Artist of the Year, 2004

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of 2004

Late Andy McGann is Echo's top trad artist for '04


By Earle Hitchner

[Published on January 26, 2005, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

No U.S.-born fiddler ever had a greater impact and influence on Irish traditional music than Andy McGann (1928-2004), the son of Sligo immigrant parents in the South Bronx.

Yet in the 23-year history of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowships, the most prestigious prizes given by the U.S. government to a living resident folk or traditional artist, Andy McGann is conspicuous by his absence.

With his death from cancer last July 13 at age 75, that NEA oversight has become permanent. But it has also become a reason for the Irish Echo to select Andy McGann as the best traditional musician of 2004. It is the greatest accolade bestowed by this newspaper on a traditional performer, and no one is more deserving of recognition at the highest possible level than Andy McGann.

His fiddling blended stunning skill with fluid tempo, exquisite detail, and irresistible lift, all hallmarks of his mentor, legendary Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman (1891-1945). McGann, however, was no Coleman clone. He had his own distinctive, spellbinding style of playing.

"Andy's music was elegant and complex with a warm, pure tone and precise technique," said Paul Brady, who accompanied him on guitar for two recordings in the 1970s.

"His intonation, with a little bit of vibrato, and the subtleties in his fiddling were just wonderful," Clare-born fiddler Séamus Connolly said.

"Andy's lasting legacy is that he set a new bar for technical excellence while enhancing the soul in the music," added Brian Conway, a 1986 All-Ireland senior fiddle champion. On "First Through the Gate," his superb solo debut in 2002, Conway recorded what are probably the last studio sessions of his beloved mentor near his peak.

"Andy's uniqueness was that he just did it better than anyone else," said keyboardist Felix Dolan, his friend and frequent accompanist.

Coleman, McGann, Conway, and Brooklyn's Patrick Mangan, a prize pupil of Conway, are generational links in an extraordinary New York Sligo-style fiddle chain forged since 1914, the year Coleman emigrated from Knockgrania to the U.S. But it would take an epic collaboration with a button accordionist from East Galway, Joe Burke, to put McGann's name and fiddling ineradicably on the global map of Irish traditional music. More so than any other partnership McGann formed in his life, including his justly celebrated pairing with Longford master fiddler Paddy Reynolds, the duo of Andy McGann and Joe Burke represented Irish traditional music at its pinnacle.

The two met in 1961 at a Bronx Gaelic League céilí. "His fiddle playing was magnificent," Burke recalled of that first encounter.

Five years later, at 37, McGann made his formal recording debut, "Joe Burke, Andy McGann & Felix Dolan Play a Tribute to Michael Coleman," on Burke's Shaskeen label. Only about 500 copies of that "high fidelity" LP were originally released in 1966, but it struck like a thunderbolt.

At that point, Burke was already a well-known and popular musician, winning All-Ireland senior button accordion championships in 1959 and 1960 and leading Galway's Leitrim Céilí Band to All-Ireland titles in 1959 and '62. What really startled listeners outside New York was the fiddling brilliance of McGann, with superb support from Dolan on piano. "Andy was at the top of his game," Dolan said.

Brooklyn-born button accordionist Billy McComiskey, who will be inducted on Feb. 5 into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann's Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame, was just a young boy when the LP came out. He recalled how his uncle Andy "came bursting into our home with a brand-new copy of 'A Tribute to Michael Coleman' and said, 'Remember when I told you there's a difference between good and great? This is great.' "

That classic monaural recording, reissued as a CD in 1994, has only gained in stature and luster during the past 40 years. Other albums burnishing McGann's reputation include "Andy McGann & Paddy Reynolds" in 1976, McGann and Brady's "'Tis a Hard Road to Travel" in 1977, and Burke, McGann, and Dolan's "The Funny Reel" in 1979.

"There is only one Andy," said another great Sligo fiddler residing in New York, James "Lad" O'Beirne.

To that plaudit, the Irish Echo proudly adds its own: Traditional Artist of the Year. My guess is that if he were alive today, Andy McGann would rosin up his bow and sit in for a few tunes with previous Irish Echo honorees Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane, Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, John Whelan, Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Kevin Crawford, Séamus Connolly, and Mike Rafferty.

What a céilí band that would be.

The following were also seriously considered for the Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of the Year.

Fr. Charlie Coen: The pastor of St. Christopher's Church in Red Hook, N.Y., Fr. Coen is an All-Ireland senior champion singer and concertina, tin whistle, and flute player from Woodford, Co. Galway, who has organized and hosted a series of live traditional music on the first two Sundays of the month for many years now in New York's Dutchess County. He's also been a music mentor and teacher for high-school senior Daniel Gurney, a button accordion and flute player who will be attending Harvard University this fall.

Felix Dolan: One of the most admired piano accompanists in the history of Irish traditional music, the Bronx-born Felix Dolan has credits stretching from Paddy Killoran to Seán Maguire to Joe Derrane to Paddy O'Brien to Andy McGann and Joe Burke. Dolan's keyboard chops are still in demand and were displayed on two of the top three recordings from last year: Mike Rafferty's "Speed 78" and Catherine and John McEvoy's "The Kilmore Fancy."

Christy Moore: The Planxty reunion tour and live DVD and CD, as well as his own "The Box Set, 1964-2004," featuring more than 100 songs on six CDs, make last year a highly productive one for the singer from Newbridge, Co. Kildare.

Frank Harte: Dublin singer and song collector Frank Harte is a walking treasury of music and a prime source of songs for many other singers. In 2004 he issued "The Hungry Voice," his fifth recording with Dónal Lunny, and reissued on one CD two LPs he made for London's Topic label: "Dublin Street Songs" from 1967 and "Through Dublin City" from 1973.

Seán Moloney: Releasing two new solo albums in the same year qualifies as rare and special. That's what Ballinakill, Co. Galway, flutist Seán Moloney did in 2004. His "Music on the Wind" and "Potsticks" CDs together reflect the East Galway style of flute playing beautifully.

Author: Earle Hitchner