The Celtic Connection

Orange, particulate-laden light slants down Norfolk Street as a sweltering Houston day becomes sweltering Houston dusk. Inside McGonigel's Mucky Duck, despite a packed house early on a weekday evening, there's a feeling of being somewhere cooler, somewhere north of Texas and halfway around the world. On the stage in the corner, a seated half-circle of nine musicians with fiddles, guitar, banjo, flute and bodhran play a mystical Celtic air for each other and the lone microphone hanging down from the ceiling.

Animated conversation and peals of laughter from the crowded tables mute the barely amplified band-with-no-name; for those standing among the whirlwind of discussion and beer at the bar, only the four fiddles can be heard. With a break that ripples through the room like waves from a pebble, the pair of bodhran players pound a louder, faster tempo that speaks of matters martial. Suddenly, the music isn't speaking of castles in the mist and little folk in a sun-dappled forest. The mood now is one of memory, not myth -- memories centuries old, of lonely, rain-swept villages along rocky coasts from Brittany to Erin, where the pounding of the hand-held war drums warn that Viking longships are sweeping in from sea, and the flute and fiddles scream a call to arms in defense of home and kin. The hubbub in the audience dies down, attention focusing on the intense faces of the players on the stage, as the music swirls ever louder around the room before coming to a crashing peak, and calling forth subsequent applause.

What's taking place on this Wednesday night, just as it's taken place on every Wednesday night for the last 18 years or so at varying locations around Houston, is the Irish Session. For the people in attendance, it's as much family reunion as performance. Unlike most of the long-standing musical jams around town, here there's no sign-up list, no performer with some degree of local name recognition serving as host. The sharing of a centuries-old tradition and the preservation of cultural heritage seems more important than egos. Indeed, if anyone claimed to be in charge, they would probably be laughed out of the room.

It was sharing, teaching and learning that started the Session in the first place. Concertina player Gary Coover, whose recently ended stint as longtime host of KPFT/90.1 FM's "Shepherd's Hey" program makes him a reluctant spokesman for the Celtic cultural crowd, remembers, "It all started with the Houston Folklore Society. There were people who knew traditional Celtic music, and musicians who wanted to learn. There were people interested in playing, people who wanted to learn the traditional dances. We would get together at people's houses, 'Sing-along with Uncle Gary,' 'Sing-along with Uncle Mike,' until it got big enough and loud enough for the neighbors to complain. Since then it's been held all over town, at the original Rudyard's on Kipling, where in a year and a half we went from six people on a Wednesday night to a full house. They wouldn't give us a break on beer prices, so we went to Munchies on Bissonnet, to the old Parlor until it burned, the Gingerman, the Heights Diner, the Red Lion until it burned ...."

Coover acknowledges that the direction of the Session has changed with time. "At first it was for learning tunes, people showing each other new tunes and techniques," he says. "It's gone though spells where it's like a school of fish, being lead by whoever is the loudest and strongest, without so many opportunities to ask questions."

The Mucky Duck incarnation of the Session, if for no other reason than the frequent participation of younger musicians, gives a very real sense of tradition passed on and history handed down. Maggie Drennon, singer with Houston's Ceili's Muse, boasts of a County Mayo heritage that surfaced despite a West Texas upbringing. "I refound it myself. I'd never even heard 'Danny Boy' until I was 18," she says. "I've been entranced and stuck ever since." Members of Ceili's Muse, the Gypsies and the Flying Fish Sailors -- the most visible Celtic-influenced traditional bands around Houston -- make participating in the Session a regular, energy-charging part of their regular routine.

Though there is among many of the patrons at the Mucky Duck a passion for the Emerald Isle, the name Irish Session is actually a bit of a misnomer. Nationalist anthems about Thompson guns and the wearing of the green are nowhere to be heard. What is celebrated instead is the whole of Celtic culture, and a musical tradition that, over the centuries, has become as much an American roots music as bottleneck guitar. The drums of western Africa are what gave American music its rhythm; more often than not, though, the melody is Celtic. The diaspora from the British Isles to America, especially to what became the southern United States, was very much a Celtic migration. In trickles and waves over the centuries, Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish settlers seeking land, religious freedom, and a general release from Anglo-Saxon meddling found their way -- by choice or "transportation" -- across the Atlantic.

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Jim Sherman