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Tony DeMarco: A Priceless Tutelage
Mary Larsen
2016-11-25
New York fiddler Tony DeMarco is a master of the Sligo fiddle style. Born in East Flatbush, Tony followed a circuitous route to Irish music. Although there is music in his genes, his kinship with the fiddle – Irish fiddle in particular – was a case of serendipity. In Tony’s words, “I didn’t look for it – it found me.”
 
As a young man, Tony learned the intricacies of Sligo-style fiddling from some of the best – Irish immigrants Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann, and Lad O’Beirne. Years before meeting them, however, a Folkways recording of Sligo fiddler Michael Gorman first acquainted him with the style that he would later make his own.
 
Tony has been performing and recording for decades, even while balancing his other career as a commodities trader. He first visited Ireland in 1976 and has since judged the prestigious All-Ireland Fleadh and Fiddler of Dooney contests there. Stateside, he has organized his own music festival – the New York Trad Fest – for the past four years.
 
When not across the U.S. or the Atlantic Ocean, Tony currently divides his time between New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. I met him at the 2016 Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, where he was a popular teacher. He also delighted concert audiences with his flawless technique and his many innovative yet respectful variations on the old tunes.
 
I understand you picked up the fiddle when you were 17. Did you play anything before that?
 
Yeah, guitar – electric guitar. We had little garage bands in the neighborhood.
 
What made you start the fiddle?
 
Well, it was never a plan. It was never a dream or a hope or a whim – I needed a credit to get out of high school, and they stuck me in the school band, in the violin section. [After transferring to a new high school], they gave me a choice of English, history or music – I took the music and ended up in the string section.
 
Aren’t you glad you did?
 
I never went to class, [the teacher] was going to fail me. He said, “Mr. DeMarco, you never came to class.” And I said, “Listen, you’ve got to pass me – I’ve got to get out of this school. This is the credit I needed to get out of here – you can’t fail me.”
 
I was playing fiddle music – I wasn’t learning classical. So I said, “Look, let me play something for you, and if I don’t play better than anybody in this class, you can fail me.” I knew nobody knew anything, because how much are you going to learn in a semester if you’d never played something? So I played some old-timey tune, probably “Mississippi Sawyer” or “Boatsman” or one of those tunes. And he was like, “Okay, Mr. DeMarco, you’ll pass.”
 
And you’d been playing how long?
 
Just a couple of months – the last semester in high school.
 
How did you learn the tune you played?
 
I had a friend, Phil, who played guitar, at Tilden High School…. There was a whole country music revival going on in the Village. So he saw an ad in the Village Voice, the local Village paper. And it said, “Learn country music – guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle.” It was a fretted instrument school in New York. It was also the folklore center. The New Lost City Ramblers were hanging out there – Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz… they were bringing up Tommy Jarrell and guys from the mountains, and they were putting concerts on at a church. There were a lot of concerts there. I saw Tommy Jarrell there, Kyle Creed. Then Bill Monroe would come up and they’d do stuff at NYU. So the colleges were all getting involved with the folk music – bluegrass, old-timey, Irish….
 
I was still in high school, but I just got absorbed in it and just fell into it. So my friend that played guitar, we went to the Fretted Instruments School in New York – I took the fiddle. And Alan Kaufman was the fiddle teacher, from the Wretched Refuse string band. I started learning from him while I was supposed to be in a violin class in school.
 
[After high school], we went out to the Midwest, Indiana, to a campground. [Phil’s] brother knew these guys who said, “Send your brother and his fiddle player friend out and I’ll give them a cabin and they’ll play for the campers. So we did that for a summer, and I wound up staying out there for about two and a half years. I moved down to Bloomington – I met the whole Bloomington crowd at a fiddle contest, outside Indianapolis. I went down with Tom Sparks, stayed with him, and started going to the square dances – they had awesome square dances, all kinds of old-timey music, even some Irish.
 
