Remembering Larry Reynolds, fiddler: ‘He never, ever got tired of the music’
By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, November 2, 2012
He was the big, amiable fellow from Galway who worked with wood in his profession and in his music, and who seemed to know, personally, just about anybody who’d ever so much as touched a fiddle, accordion or flute, or sang an Irish song.
In fact, Larry Reynolds knew, and touched the lives of, so many people that there was literally no room for all of them to come and say goodbye to him.
Reynolds died on Oct. 3, leaving behind an extraordinary six-decade legacy as musician, organizer, and pioneer in the Boston Irish music scene. The Waltham resident, a carpenter by trade and fiddler by inclination, was 80 years old.
Within mere hours of his death, tributes and reminiscences began flooding the Internet and social media, or were simply passed along by word of mouth. The planned six-hour wake for Reynolds at the Joyce Funeral Home in Waltham went into overtime by three hours. His funeral, held on Oct. 11 at Saint Jude Church in Waltham, was equally well-attended: The crowd – including a bevy of musicians with instruments in hand as well as a columnist and photographer from the Boston Globe – spilled outside onto Main Street. His friend Mairin Ui Cheide, a sean-nos singer from Leitirmoir, sang “Coming Home” as the pallbearers slowly walked the coffin down the aisle. They paused while the musicians, spanning several generations, played the air “For Ireland I’d Not Tell Her Name” before launching into a set of reels, beginning and ending with “The Galway Rambler.”
Reynolds’s lifetime coincided with a remarkable renaissance of the music of his native land. Marginalized even within Ireland itself during his youth, Irish traditional music would attain international popularity and recognition through performers like The Clancy Brothers, The Chieftains, The Dubliners, Planxty, The Bothy Band, De Dannan, Clannad, Christy Moore, Solas, Lunasa, among many others, as well as “Riverdance.”
And through it all, Larry Reynolds played his fiddle, whether with family members or an ever-increasing roster of friends, everywhere from the storied Irish dance halls in Roxbury’s Dudley Square to intimate (and crowded) sessions in pubs and parlors to festivals attended by thousands.
Reynolds also played a major organizational role in helping to promote and preserve Irish traditional music as a co-founder and chairman of Boston’s Hanafin-Cooley branch of the world-wide Irish cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, and, later on, the branch’s music school, and as a leader of legendary weekly sessions at the Village Coach House in Brookline Village and, later, the Green Briar Pub in Brighton and The Skellig in Waltham.
Beyond such formal avenues, Reynolds was widely cited as an ambassador, a go-to guy who got things done, especially if it had anything to do with Irish music. And most of all, he was noted for the personal touch with those new to the music, or new to the area (or both), always providing encouragement and advice.
Playing tunes with friends and accepting condolences from well-wishers at The Skellig session less than a week after his father’s death, Mike Reynolds did some mental arithmetic and calculated that he and Larry had played “7,000 to 8,000” gigs together. Figure in the gigs the father did without the son, as well as those he played before Mike was born, and the numbers verge on the astronomical.
“He never, ever got tired of the music,” said Mike. “It’s not easy to be so involved and active as he was. There are plenty of musicians who have gotten burned out, and have had to take some time away -- some never came back to it. But my father kept on and kept on. He just loved it. He fed off it. There would be brand new people in town, and they’d come into the session, and my father would make them feel welcome and practically give them his week’s paycheck.”
In fact, so great was Reynolds’s reputation as an organizer-mover-shaker, his credentials as a musician might be overlooked – except by his family and friends, that is.
“One of the great things about Larry was the broad grasp of traditions he had,” said Tommy Sheridan, who began playing with Reynolds in the late 1960s with the Curragh Ceili Band. “He wasn’t East Galway, he wasn’t Sligo; he was an Irish traditional fiddle player who could play anything, any style you wanted. He put them all together, in a way that only somebody who truly understood them could. He really exemplified the music.”
Said Tara Lynch, who became a friend and frequent collaborator of Reynolds through Comhaltas: “For Larry, Irish music was more than jigs and reels. He looked at the broader spectrum: marches, planxtys, polkas, slides and so on. He had a knack for getting to know what people liked, what made them happy, and his technical quality was so good that he could play in those different styles.”
Born in the town of Ahascragh – northwest of Ballinasloe and also the birthplace of fiddler Mairtin Byrnes and award-winning singer Sean ‘ac Donncha – Reynolds was the next-to-last of 13 children, and the beneficiary of assistance from brother Harry, who bought 10-year-old Larry his first fiddle, and sister Betty, who paid for him to take lessons from Mabel West. But while Reynolds grew up in a household filled with music and dance, as a young man he found many Irish turning up their noses at such traditions. As Reynolds would recount to Susan Gedutis Lindsay for her book See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance, he would carry his fiddle under his coat to avoid ridicule from those who considered traditional music as emblematic of an impoverished, backward land.
