"The musical and personal footprints Tony Cuffe left behind were not made in sand. They were made in memories and hearts, never to be erased, never to be forgotten."


Tony Cuffe

Click on the photo for www.tcbenefit.org

Portland America Distributing
will contribute net proceeds from the purchase of any Tony Cuffe or Ossian CD to the Benefit Fund

 

More about Tony can be found here including photos and MP3 files featuring him with members of Jock Tamson's Bairns, and details of benefit events.

 

 

Remembering Tony Cuffe

by Earle Hitchner

The valiant battle waged against cancer over the past year by singer and guitar, whistle, harp, and harmonica player Tony Cuffe ended at 8:20 a.m. on December 18, 2001, at his home in Arlington, Mass. Just 47 years old, he died peacefully with his wife, Catherine, and their three children, Lindsey, 19, Christopher, 16, and Aidan, 5, nearby.

Tony Cuffe had ties to three countries: Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. His father, Thomas, was born in County Roscommon, emigrating at age 5 with his family to Scotland. As an adult, Thomas Cuffe worked as a carpenter in the shipyards of Greenock, a seaport in the Strathclyde region of southwest Scotland. There, he and his wife, Kathleen, raised five sons: Tom, John, Joe, Tony, and Laurence.

It was a musical family, with Thomas Cuffe often singing Irish songs as "party pieces," oldest son Tom playing the Scottish bagpipes, and Tony taking up the tin whistle and then the guitar. Mostly self-taught, Tony advanced rapidly on the latter instrument, developing a distinct fingerpicking style relying on open tunings and drones that he adapted from the piping of his brother Tom. Tony's singing, burr-rich and expressive, was exceptional even at an early age, and his reputation grew rapidly within the flourishing session scene of Glasgow and Edinburgh during the 1970s.

With fellow singer Sean O'Rourke and two musicians who'd later join the Tannahill Weavers, highland piper Alan MacLeod and fiddler Michael Ward, Tony Cuffe founded Alba, a gifted group who made their self-titled debut in 1978 on Rubber Records. A year later, he joined another standout Scots traditional band, Jock Tamson's Bairns, who grew out of the popular sessions held in Edinburgh's Forrest Hill Bar, better known as Sandy Bell's, and recorded their own self-titled debut for the Temple label in 1980.

Four Masterworks With Ossian
That same year, Tony Cuffe was invited to join Ossian, a Glasgow-based band comprising John Martin on fiddle, Billy Ross on lead vocals, Billy Jackson on harp and uilleann pipes, and his brother George Jackson on cittern and guitar. (Like Cuffe, the Jackson brothers had Irish blood. Their grandparents were from the Donegal Gaeltacht.) Though Ossian had already released two albums, Cuffe's arrival raised the musical stakes for the group.

Ross had departed by the time Ossian, with Cuffe now firmly in place as lead singer, made "Seal Song" (Iona) in 1981. Nothing else in Scottish traditional music sounded like it at the time. Instead of hell-for-leather dance tunes and boisterous, sentimental ballads that were the hallmark of many other bands, Ossian chose a layered, less frenetic, often more intricate approach. Their arrangements delivered traditional and original music of stunning detail and beauty while still retaining plenty of power.

A classical touch was also detectable in their playing, scrupulously devoid of the stiff-backed strathspey-and-reel society style impinging on so much Scottish music. Rare indeed was the collective impact of such meticulously executed instrumental medleys as "The Sound of Sleat/Aandowin' at the Bow/The Old Reel" and "A Fisherman's Song for Attracting Seals/Lieutenant McGuire/Walking the Floor."

Cuffe's own contributions to "Seal Song" were considerable and crucial. His precise, rhythmic, ornamented guitar playing and his singing, especially on "The Road to Drumleman," for which he wrote the melody, made the recording one of the finest ever issued in Scotland.

Ossian followed with three more classics on Iona: 1982's "Dove Across the Water," featuring a breathtaking four-part title suite; 1984's "Borders," regarded by Cuffe himself as Ossian's finest, featuring his stirring vocal on "I Will Set My Ship in Order," for which he supplied the melody; and 1986's "Light on a Distant Shore."

In 1988, after much prodding, Tony Cuffe recorded his first solo album, "When First I Went to Caledonia" (Iona). Besides singing, he plays all seven instruments heard on the recording. The title track became a calling-card song for Cuffe, even though the "Caledonia" referred to was not Scotland but the Caledonia Coal Mines in Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island. His dedication on the LP sleeve, however, expressed his true sentiment: "For my father, Thomas Cuffe, who came to Scotland, and stayed."

