[In the first part of this interview (summer 2009), Danny, a native of Drimalost, Donegal, who worked for many years as a stone cutter in London, talked about growing up in a musical family and about his musical influences, among them his father Jimmy, Charlie McCahill, Peter Quinn, Paddy McDyer, John and Mickey Doherty, and piper Leo Rowsome. The conversation continues below.]
In your father’s generation there were a load of fiddle players around but there seems to have been an awful drop off in players in your generation.
There was a terrible drop off. It wasn’t the same at all. The people of my generation would laugh at you going around with a fiddle. I used to hide my fiddle going over to Conaghan’s under me overcoat. With some of the clever fellas on the corner of the street in Mountcharles they’d make out that there was something wrong with you. Now I could have knocked any of them out at the time but I didn’t. I loved the music so much that I used to hide it. Because they’d make smart remarks saying, “you’re going away ‘diddling.’” That was the dark age of the music. You apologised for playing and you played apologetically. That’s still in me and my generation even now. And you might have heard a slight bit of it, maybe. Playing what they call playing “apologetically.” But kids now are not playing apologetically at all. There’s not one iota of it and that’s a good thing to a certain extent. But we were always apologetic in playing. Even when you went to London there’d be only the odd pub you could play in a session.
There were three people from about your generation who stuck with the music and could represent any generation of players. You, Tommy Peoples, and James Byrne. How did that triumvirate come about?
Ah, certainly that’s true. There is an important age gap between us with them being a bit younger. There was a hiatus there. We understood each other and we were a wee bit like each other in ways. We’re very lucky in Donegal. Because you’ll certainly not ever get two better players in Donegal than Jamsie Byrne, God rest him, and Tommy Peoples. Now this young generation coming up now they’re great lads and they’re my heroes. The young players playing now in their twenties, they’re fantastic company. But you see, Tommy Peoples and Jamsie Byrne would alone have been enough. They covered every bit of the music! For example, Jamsie was a nice waltz player. A lovely air player. Jamsie could have played for any kind of a wedding or anything. Jamsie was very open minded and Tommy is the same. Peoples is unique and he has a unique style of bowing. They were both progressive in the nicest possible way. And they’re very disciplined musicians as well, funny enough. I’m the least disciplined of those three men you mentioned! Because there’s always a mad streak in me that does tend to do unnecessary things. I play madly now and again. But the other two are very disciplined with their music –– nicely rounded and very well played and lovely to listen to at any time.
Jamsie had great bow expression. He had a different imagination than Tommy. His music was just as profound none the less. He’d take every last inch out of the bow that should be put into a reel and a jig. He bowed each tune to the last. He never took a shortcut with the bow. They were two great men for the bowing and they didn’t have to play at a hundred miles an hour to make it sound good, either.
There’s no doubting that you influenced both of them significantly.
I played with them and we certainly had fun together and they certainly liked some of the tunes I played. If that’s influencing them, then I suppose I did.
I think you made them think musically. You were talking about opening up minds. It seems from their views, you certainly opened up their thinking.
Well, I think you’re right, but maybe more Jamsie than Tommy.
When they heard you, they took the time and made the effort to understand your playing.
It was nice of them to do that. Our relationships never dipped below being a great relationship. I have too much respect for both of them. Even Jamsie’s memory still, I have great respect for that.
Coleman influenced you as well. You definitely studied him.
Ah yeah, I did of course. Well, you couldn’t help but be influenced by him. Any traditional musician in the world, they wouldn’t be but influenced by Coleman. He had a great style! There was no such thing as a hard part in a reel for Coleman. He was a great player. He could take the hard part and enhance it and make it sound easy. You’ll get a reel where you’ll have to do a bit of work like cross bowing in it or whatever. There didn’t seem to be any hard part of the tune with Coleman. ’Twas all meticulously played with a nice pace and nice bits of imagination here and there. A very lyrical player. Totally different to John Doherty. Even Quinn and McCahill, they adored Coleman. ’Twas even in their music. There was a bit of that in their music. Coleman did influence everybody, as you know. He was probably the greatest one to influence players ever. You had Morrison and Killoran. They were great, but Coleman had that little extra piece. Like the great Tommy Peoples today. And James Byrne as well. There are kids trying to play like Tommy Peoples and James Byrne. They never will but they’re making a great effort at it. That’s influencing, isn’t it? A man of my age group would be stupid to try and play like Tommy Peoples. You’d play his tune, but you would never accomplish his music. It’s got to start there in the head first. Between your ears and it’s got to be in there in your heart as well. You’d be as well to just play your own simple little way.
[Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is the author of “Between the Jigs and Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition,” “The Scribe, The Life and Works of James O’Neill,” and an upcoming book on mazurkas. He was featured in the Summer 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine and is a founding member of Cairdeas na bhFidleiri.]
[For the rest of this interview, along with transcriptions of "William McGonagle's Barndance" (by Danny Meehan) and "The Rocky Road to Dublin" (as played by Danny), subscribe to Fiddler Magazine! Part One of the interview (and the tunes "Coveny's Reel" and "Peter Quinn's Jig") appeared in the Summer 2009 issue, which is available as a back issue.]
Photo: Caoimhín Mac Aoidh