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In new video series, legendary fiddler Kevin Burke captures traditional Irish music-making

In his forthcoming video series, Music From an Irish Cottages, fiddler Kevin Burke invites leading Irish musicians to his home for music and conversation.

This week on The Dear Green Place, host Cindy Funk spoke with master Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. Over his nearly six-decade career, Burke has recorded more than two dozen albums, and in 2002, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his outstanding contributions to traditional Irish music. He joined the program to discuss his upcoming video series, Music From an Irish Cottage, which brings viewers inside his countryside cottage for intimate sessions with top Irish folk musicians. The series premieres this Friday, October 27, on Vimeo. Burke spoke with Cindy about why he chose to make Music From an Irish Cottage, which was inspired by memories of learning traditional Irish tunes as a young man.

In the interview, Kevin Burke discussed how traditional music is transmitted through generations of players. He recalled his own experience of learning fiddle as a child. Burke grew up in London, but his parents hailed from County Sligo, Ireland, known for its rich tradition of Irish folk music. At age 7 or 8, he began studying with a classical violin instructor. “My parent’s thinking was, ‘the classical teacher can teach him about the instrument, and he can learn about the music by hanging out with us,’” Burke told Cindy. However, when he asked to learn Irish folk music, Burke found that the book of songs provided by his teacher failed to capture the traditional tunes he knew from family members.

“Irish music is not a music that you see often in books, at least not written the way it’s played. So I was learning what was written in the book, and the more I practiced, in my parent’s ear, the worse it got…. I realized that I had to translate what I read in the book—use the book as a guide, but I had to use my ear to really find out how it sounded.”

By the time he was a teenager, Burke was performing alongside seasoned musicians in London’s Irish dance halls. He told Cindy that the time he spent learning from other Irish folk musicians, often in their homes, had a profound effect on his music and his personal life. His new series, Music From an Irish Cottage, is motivated by these experiences of learning from older musicians. He describes his inspiration for creating the series:

“Just before the pandemic, I bought this little place in [County Mayo, Ireland]. It’s an old house—1903, it was built. A little cottage, like so many people used to live in in Ireland. And I was sitting here on my own and I was thinking, ‘this is the kind of place I used to visit a lot when I was a child, visiting people who played music.’ I learned a lot of music in houses like this. And then I started thinking about how times have changed. First of all, most people don’t live in houses like this. And the idea of visiting older people in hopes of getting a tune or two off them doesn’t seem to be the way most people learn anymore, because now we have CDs and Youtube and Spotify—all of these different ways of accessing music. Whereas, when I was a child, there was so little recorded Irish music that really the only way to access it was to go and visit the people who played it.”

Music From an Irish Cottage gives a glimpse of a past period of music making in Ireland. On each episode of the series, Burke invites two musicians into his living room for an intimate conversation and jam session. “We just sat in front of the fire, and we opened a bottle of wine and we sipped away at the wine and we told stories and asked each other questions,” he said, “The idea was to show people what musicians get up to when there’s no audience, the kinds of things we talk about and play.” Burke said that the series aimed to capture not only the musical chemistry among master players, but also the personal relationships that invariably accompany musical collaboration. He told Cindy,

“It might be nice to recreate that idea, just sitting around playing music and talking. Because a lot of what I learned in those houses was not actually the tunes, but about the tunes and about the people playing them and about the people who they learned them from. And also other parts of their life— maybe they had a brother who died in tragic circumstances, or maybe they had a sister who was a hero who discovered some kind of medical breakthrough— all these sort of surprising things.”

The first episode of Music From an Irish Cottage comes out on Friday, October 27, with episodes scheduled for release each subsequent Friday. The first program will feature accordionist Mick Mulcahy and uilleann piper Leonard Barry, both renowned performers. Music From an Irish Cottage will be available for purchase at Vimeo.com. More information about the series, and about Burke’s music, is available on his website or on Facebook.

Cindy Funk has been a lover of folk music of all kinds for so long, she can barely remember when she got hooked. But it's a good bet that it was WYSO that is responsible! In the 1980's, Cindy hosted a Celtic music show on WYSO called "Shamrocks, Heather and Roses" until 1987. In the meantime, she was busy performing in the folk group Sweetwater, that played all around the Midwest. Then, in 2005, Cindy reappeared on WYSO's airwaves with her new show - "The Dear Green Place" - like the earlier show, filled with the traditional and contemporary Celtic music that she loves so much.
Peter Day writes and produces stories for WYSO’s music department. His works include a feature about Dayton's premiere Silent Disco and a profile of British rapper Little Simz. He also assists with station operations and serves as fill-in host for Behind the Groove. Peter began interning at WYSO in 2019 and, in his spare time while earning his anthropology degree, he served as program director for Yale University’s student radio station, WYBC.