Kevin Burke

By Tony Montague – January 12, 2019
Photos by Steve Edge - October 4, 2015

On his live solo release An Evening With Kevin Burke [2018] the legendary fiddler doffs his cap to some of the leading musicians he knew and played with over the years in London, Sligo, Dublin, and Portland, Oregon, where he’s lived since 1980. It’s a flawless recording of unaccompanied fiddle and, unusually, includes the spoken introductions for each set of tunes - delivered low-key with humour, wit, warmth, and a lifetime’s acquaintance with the music.

Before becoming the fiddler for Christy Moore’s band in the early ‘70s, and later joining the Bothy Band, Kevin was absorbing Irish music at home in the verdant pastures of suburban London. Three of the instrumentalists recalled on An Evening – Lucy Farr, Bobby Casey, and John Carty - were pillars of the traditional sessions in pubs, where as a teenager he learned to play. The following interview focuses on this unsuspected but enormously influential facet of the music scene in London in the Swinging ‘60s.

What were your reasons for making a live album that includes spoken introductions for each set of tunes?

When I told people I was doing a live CD lots of them said ‘you should keep the talking’ because normally when you make a live CD the first thing you do is edit out all the chat. I thought I’d try it. I was a bit nervous about it because I had a feeling that, once it’s done, people might decide they don’t like the idea after all. But the response has been really good, and nearly everyone who’s talked or written about the CD so far has said how much they enjoy having the chat in there.

What’s your sense of the importance of stories and storytelling for music and particularly Irish music?

 Importance is a word I often shy away from. When I was learning this music I’d be hanging out with these older people- I was only a kid – they’d play a few tunes and then there’d be a bit of chat – sometimes it was about the music, sometimes it was about the player they learned it from, or they might say ‘have you ever heard Jim play this tune?’ he’s got a funny way of playing the second part.’ Or ‘I think his dad wrote it’. And someone else would say ‘I don’t think it was his dad but his uncle’ and so on. And sometimes it would spiral off into some yarn that had nothing to do with music, like how his horse fell down a hole and they had to drag it up… [Kevin laughs]. I was in the habit of hearing music in that kind of context.

Also when I’m doing the solo shows I realize that for a lot of people solo fiddle music is not easy for them to listen to, not for two hours or more so I use the talking to put them at ease and make them feel whether you know something about this music or not, it’s there for everyone to enjoy, so don’t worry about it. And because a lot of the people I play to – here in North America especially – wouldn’t  be that familiar with the music I think it helps to give them a bit of context, and it could be about a specific person, or it could be a history about Ireland, or it could be about a specific area, and I think it helps people to get a bit of extra enjoyment from the music when there’s a little bit of context for them to hang their hat on, and at the same time I don’t want it to sound like I’m giving a lecture or a symposium. I try to make it light hearted but I do try to be informative, it’s almost like ‘education by stealth’.

I think it’s nice for people to understand that I’m just a link in the chain, you know. A lot of people I play to don’t know anything about the chain, they know a bit about me perhaps, or they might know about some of the popular bands like De Danaan, and The Chieftains, and Altan, and the Bothy Band. It was probably their introduction to this kind of music, but if you go before that the kind of folk group band that’s now very standard, back in the early ‘60s when I was learning about Irish music it didn’t really exist. There were folk groups that would sing, but instrumentally it was typically a solo music, or if it was played with a couple of people it would all be unison, with no arrangements. It was just melody instruments, unaccompanied usually, and no harmonies, no rhythm section, just the melody.

So it was all melody-based, and the skill of the player was determined on how he could make the melody intricate, and at the same time carry the rhythm strongly enough that people would want to dance to it. I grew up with people who regarded the ability to dance to it essential. If you couldn’t dance to it then it just didn’t fly. Even a lot of the players I learned from who were not very good – because they didn’t stay in tune, or didn’t have good tone or they didn’t have very interesting versions of tunes, or were playing wrong notes a lot of the time – if the rhythm was always good you’d get away with the rest,  and if the rest was perfect and it was kind of sticky or stodgy rhythmically it would be looked down on. 

So where was the Irish community for you in south-east London?

