sit with the “rowdies” in left field, trash-talking the opposing outfielders and hurling back enemy home-run balls. During those summers, David would etch a slash for each game he attended on his yellow “Bleacher Bum” helmet that he had hand-lettered in black paint. David continued to follow the Cubs obsessively from then on— racking up huge Sportsphone bills to get the scores before the days of the internet—and bringing my whole family on periodic trips from New York to Chicago. 

When I was growing up, David instilled in me this same love for the Cubs. He even wrote a children’s picture book called “Baseball, Football, Daddy and Me,” about going to games with his father! Maybe reading this book as a child made me so aware of the importance of these sporting traditions. David might have made me the luckiest Cubs fan ever. As an editor for Vanity Fair, in 1998, when I was 10 years old, he brought me for a surprise trip onto the field at Wrigley. There, I got to meet and shake hands with Sammy Sosa on the day that he hit homers #61 and #62 to overtake Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in that year’s great home run race. In 1999, my Dad brought my cousins and I back on the field to meet our favorite player, Mark Grace. In 2003, he brought the family down to Arizona for spring training and we all got a thrill watching Marty throw out the first pitch for his 75th Birthday. And the next year, when we took a trip to the Astrodome and met Dusty Baker at our hotel, he secretly arranged with Dusty for me to be the Cubs batboy for one home game for my 16th birthday. Ill never forget the exhilaration of being on the field, experiencing the surly attitude of the dugout, slapping Todd Hundley five after hitting a homer, having Kerry Wood play a practical joke on me. (In the eighth inning, he brought me into the clubhouse and introduced me to Ryan Dempster as he lay naked on the couch watching Sports Center.) 

So needless to say, I am one lucky Cubs fan. But my Dad and I had a real stroke of luck for the 2016 World Series. We flew out to Chicago on Friday morning before Game 3. We were planning on watching the games with Marty at his apartment in the Brookdale Senior Living Center on North Lake Shore Drive, where he commands a view of the Wrigley’s lights from his window. We watched Game 3 with him, which was a rough loss. The next day, while wandering around Wrigley Field in the World Series pandemonium, we ran into the nephew of my Dad’s closest childhood friend, Marc Kravitz, who had passed five years prior and whose loss was very tough for my father. It turns out that Marc’s nephew worked for the MLB Network, and he was able to get us a pair of tickets to Games 4 and 5 at face value! My Dad teared up in joy, feeling the presence of his friend there and knowing that he would be watching from up in heaven along with my sister. I got to go to my first game in the bleachers for Game 4, right under the scoreboard, and despite the loss i was so thrilled about going to a Cubs World Series game that i couldn’t be upset. Game 5 was electric and the crowd was on their feet the whole time. Kris Bryant’s fourth inning home run was the big turning point for the team in this World Series and I’ll never forget the intensity of Aroldis Chapman’s final 8 outs. On Monday morning I returned to New York, hungover and ecstatic. By Tuesday night, I was watching the Cubs offense come alive in Game 6, and by the 7th inning of that game I was using JetBlue points to buy a flight back to Chicago to watch Game 7 with Marty. 

I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and watching Game 6 in New York just wasn’t the same because I couldn’t viscerally feel the energy of the whole city, living and breathing and dying with the team. I couldn’t ask for a bigger Cubs blessing than to sit on the La-Z-Boy chair in my Grandpa’s apartment with the soft glow of Wrigley’s lights in the background and watch inning-by-inning the ups and downs of such a gut-wrenching game 7. My Grandpa kept saying “Boy are you nervous,” as I jumped out of my seat for every major lead change and most inning changes. We shared a look of disbelief after Rajai Davis’s eighth-inning home run to send the game into extras, and we screamed in joy when that final out was recorded and the Cubs were crowned World Series champions. We watched fireworks explode over Wrigley after the win and during the rally friday, and after Grandpa Marty went to sleep wednesday night I went out to Wrigleyville to join the jubilant celebration. 

In the days after the Cubs won Game 7, I would return to Wrigley’s brick wall often. As I saw the thousands and thousands of fans overcome with emotion, I had a visceral sense of how every fan has their own story and their own memory tied into this great and long-awaited victory. During the rally friday, which I attended alone, I befriended a Cub fan named Rob Mulvenna, who I later hoisted on my shoulders up onto the brick wall so he could find space to write his father Moe’s name, tears streaming down his eyes. Regardless of what your beliefs are, you couldn’t ignore the spiritual significance of this event or the power of this moment. The Cubs, at long last, had reached their promised land after 108 years of wandering in the wilderness, and this baseball Mecca had become a paradise on earth. Maybe the wait made the victory that much sweeter, reflecting a greater-than-human arc of time, echoed in the biblical verses: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (Isaiah 40:4). Whatever you believe, perhaps the significance of this Cubs World Series win was the actualization of a faith that was kept by people long gone, who suffered and never saw their dream realized, an unflinchingly hopeful and unbroken tradition, stretching before and after into eternity. 