Emigration to America
Tony himself didn't stay in Scotland. The prospect of better economic opportunity led him and his family in 1989 to Massachusetts, where they eventually settled in Arlington, a town six miles northwest of Boston. Still occasionally touring with Ossian, Tony established himself in the metropolitan area as a popular performer and instructor, teaching at Boston College's Gaelic Roots Summer School and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

In recent years, he toured America with the Windbags, a quartet featuring Jerry O'Sullivan on uilleann, highland, and small pipes, Pat O'Gorman on highland pipes and biniou koz (Breton pipes), and John Skelton on flute and veuze (Breton pipes). Tony had also performed with fiddler Séamus Connolly, flutist Jimmy Noonan, concertinist John Williams, uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, button accordionist Joe Derrane, and multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, and he toured the country with Bonnie Rideout's "A Scottish Christmas" troupe.

This past Nov. 10 and 11, a wheelchair-bound Tony Cuffe attended and briefly performed at two sold-out benefit concerts held for him and his family at Boston College's Gasson Hall. A number of his music students opened each concert with tunes played in tribute to their ailing instructor. Two additional benefits were held earlier this month in Cumberland, R.I., and Edinburgh, Scotland.

To relieve the financial strain of Tony's illness and Cath Cuffe's leave from work to take care of him, the Tony Cuffe and Family Benefit Fund was created. So far, it has raised over $50,000 and is still accepting donations. Checks or money orders should be made out and mailed to the

Tony Cuffe and Family Benefit Fund
P.O. Box 390915
Cambridge, MA 02139

Further information can be obtained at www.tcbenefit.org.

A funeral Mass for Tony Cuffe was said at St. Ignatius Church near the Boston College campus in Newton, Mass., this past Saturday morning by Fr. Charlie Coen, a Galway-born All-Ireland champion musician and the pastor of St. Christopher Church in Red Hook, N.Y. In January, Tony's ashes will be taken back to Scotland by his family.


"Who ARE Those Guys?"
My own relationship with Tony Cuffe dates back to my radio show in the N.Y./N.J. area. Between 1984 and 1989, I had Ossian on the program two or three times, and through that connection Tony and I grew close.

Years earlier, I still recall my ironic "introduction" to Ossian through piano accordionist Phil Cunningham of Silly Wizard. He was playing pinball in the bar of Folk City, a Greenwich Village club where Silly Wizard was slated to perform that night, and I had facetiously asked him who the best Scots band out there was.

Fully expecting him to shout back "Silly Wizard," he looked at me and said, "Ossian." I thought he meant "Oisín," an Irish group at the time. But seeing the puzzlement in my face, he spelled out the band's name for me. "They're the best," he said, returning to his game. "Get their albums." I did, returning shortly thereafter from a visit to Edinburgh with Ossian's "Seal Song" and "Dove Across the Water," plus "Alba," "Jock Tamson's Bairns," and "Fergusson's Auld Reikie," all LPs featuring Tony Cuffe.

In 1984, I decided to devote a half-hour of my Saturday afternoon radio show to the music of Ossian without interruption. I began with "The Sound of Sleat/Aandowin' at the Bow/The Old Reel," the opening track of "Seal Song," and by the time that last reel was playing, a flood of phone calls came into the studio. Echoing a famous line from the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," one listener excitedly asked me, "Who ARE those guys? And why haven't I heard them before?"

Two good questions. I answered the first and fully sympathized with the second. For many, the reaction to hearing Ossian for the first time was akin to hearing the Bothy Band for the first time, and their musical conversion was just as instantaneous.

Tony Cuffe's musical talent graced other albums as well. He performed on Ossian bandmate Billy Jackson's "The Wellpark Suite" in 1985 and "St. Mungo" in 1990, "Gaelic Roots" in 1997, a couple of volumes in the "Robert Burns: The Complete Songs" series on Scotland's Linn label, Julee Glaub's "Fields Faraway" in 2001, and Jerry O'Sullivan's "The Gift," a 1998 release that included three Cuffe compositions.

But Tony Cuffe always elevated family above music, and music above commerce. He was a devoted husband and father, and a steadfast friend. He listened not just to Scottish and Irish music but also to the recordings of such guitarists as Michael Hedges and Dan Ar Bras. For Tony, who was an inspiring teacher of music, the process of his own learning never stopped.

The musical and personal footprints Tony Cuffe left behind were not made in sand. They were made in memories and hearts, never to be erased, never to be forgotten.

 

Copyright 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper, New York City, December 26, 2001. Reprinted at the Celtic Cafe by permission of Earle Hitchner. Besides the Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, Wall St. Journal and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for over 40 recordings, including 1999's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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