20 Top Traditional Music CDs

Don Meade, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Irish America has long exercised an outsized influence on Irish traditional music. Massive Irish immigration to these shores and the concentration of those immigrants in America’s large cities made New York and Chicago as important, if not more important, than Dublin and Cork as incubators of Irish music talent for many years. A 19(th) century fiddler or piper who stayed home in Ireland might never hear a musician from farther away than the next parish, but his cousin in New York would find himself rubbing shoulders with players from all 32 counties.

The greatest collections of Irish traditional music ever compiled, Francis O’Neill’s 1903 Music of Ireland and his 1907 Dance Music of Ireland, were published in Chicago. When record companies started issuing ethnic music in the early 20(th) century, the greatest number of cylinders and 78 rpm discs by far were recorded in New York. The recordings of New York-based musicians who included uilleann piper Patsy Touhey, fiddler Michael Coleman and flute player John McKenna had a tremendous impact back home in Ireland, inspiring generations of imitators and making the “New York style” a de facto Irish national standard.

Nowadays, of course, the musical center of gravity has shifted back to the shamrock shore, but Irish immigrant and American-born Irish traditonal musicians are still among the best anywhere, as can easily be proved by listening to these twenty choice recordings.





Named for a small town in Mayo, bohola is a Chicago-based group with a sound so big that it’s hard to believe there are only three members. Led by piano accordion great and many-time All-Ireland champion Jimmy Keane, bohola also includes Chicago fiddler Sean Cleland and Dublin-born singer/ bouzouki player Pat Broaders. Most Irish traditional groups play simple sets of reels or jigs interrupted by the occasional song. For their 2002 debut recording, however, bohola broke out of this dance-based format to craft intricate arrangements that seamlessly blend instrumental and vocal segments into lengthy, emotionally charged medleys.

Kevin Burke

If the Cap Fits

Green Linnet

Kevin Burke is a London native whose fiddle playing with the famous Bothy Band made him the most influential and popular Irish musician of the 1970’s traditional music revival. When the Bothies broke up, Burke relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he still makes his home. His silky smooth bowing and snappy ornamentation can be heard on many recordings, including those by the group Patrick Street and the Celtic Fiddle Festival, but this 1970s solo record, with its uninterrupted, 16-minute B-side medley, is the favorite of many long-time fans. Button accordion ace Jackie Daly and ex-Bothy Band guitarist Micheál ÓDomhnaill are among the many guest stars.

Liz Carroll, Billy McComiskey and Dáithí Sproule


Flying Fish

Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll and Brooklyn-born button accordionist Billy McComiskey are renowned both for their instrumental virtuosity and their original compositions, many of which have become standards of the traditional repertoire in Ireland and America. For this 1992 recording, the two Yanks teamed up with Derry-born guitarist and singer Dáithí Sproule to form a true all-star trio, one that unfortunately only rarely reunites for special occasions such as this year’s Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York. Their second effort, the 1992 Green Linnet disc Trian 2, was pretty awesome as well, but first impressions count for a lot, so the original outing gets the nod for our Irish America top twenty.

Cherish The Ladies

Irish Women Musicians in America


The all-female, Irish-American music and dance ensemble led by New York flute and tin whistle great Joanie Madden has made many outstanding recordings over the past twenty years. This recording documents the group’s roots in a series of concerts organized in the mid-1980s by New York’s Ethnic Folk Arts Center (now the Center for Traditional Music and Dance). Center organizer Ethel Raim was intrigued by Mick Moloney’s observation that many of the best young Irish-American traditional musicians of the day were, in a reversal of the usual pattern, the daughters rather than the sons of Irish musician fathers. Fiddlers Eileen Ivers and Rose Conway Flanagan, button accordionist Patty Furlong, flute players Maureen Doherty and Mary Rafferty, and singers Bridget Fitzgerald and Treasa O’Carroll were among the talented ladies who joined Madden on this disc. More recent “Cherish” recordings are available from www.cherishtheladies.com.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Maken

In Person at Carnegie Hall


When Pat and Tom Clancy left Tipperary for New York, they were hoping to make it big in the theater. They got famous instead as the Irish stars of the Greenwich Village folk scene. The group they formed with younger brother Liam and northern pal Tommy Makem went on to launch the tremendous international revival of interest in Irish traditional music that continues to this day. This live 1960s concert disc is one of the best of the group’s many recordings. A medley of Irish children’s songs, a plaintive rendition of “The Parting Glass,” a dramatic recitation from Liam Clancy and an Irish-language audience sing-along of “Óró, Sé Do Bheatha `Bhaile!” are highlights from the show.

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill

Live in Seattle

Green Linnet

Some years ago Kevin Burke was asked if there were other musicians who might achieve the Irish traditional music stardom of 1970s Bothy Band veterans like himself. The first name that came to his mind was Clare fiddler Martin Hayes. Burke proved as good a prophet as a fiddler because Martin, a Chicago resident and a son of Tulla Ceili Band leader P.J. Hayes, very soon became the next big deal in Irish music. With his guitarist partner Dennis Cahill picking out deftly spare accompaniment, Hayes has crafted a very personal style that appeals to an audience that stretches from hard-core ceili enthusiasts to jazz and “new age” music fans. The repertoire is strictly old-school, but the the duo’s innovative expansion of the rhythmic and dynamic palette of Irish fiddle music is impressively modern. This 1999 live concert recording at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern finds them at their very best.

