John 'The Yank' Harrington

A Celtic Century:

(private production: no catalogue number)

John 'The Yank' Harrington has ninety-odd years under his belt, during which time he has absorbed and practised music; and you might be led to believe, therefore, that a mirror is being held up to nearly a hundred years of repertoire and tradition.  So it is - in a way.  For here "The Yank" is credited with Celtic, 'mostly Irish', music as it is evidenced in the American experience.

He was born in Utah of immigrant Irish parents - from the Beara peninsular in Cork - and the family moved to Butte, Montana, so that John's father could get work, in this case in the nearby copper mines.  Cover pictureAfter a period during which both John's parents died and his four sisters entered an orphanage John was himself looked after by his uncle Dan and aunt Julia and when work began to dry up around 1919 they took him back to County Cork where, as a returned exile, he was christened 'The Yank' (a well-known phenomenom, not always best intended, which, it seems, is of surprise and of a chuckle or two to him).  All that time he had listened, first, to his parents playing the box and had learned mostly songs from Irish copper-miners in Butte and from his father and his uncle and then from neighbours in Cork - the latter during the British occupation, so that he came across 'rebel songs' such as Kelly the Boy from Killane.  Eventually, when work dried up in Ireland, like so many, John recrossed the Atlantic and took a job digging the New York underground (and where he also learned more songs).  Later still, he returned to Butte and met up with some of his family and where he celebrated his ninety-sixth birthday in March of this year.  This is, in many ways, a remarkable story and Alan Jabbour (Director of the American Folk-Life Centre at the Library of Congress), for one, has commented on its value as documentary evidence of John's life out of Ireland and of how his music was retained.  Not least in the evidence is the collection of shellac recordings that John himself made with his sisters.

You'd look in vain here, however, for the repertoire that we are recently accustomed to in Ireland - or, come to that, over here and in some of the urban areas of America.  Only one tune on this CD is called a reel - Soldiers Joy - and considering how reels have come to dominate repertoire, this may seem somewhat surprising.  There are several jigs; and some hornpipes; polkas and a slide - Foxy Daley John calls it, but it is also known as the Scattery Island Slide - actually played here with the rhythm of a double jig, that is with two distinct main beats to each bar.  There are two marches: O'Donell Abu and the aforementioned Kelly….  There are also several waltzes which, in the Irish way, tend to be song airs.  It is a repertoire, then, that a backwoods Irish musician might well have.  That is not exactly a pejorative comment but you should be warned.  I suspect that such a musician would be shoved into a corner in current company, perhaps as being old-fashioned; or, alternatively, let out and indulged on occasion … and, indeed, I've seen this happen in Clare, in Wicklow, in Waterford and in Sligo.  There is a sense in which John illuminates the experience of a people whose own music did almost go underground and who adopted and adapted whatever was current around them and this wherever it came from.  In turn, this, of course, highlights the stubbornness and resilience of those, like him, who kept and passed on their particular traditions.  Much of this CD features a vestigial echo of older traditions but, equally, has remained frozen and unrepresentative of the great flourishing of Irish music that has taken place since the nineteen-fifties and erupted during the last two decades.

Take a look here at the titles of the first four tracks just to see how the net is spread: Dear Old Donegal, Smash the Windows, Stack of Barley and Believe me If All Those Endearing Young Charms: hardly the stuff of sessions nowadays.  There's little, either, which is 'Celtic' about tunes like Yankee Doodle, Casey Jones or Turkey In The Straw.  What might once have been is a different matter and does underline the kind of experience that America has had: or, to attempt to be more accurate still, what perhaps musicians - Irish musicians included - appear to have had, in terms of 'Irish' music, judging by what has been regurgitated.  This, we know, was much infiltrated by commercial products.  Here, for instance, some tracks acknowledge this: the waltzes White Wings and Peekaboo.