Sam Friend is a composer, singer, and guitarist based in New York and New Orleans. You can find his Cubs story and many others from fans and players in the Chicago Cubs Commemorative Book "A Win for the Ages" at www.ChicagoCubsBook.com

The Roots and the Rootless 

As I sit in the terminal at London Heathrow Airport, I'm astounded by the multitudes of people around me, the myriad languages being spoken, the sheer chaos of people rushing to and from every food court and gate. The irony weighs heavily on me, for I know everyone around me is also thinking about the Brexit and what that entails for the European Union and our increasingly connected world. As a frequent traveller, it is  hard for me to understand how one could imagine turning back the clock, building walls and barriers between peoples in a world that has been globalizing at a breakneck pace, but I suppose I can understand why the roller coaster of modern times can be scary, and why you'd want to hold onto and protect the identity you have. 

And that's why Ireland, and county Clare especially, was so refreshing. I was away from the hustle and bustle of New York, where one always has a distinct, burning purpose and intention that drives them through their days. When shopping at the grocery store in Ennistymon, you would be lucky to make it in and out in 2 hours because of all the local people who say hello and stop you for a chat. In a small town like that, everybody knows everybody, and you can't walk out your door without being offered to sit down and have tea.  

What a great couple of weeks it has been-- refreshing for the soul. Often when you take a vacation you feel like you have to fit all of a new city into a few days. How the heck are you gonna see all of Madrid or London in two days? You're just stressing yourself out. My days in Doolin consisted of waking up, drinking tea and having breakfast, learning a few jigs or reels, taking the dog, Whistler, for a walk around the beautiful countryside, meditating, taking a nap, and joining Christy for one of the local Irish music sessions he hosts 6 nights a week in Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, Liscannor, and Fanore. It's hard to feel the compelling, uncomfortable need to be somewhere else or to do something crucial when you wake up, look out your window, and are awed by the natural beauty of the landscape around you and the peace of the animals. I guess I'm lucky that the line between work and leisure is so blurred for me. Like that famous quote by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand: "A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” 

Christy and I would spend much of the day appeasing their shining, gorgeous golden retriever who was only a year and a half old--- and if you know goldens you know how crazy they can be in their youth. Yes, Whistler needed attention, and lots of it. The only way he would really calm down was if you tired him out from walks or playing fetch, after which he would collapse for a few hours in a heap on the floor. Otherwise he'd be banging on the windows or barking until you payed him some mind. We might tie him to the post if he got too bad, but sometimes we considered how much of his craziness might be because he shouldn't be tied up-- the chains and leashes were going against his nature and making him act even worse. He got less jumpy and was tied up less during the weeks I was there but he still needs to learn not to nip people with his teeth (he doesn't bite down though, thankfully).  

He made up for his attention-whoring and manic energy with his beauty, his intelligence, and the sheer joy he exhibited when bounding off during the times he was finally set free in that day's landscape of choice. On our first walk, I remember being astounded by the speed with which he could clamber up and down the rocky outcroppings just beyond Doolin. That day was great--- as Whistler jumped around I pondered the massive rock faces, indented with century's of rain and ocean spray, bringing to mind the famous quote from Ovid's metamorphoses: "Dripping water hollows a stone." As I gazed out at the tumultuous Atlantic, cool damp wind at my face, I considered the power of the elements, the impossibility of such giant, square stone slabs being cut and then brought up and left in absurd positions across the coast.  

I also pondered the resilience of life. How could so many different breeds of wildflowers sprout up through crevices in the rock that ran so deep, how could they survive the unrelenting push and pull of nature? How could there be such lush and verdant fields of grass only 20 feet away on the other side of the rock face? Ireland contained that impossibility within it, it felt deeply aware of the source and miracle of life itself. I would smile when Christy picked up a few rocks and put them in his car because he thought they would suit a rock wall he was building. Gone was the dividing line between man and nature that was so apparent in New York or many of the places I'd been. For once, I wasn't afraid to get my hands dirty.  

Whistler is an interesting dog. On my last night I took him for a walk to my favorite river-side spot only a ten minute walk from the house. I gripped his leash tightly and acted stern to keep him in line but he pulled and pulled as he sniffed the grass on the side of the road, with what felt like an unquenchable thirst and savage need for something. I saw the wolf in him, alert and vicious, marking his territory, jolting from one side of the road to the other, restless as his head remained inches from the ground. Yet when we arrived at the small stone bridge that crossed over the river, he suddenly grew calm. I don't know whether it was the sound of the water rushing by, the difference in wind currents as we arrived at the spot, or the sense of reaching a planned destination that finally made him stop. I gazed down at the river below, a frequent object of meditation for me during the week before. Whistler hopped up and rested his two front legs on the top of the stone wall overlooking the water, peering down at the river and pausing, standing on his back two legs and thinking. What a change had come over him from only moments ago. I witnessed some type of unfathomable realization come over the dog.  