Larry McCullough and Miles Krassen were studying there, getting their folklore degrees. So they had incredible recordings –they were getting grants to go around and record all over the Irish music world in America. They were going to Boston, Chicago, New York and digging up all these recordings – 78s, reel-to-reels. So I had all this stuff right in Bloomington, Indiana, learning and getting in touch with all these Irish players, which made me eventually move back to New York, to meet Martin Wynne and Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds, Ed Reavy…
 
So that’s one reason you went back?
 
That’s why I went back. I decided I really wanted to learn the ornamentation, the triplets, and all the stuff that made Irish music on the fiddle what it was. I used to listen to all these recordings that all those guys collected, every night in Indiana, so I had the music in my head. And now I got to meet the guys that they were recording, so even better. And they were all in the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and around New York. Paddy Reynolds – I found out I lived around the corner from him. That’s why on my album [The Sligo Indians] there’s a picture of me sitting a park bench – that’s how I met Paddy Reynolds. I was playing at Farragut park in Brooklyn and he came by walking his dog.
 
And you knew who it was?
 
No, I didn’t know him from Adam. I was playing old-timey tunes, practicing the fiddle on the park bench, and he was walking his dog, and he stopped and said, “Oh, lad, that’s not too bad. How would you like to learn some jigs and reels?” And I said, “Yeah, of course I would.” So he said, “Come over to the house,” and he gave me his address, and we became good friends…
 
You’ve had some interesting twists of fate in your life.
 
How did that happen, you know what I mean? I didn’t look for it – it found me. That’s the cool thing about it. I just fell into it. Then I went to the Irish Arts Center, before the Irish Arts Center even had the building in Hell’s Kitchen. Brian Herron, who started it, had it in his apartment on Flatlands Avenue in Brooklyn. He calls me up, because he knew I was getting into it and learning some of the Irish stuff and was hanging out with Paddy Reynolds. He says, “Tony, you’ve got to come over to my apartment. There’s an Irish fiddle player here who just moved over from Ireland, and I want you to meet him.” It was Kevin Burke. That was like 1972. So I went over there and met Kevin. I didn’t know him from Adam, but I liked him because he was more my age. Most of the older guys were 20 years older or more than me. So Kevin was the first younger fiddle player I met who was a hippie, too – we were hippies back then. So we became good friends. He put a few tunes on a tape for me, and he played so different from the guys I knew in New York.
 
So then I started getting a sense that there were really different styles that these guys play. I like the Clare music, too – I like Paddy Canny, Paddy Fahey – they played all that minor lonesome type of stuff, like Martin Hayes does. He’s from that neighborhood – area – see, I’m from Brooklyn, everything’s a neighborhood to me. So I just fell into the right circles of the music. I went up to the Bronx to meet Martin Wynne, and there was Brian Conway, 15 years old, playing up a storm. I found out that Martin went over to Brian’s house every Friday night – Brian’s father picked him up and brought him over – and we learned tunes, right from Martin Wynne, every Friday night. I was older – Brian was 15, I was 21. Back then you could drink at 18, so I was already in the bars for a few years, hanging out, and gigging. And I started playing with Irish show bands, because they liked that I could play the American stuff…
 
And then I met the older good fiddle players that came from Sligo, or were influenced by Sligo. Paddy was from Longford, which is like another county over, but he learned from his mother when he was maybe six years old. five or six – he’d been playing all his life. Loads of music, loads of tunes – he had some amazing repertoire of tunes. He was where I got the bug for hornpipes – he played beautiful hornpipes. He was always playing for the dances, so his timing – him and McGann – the timing was impeccable. It was different from the Sligo music in Ireland. The Sligo music in Ireland was more kind of countrified, and not as slick. See, when these guys came to New York, don’t forget, they had the best violinists in the world playing at Carnegie Hall – Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern… So when they came off the boat – these were the fiddle players who kind of ruled the roost of New York – Lad O’Beirne, Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann… They all started to learn how to read, get some better technique. McGann learned classical and traditional at the same time growing up, so his intonation was amazing. But he still had the trad stuff… he even learned from Michael Coleman, when he was 12. … Lad learned music, too – he could score a whole orchestra. He played in the Army band and never commercially recorded. …
 