It isn't, though, just a question of John Harrington's music per se but of how it can be set alongside knowledge and apprehension of the brilliance and - even more welcome - musicianship of the young, the not-so-young and of those older generations who may have elements of John Harrington's repertoire about them but whose mainstream utterance is that of what we now take to be 'traditional'.  I never heard Ennis play a waltz though I daresay he could and would have if it had so taken him and the company was agreeable; and we cannot gainsay his standing.  Perhaps a better comparison here, because of the instrument involved, would be Johnny O'Leary and his repertoire for Johnny's generation overlaps with that of 'The Yank'; or, in a later generation, say, Jackie Daly.  Johnny, though, plays his polkas, slides, jigs, hornpipes and reels as standard fare, very often for dancing, with fewer gestures towards what is a kind of alternative line of acquisition that 'The Yank' offers.  This perhaps, reflects the survival of living traditions in Kerry through the agencies of such as Padraic O'Keefe and of Dennis Murphy and Julia Clifford.  Where Jackie is concerned, though with far greater obvious skill and flamboyance than in John Harrington's playing, he gathers a cosmopolitan repertoire about him in addition to that standard (and not-so-standard) fare inherited from the older people who lived around him in something of the way that John Harrington did in his day.  I cite such contemporary players simply as contrast here in their respective gathering of repertoire.  They encapsulate the privilege we now entertain through the efforts of earlier generations and, indeed, through the less prominent faithfulness of such as John Harrington but it would be plain silly to go any further in comparison.  We are talking different personalities and, more particularly, different musical hinterlands as they were formed through the years.

John 'The Yank' plays an old Hohner (one of a succession which he keeps safe along with copious scrapbooks) and certainly rattles away; but his timing, always jaunty to begin with, suffers lapses and sometime goes quite awry as, for instance, at the ends of eight-bar sequences where the final long note is often truncated or where he runs out of steam.  Thus, tunes lose absolute shape: the jig Larry O'Gaff, the tune I Have A Bonnet Trimmed With Blue (which, presumably, would function as a polka).  The same happens in some of the waltzes: Peggy O'Neill, The River Shannon and The Glens of Atherlow which last suffers more than most and has little musical impact - a pity since it can be both a soulful tune and generate a poignancy through one set of words known to have been sung to it both in Ireland and, subsequently, in England, namely Kickham's Patrick Sheehan.  You'd be hard put to it here to be able to dance even a waltz with ease.  I doubt, too, if 'The Yank' could sustain momentum for more than a few minutes at a time and still keep measure.  It's hardly a disgrace at John Harrington's age but - there - I've said it: one begins to make concessions.  I suspect that, ultimately, it all comes of playing for so long for himself without benefit of the vital life of music that Johnny O'Leary and others participated in: it's a man communing with his music and probably, as a rule, with little thought for the temptations of public face.  The evidence of this lies, for example, in The Rye Waltz (as in Coming through the…) where he begins the tune (played the same way twice through) in normal fashion then changes to waltz-time in the B part.  Is there a real dance in mind or is he just having private fun?

There are also oddities.  In the one prolonged track (almost all are merely played twice or three times and kept separate), Ricketts and The Liverpool hornpipes, there's a pleasant mixture of individual phrasing and an initial impulse but at the change 'The Yank' stops and starts again in a regular but not equivalent rhythm and then ends the second tune half way through.  This seems to encapsulate how the tunes have been removed from the dancing.

And because the tunes are all simple in structure they need the stamp of character about them to appeal - in their own melodic flow and through the playing.  Style and personality, in this way, affect the music and how it is taken on board by others.  Where the tune is not enhanced by the playing a flatness ensues - elementary, I know - which leaves the listener cold and not inclined to bother.  I do think that this happens here - in Carry Me Up to Carlow, Tipperary (It's a Long Way…) The Merry Machine - which we know as Off She Goes - and Little Brown Jug - whose titles, of course, remind us again of the kinds of music that we're hearing and their relative absence from our contemporary Irish musical life.