On the short walk back a beautiful brown and white horse who lived next door came up to us, walking up to the wooden fence that enclosed his yard. As whistler and the horse checked each other out, I urged him to move along. But the horse made a strange gesture, almost beckoning, "don't you like me? I have no one to talk to here all day," while batting his or her feminine, long eyelashes. I stopped for a moment and Whistler and the horse stared each other down for another minute or two. The horse then turned deliberately to the side and began to gallop with more swiftness and grace than perhaps I had ever seen in person. Whistler took the cue immediately, running parallel to the horse in the road beside the yard as I ran close behind them. I didn't have time to stop and think, I just ran with the animals. As we left, they faced off once more and I pulled Whistler along back up the path to the house. I appreciated the moment but was also left with a slight tinge of sadness for that lonely, beautiful horse.  

Now that I've described some of the natural wonders I experienced in Ireland I will speak briefly about the people. In a similar way to New Orleans, I perceived a welcoming aspect and friendliness coming from complete strangers who i would meet. Another thing--unlike some places where people don't like Americans too much, i spoke with more than one person in Ireland who told me they loved Americans for their frankness and straightforward manner. Maybe it's the historical bonds between America and Ireland-- bonds that resulted in my birth (3 out of 8 of my great-grandparents are Irish), bonds that were exhibited by the many bars that had dollar bills plastered to the walls or images of JFK, an Irish Catholic beloved over there. It also could be something to do with personality affinity, but all I can say was that I was surprised to hear the refrain "we love Americans" when the mood in other places and the world in general isn't so kind. But I'm not yet gonna go into the global political situations that have often justified such hatred.  

I met a few young people from Cashel, Perlis, and Galway one night who said they were on vacation for a bit of the "craic," a word meaning fun or a good time that was so commonly used while I was there that it has started to enter my vocabulary. They encouraged me to join them for a smoke and I said thanks-- they joked that they hung out with an American who joined their group last week and they had given him a new Irish name. They called me "John Ryan" and after getting a little stoned they commented about how different areas of Ireland have different inflections and tones. "Oh she's class, like," they would say here. Or "she's pretty dayyy-cent" in another county. As they mentioned these minor differences in speech across Ireland, I thought of when Christy would talk about the locational difference in Irish music during his music house sessions. This is the classic sound of east Clare for one song he'd say, or "these are the three kilfenora jigs." I was struck with the thought that language and music are no different, developing organically and in truth a product of the environment in which they are grown.  

I've felt a new appreciation and connection with my Irish roots-- I've really felt at home in Ireland. I'm sad to be leaving but I'm excited to be traveling to Europe to meet the Swamp Donkeys for a rollicking three-week tour. And as I sit amongst the crowd of people in London Heathrow airport, I again consider... What goes into identity? What makes us who we are? How can we preserve the natural beauty and character of places like Ireland while also allowing for the free flow and combining of people and cultures across the world?  

America can be kind of featureless culturally (see the identical shopping centers all over the country), but that has also allowed it to adopt such a mix of cultures. With assholes like trump vying for power, we need to reflect upon the fact that America was born from immigration--any discussion of America after the native Americans were here that doesn't acknowledge that the nation was originally composed of a variety of peoples and cultures is deeply flawed. Also, New Orleans culture is uniquely American, but that is a whole other discussion.  

People think so much about blocking people out, about short term solutions---I think we need to think more about the problems and their sources. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are war torn and politically unstable, until the problems are fixed there, migrants will have no place to go, no home to return to. Maybe these different ethnicities can't fit into the modern notion of a nation-state, or maybe the borders need to be redrawn across the real lines. I don't know. What I do know is that we need to preserve and respect the different cultures and ethnicities of the world--so much of the beauty of life comes from that diversity. And we need to fucking realize that a person is more valuable than a dollar.  

Balancing the preservation of a culture with the exchange of ideas in a increasingly globalized world seems difficult, and these ends can seem at odds at times. But they don't have to be. You don't need to block out the rest of the world to preserve who you are, respecting the other wholly and fully might just have a better effect to that purpose. Only when the policies and governments that rule the world reflect this sort of basic human respect and dignity will some of these problems begin to be solved.  

Anyway, enough of the idealism, I'm off to Switzerland. Until next time... 

