I met John Carty in the summer of 2003, when he was teaching at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York. We had a chance to sit down and talk, and I had the chance a week or so later to hear him and John Blake in a small concert in Vermont. It was easily one of the best performances of Irish music that I've seen, and one of the few times I've found myself laughing in the midst of a tune. John is a masterful and a playful performer, treating his tunes with great thoughtfulness and innovation, and throwing in these little musical jokes along the way. 'Tis a pure pleasure to hear him.
John grew up in London -- known then as "the big smoke," an amazingly fertile community for Irish music. Learning his tunes from the likes of Bobby Casey, Finbar Dwyer, and Roger Sherlock, Carty more than lives up to that legacy. The thoughtfulness and innovation remind us of the depth this tradition can possess, and the jokes along the way remind us that it's all about having a little bit of fun.
Let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in East London, a son of the 1950s emigration to London. It was big [at] that time -- my parents, uncles, in fact the whole family, bar the old people, moved over for work. It was a massive emigration, one you could put on par with the 1920s in New York.
That was when people like Casey and Sherlock were going over.
All those boys, yeah. And they were young men [at] that time, so there was a huge music scene around London. It always does remind me of what I hear about the scene in New York: vibrant, plenty of great music, from all corners of Ireland. I'm a product of that musically; that's where I was bred, born, and reared.
And where did your family emigrate from?
My family came from County Roscommon. My father came from north Roscommon, just bordering on South Sligo, and my mother came from Connemara. I live back now in the Carty homestead in Boyle, County Roscommon. Back there about twelve years and left the working life, the regular working life, to move back. Living on the family farm, being described as Ireland's worst farmer -- coming from London, the city. And I've taken up playing music, and that's where I'm at.
Did your father play?
Dad was a flute player, and he also played some banjo and fiddle. He played in the Glenside Ceili Band. The one person you might know that played in the band was Kevin Burke; Kevin was a young guy, only sixteen or so. Dad's still alive and well, and he's a lovely Roscommon-style flute player. Understated, but nice.
The Glenside was operating out of London, right? And didn't they win an All-Ireland?
They won the All-Ireland in 1966, and were up against very good company. Castle Ceili Band were there, and some great bands at the time. It was a good time for them. My father used to teach us to play fiddles, but he didn't have no patience for that, so it stopped. Then a guy named Brendan Mulkere moved in to where I was living, and he was like the Martin Mulvihill of London. He had huge Irish music schools, and does to this day. I used to go along to Brendan -- I was playing the banjo at that time. I'd be playing the fiddle at home, but I got confident playing the banjo, and played it out more. So I'd be very well-known as a banjo player, especially in England, and in Ireland.
When I've talked to people in your generation who grew up in Ireland, a lot of them grew up with a sense that there weren't many other young people playing. Were there other young lads in London playing?
Yes. There was, but we never played in sessions. It was really the older musicians that you'd go to hear -- there wasn't a scene of younger people, even though they were learning to play. It was a private thing; we wouldn't be meeting up in a pub [at] that time to play in a session. There were the various Fleadh Cheoils going on, and that was really where social interaction started. But other than that, you were a young fellow, you went along and you had to listen to these great musicians. It was that sort of a scene. And plus, the music was played in a pub with microphones. It wasn't like a session. There were three people being paid to play, and they'd call guests up. And certain pubs, they wouldn't need to put songs in with it. It was just strictly reels, jigs, reels, jigs -- mainly reels. There was a famous pub called the White Hart; Roger Sherlock used to play regularly there with Raymond Roland, and that was a great stand for music. People would chat, but they'd be all listeners.
So it would just be two or three people playing, and that might rotate.
Right, Roger wouldn't be playing every night. It might be a fellow by the name of John Bowe. There'd be different combinations.
But one of those nights, say when Roger Sherlock was playing with Sean Maguire, is that all you'd hear that night?
Mainly -- and then if they'd see one of the musicians, they might call him up and he'd do a solo spot.
It was more like a concert than a session.
It was, you know. But it was a really lovely concert, because you could have a drink and you could have a chat, but you'd listen.
Who were you playing with then, as a young person?
As a young fellow, I was going to hear all of those fellows and I played with them when I was young. I was only about sixteen when I first started playing at the White Hart with Roger Sherlock and Raymond Roland, and then there were other people around London, people who were a little bit older than me, people like Brian Rooney. I used to go to hear them and loved their music, and eventually started playing with them in pubs.
All that early playing was on banjo.
When I was sixteen I used to get the odd tune on the fiddle, after it had all finished. Bobby was great: he'd always say, "Give us one on the fiddle." So I used to get the reputation then, handy enough like, playing fiddle. But I didn't have great confidence [at] that time. There were some great fiddle players. You wouldn't be mad to play after hearing Casey play, or Danny Meehan play, or some of these great players. We were very respectful of these fellows.
Playing two instruments, do you find that they complement each other, or has it been learning totally different things?
They're totally different. Primarily I listen to fiddle music. Even when I was playing banjo, I was still a great fan of fiddle music: Tommy Peoples. Frankie Gavin. I used to love listening to all of those people, and that's what I was trying to emulate on the banjo, but then of course I was playing the fiddle as well. Then I really got into the music of the 1920s from over here in the States: Morrison, Coleman, Killoran, Lad O'Beirne. And when I moved home then, to a place that I have an emotional draw to, which is Boyle, in County Roscommon, it's just a stepping stone from that area of Sligo. That's when I really got into the fiddle, big time. About twelve years ago, I started playing around and then did the recording, and it was received very well. Then Shanachie asked me would I do a whole album of fiddle music for them, which was called Last Night's Fun, and I did. And they signed me up for a three album record deal, so I'm now a millionaire.
And Ireland's worst farmer?
Yeah, I'm Ireland's worst farmer.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as John's tune "Seanamhac Tube Station," purchase the Summer 2004 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website at www.brendantaaffe.com]