On the positive side 'The Yank' has developed his own phrasing in many of the tunes such as that he calls The Kettle Boils Over and in The Boys of Blue Hill (''s a hornpipe').  He rarely twiddles but offers a skeletal chord of fifths in several tunes (Donegal…, My Love Is But A Lassie Yet, the waltz New York…) and an occasional octave emphasis (My Irish Jaunting Car).  Some tracks achieve sustained focus: the jig Tidy Little Woman (which is more widely known here as the Morris tune Mrs. Casey) where the rhythm is maintained emphatically throughout and the following tune, Maggie In the Wood, where the playing is mostly crisp and even.

Musically, then, the CD isn't particularly inspiring and doesn't correspond to current traditions.  I don't think, in any case, that this will be seen as the point of its attraction.  What is more important is how John's music has been presented.  He introduces each tune in a rather stilted manner, gives us a brief hearing and then moves on.  There are thirty-six tunes; and brief - not very informative - notes on each together with an introduction on the inclusive booklet.  The prime value at such a level is as documentation of what is an important facet of his music whether you class it as 'Irish' or not - the way it has taken on at its fringes bits and pieces from a variety of sources, frequently couched in what I've called 'commercial' guise.  Some of this has, as it were, an honourable past as a reminder of what was played during the actual period of time when John Harrington appears to have learned most of his tunes.  Some is sheer concoction in the school of grey-haired mothers pining away at home: mid-to-late nineteenth century New York stuff with stereotypical image and sentimentality (the Danny Boy syndrome whose popularity and meaning to many cannot be denied but which would not expect to feature as linch-pin in tradition as we've come to know it).

There is an undeniable actuality about the repertoire as example of the musical inheritance and taste of many; and scratch an Irish musician of rather more than tender years and I'd bet a few of the Harrington tunes would emerge.  Perhaps, in some cases, there would be an element of a joke about it much as we might resort to I See the Moon after a prolonged bout of balladry or as the boys in Malachy's bar in Quinn would rattle away at jigs and reels and then fling out How Much Is That Doggy In The Window!   Where does the joke begin and end?  Where does pride, in this respect, tip over into snobbery?  The obvious parallel in Ireland itself is the conjunction of dance music and inherited song (whether gained orally or though printed matter) and country and western music.  My first experience of a dance in Mullagh (Co Clare) twenty five or more years ago was the repeated sequence of a set dance followed by one of the then popular Siege of Ennis/Walls of Limerick kind and then an 'old-fashioned waltz' which turned out to be very much out of the country and western line.

I'll suggest another comparison between players - that of Terry Teahan on the Topic label (if you can get hold of it).  Here there is evidence of how another old-timer fared in America but one who retained a repertoire far removed from that of John Harrington, almost purely Kerry in nature with slides, polkas and jigs but, I have to say, with more life and continuity of those traditions which have been relatively untouched by the supposed lesser virtues of the 'commercial' kind.  The contrast is clear here but it needn't be made as a necessary downgrading of the virtues in John Harrington's music so much as an alternative or complementary act.  As a tribute to persistence, longevity and sheer love of the music that took John's fancy, this CD is a satisfying and rather touching endeavour.  I hope that that does not sound patronising, for I rather suspect that if anybody was to discover a man like John Harrington somewhere in Norfolk or Gloucestershire there would be great delight in the mere fact of survival and the confirmation of eclecticism.  Casey Jones, I'd imagine, would be scooped up for a contemporary repertoire (if it hasn't been already).  Think back to a time in England not so long ago when so many who purported to sing had to sound like an old man.

Well, this old man playing his music sounds like an old man.  You wouldn't be struck by the range and virtuosity; but the musical evidence does act like a diary, a touchstone of time and place which makes us to wish to know much more about his experience and to value it.  Fair play to you, John Harrington, for keeping things going.  It's worth noting in this respect that all proceeds from the sale of the CD go towards promotion of Irish music in the Butte area and that there is a strong element of community in the numbers of people involved in the recording project.

Roly Brown - 4.8.99

The CD is obtainable from Toni Seccomb: e-mail:

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