Trad Life 

They call the type of music I was playing in New Orleans "Trad." Hence: the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band. It signifies an older repertoire of songs and style of playing, like you'd hear on early Louis Armstrong or King Oliver recordings. It's getting popular again in New Orleans and beyond, young people are coming to the Crescent City to play the music in droves and you can find Trad Jazz sessions in cities across the country. I'm grateful to have formed the Swamp Donkeys, a band that really rode the crest of the resurgence of the music's popularity.  

They call the type of music I'm learning in Ireland "Trad" as well. Many old and young people are playing it here. You see signs for Trad sessions at countless bars across the country, especially here in County Clare where I am staying. Like New Orleans, people playing this music know many of the same songs-- They draw on a shared repertoire of jigs, reels, and dances. Many of the songs are 100 years old. Having a common vocabulary is crucial to how the music continues to be created and sustained. Perhaps I am drawn to Traditional music because these are the last few places where a musical language of common songs is preserved in the same organic environment they were born: the bars and streets of the cities we live, not some stuffy classrooms. Not much has changed since back then, in this light.  

Of course there are crucial difference between these types of Trad. In Ireland, you clap on the first and third beats. In New Orleans Trad, and jazz in general, you clap on the second and fourth beats. When I would tour with the Donkeys, the band would get surprised when the audience clapped on 1 and 3, saying stuff like "these Europeans are so square" or "check out this video of Harry connick Jr. flipping the beat back over while the audience keeps their steady clap going." Really they're just used to a different kind of music.  Still, you should know where you're at... It wouldn't be wise to show up in America and start driving on the left-hand side of the street! 

The instruments are different as well. In Irish music, typically the lead melody is played by flute, whistle, or fiddle, and doubled by Accordian or concertina. Sometimes there is an Irish tenor banjo in there. A guitar or bazouki player often provides chordal accompaniment, if there is any at all. Sometimes someone will be playing beats on the Bodhran. If you are really lucky, someone will have Uielienn pipes, which can create a whole band sound on their own.   

I love how, after playing a few jigs, the session leader will ask one of the musicians or even bar attendees to sing a song. Sometimes a weathered old Irishman will rise from the bar and deliver a stirring ballad, acapella, as the entire crowd quiets down in attention. These were also some of the moments where I was able to share my original music, blues, and New Orleans Jazz with the audience and the local musicians. The combination of these types of music with the traditional Irish sound made for some very memorable evenings. It blended so seamlessly, in fact, that I've been encouraged by many to stay in Ireland or return, because they'd surely have a place for my music and my voice here. Who knows what the future will bring?  

Christy taught me my first jig yesterday, called Willie Coleman's jig. I'll play it for you sometime. He just called it Coleman's. It reminded me of how we call Paul Barbarin's second line just "Barbarin." I picked it up quickly because it was so rooted in pentatonic scales which are already the basis of my playing. I'm excited to learn more jigs and reels, because I've always been hung up on the best way to practice scales or pentatonics, and the combinations and rhythms you find in these songs are so visceral and natural.  

I'm incredibly lucky to have met Christy Barry and to have him as a host and mentor for this trip. He really is quintessentially county Clare, a local legend here. He used to partake in too much drinking and revelry and he even lost a gig with the Chieftains because he drunkenly told Paddy Moloney he couldn't play pipes when they came to McGann's searching him out as the best flute player around. But thank god he sobered up, quit drinking, and can now be an indispensable hub of the music community here. He and Sheila set up Doolin Music House as part of the mission of preserving the music of Doolin and County Clare, and remembering the musicians from the older generation, many of whom have passed now. His pearls of wisdom and the humor and freshness of the perspective he brings to music and life in general are a beautiful thing. As someone at the festival remarked to me "I'd trade a month in Dublin for a day in Doolin with Christy Barry." 

Before I continue on to discuss the Doolin Music House, I want to say a few words about New Orlean's own favorite local celebrity, James Andrews. James is quintessentially New Orleans, raised in the Treme, totally off the wall, with a unquenchable spirit at live performances that can be rivaled by none. The "Big Boss with the Hot Sauce," "Satchmo of the ghetto." He never had the global success of his younger brother Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, and perhaps he never wanted it...he'd prefer to party at local gigs and events instead of pulling it together for clean cut corporate performances, although he still will play at the Superdome if you ask him. I'll never forget the morning his whole band was set to play the New Orleans morning news and he just never showed up. We played without him. In between shots he called the anchor saying "my time is fucked up! I'll be there in five." When the newscasters came back on air one of them said "James said he'll be here shortly." The other one said "you must not know James." Only in New Orleans. He will still get the gig again. All of his craziness aside, I'm very grateful to have played my first few Jazzfests with James, and lucky to have met all the phenomenal musicians in the bands he puts together, a who's who of New Orleans music. Even when it seemed like a gig couldn't possibly work out ok, he would make it happen through sheer willpower and energy, and by the end he would be second lining in the middle of the crowd with some Mardi Gras Indians he brought along for the event. Although he never became a true mentor to me in terms of showing me music and taking me under his wing, we always had a special connection and understanding, and I'll always look to him as the musician from New Orleans who was truest to the city's character. And I could care less about the several hundred dollars he still owes me (and probably most of the musicians in New Orleans). 

