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On Being an Irish Entertainer: Seamus Kennedy Takes Questions

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, August 1, 2009

For more than 30 years, Seamus Kennedy has presented his distinctive blend of Irish folk songs and ballads, contemporary and popular songs, and stage patter that invariably elicits belly laughs, chuckles, groans, and the occasional "did-he-really-say-that?" gasp of disbelief from the crowd.

Kennedy is not there just to provide "ambience"; whether he's playing in a pub or a concert hall, on a festival stage or a cruise ship, he wants the audience to feel they're part of the show – and sometimes they are, in ways they would never expect.

For Kennedy, the Boston and Eastern Massachusetts area represents an important, and fondly remembered, chapter in his life story. It's where the Belfast native lived when he first came to the US, in 1971, where he started his family, and it was where he immersed himself fully in sessions and other musical settings, developing the skills and qualities as a musician and entertainer that continue to serve him well. Kennedy, who now lives near Annapolis, Md., has recalled some of that era in the book "Clean Cabbage in the Bucket (And Other Tales From The Irish Music Trenches)," which he co-wrote with four other denizens of the Irish music circuit, Robbie O'Connell, Dennis O'Rourke, Harry O'Donoghue, and Frank Emerson.

Last month, Kennedy's tour schedule – he performs on average about 225 days of the year – saw him make a brief return to Massachusetts, for a gig at the Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley. Prior to the concert, he greeted arriving members of the audience, many of whom have obviously seen him more than a few times, caught up on old friends with the show's opening performer, long-time pal Seamus Pender, and chatted about the fun and challenge – but mostly the fun – in an Irish entertainer's career.

Q. Seamus, what are your most significant memories from the time you spent in Boston? When you look back at those years, how do you think they influenced you?

A. Well, I remember most that there was absolutely fabulous music around. I started off playing the ballads and traditional music, the jigs and reels and stuff, and the session scene here was absolutely thriving. I'd play with a guy called Tom O'Carroll from Newburyport, and later Patsy Whelan and Clive Collins. We used to have a Tuesday session at the Plough and Stars with Shay Walker and Johnny Beggan, and Declan Hunt. Those memories will stick with me forever. And we were in places like Liam's Irish Tavern in Framingham, the Village Coach House in Brookline Village – lots of good people, good times there.

Any ability I have on instruments – guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, bodhran – I got from sitting in on all those sessions during that period in my life.

The performing end of it, I got most of that from watching the Clancy Brothers. They made their shows basically theatrical, and presented the music very well. One of the things I can't stand is to see young lads get up on stage, and they haven't a clue as to how to present, and to hold an audience's attention. You'll find that the truly great instrumentalists, like The Chieftains, James Galway, or my personal hero, Victor Borge, they don't just get up and do straight music; they talk to and engage the audience. They look them in the eye.

Q. Let's talk about that relationship with the audience, which is obviously very important to you. You could do nothing but comic songs, or nothing but "old favorites," and people would probably be happy. But you don't always go for just a laugh, and you do songs that aren't always familiar to everyone. How do you work that?

A. It's a trade-off I have with the audience. They're here to see me do the funny stuff, and the audience-participation stuff. So I'll do a couple of those, and then I'll say, "OK, listen to this one," and I'll do a serious ballad, or a song in Irish, and explain it and why I like it.

This is what comes with performing for 30 years or more. I know how to feel out a crowd, how to get them to be quiet. Playing the bars for as long as I did was probably the best training I could have. Now, the real strict "traddies," or the singer-songwriters, or the obscure balladeers, they have to have a quiet audience. Having done trad, as well as the bars, I can get up and do what they do. But I don't think they can get up in front of bar full of noisy drunks on a Saturday night and do what I do.

But yeah, I'll do songs most everybody knows, but I also like bringing out material by songwriters who aren't as well-known. There's a buddy of mine up in Alaska, Mike Campbell, who writes really nice ballads, and good funny stuff, too. And Robbie O'Connell – outside of the Irish circles he isn't that well-known – I love his songs as well. And the thing is, these guys can write the serious ballads, but they can also write a really good funny song.

Q. How do you handle the whole "rebel songs" part of the Irish repertoire, or songs that have to do with "The Troubles"? I'm sure there are people who want to hear them just because they're so used to them, but it's a different situation in Ireland and Northern Ireland now – have your feelings about those songs changed?

A. I try not to do them anymore, not the modern ones, like "The Men Behind the Wire," because over there they're trying to make peace, and to keep the peace going. I would do older ones, like "The Foggy Dew" or "Boulavogue," because they have historical interest; or I'd do Tommy Makem's "Four Green Fields," or "Freedom's Sons," they're fine songs – as long you put them in some kind of historical context. But to sing them for the black armband-wearing, "Nation Once Again"-saluting crowd, I mean, you've just got to let it go. [I'll probably get canned from all my jobs when they read this.]

But you know, it depends on the club, on the situation. I'll sing "A Nation Once Again" if it seems appropriate, if, like I said, you can put it in context.

Q. It's pretty common to hear about the dilemma of wanting to pursue a full-time music career and also have a family. How have you been able to manage that?

A. I always was there for the kids when they were growing up (my older one is 30; my younger one is 28, just got married), because when we first moved to Maryland I became the house performer in a bar in Alexandria, and I was there for 13 years. It was five nights a week, 10 months out of the year, so I had security in a business that's not known for security. But once the kids got older I was able to expand my career and go on the road.

I'm all across the country. I do a lot of work on the West Coast or in the Midwest. But it's mostly weekend gigs that I do, Thursday through Sunday, and then I'm back for the first part of the week. My wife doesn't come with me, because she works outside the home, but we do take vacations together. This summer, we're going to take a week off to go up to Canada for my nephew's wedding, and take a train across the Rockies, something I've always wanted to do.

Q. Do you worry about getting into "a rut," that performing so often will become a routine in and of itself?

A. It depends on the audience. If they absolutely will not get into what I'm doing, then I tend to go on automatic pilot. Again, that just comes with experience – of course, you still want to give a good show, make it entertaining for people. Some places hire me without knowing that I demand a modicum of attention from the audience, that I'm not just musical wallpaper. But far more often than not I do get on fine with the crowd, and we all enjoy ourselves.

This is the thing: Even though I fool around, have a good time, it all comes back to the music. You just have to love the music, and I do. There's this great tradition we have in Ireland, "party pieces." At a party, we don't just stand around talking and eating, drinking cocktails. We entertain one another. And everyone would have a party piece, whether it was a song, a poem, a recitation, anything to entertain everyone else; you'd get up and do your bit, and then someone else would get up and do their bit. It went on for a whole night. I put out a CD which includes all the favorite party pieces of my Mom and Dad, my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. That's something you really don't see much these days. The closest thing to it in the States is karaoke, I think.

I do also enjoy the travel, I love going to new places and seeing what they're like, and I love trying out the regional delicacies – there's always something special to eat. I think I might write another book where I list all my favorite things to eat in the places I've traveled. For Massachusetts, it would probably be Johnny cakes and lobster, Ipswich clams, and Narragansett beer.

Q. So it sounds like the experience of Clean Cabbage in the Bucket didn't put you off writing.

A. It was a thrill doing the book. Dennis, Robbie, Harry, Frank and I, we always seemed to end up meeting up at a diner at 2 a.m. and exchanging war stories, and then one day Dennis said, "Hey, we should be writing this down." Dennis was the instigator; he kicked our butts, did the editing, and arranged for it get published, so all credit to him. I loved all the guys' stories, it was just wonderful reading them.

Q. If there was a movie version, who do you think should play you?

A. Jack Nicholson, without a doubt.