It wasn’t in our neighbourhood – which was Charleston. When I was really small, people would come over to our flat, which was the upstairs of a house, to visit. But because there were people downstairs we had to concern ourselves with the neighbours a bit over the noise. We left when I was eight and moved to North Eltham, and that was our own house. Once we were in the house and I was a bit older – I was already playing by then and it seemed more people were coming over and staying.  Young lads were coming over from Ireland or young girls, and they might stay with us for the first couple of weeks to get their feet on the ground. My dad was a policeman – he was a sailor during the war and after that, in 1948, he joined the Met. As a policeman in London, to the mums and dads back home - if they had a teenager who was emigrating to London and didn’t know anyone - my dad was a respectable person they could stay with. A lot of these people were neighbours of my parents in Sligo, and most of them were interested in music and some of them actually played music.

All through my childhood we’d  be going to dances, ceilidhs, and sessions. We knew lots of musicians. There was a small dance hall in Victoria which was very family-friendly, more like a parish hall than a commercial ballroom. And there were a few pubs - in Peckham, in Crystal  Palace, New Cross… whether there were Irish pubs with music. I started playing in ceilidh bands when I was about 15, and we’d play in dance halls in the Elephant Castle and again New Cross, Fulham, Cricklewood, Manor House – all over London really. Fulham in particular became the great place for sessions of music. There were three pubs facing each other. The King’s Head, The White Hart, and The Swan. They all had great music. Roger Sherlock and Sean McGuire, John Bow, Raymond Rowlands, Liam Farrell, a great accordion player called Paddy Malynn – I don’t think he ever recorded but he was a great player - Brendan McGlinchy, John O’Shea.

Three or four nights a week there’d be music in Fulham. And when I was a little bit older I started going to Dalston to The Favourite. And there was Murphy’s in Whitechapel, that was a good Sunday morning spot as well. There was also a lot of music in Camden Town but it was a little bit far for us to go to, and my parents thought it was a bit rougher, so as a child they were less inclined to bring me there. Once I was about 16 I started going to a lot of these places on my own, but the introduction to the place was through my parents. They were big into the music. They didn’t play, but my mother loved to dance so we’d go to a lot of dances, and once I was able to play I was often playing with the band. I got to know these people when I was really young, so when I was 15-16 my parents were quite comfortable with me going out to play.

Were the sessions organized in any way? And what was the usual procedure?

There was usually a regular or two, who I suspect was paid to be there because you’d be sure of meeting them. The Favourite for example was Jimmy Power’s session, and Reg Hall was usually there. And then who else would show up? It could be anybody – somebody visiting from Ireland, or someone like Lucy Farr, a regular, Julia Clifford, or Martin Byrnes. There was a little stage with microphones, and Jimmy would usually get somebody up to play. He’d do a few tunes with Reg, and then he might get Martin to come up to play with them, and after a few sets of tunes Jimmy might say ‘Martin would you like to play a couple on your own?’ After that Jimmy would look around to see who else was in. And the same routine – a few tunes with the lads, a few on their own, then he’d get down and have a pint and near the end they’d get Martin back up and if I was there I might get up with him so in the last 20 minutes you might have five or six people playing together.

It was kind of managed but it always felt very informal, nothing like an English folk club - there wasn’t anyone saying ‘OK He’s going to do two songs, and you’re going to be on next’. It was just, someone would play a tune then put down their instrument and go for a pint or a pee, and Jimmy would just say ‘Mícheál, do you fancy coming up and giving us a song?’. And Mícheál would probably wave him off with something like ‘Jeez, I’m only just in the door’. ‘You’ll sing later will you?’. ‘I will – but let me have a pint first’. That kind of craic. It was very informal. At the same time Jimmy did a great job of keeping the flow going – he always managed to turn it into a great couple of hours of entertaining music. Often it would spill out into the street afterwards, when the pub shut at 2pm or so, as they had to then. Everybody would be on the street and quite often the music would start up again, if the weather was decent. They’d sit outside the pub and start playing and maybe even dancing. One of the covers of Paddy In The Smoke has people dancing outside the Favourite.

So there was singing too in the sessions?