Back to Ireland, I'd like to close with some words about Doolin Music House. In the past year or two, Christy and Sheila decided to host Traditional music sessions three nights a week in their living room to show people the atmosphere of music making at home, a big part of the older tradition. This Monday, Christy related the story of how he learned to play spoons. As a young child, Christy would crouch under the table of his house, copying the rhythms of the dancing feet around him, dancing that would continue all through the night. He said before the days of modern psychiatry, this was how people would take a load off after work, through music, a "way to get along when you don't have anything." Christy related a vision of his father changing to work clothes from dancing cloths at 6 am, standing in front of the house, drinking a bottle of Guinness before going to work all day. He also noted how spoons most effectively show the old dancing rhythms and how the Bodhran drum only became popular in the 1970s and changed the style of music then. Christy peppered the Music House sessions with these sorts of anecdotes and they really made the music and history come alive in a way you might not get from a typical bar-room session. Each night, at a certain point, he'd point to the drawings of local musicians he had hung up on the walls of their living room, relating the stories of these lads who "carried the can." There was Willie Clancy, the great piper-- but "they only said that he was great after he died," he didn't make much money during his life and drank much of it away. There was Tommy People's on fiddle. Michelene Conlon on Accordian and concertina. Patty kiloughery on fiddle. The Russell brothers. Christy related stories about each of these musicians, some humorous, some touching, some speaking to that particular musicians importance in the passing down of Irish music. Back then, Doolin was a music college of sorts, and Michael Russell, a "hero" of Doolin, "the whistling ambassador," helped bring the music to greater Ireland. Nowadays, everybody knows Doolin as a famed music town and these men were the reason. Christy says the reason he hosts these sessions and relates this history is because he's the oldest guy around who knows the old generation and the history of it. "If you know someone else who [knows it] as well, please send them my way."  

As I continue on my own journey through music, I am incredibly blessed that my path has brought me into contact with people like James Andrews and Christy Barry. At a time when modern music can be so devoid of the meaning and history that music was once imbued with, I have been drawn to these windows into the past. These are some of the richest living musical traditions I've encountered and I'm glad that they can inspire me and my writing, and I'm glad I can learn all the same tunes and play them in the same bars that people were playing them in a hundred years ago. 

The Rarefied Aires 

If you had driven along N478 past Lisdoonvarna at 9 am Monday morning you would have seen a slightly disheveled and worn out version of myself trudging my way to the Doolin Music House (the abode of Christy and Sheila, my hosts for the trip). Long after the last taxi had left Doolin, my phone having been dead for 6 hours, I was elated, still buzzing, the songs of a truly epic 6 hour jam session echoing in my head.  

I had not yet overcome my jet lag and this weekend would set me back a couple days. But I knew it was all worth it. These were the moments I live for.  

The Doolin Folk festival is an intimate event organized by Connor Byrne in the plaza behind Hotel Doolin. They bring together some of the finest acts in Irish music for three days and two stages of performances, ranging widely from authentic traditional music to hard rock, punk, and blues. There was a courtyard with picnic tables and bonfires all around, and a big smoky fire-pit for cooking everything from pulled pork to chili. They even had jambalaya and etoufee, which impressed the New Orleanian in me,  and it wasn't half bad--- although the chili was to die for. There was one main stage underneath a tent with a large dance floor and one indoor performance area up a set of stairs with a somewhat smaller capacity. These upstairs shows were called the "Whitehorse Sessions" and were run/sponsored by a bar called Kenny's.  

Lisdoonvarna used to have a larger festival with tens of thousands of people but it eventually got too big and out of hand. Christy told me a story about a huge gang of bikers imposing their own law on the festival... The cops waited for them down the road toward limerick to take care of them after the smoke had settled.  

Anyway, the smaller size of the Doolin Festival was a large part of its appeal for me. Over the course of the weekend I made many new friends and kept seeing the same faces over and over again. It was also an opportunity to make connections with the great musicians playing the event.  