They all lived in like the same buildings in the Bronx, so there were sessions all weekend.… Nobody played music for a living. Everybody worked day jobs, had families – it was like working man’s music. But they did study it better in New York. And the New York style is known, even in Ireland, for having a big tone, better intonation, than just average country fiddling. And that’s why a lot of people think I have classical training because of the tone and the sound I get, but it was just learning from fiddle players that had classical influence and went for that sound.
 
I understand your day job was working as a commodities trader.
 
I traded for 26 years, and then we got bought out – they bought our whole exchange out, and kind of put the kibosh on floor trading. They made it all electronic, so it’s all on computers and online… 150 years of open outcry trading – gone. I was never a technical trader, where I watched charts. When I traded, we stood in the ring and I watched you, and I knew what you looked like when you were going to buy or sell….
 
How did you get into that in the first place?
 
My dad. When he got out of the Army, he was a boxer and was going to go pro and my mother wouldn’t let him. So he was good with numbers – he worked in a bank and went into a couple of stock houses, and then he met a few guys that were trading commodities. I think they were from the old neighborhood – it’s very cliquish, that whole world. Commodities is a very risky business, so you want people you know well in there working with you.… There were about eight of us that were in DeMarco Commodities, that my father ran. He became one of the best… I worked five days a week, and I had five sessions a week, so I was burning the candle at both ends.
 
I understand you’ve spent some time in Ireland?
 
I was in Ireland last summer because of the fleadhs – all the competitions for the kids. That’s every year. So I judged last weekend in New York – they had a winner from New York go to Ireland.
 
Last year the Fleadh was in Sligo – they asked me to come over there. Oisín Mac Diarmada, who’s in the band Teada, he was running a lot of events. They wanted New York representation because it was in Sligo. The year before, they wanted me to put together a fiddle contest because they coincide the Fiddler of Dooney contest with the Fleadh…. In ’14 I did the Fiddler of Dooney, with Seamus McGuire and Manus McGuire…. That’s a big contest and it has been since the ’60s. Seán Keane won it, Joe O’Dowd won it, I think Maeve Donnelly, Liz Carroll, Seamus Connolly… One of my favorite fiddlers in Ireland, Bríd Harper – she won it one year. So it’s a prestigious contest that happens in Sligo – it’s after that poem by W.B. Yeats, “The Fiddler of Dooney,” which is a cool poem, too.
 
“And the merry love to fiddle…”
 
Yeah, exactly. So I did that twice, in ’14 and maybe eight years before that, with Matt Cranitch and Bríd Harper. So they bring me over to do things, especially if it’s Sligo-oriented. 

 
Tell me about your festival.
 
It’s going into its fourth year – it’s called the New York Trad Fest. I feature all the best traditional music that New York has to offer. I’ve had Eileen Ivers, Brian Conway, Joanie Madden, Jerry O’Sullivan – a lot of the traditional players, and then some singers, like Donie Carroll, a ballad singer from Cork… When I have Brian (Conway), I like him to come with some of his students, to show different generations – these are the kids that are picking it up and moving it forward. [Ed. note: This year’s event was scheduled for Nov. 19 at New York’s Pier A Harbor House. The lineup included Joanie Madden, Mick Moloney, James Keane, Don Meade, Dylan Foley, Patrick Mangan, and many more.]


For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 2016/17 issue.
 
For more information, visit tonydemarcomusic.net
To find out more about the New York Trad Fest, visit
newyorktradfest.org or facebook.com/NewYorkTradFest

Photo by Mary Larsen. Tony stands at a Fort Worden bunker during a break from teaching at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA, 2016.