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Mon February 13, 2012

The Chieftains: For 50 Years, Irish Music For The World

Originally published on Tue February 14, 2012 6:53 am

Paul McCartney, Madonna, Doc Watson and Luciano Pavarotti have at least one thing in common: They've all collaborated with Irish folk band The Chieftains.

The band, credited with helping to revive Irish music, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and a career that includes more than 50 albums, six Grammys and an Oscar. The latest album, Voice of Ages, includes recordings of traditional songs with help from indie-rocker Bon Iver, folk group The Civil Wars, string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and country trio Pistol Annies, among others. Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne that it all began for him in the 1940s, with a gift from his mother.

"I was 6 years of age," he says, "and my mother bought me what you call a pennywhistle — a tin whistle — for one shilling and nine pence."

The Chieftains began in 1962, at a time when rock 'n' roll was king. Moloney's goal was not only to bring back traditional Irish music, but to infuse it with new life.

"I adapted my own style of arrangements and little compositions and riffs here and there, and harmonies," he says. "It got to be heard everywhere by the likes of John Peel, who was the great disc jockey of that era, in the '60s and '70s and '80s. And John was playing our tape in among the Beatles and Rolling Stones."

The Chieftains collaborated with everyone from Tom Jones and Elvis Costello to Van Morrison and John Hiatt — even Mick Jagger.

"I remember, in the '60s, Mick coming to one of our concerts in Dublin," Moloney says. "I never realized, you know, that there were people out there listening and wanting to get back to roots, get back to where it all might have started from."

The Chieftains went to Nashville, too, where the band worked with Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash and Ricky Skaggs.

"For me to go to Nashville was almost going to another part of Ireland, meeting up with all your country cousins and just go for it," he says, "because you didn't have to duck and dash with these people — they knew the music. And if you played it once or twice, naturally they'd just pick it up and play it."

For one collaboration, in the '80s, The Chieftains went all the way to China. There, the group blended traditional Chinese music with its own sound.

"Some of the pieces you will hear — melody-wise there's a big difference, but it's the same ideas, you know, music to do with the seasons, to do with love, to do with battles that took place," he says. "It's just so Irish in a way. And we took a trip down the Yangtze River with all our Chinese friends, and we got them up dancing the 'Walls of Limerick,' which is a set dance, an Irish set dance. They were very suspicious at the beginning, and they weren't quite sure what to make of us, you know, but the Maotai was taking effect on them as well as us."

Maotai is a Chinese liquor, and gan bei is a common Chinese toast — their slainte: "That means bottoms up," he says. "That's how we got them all dancing."

The Chieftains' members have traveled even farther afield to make music.

"A very good friend of mine, Cady Coleman, she's an astronaut," Moloney says. He gave her bandmate Matt Molloy's flute, one of his own tin whistles and some sheet music the last time she went up to the International Space Station. That St. Patrick's Day, Moloney says, the group got a missive from way up high.

"Straight to Matt Molloy's iPad comes this Cady," Moloney says. "She's floating and she plays the tune that I gave her, 'Fanny Power,' which is on the album [under the title 'The Chieftains in Orbit'], and she floats away, her hair sticking up in the air, and the tin whistle floats with her. I took that recording and put it on so when you hear her whistle sort of disappearing to the left, I come in on the right. So we have done funny things in our time, you know?"

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was 50 years ago that the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys had just come on the scene, leading the way toward a new sound for rock and roll. At the same time, in 1962, a band was formed and became famous for offering a look back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: The Chieftains led the revival of traditional Irish music, and the band is celebrating a five-decade run that's produced more than 50 albums, six Grammys and an Oscar. Paddy Maloney founded The Chieftains. He told us he lost his heart to Irish music back in the 1940s, when his mother gave him a small gift.

PADDY MALONEY: I was six years of age. My mother bought me what you call a penny whistle, a tin whistle, for one shilling and nine pence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: The Chieftains were and are consummate musicians. And their roots music quickly caught the attention of the rock stars of the day. Of course, Paddy Maloney's goal was not only to bring back traditional Irish music, but to breathe new life into it as well.