The first day Christy told me to bring my banjo, because in years past there had been a bunch of jam sessions on the festival grounds. That was not the case this year but the banjo still came in handy. The first act I saw was a band led by Tara Howley, a young lady with a beautiful voice and welcoming personality... I enjoyed her youthful group, especially the cello playing of her sister Sharon, whose bowed bass notes really guided the feelings of their songs. Luka Bloom played a solo set which started kind of slowly, so I went and enjoyed the band on the upstairs stage for a while before coming back at the end of Luka's set, which by then had reached a good energy level with the crowd singing along. He finished with Prince's when doves cry. Didn't expect that. Next up was Mairtin O Connor, one of the most respected Accordian players and musicians in town, who played a phenomenal set of traditional music. Seamie O'Dowd was singing, and his voice was deep and nuanced--- he was one of the best singers of Irish music I heard during this entire trip.  

The sun was beginning to set around this time and you couldn't see it from inside the festival, so I walked outside and spotted an idyllic perch upon the hill where all the cars were parked. I walked up the hill and said hello to a group of four people around my age sitting atop their car, passing around a bottle of tequila and cigarettes, enjoying the view before they snuck into the festival. After making introductions and chatting for a bit, I played them some New Orleans classics and some original songs on the banjo, and they were totally blown away...of course they weren't expecting a private sunset concert. As an orange burst of light spread across the clouds and sky, we were all enveloped in a haze of joy, and as the final few fingers of light stretched down upon us we walked back down the hill to the festival.  

The last highlight of the first day was Jerry Fish's set. One of the best performers of the weekend, he put on a potent, hard rocking show in the upstairs space. His jagged figure left the stage and cut through the crowd, making them get low, shouting refrains like "there's a hole in the bucket," "give that dog a bone," "let it roll, baby, roll." He knew how to command the audience and he was drawing from a deep tradition of rock and roll performance that went well beyond Ireland alone. We danced our asses off. One of my friends from the hillside meeting had attached his hat to my banjo case for safekeeping, which by now had had several beers spilled on it. As I left the venue, banjo on my back, I returned the hat, but Jerry Fish saw me leaving and gave me a look like "don't even think about leaving yet." I set aside my banjo as he pulled me on stage. I started dancing with everything I had, most of my dancing skills coming from second lining in New Orleans for several years. At one point I faked a stage dive which prompted Jerry to say "just try diving off a two foot stage." The crowd responded quickly by interlocking their arms together to make a landing pad for me. I didn't flinch, trusting the audience, and dived into their arms as they bounced me up and down. Rock on!  

There were quite a few highlights of the second day as well. A newly formed band called Breaking Trad played music that had some of the freshest rhythmic and harmonic interpretations of the old tradition. Freddie White, with a weathered low voice and great blues guitar chops, put on a hell of a solo performance. Dervish, one of the most popular bands in Ireland, played rollicking songs steeped in the Irish tradition and had the whole crowd jumping up and down in tandem. Hothouse flowers was like Ireland's own "The Band." I was reflecting upon the notion that a band is only as good as its drummer, as their man deftly combined a 6/8 groove with dotted eight notes so you could hear the 4 note pulse simultaneously and a variety of different rhythmic permutations. The high point of their set was a song called "Don't Go", with a African influenced guitar part and groove that really moved everyone's feet. As their lead singer broke into Gaelic for a soulful final song, I reflected upon how similar it sounded to Arabic music, both in terms of the sound of the language, the choice of the notes (b2s leaned heavily upon), and the free, passionate delivery of the notes. I've noticed at times how these ancient folk music traditions seem to have an unseen common thread, and I really notice it with the blues, Arabic music, and Irish music. The pentatonic scales in Eastern music often make me feel that way as well. The deeper you get into the soul, the more it is the same.  

I finished off the second night head-banging in a fluorescent red wig borrowed from someone in a hen party, before joining the last band on stage at the Whitehorse Sessions as they played the House of the Rising Sun. Mid-song, I asked if I could sing the last verse and chorus, and they kindly obliged me.  

When the third day of the festival arrived, I was fairly exhausted, and I expected to take it nice and easy as I enjoyed the final day's sets. The festival audience was sitting around the main stage, enjoying the band Old Hannah. The band, a group of friends from Sligo, were a balanced mix of personalities that complemented each other nicely. That alone is a difficult feat. I know from experience how unbalanced egos can change a bands structure or dismantle it entirely. They had four singers, each with their own style, and they'd join together for brilliant harmonies--at one point covering a personal favorite, CSN's "Helplessly Hoping". Each of these unique voices also contributed their own original tunes to the mix. They drew upon both Irish music and the history of folk, blues, and bluegrass in America. The picking of the five string banjo interlocked seamlessly with the slide lap guitar. During one song they talked about how Irish music had travelled to America and been foundational in the folk and mountain music there, before returning back to Ireland. This was an insightful notion for my journey and their music would interface very well with the type of music I had been playing. I sought out the members after the show, they were very friendly and we hung out as the day wore on.  

