The High Roads: Preserving the legacy of Irish music
Feb 16, 2015 10:58AM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
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By John Chambless
Lined up on chairs and a bench along one wall of the dining room, barely an arm's length from people eating dinner, the members of The High Roads quietly prepare their instruments, exchange a few glances, and ease into their first song.
The sweet, mournful tone of Dan McHugh's uilleann pipes entwines with the guitars and mandolin as Alyce Graham leads the way with a sprightly fiddle melody. Instantly, the dark-paneled dining room at Catherine Rooney's on Main Street could be in any timeworn pub in Dublin. Taking their cues from each other with barely a nod, the musicians weave a warm and rich melody that's rooted in centuries of Irish tradition.
For Dan McHugh, who formed The High Roads, the Sunday sessions at Catherine Rooney's are both performances and rehearsals, as he and the other band members -- and a few drop-in guests -- casually pick up some new songs and expand some old ones, using instruments that are as traditional as the music. There's no electricity or spotlight, not even a stage. There's just a group of people sharing Irish songs that would have sounded exactly like this 100 years ago.
"I've been playing for about 10 years, but the band has been playing together for a year or so," McHugh said before the band settled in for the session. "I was musical when I was growing up, playing guitar and piano. I really got into Irish music when I was in college and my family went over to Ireland and visited around the country. What I saw there was that music, to them, is a very casual thing. It's about playing with friends. That really attracted me to it."
McHugh's main instrument -- the uilleann pipes -- is a particularly demanding choice. The instantly recognizable sound is achieved by inflating a bellows under McHugh's right elbow while he manipulates pipes that lie on his lap. It's a smaller relative of the bagpipe, but has a higher, less strident sound.
"I had a set made for me about nine years ago," McHugh said. "They're all handmade by a few people around the world. ... It's a reed instrument, but the reeds that make the sound, you can't get them wet. It's an instrument that almost went extinct. I guess in the 1980s-90s, with 'Riverdance,' the instrument got a lot more recognition and caught on again. More people started making them. They're very tempermental, though. It's difficult to play outside if it's cold or too hot. It reacts differently and the pitch gets off."
The band's repertoire comes from centuries of musical history, with songs passed down at sessions just like the one in Newark every Sunday. In the old days, musicians passed the melodies and playing tips to younger players in person, and the tradition carried on. Now, recordings are widely used to preserve the songs for new players.
"A lot of bluegrass music evolved from the Scotch-Irish immigrants," McHugh said. "They come from the same ancestry of music. A lot of the Irish tunes have names, but there's just so many that you don't know the names of them all. There's not words to a lot of them, either. With recordings, there's more of a feeling of standardization -- that this is how it should be played. Before, that wasn't necessarily true. It was much more fluid. That's one of the great aspects of the music. It changes over time and people put their own spin on it."
The band's set doesn't rely on the timeworn standards. The songs won't sound familiar, but they're affectionately played and deeply resonant. The complex interplay of the instruments is a testament to the skill of the individual musicians -- Alyce Graham on fiddle, Dave Zgleszewski on mandolin and the traditional drum called a bodhran, Worth Dixon on guitars, and Rob Wiltbank on mandolin and guitars.
"Music is a living tradition," McHugh said. "If people don't actively do it, it ceases to exist. I like the fact that I'm doing something that's real. We're not playing some electronic keyboard. This is real people, playing with real instruments, in a real place."
At the Sunday sessions, he said, "People who know how to play are welcome to join in, but otherwise you're welcome to come and listen. Since it is kind of informal, sometimes we'll mess around with playing new stuff and it doesn't always go right," he added with a smile. "It's all about just getting together and having fun."
McHugh, who first studied pipes under Bil McKenty of Philadelphia, has organized a series of sessions for pipers at the Philadelphia Irish Center under the instruction of Jerry O’Sullivan. He's been a return performer at the annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival.
Graham said she began playing Irish music at sessions in Chicago, where she grew up. In 2003, she studied fiddle at University College in Cork, Ireland, with Connie O'Connell.
"I was classically trained," she said during a break. "In classical music, you play each piece exactly the same way. I would learn pieces from the sheet music and people would say, 'Yeah, that's not the way that goes.' It was simultaneously very discouraging and very encouraging." Graham had to learn to let go of the rigidity. "Once that switch flipped in my brain, it was very freeing," she said. "But until then, it was very frustrating."
Graham has been performing with The High Roads for about a year, but has a decade of study in Irish music. The group "is building a shared repertoire as we play together," she said, "and that's more fun. If we were up on stage, it would be very different. But here, we can talk about how we want a tune to end, or if somebody forgets something, it's not chaotic. We can laugh it off and have fun."
There's a huge international network of people who love and perform this kind of music, Graham said, with veteran Irish musicians conducting workshops and concerts to help pass on the songs and teach the right way of playing. "In Philadelphia, there's a huge Irish American population," she said, "and it's not that far away."
By day, Graham works in the history department at the University of Delaware, and she looks forward to performing with The High Roads when she can. "It's nice that I have my whole academic life and then I have this other side that activates a different part of my brain," she said. "We have a good core of people who show up every week, but they bring in other people, too."
Wiltbank started off as a clasically trained percussionist, performing with the Jersey Surf and Westshoremen Drum & Bugle Corps, as well as the Brandywine Pops Orchestra and Diamond State Concert Band.
"Back in 1995, I went to my first Renaissance Faire and said, 'What is this wonderful percussion instrument that I've never seen before?'" Wiltbank said. "It was the bodhran. I ordered one and taught myself how to play it. So then I got a whistle, and then I got guitars, and then mandolins. It's grown into a very expensive obsession. My wife's not too happy about it," he said with a grin, "but it keeps me out of trouble."
Wiltbank, who picked up a bodhran at one point in the session and accompanied Zgleszewski, said he appreciates how difficult it is to play the pipes correctly.
"It's incredibly difficult," he said. "Dan let me practice with them once. I gave it a shot and my kids said, 'Daddy! Put it away!' I gave it back at that point."
McHugh said that the Sunday sessions will continue through the spring, and he'd like to get more people to come and share the music. "I'm hoping to get people to know about it," he said. "It's a pretty neat thing that a lot of people don't know about yet. Sundays are more relaxed."
The Irish music community, he said, is a welcoming one. "You feel like you're one of the family," he said. "It's nice."
The High Roads perform at Catherine Rooney's (102 E. Main St., Newark) on Sundays from 4 to 7 p.m. Musicians are welcome to come and join in. There is no charge. For more information, visit www.thehighroadsband.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.