July 27, 2011
Founded in 2000 by Professor Mick Moloney, The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra (or WSHSO, for short) is based at New York University and made up of musicians from the City’s Irish music community. The WSHSO plays traditional Irish music and recalls the Irish-American dance bands of the early twentieth century, like The Four Provinces Orchestra, Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band, Pat Roche’s Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, and Erin’s Pride Orchestra.
The WSHSO performs regularly and has appeared at Symphony Space, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the American Irish Historical Society, the Consulate General of Ireland in New York, the Irish Arts Center, Town Hall, the University Club, the Manhattan Club at Rosie O’Grady’s, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, WFUV radio, New York’s City Hall, Battery Park, South Street Seaport Museum and, of course, NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House.
Celtic Radio Contributor Review:
To many uninformed listeners, Celtic music could all fall under the same genre umbrella. Of course, in most record stores, it falls under the always nauseating genre, "World," but to those who enjoy the Celtic tradition, the genre can be split in almost infinite sub-genres. The sub-genre that NYU professor Mick Moloney chose to explore with The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra is Irish-American dance-band music. They released their debut, self-produced CD, "Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley," on March 18.
The highlight of this record, for this listener, is the only time the band veers away from cheerful dance music. "Sweet Dublin Bay" paired with the jig "Anach Cuain" is a beautifully performed and produced song that fits perfectly in any traditional Irish song setting. The banjo doubles the lovely singing performance, floating above the drone and strings to create a beautiful recording. Everything, from the instrumentation to the chord choices to the singing technique, breathes Celtic tradition in this track.
The record's opening track is a set of three instrumental tunes that, contrastingly, put the listener in a barn in early 20th century America, whooping and spinning a partner around his or her elbow. As this set progresses, the tunes sound less and less Celtic and more American, particularly the chromatically descending melodies and chord progressions. These are more characteristic of an American dance band than of a Céilidh band in Ireland.
The manner in which this group tells stories through song also err greatly on the side of American tradition moreso than Celtic tradition. Their story-songs include traditional bar song "The Night Pat Murphy Died," "Arrah Come In Out Of The Rain, Barney McShane," "When Rafferty Brought the Rumba to the Town of Aughnacloy," and the title track, "Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley." While the three latter tunes are light-hearted novelties, "Pat Murphy" is often performed as a traditional drinking song. It suffers greatly at the loss of a bawdy band plowing away behind the singer. The simple, bouncy piano accompaniment, the cutesy narration and the grand slow-downs at the end of every verse put the song in an old-timey musical production vibe, a feel this author thinks adds nothing to the tune.
The record progresses into a more Celtic sound at the fifth track, a set of jigs. Here, the flute and whistle sound a lot more Irish and the piano falls back in the mix, fitting more fully into the background. The tenor banjo plucking also recedes back to a more subdued level, mixing well with the strings and winds on the melody. Even the banjo starting "The House in the Glen" in the middle of the set sounds noticeably more traditional and Irish than in other tunes. Their hornpipe and reel sets later in the record follow this same mastering and feel.
Track nine is a delightful set of polkas that seem to fit the cheerful, dance-inciting tone that fits more into Irish tradition than American tradition. The middle polka, Bill Malley's, uses very Celtic chord progressions and open voicings to create an Irish pub feel more than any of the instrumentals earlier in the record. Using a piano as a chordal instrument in a Celtic band is a difficult task, but in this track on the record, the pianist does a fantastic job emulating a guitar, both in voicings and in "strumming" patterns.
Irish tradition in America is well documented and preserved by small societies around the country, but this author fears that the American influence on Celtic music presents a more watered-down and easily digestible product than the real thing. Travelers to Ireland will almost universally tell Americans that a pint of Guinness on the Dingle Peninsula is infinitely better than a glass at Tommy O'Reilly MacGilligan's on Main Street in Springfield, USA. Just as a warm beer in Europe betters a chilled can in the USA, traditional Celtic music without American influence offers something more raw and less glazed than Irish-American dance band music.
Assuredly, anyone going to see The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra would be treated to a joyful show of cheerful music that makes you clap and dance and smile. This author personally believes that Americans are disillusioned into enough clapping, dancing, and smiling in a lot of ways, and fears that American tradition dilutes a lot of what makes Celtic music so special and unique. While songs like "Pat Murphy" are light-hearted and in good humor, traditional Celtic music's humor does not sound like a Disney musical soundtrack. It preserves the baggage of a culture that acknowledges suffering and sadness, but overcomes it with joy of song, even if that joy maintains some weight.
Celtic Radio Contributor
Celtic Radio Comments:
The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra is an up and coming group made up of a number of fine and talented musicians. We were delighted to receive and feature this debut CD on our site and broadcast. From the music, to the concept, to the talent and design, we think WSHSO has done a wonderful job creating a unique album that we found absolutely brilliant. The selections are well balanced with both ballads, waltzes, jigs, reels and polkas - definitely a worthwhile purchase to add to your music collection. 5 Stars to WSHSO for bringing us the Hooley Hooley!