Finbar Furey played a set shortly thereafter. The headliner of the festival, here was a storied musician who growled and plucked his way through his songs like a man possessed. You could tell he really lived his songs-- he had been a touring musician since the 1960s. Wikipedia states that he popularized the Uilleann pipes worldwide in that decade. The band he formed with his brothers, "the Fureys," began touring as the back up group for The Clancy Brothers, and had a great run of touring and recording for 30 years before Finbar left for a solo career in 1997. On this night at Doolin Folk Festival he would be receiving the festival's lifetime achievement award, an accolade my host Christy Barry received last year. He delivered a soulful solo performance on the pipes, played his hit "Sweet Sixteen," and closed the set with a rousing singalong o of "Green Fields of France." By the last few choruses, everyone in the audience was singing "did the band play the last verse and chorus, did the pipes play the flowers of the forest" as Finbar conducted the impromptu choir with tears in his eyes. You could tell he was truly grateful as he reflected upon his rich musical life.  

I will only mention one or two more music groups for fear of getting long-winded.  
Later in the evening, Wallis Bird delivered a performance on guitar and vocals that was rivaled by no other solo performer during the weekend. While she had two supporting band members singing light harmonies and playing trumpet and clarinet, it was really the sheer force of her being that blew the crowd away. She mustered more energy alone with her voice and strumming than entire bands often do. She had "it" -- the intangible, irresistible presence that kept the whole audience enthralled. Her songs were beautiful and spoke from the depths of her soul.  

Earlier in the day I had been feeling sleepy, I was nodding off by the side of the tent before Finbar's set. But as I downed a few whiskeys with friends I had met over the weekend and with the band members from Old Hannah I started to realize this might not be an early night. By the last set, at 1 or 2 am, we were all in full force, dancing like maniacs in circles while the band Rackhouse Pilfer played on. At one point they played the song "Atlantic City" which always makes me think of my late sister Molly, because of her love for weekends there and the chorus, which we all sang along to: "everything dies, baby that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Put your makeup on. Fix your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City."  

After the final notes had been played, we were amped up and ready to keep going, so Old Hannah and my friends from the hill jam Friday night spread the word that we would be having a jam session at the house they were staying at next door. We all gradually made our way there as the festival winded down and started playing at around 3. Many friends who I had met that weekend showed up later on-- it was like all the connections I had made were coming together in one place! We played Irish ballads, rollicking bluegrass tunes, original songs, we even had a eillean pipe player accompanying the music and he would take over in full driving force when the singers went outside for a break. One musician on Bodhran (from Tara Howley's band) kept the beat nicely throughout. Someone brought a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey at around 5 am to keep us going. We continued until about 9 am, and were all thrilled to the bone. It was one of those rare moments, those nights that you never want to end, a fortunate meeting of souls passing through for the evening only. They'd all be gone tomorrow.  

But as the morning sun beat down and as I walked down N478 back home I knew it was a weekend I wouldn't soon forget.  

"To be in that world when the days would grow long/ The nights never ended. They started in song/ and everybody just played along" Fast and Still, Twin

Like Coming Home Again 

In the blues, rambling without a place to rest your head is a of right of passage.  

But this rolling stone decided to pick up some moss in the greenest country of all-- Ireland. For whatever reason I've always been drawn to places with roots in ancient and yet living traditions-- like New Orleans or Ireland. People are still playing songs from a hundred years ago and it's a common language.  

So I've been searching for the type of musical grounding I never had growing up in New York. Discovering New Orleans was like an epiphany for me-- as if all the music I had loved previously had come from this source I never knew about. Living there the past four years has been an immense blessing.  

My writing and my original music has grown as I have grown, and upon my first visit to Ireland in March I was struck by the depth and soul of the music here. I knew I had to come back and dig in. When I write a song I try to create the sound song itself calls for, and the more music I know deeply and truly on a fundamental level the more I can draw upon the wealth of human experience that has developed around that particular culture.  

So I arrived here in Doolin yesterday. I'm spending three weeks here with a phenomenal flute player named Christy Barry, a well-loved musician in the area known as a link to an older, lost generation of players. We had met during that March visit-- I only spent one night in Doolin, but when I joined Christy for the weekly session at his house and afterwards at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, there was an instant musical connection. Here was an old soul I knew I could relate to, and who had a wealth of knowledge of this music and a perspective I could appreciate. So I made fast plans to come back only a few months later.  

Christy picked me up from the airport in Shannon yesterday. We caught up quickly, as if I had never left, as we drove down the winding roads and rolling green hills dotted with cows and sheep. As his Irish twang became etched in my brain I felt a strong connection to the place; it was like a homecoming of sorts.  