There was, but in the places I used to go to it was probably 90% music and 10% singing. There were other places where it would be the other way round. And when I moved to Ireland and started playing with Christy Moore that was the kind of gig we were doing. He’s sing maybe 15-20 songs in a night and I might do one set of tunes in each half. And one or two of the songs might incorporate another tune. You’d play a jig at the end of the song or something because it was in jig-time. Whereas if you went to The Favourite or The White Hart – the nights when I used to go – it would be nearly all instrumental. But someone would maybe get up and sing a song or two. People would enjoy it – it wouldn’t be a big yawn ‘Oh God he’s not going singing is he?’.

Tell me about the Fulham sessions.

Three roads met outside Fulham Broadway Tube station. Right beside the Tube Station was the King’s Head, across the road at an angle was The White Hart, and across the road at the opposite angle was The Swan. You could just ramble from one to the other. There’d be let’s say Raymond Rowlands and Liam Farrell playing at The White Hart, then you’d go across the road to the King’s Head and it would be Roger Sherlock and Sean Maguire and then back across the road it would be John Bow and Paddy Taylor. At the same time that was happening in Fulham, up in The Favourite you’d have Jimmy Power, and Lucy Farr... Julia Clifford. And people like myself, you know, I might go to The White Hart tonight, tomorrow to The Favourite, and next week I’d go to some other place. I’d sprinkle it around, going to them all.

There was loads of music. If you picked your top five players on any instrument – fiddle, flute, accordion… – there was probably four of those five living in London. And then there was a whole bunch of guys who wouldn’t be anywhere near the top five but they’d be really good. Maybe they only knew a small repertoire, or maybe they were very shy, or maybe they felt like ‘there’s half a dozen really good players here, I’m not going to upset the apple-cart by joining in. I’d just bring the level down, you know. If you can’t make it better, stay out of it’. So a lot of people would feel like that. There were loads of musicians around. It wasn’t the same half dozen people all the time. But the cream of the crop are the ones who get talked about all the time. Some made records, which brought them more recognition. People like Con Curtin and Edmund Murphy – most people would never have heard of them – Paddy Malynn, Joe Whelan and his brother Michael - two great accordion player from Offaly. Young John Carty that’s playing now, his dad John Carty played the fiddle, the flute and the banjo, like young Johnny does. And he was great on them all. There’s was a guy called Mick Woods, who played in show-bands but he was a great traditional player as well.

These are all people that most fellas following traditional music today would never have heard of. But they were really good players, and I learned a lot of tunes from them people, and a lot about the music, and of course the regional style. You often learned about the regional style from the run-of-the-mill players rather than the best players, who usually had a unique twist on it, which makes them stick out a bit. In those days hardly anyone of course was making a living out of playing Irish music. It was all amateur. The more responsible people were more concerned with going to work in the morning than pushing a music career. So a lot of them were happy to keep it as a hobby, but they loved it and played like they loved it.

Tell me about Lucy Farr and the degree to which women were involved in sessions.

There were a lot of women involved but not as many as the men. The main two were Lucy Farr and Julia Clifford. Julia came from Kerry and was the sister of Denis Murphy who’s one of the great Kerry players. They were taught by Paddy O’Keeffe, who’s a legendary Kerry fiddler. She was married to John Clifford who played accordion. But he was completely outclassed musically by Julia.  So that was a case of the man taking a secondary role. People payed a lot more attention to her playing than to his. They had a son Billy who was a very good flute-player. But Julia was looked at as the principal musician in the house. She was a very humble woman and wouldn’t present herself like she was a big shot. It was always a pleasure to see her playing because the Kerry music was very different – different repertoire, and slightly different sounds and rhythms. So it was always a bit intriguing to hear her on her own. When she was playing with everyone else she would play the standard session tune, but on her own she’d play her Kerry music.

Lucy was a very good player, not a great one, but she was a great source. She had a head full of music – all kinds of tunes, and versions of tunes. Sometimes it was just a different take on a well-known piece of music or sometimes it was a really obscure tune. I’ve no idea where she got all this music. In those days recording was pretty sparse, and I never saw her with a tape recorder. So I don’t know how she could remember it all. And any time I’d ask her ‘Where does that come from?’ she’d say ‘Oh that’s something I used to hear when I was a girl’. That’s all I’d get – unless she was specific about the person, mainly people from East Galway. So she knew Paddy Fahey very well, and Paddy Carty, and she played in the Ballinakill Ceilidh Band, back in the ‘30s I think. I got a bunch of tunes from her, I can’t remember which ones now but “Lucy’s Fling” stuck in the mind because of the name.