“If people’d hear you playing traditional music, a jig or a reel,” Reynolds recalled, “they’d sometimes be laughing at you.”
Emigrating to Boston in 1953, however, Reynolds found a very different, and quite cosmopolitan, atmosphere. He became immersed in the Dudley Street dance hall scene, where the Irish music with which he was so familiar became enmeshed with American styles like the tango and foxtrot. But there were plenty of ex-pats, or Americans of Irish descent, around who could play the old tunes as well as the new stuff, and he befriended musicians like Paddy Cronin, Joe Derrane, Brendan Tonra, Mickey Connolly, George Shanley, and many others who would become legends in Boston’s Irish music annals.
He also made the acquaintance of a talented pianist named Phyllis Preece, whom he married in 1954. They had six boys – Larry Jr., Mike, James, Sean, Kevin, and Brian (deceased) – and a daughter, Deborah, and quite often, a house full of friends, many of them musicians.
Not surprisingly, the Reynolds children had plenty of exposure to Irish music and dance, and quite a lot of opportunity to explore them for themselves. Mike Reynolds recalls taking Irish step-dance lessons with his brothers as a young schoolboy, until he had enough. But when one of his brothers got interested in taking up music, Mike thought he might like to as well.
“I had to practice half an hour every day – do you know how long half an hour is for an eight-year-old kid? – and then my father would call me to him and he’d say, ‘Play the tune,’ and he’d tell me what I did right or wrong,” Mike said. “Later on, my brothers and I would go out with my father to the halls and the social clubs where there would be a ceili or some other event with music. We’d sit in with the other musicians, who all knew my father, of course. And that’s where I learned the music – sitting next to my Dad.”
By about that time in his life, Mike Reynolds and his siblings had an inkling of how important a figure their father was regarded in the community – the guy you went to if there was something that needed to happen, a cause that needed support.
“There always seemed to be about three different stacks of raffle tickets around the house, which we would go out and sell around the neighborhood,” Mike said. “It didn’t matter what the cause was, he would get behind it. The Irish are great for gathering around those who need help.”
Added Sheridan, “Larry didn’t say ‘No’ very often. Then, you’d get the call from him: ‘Would you do me a favor and help me with this?’ Your answer, because it was Larry, would be ‘Whatever you want.’ ”
In 1969, it was Sheridan who needed help. He had joined the Curragh Ceili Band a couple of years before, but after some of the members left, he found himself looking for replacements. “My first call was to Larry,” said Sheridan, who had first met Reynolds playing for an Irish dance recital, where the two “had the best time.” It was the beginning of a successful and enjoyable partnership.
“Larry was always bringing in someone to play with the band, like Seamus Connolly [with whom Reynolds would eventually host a weekly radio show on WNTN] or other young kids he’d seen,” Sheridan said. “He was constantly out there to make connections. For him, the gigs we would do weren’t about bringing in a band – it was about bringing in the music.”
Of course, adds Sheridan, the music wasn’t just Irish. “We’d play everything from dance to weddings to birthdays and more, and you needed a broad repertoire that included rock and country and so on. Larry could do it all.”
Reynolds’s brand of leadership and sociability was critical in helping the local Comhaltas branch, which he co-founded in 1975, become one of the largest and most active in the world. He headed up the branch’s ceili band, which gained prominence well beyond the Boston area, and arranged to have the branch’s monthly get-togethers at the Canadian American Club, which became a magnet for local and visiting musicians alike.
Reynolds was inducted into the Comhaltas Hall of Fame, to go with the honors he received from the Irish Cultural Centre of New England, Harvard University’s Celtic Studies Departments, and Irish America Magazine, which in 2006 included him in its list of Top 100 Irish-Americans.
One of his most important Comhaltas-related achievements was helping establish the branch’s music school, thereby ensuring that young (and even not so young) people would learn the tradition from some of the Boston area’s most accomplished musicians.
“He was very clear in his belief that, for the music and the culture to survive, there needed to be a school,” said Lynch, who served as the school’s music director. “He knew there were a lot of challenges in teaching kids, and getting them hooked, so he would always be around to meet and encourage them. He had a great way with kids.”
Then again, Larry Reynolds had a great way with just about anyone. The most lasting image of Reynolds for Sheridan and others was when he would welcome a new arrival to a session, especially a person with relatively little experience in Irish music. He would ask the newcomer where he or she was from, how long he or she had been playing, and then invite him or her to start a tune.
“So the person would name a tune, and Larry would say, ‘Oh, that one,’ “ recalled Sheridan. “ ‘That’s one of my favorites.’ “
Sean Smith writes regularly on Irish music and dance for the Boston Irish Reporter.