James Keane

Sweeter as the Years Roll By



In their youth in Dublin, button accordionist James Keane and his fiddling brother Seán were the two hottest young players in traditional music. Unfortunately for them, the early 1960s were not a time when many people in Dublin cared much about “diddly-eye” music. Seán was recruited by Paddy Moloney for the Chieftains, but that group had no room for an accordion player, however gifted, and James emigrated to New York. His exciting, fast-paced and highly ornamented playing has been recorded on several LPs and CDs, but this one, which includes contributions from a new generation of young players (including Seán and his sons), is among the best and still available.

Joe Derrane

The Tie That Binds


Boston button accordionist Joe Derrane’s recording career began in the 78 rpm era and is still going strong in the age of the iPod. His amazing instrumental prowess was a word-of-mouth legend through decades when his old discs were out of print and he was no longer active on the traditional music scene. In 1994, however, Derrane made a triumphal return to traditional music and the button accordion at a Washington, D.C. Irish Festival. He has been a regular on the festival circuit and a busy recording artist ever since, and in 2004 was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship as a living national treasure. On this 1998 disc Joe was joined by musical friends who included Galway fiddle star Frankie Gavin, flute and tenor banjo phenom Séamus Egan and uilleann piper Jerry O’Sullivan in collaborations that seemed to bring out the best from all concerned.

Brian Conway

First Through the Gate

Smithsonian Folkways

Bronx native Brian Conway is the current standard bearer of the long tradition of County Sligo-style fiddling in New York City. He got his start from his father Jim, a fiddler from Tyrone, but it was the late Sligo fiddle legend Martin Wynne who tutored him in the intricacies of the Sligo style. Brian went on to win All-Ireland championships in every age group and to record a fine duet LP with fellow New York fiddler Tony DeMarco. This solo recording, many years in the making, is his masterpiece — a stunning collection of jigs, hornpipes, reels, slow airs and other tunes with varied piano, guitar and cittern accompaniment. In addition to solos, Brian plays several duets and trios with the late New York fiddle great Andy McGann and with his own pupil Patrick Mangan, a teenage All-Ireland champ in his own right.

Joe Heaney

The Road from Connemara

Topic / Cló Iar-Chonnachta

The late Joe Heaney is widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest traditional singer, a master of the unaccompanied and highly ornamented sean-nós style he learned in his youth in Irish-speaking Connemara. For much of his life, however, Joe was a Brooklyn resident who worked on the staff of a ritzy Manhattan apartment building. He was fond of relating how TV producer Merv Griffin was startled to find a picture of “his doorman” on the wall of the famously musical O’Donghues’s pub in Dublin’s Merrion Row. Late in life, Heaney received some of the overdue recognition he deserved in the form of an NEA National Heritage fellowship and a teaching post at the University of Washington. This CD, which includes much of his best repertoire in English and Irish, was recorded in Joe’s prime when his voice was at its most powerful.

Martin Mulhaire, Séamus Connolly and Jack Coen with Felix Dolan

Warming Up

Green Linnet

If you’re into musical time travel, this recording will swiftly transport you to the heyday of the Irish ceili bands, circa 1960, when Martin Mulhaire was the button accordion star of the Tulla Ceili Band, his fellow Galwayman Jack Coen was playing flute with the New York Ceili Band with pianist Felix Dolan, and Clare fiddle great Séamus Connolly was winning every musical competition in Ireland. Mulhaire came to the Big Apple with the Tulla that year and never went home. Connolly followed some years later, settling in Boston where he now has a chair in music at Boston College. In 1993 they all got together to record this delightful homage to the unpretentious but solidly traditional music of the ’50s and ’60s, including a good number of Mulhaire’s original compositions.


The Wheels if the World: Early Irish American Music


In the mid-1970’s Shanachie Records helped launch a revival of interest in old-time Irish music with an LP of 78-rpm recordings called The Wheels of the World, after the title of an old Irish reel. This updated, two-CD collection on Shanachie subsidiary Yazoo expanded on the original with dozens of classic sides from the “golden age” of Irish traditional music in America. Recorded for the most part in New York and Chicago, these discs were cut by musicians who include uilleann piper and vaudeville star Patsy Touhey, Chicago-born piper Tom Ennis, the County Sligo fiddlers Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran, button accordion great PJ Conlon, flute player John McKenna and Frank Quinn, a New York traffic cop whose singing, fiddling and button accordion playing made him one of the biggest names in Irish music in the 1920s.