Did anything other than Irish music get played?

Not at those sessions, no.

It doesn’t sound like the kind of session where everybody joins in. There was quite an code of etiquette.

Very much. You wouldn’t just join in. You’d wait til you were asked, or if you knew the people you might ask ‘Is it OK to join in?’ If I walked in and Roger [Sherlock] and Raymond [Rowlands] were playing, even though I knew them well I wouldn’t dream of sitting down and playing alongside them until I was asked. It wouldn’t cross my mind. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bring the fiddle in, you’d scope it out first. That idea of ‘if you’re not going to make it better, you don’t play’. The only way you’d get to play was if you’re asked, and if you think you could add to it. There was very little of ‘I want to play so I’m going to’  - people would be asked to play and they’d say no, and they’d be asked again and again, and finally they’d get up and play. It was like the cup of tea in Father Ted [British sitcom in the ‘90s] – “you will, you will, go on, go on” [Kevin laughs]. The etiquette was to say no, a few times.

What about Bobby Casey?

Bobby played fairly quietly. I heard a lot about him, and the first few times I heard him myself I didn’t find him that impressive. If you heard Sean Maguire or Brendan McGlinchey, they had a very strong clear sound, so you’d hear them – even if there were four or five other people playing. Bobby wasn’t like that, his music was a lot gentler, not as brilliant a sound. But I remember after a dance – he was playing in the band at the Galtymore in Cricklewood, and after it was over we were all sitting around in the bar someone asked Bobby to play a tune on his own  and I thought it was absolutely staggering. I couldn’t believe it was so involved and expressive – how could you pour so much music into one tune and one instrument, and at the same time it felt really laid-back.

So I found it very intriguing. It was a different kind of energy – power was not involved, there was no attempt to make it sound strong or precise. It was the opposite, floating and blending and suggesting and hinting. I always found Bobby difficult to talk to, because whatever you asked him he’d make some kind of a joke completely off the subject. And then he’d laugh and play another tune. So I never got to talk with him about where his music came from, or how he learned to play. He told me about Junior Creehan, and a couple of other people he knew back home. But after that night I became a big fan and I was always delighted to hear him playing. It made me realize what I should be listening for.

When did you come to meet Tommy Potts the Dublin fiddle-player?

Tommy wasn’t part of the London scene but when I used to visit Dublin I would often hear about him. Then I heard his record The Liffey Banks and I was intrigued because he directly contradicted what I was saying earlier [about the importance of keeping the rhythm]. He had a really strong, clear sound, had great pitching, but his rhythm was all over the place. He didn’t conform to this idea of making it danceable. In fact he did the opposite. You’d break your ankle trying to dance to him!

He could play in the normal way, but occasionally he’d go off on a tangent and play a tune and it would be all in fits and starts, notes would suddenly be hanging there, and the rhythmic motion was kind of suspended, then all of a sudden there’d be a flurry of notes, as if he suddenly realized that he’d better catch up. And it sounded very disjointed. But after a while I found it really intriguing, and I realized that it gave the music this kind of abstract, impressionistic demeanour. He broke that cardinal rule of paying attention to the rhythm above all else. And I found that that was another way of looking at music – highly personalized, very unique individual style of playing. The dexterity and the clarity made you realize there was a lot of skill there. He deliberately chose to present tunes like that, occasionally.

When I met the man I was very taken with how soft-spoken he was, and how very humble he was – not at all forceful or pushy with his music – far from it. It’s almost like the music wasn’t his, he was just a vehicle or channel for the music. And I remember thinking ‘I sometimes feel like that’ – I feel like the music is there already and when I start playing I’m just joining in with this music that’s there already out in the universe, you know. I recognized that in Tommy. He didn’t claim any ownership, which was interesting. It was everybody’s music.

Where do you know John Carty from?

I knew his dad really well. I used to play with him in the sessions and also in the Glenside Ceilidh Band. I was the youngster. He had a few kids and John junior was one. I left London around the time John became a teenager and started playing out. But later when he was married he moved back to Ireland, to the house his dad had grown up in. That’s when I got to know John, and instantly loved his playing and his attitude. He was a Londoner like me, a London-Irish kid, and even though we were 15 years apart or something like that we had a connection. I’m a big fan of his music and really enjoy his company.

