“With Irish music, you’re cryin’ one minute and then you’re whoopin’ it up and bein’ joyful the next minute. We’ll be playing some really heart wrenching immigration songs, songs of leaving family and loved ones behind, and we’ll be playing a lot of the dance tunes from the tradition that are just upbeat and full of life and festive energy,” says fiddler Eileen Ivers. She’s talking about her current concert tour, which she’s named Beyond the Bog Road.
One day when she was back in her father’s town in County Mayo, a place where she’s often played her fiddle, Ivers heard an older man say he found it hard to think about the people who had left Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, and what lives they must have led. That sparked an idea in Ivers to start researching music, and later, composing tunes that traced parts of that journey, and often through unexpected moments.
She’s created an evening that moves emotionally and musically — and visually, there are scenes of Ireland historic images which weave in and out with the music projected behind the band — from that bog road to the uncertainties of crossing the oceans and the hard conditions on arrival in North America, to contact with other cultures, to an ending which celebrates the vibrancy of the Irish American community today.
That’s a fairly tall order for an evening’s worth of music: make a program that’s musical and entertaining and at the same time present a lot of context about music and history to people who may bring all sorts of ideas and backgrounds to hearing it. It’s an idea Ivers is well qualified to carry out: To her research, she brought a background including winning nine All Ireland fiddle championships, working with jazz and classical fiddlers, being a founding member of Cherish the Ladies and part of the original company of Riverdance, performances with artists ranging from the Boston Pops to the Afro Celts, Grammy awards, and worldwide touring.
Ivers and her band bring their varied talents together to focus on moments which connect to tell the story, and while Ivers’ fiddling and her vibrant personality are the center of things, she does not hesitate to collaborate and at times step aside for others to take over the telling of the stories.
She shares some of her own story as a first generation Irish American to connect things, and there’s recorded narrative spoken by Dermot Henry [himself a fine songwriter whom you’ve met before over at Music Road] which also sets things in context between songs. The result is a journey at times fast paced and at times in thoughtful reflection, that moves from exploring the heartfelt sorrow of famine times to the hope and hardships and persistence of next stages of the immigrant’s journey.
At the start. “We have some slow airs, songs, about love lost to famine, about heartbreak, kinda — there’s a classic immigration song called The Greenfields of America. Niamh Parsons sings it, and she’s incredible, one of Ireland’s truly great singers, I think,” Ivers says. A somber view of the vast and rolling ocean, such as Irish people might have seen on their voyages, unfolds behind Parsons as she sings.
The band and the narration follow the story of Irish people arriving in Grosse Ile, in Quebec, still a hard time, but lightened by encounters with kind people and with the music of French Canada. Traditional tunes, original tunes Ivers has written, and the skills of the dancers who join in on stage combine to show the connections between Acadian and Cajun music and the music of Ireland.
The band then traces the music’s journey southward. Ivers tells of trading tunes with Appalachian fiddler Ralph Blizzard and in a few bars illustrates the way a tune sounds in Irish tradition and how it moves over to bluegrass. The band extends that idea, playing the Irish tunes Kitty’s Wedding, and its Appalachian cousin, Smith’s Reel, and invites the audience to sing along as they head in to The Rocky Road Blues, a song by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.
Through the second half of the concert Ivers, the band, and the dancers trace the meeting up of Irish people and African Americans, through working on building railroads to the west, and it later years through tap dancing competitions in New York city, There’s even a bit of Louis Armstrong brought in, as well as the remembrance and looking back toward Ireland, and the new waves of Irish immigration to America.
The evening comes to a close with an extended set of reels incorporating world beat and other influences, with video backdrop reflecting the energy of the city and twenty first century life, and with Ivers playing her fiddle all across the stage, up on to the drum kit platform, exchanging jams with Buddy Connolly on accordion, and bringing her fiddle out for a quick trip around the room before jumping back onstage to join the band, audience and dancers in singing Will the Circle Be Unbroken — a gospel song which crosses American traditions American traditions and whose title neatly sums up the emotions and music Eileen Ivers and friends share Beyond the Bog Road.
The Beyond the Bog Road tour continues through late March. Information about that and other tour dates may be found at Eileen Ivers’ web site. Ivers is also working on a recording of the music from Beyond the Bog Road.
Kerry Dexter writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road, and is music editor at Wandering Educators, long time contributor to world music magazine Dirty Linen, and former folk music editor at Barnes & Noble Online. Her work has appeared in Symphony, Ireland and the Americas, and The Encyclopedia of Counterculture, among other publications.