James Kelly, Paddy O’Brien and Dáithí Sproule

Traditional Music of Ireland


Dublin fiddler James Kelly is one of the fiddling sons of the late Clare fiddler and concertina player John Kelly. His own style is a unique blend of his dad’s Clare influence with that of the Sligo fiddle greats. When he moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, Kelly teamed up with County Offaly button accordionist Paddy O’Brien and Derry guitarist/singer Dáithí Sproule to form one of the great trios in the history of Irish traditional music. Together, the group made two fantastic LPs, Is It Yourself? and Spring in the Air, for Shanachie, which has since reissued 20 tracks from those discs on a single CD. There’s never been a better blend of fiddle and box, and Sproule’s style of backing helped convince a whole generation of Irish guitarists to tune their instruments in his DADGAD style.

Susan McKeown


Green Linnet

Dublin-born New Yorker Susan McKeown possesses one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in Irish music, one that has drawn comparisions to folk legend Sandy Denny and rocker Natalie Merchant (with whom McKeown has recorded). She combines an adventurous modern approach with a deep respect for the old tradition, but this 2000 recording is from the more traditional end of her catalog (for the modern stuff, check out her work with the Chanting House band). The songs include a truly haunting rendition of Dublin singer Liam Weldon’s “Dark Horse on the Wind,” a melancholy take on “The Snows They Melt the Soonest” and the classic ballad “Lord Baker.” The late Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, McKeown’s long-time collaborator, also contributes to the album.

Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds


Bronx native Andy McGann and Longford man Paddy Reynolds, both of whom passed away in the past two years, were the most celebrated Irish fiddle duet of modern times. They met in the Bronx in the late 1940s as protegés of the great Sligo fiddler James “Lad” O’Beirne. Playing together at hundreds of dances, parties and concerts, Andy and Paddy perfected a polished and urbane New York interpretation of Sligo fiddle music. Though their heyday was in decades when few traditional recordings were made, they finally got their chance to record together in the late 1970s. The accompaniment for this classic album was provided by guitarist Paul Brady, who had not yet become well known for his work with Planxty or for his later career as a singer and songwriter.

Eileen Ivers

So Far

Green Linnet

If Brian Conway represents fidelity to the old New York fiddle tradition, his fellow Bronx native and fellow All-Ireland winner Eileen Ivers champions fearless exploration and innovation. Eileen became a celebrity as the original fiddle soloist with Riverdance, dazzling international audiences as she skipped across the stage sawing on her electric blue fiddle. Her current band, Immigrant Soul, blends Irish with “world music” and blues sounds, but she can still tread the straight and narrow when whe feels like it. This compilation covers the some of the best of her solo fiddling, as well as top-notch collaborations with flute player Séamus Egan, guitarist John Doyle and other traditional music luminaries.




Flute and tenor banjo great Séamus Egan divided his youth between Philadelphia and Foxford, County Mayo. Already an internationally renowned musician as a teenager, he founded the group Solas in 1995 with New York fiddler Winnie Horan, Chicago button accordionist John Williams, Dublin guitar god John Doyle and Waterford singer Karan Casey. The band is still going strong ten years later with a different lineup that still includes Egan and Horan, but the impact of the group’s debut recording, which featured Casey’s achingly gorgeous vocals, has never been surpassed.

Mick Moloney

Far From the Shamrock Shore


Limerick native Mick Moloney is the true Renaissance Man of Irish music in America, not only because he’s a multi-talented musician, singer and scholar but because he personally helped launch a great rebirth of Irish traditional music in America as a record producer, performer, festival orgnizer, writer and teacher. The CD, issued to accompany Moloney’s book of the same name, is a highly enjoyable musical history of the Irish in America told through songs that include “Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade,” “Muldoon, the Solid Man.” “Maloney, the Rolling Mill Man” and “No Irish Need Apply.” Fiddlers Eileen Ivers and Marie Reilly as well as American “old-timey” musieian Bruce Molsky join Moloney on the recording.

Jerry O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan Meets O’Tarrell


You can count the number of top-notch, American-born uilleann pipers on the fingers of one hand, and Jerry O’Sullivan’s name usually comes up on the first finger. The Irish pipes are a fiendishly difficult instrument to master, but Jerry, who spent long periods in Dublin as a young man, was equal to the task, and this recording displays his exceptionally nimble melody playing on the chanter and tasteful use of accompanying drones and “regulator” chords. For this archival project, Jerry polished up some musical gems he dug out of the pages of a pioneering collection of uilleann piping tunes published over 200 years ago by a London stage piper named O’Farrell, of whom we know very little, not even his first name. But if O’Farrell were to meet O’Sullivan after hearing this disc, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to introduce himself.

Mike and Mary Rafferty

The Dangerous Reel


78-year-old flute player and uilleann piper Mike Rafferty still plays in the same style he learned from his father Tom “Barrel” Rafferty in his youth in east County Galway, one of the most musical districts of Ireland. The long-time New Jersey resident passed this style and repertoire on in turn to his daughter Mary, who played his daughter Mary, who played flute and button accordion for many years with the group Cherish the Ladies. After he retired from his day job, Mike launched a marvelous series of recordings with Mary, of which this was the first. This is simply beautiful music played at the relaxed pace and with the gentle rhythmic pulse for which east Galway music is famous. It is available, as are Mike and Mary’s other recordings, from www.raffertymusic.com ♦

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