We stopped to check out the views on the beach at lahinch, and the view from donegal castle looking down over Doolin. But the most poignant moment of our drive from the Airport to Christy and his partner Sheila's abode was when we stopped at St. Bridget's well.  

Outside the well a man came up to us, holding posters of his missing son, William Maugham, relating the story of one night last year when his son ran into some trouble in Dublin and was never seen again. I could tell how the grief had worn him and his wife down, as their grandchildren ran curiously about the garden outside the well.  

I told them how my twin sister Molly had passed only this past October, and they said they would keep her in their prayers, and I promised to keep their son and his girlfriend in mine. As I entered the well I felt the cool damp air and sensed the presence of the many lost family and friends, often gone too early, whose pictures were plastered all about the walls. Christy gave me some coins to throw in the well and I had a brief moment of silence for my sister.  

It was a fateful meeting, a moment to think about my sister in a healing environment, whose passing has weighed so heavily on my parents and I for the past 8 months. It also spoke to the fragility of life. I reflected upon her passion and energy but also her tendency to dance with fire, to get too close to the edge, until one day she fell off. After leaving, Christy and I talked about how wonderful the family was that we met, though we sensed that there was a darker underbelly to the story of how their son was murdered, and Christy said the family name was somewhat infamous in Dublin. The family's hope, as we hugged under the opening into the well, was to recover their son's body, so they could properly lay him to rest.  

We left the well and drove on. The sign outside Christy and Sheila's house, inscribed "Doolin Music House" for their weekly music sessions in the living room, signaled our arrival. Sheila greeted me with a big hug and we had a big Irish breakfast shortly thereafter. Sheila and Christy have been unbelievably welcoming, and I am very grateful to have another family in Ireland, and Sheila implored me to call her cousin Sheila while Christy jokingly called me his son or grandson when introducing me around town. 

After a brief nap, we went out to get some pizza with the intention of going back home early and resting for the first night of my trip, which was also a rare night off for Christy. But Christy has many local friends and is quite a legend around town. He has played music all around the area for 50 plus years, and with his laughing nature he seemed to always be the person in the room everybody wanted to hang out with, he's great "craic" as they say here. My kind of people! No better person to introduce me to the local musicians, and he would rave about how I was a musical genius and phenomenal singer as I blushed and feigned modesty behind him.  

So although we only intended to go out for pizza, we inevitably were drawn to the Roadside Tavern next door, where there was a trio of flute, concertina, and guitar, with the concertina player Nathan switching to violin every so often. They were playing moving music, beautiful in its simplicity, just the raw essentials, a breath of fresh air to Christy who had seen many a session get overloaded with too many players cramming too many notes into the music. A great first session in town, and I would be seeing Nathan all around town the next few days.  

After an hour or so we drove over to McGanns, home to my favorite beef and Guinness stew from the last trip, and heard a phenomenal trio there as well. It consisted of Charlene McGowan on vocals and Bodhran, Floraine Blancke on harp, and Kevin Griffen on tenor banjo. Charlene had a beautiful and experienced voice and Christy related to me how she was a popular singer throughout Ireland and Europe. Kevin Griffen's banjo playing was stellar, and I really enjoyed the sound of his Irish tenor, which had the pluck of the banjo I am used to but was lowered and deeper in tone. It rounded out the melodies nicely--Irish tenor banjo is tuned lower and has a longer Neck than a typical tenor banjo. But i was totally blow away by the beautiful Floraine Blancke and the amount of ground she covered on the harp. I had never heard harp played in an ensemble like that. She covered the bass notes and chords, almost reminding me of stride piano technique, and her style of rhythmic accompaniment hinted at other worlds of rhythm contained in the same groove. That's one of my favorite things about music, when you can really bring to focus the unity of different rhythmic feels and numerical groupings. It's all one when you get down to it. New Orleans has such a deep pocket, I think those type of rhythmic juxtapositions are a special part of the music there.  

I grabbed a guitar Kevin had on the wall above him and accompanied them on a couple of Irish tunes, before singing a few songs of my own. I sang one or two originals and a New Orleans classic. I thought the mic was a bit too hot and felt like I was kind of thrown off on my performance but such it is sometimes-- I never really let my own perception of my playing, good or bad, phase me. My songs and playing were very well received, we closed out the night with one more tune all-together, and I conversed with the musicians and bar patrons for another 40 minutes before calling it a night.  

It was an excellent first day here, Christy constantly imploring me that I'm welcome here and can spend the days as I see fit. I'm looking forward to several weeks of writing, learning new Irish songs, playing sessions, and making connections with a plethora of phenomenal musicians. Doolin, what a legendary musical town you are, your timeless stories reaching out across the world of music and beyond.