Did you see the London session scene change in the course of the ‘60s?

One change was the microphone. When I started going to the sessions there was no microphones, you’d just sit in the corner and play. I remember walking into the White Hart one night and it was the same as ever – everyone sitting around in the corner, playing – and there was a microphone there. And it struck me as a bit odd. Not long after that I walked in and someone had built a stage – with microphones. So it was a step closer to being a performance, but they never made that leap in the time I’m talking about.

Then in the late’60s/early ‘70s I started to notice people were showing up who weren’t Irish, some of the English folkies. It was odd because before that it was exclusively Irish. You’d get off the London bus, walk down the street, and step through the door into Ireland. Everyone’s accent was Irish. All the music was Irish. All their attitude, and what they were talking about – Gaelic football, milking the cows, and cutting the hay. It was a completely different world. And then two hours later you’d step out onto the sidewalk, and you’d be back in Swinging London. So it was like a time-warp or place-warp, you’d step through the doorway and all of a sudden you’re in a different world, and that world was Ireland.

As a teenager - probably about 14 or 15 – I’d discovered the English folk club. It was Kate Bush’s brother Paddy who introduced me to two folksingers Dave and Toni Arthur, a husband and wife duo who sang traditional English music. They brought me to a few folk clubs and, compared to the Irish session, it was so formal that I found it a bit odd. And I was also taken with the fact that it was kind of studied, academic. A guy would sing, say, a shepherd’s song from East Anglia who had no link to the work and had never been to East Anglia, who was a lawyer’s clerk in Richmond. When I heard the Irish guys sing about emigration or eviction or 1916, maybe they hadn’t been there but their mum and dad were there. It just felt much more personal, and the English folk club was impersonal – but at the same time I thought it was very interesting that there was this genuine effort to make people aware of a tradition that was very close to dying out – or maybe had died out.

With Ireland there was no question of ‘is it dying out or not?’ There were four or five pubs in Fulham where there was music four or five times a week. Apart from The King’s Head, The White Hart, and The Swan there was another one up the road, The Balloon, which was closer to Chelsea, and there was another called The Red Lion I think. And up in Camden Town there were four or five, and in Kilburn, and in Cricklewood. In South London it was a bit more sparse, but they were there too. Just in London there was Irish music all the time – there was no question was it dying out. These people were playing it, so were their parents, and their kids. But with the English folk scene it was obvious that it was divorced from mainstream living. It did feel like something you’d look up in a library. It never seemed to be a part of everyday life like the Irish did. Lucy Farr and Roger Sherlock weren’t playing to preserve the music, because it never crossed their minds that it might stop. In the folk clubs you could sense that a lot of this stuff was being preserved, and a lot of the people that were singing it weren’t really that good at singing, but if they didn’t sing it then nobody would.

The English folk club was serving a different purpose from the Irish pub. It was only then that I found out that what was happening in the Irish pubs was also folk music! I didn’t know that. I though folk music was Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel. Then I started to see some of the people from the English folk club showing up at the Irish sessions. They were beginning to see ‘Oh, these Irish fellas have got their folk music but it’s in a different kind of condition, and serving a different purpose – which our music used to serve’. So people started to see where each other was coming from. That started in the late ‘60s, and I remember seeing that shift. You started to hear more about ‘British Isles music’ and ‘Celtic music’. The net broadened. That all started around ’66 and ’67, but in ’62 ’63 they were isolated. The English folk music would happen in one place, the Irish music in another.

And finally, what’s coming up for you in spring 2019?

I’ll be going to Ireland to record my next CD – in and around Sligo. There’s a lot of great musicians living in Sligo, most of whom are not from there, but it’s become a centre for music again. I’m talking mainly about Sligo Town, as opposed to the County. It’s basically a duets album – doing a few tracks with Seamie O’Dowd, whose dad I used to play with, and a piper Leonard Barry, Michael Holmes bouzouki-player from Dervish. John Carty and others – who don’t know it yet! I expect it will be out later in the year on my own label, Loftus Music.

See Kevin Burke’s website
for his amazing emporium of 38 albums and 3 instructional DVDs