MALONEY: So I adapted my own style of, you know, arrangements and little compositions and riffs here and there, and harmonies. And it got to be heard everywhere. The likes of John Peel, who was the great disc jockey of that era, in the '60s and '70s and '80s, and John was playing our tape in amongst the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF IRISH MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You have been through this amazing range of collaborations: Tom Jones, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, John Hiatt, Mick Jagger. Let's play a moment of your collaboration with Mick Jagger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONG BLACK VEIL")

MICK JAGGER: (Singing) She walks these hills in a long black veil. She visits my grave, when the night winds wail...

MALONEY: Talk about Mick, you know, I remember, in the '60s, Mick coming to one of our concerts in Dublin. I never realized, you know, there was people out there listening and wanting to get back to roots, get back to where it all might have started from, you know.

MONTAGNE: Talking about roots, what were you thinking when you collaborated with some of Nashville's top artists: Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs?

MALONEY: Yeah. For us and for me to go to Nashville was almost going to another part of Ireland and meeting up with all your country cousins and just go for it. Because you didn't have to duck and dash with these people, they knew the music. And if you played it once or twice, naturally they'd just pick it up and play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN THE OLD PLANK ROAD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I would not be in Richmond between all the hail and rain, then for to be in Georgia wearing ball and chain. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more way down the Old Plank Road.

MALONEY: Touching base with that world of country music to me is, you know, somewhat Doc Watson, for instance, that the fishers' hornpipe, you know, and that kind of stuff - the fisherman's hornpipe is what we call it back home. But it's all related. You know?

MONTAGNE: Fisherman's horn?

MALONEY: Hornpipe.

MONTAGNE: Hornpipe.

MALONEY: A hornpipe is a dance, an old Irish dance. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNPIPE MUSIC)

MALONEY: So, Doc Watson, when he got hold of it, it went like...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNPIPE MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: That's the bluegrass, right?

MALONEY: That's the bluegrass side of it, yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Double-speed, right.

MALONEY: Double-speed, yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: There is one collaboration that took you far, far away. And that was that in the 1980s you traveled to China and blended traditional Chinese music with your music. Let's just play a moment of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONEY: You have there playing which is what they call a Chinese orchestra. But it's their folk instrument. So, some of the pieces you will hear - I mean melody-wise there's a big difference. But the same ideas about music, to do with the seasons, to do with love, to do with battles that took place, just is so Irish in a way. And we took a trip down the Yangtze River with all our Chinese friends, and we got them up dancing the "Walls of Limerick," which is a set dance, an Irish set dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONEY: So, they were very suspicious about that at the beginning, you know. And they weren't quite sure what to make of us, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONEY: But the Maotai was taking effect on them as well as us. The Maotai, it's a little drink, you know? And gan bei is their - instead of slainte or good luck to you. You know, it was gan bei. That means bottoms up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: In Chinese.

MALONEY: That's right. That's when we got them all dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: One thing that you maybe never would have predicted when you first started The Chieftains back in 1962 was that one of your penny whistles would end up in space. Tell us about that.

MALONEY: Well, a very good friend of mine, Cady Coleman, she's an astronaut. She's been up six or seven times and recently spent six months on the International Space Station. And Cady asked if she could bring Matt Malloy's flute and one of my tin whistles into space. And I gave her some music, as well. And on Patrick's Day, she sent down through the Internet, right onto Matt Malloy's iPad comes this Cady. And she's floating as she plays a tune that I gave her, "Fanny Power," which is on the album.

And she floats away, her hair sticking up in the air, and the tin whistle floats with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONEY: And so, I took that recording and put it on so when you hear her whistle start to disappearing to the left, I come in on the right. So, we have done funny things in our time. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FANNY POWER")

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us to talk about this half-century of making music.

MALONEY: The 50th chapter, you might say. But lovely to speak with you and hope to be - come back and talk about so much more in the future. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "FANNY POWER")

MONTAGNE: Paddy Maloney is the founder of The Chieftains. Their 50th anniversary album, "Voice of Ages," will be released next week. You can hear a couple of tracks from that album, plus that flute playing in space right now at NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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