Just imagine if the band that inspired and influenced your youthful musical development invited you, years later, to join them. This fantasy - common to musician and non-musician alike - came true for Boston area native Eddie Dillon during the late 1990s, when he played with The Clancy Brothers, which at the time comprised original members Paddy and Bobby Clancy and Bobby's son Finbarr (Paddy died shortly thereafter, but the group kept performing until Bobby's death in 2002).
Being the only American ever to tour with the Clancys was a major highlight in Dillon's decades-long musical career, during which he has written songs recorded by the likes of Seamus Kennedy, Barleycorn, and Kieran McDermott, and served as a backing musician (he plays guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass) for various friends and acquaintances.
The presence of the Clancys in Dillon's childhood is one of the elements in his theatrical/musical piece, "An Irish American Family," which he will perform on Aug. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton [irishculture.org]. Dillon's one-man show, which he premiered late last year, combines reminiscences and stories of Irish Catholic family life in the 1960s with songs evoking that period, whether from the Clancys' repertoire ("Rising of the Moon" and "Jug of Punch") or sentimental favorites like "Frankie and Johnny," "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" or "The Shamrock Green," which was written by his grandfather.
Further representing the Clancy legacy at the Aug. 20 event will be none other than Aoife Clancy (daughter of Bobby), with whom Dillon has performed regularly over the years. She'll be doing a set of her own, as well as some songs with Dillon.
Dillon recently chatted with the Irish Reporter about his career, the origins of "An Irish American Family" - and why it's not just for Irish Americans.
Q. Eddie, given your resume, it seems like there were any number of musical projects you could've taken on, so how did you wind up with "An Irish American Family?"
A. It was after I had toured with the Clancys, and with Finbarr Clancy. It had been a great experience, but I was tired, I felt like I had "graduated" from the pub scene, and was looking to do something a little more creative.
I suppose at some point everyone starts to think about their beginnings, how they got to be where they are. I grew up in a singing family. We weren't the type to display shamrocks and shillelaghs, but we were very proud of our Irish heritage, and at gatherings everyone had their "party piece" to share, a story or a poem or a song. It was second nature to us.
So I began to work on the idea of a theatrical monologue about the experience of the Irish American family, and the first reading I did was dry and historical. Someone told me, "We want to hear about you, and your family." And I came up with this version, which revolves around the family life I knew as a child growing up in Braintree, the songs we would sing - there are more than a dozen in the show - and the customs we would observe, and the family history. For instance, there was my grandmother, Nora Flanagan from Roscommon, who'd come over to the US as a young girl, and my great-grandfather, who was a friend of [legendary Boston mayor] James Michael Curley.
I've spent my life as an instrumentalist, but I consider myself a songwriter - I've written 300 songs - and also have written thousands of poems. What I find people are most interested in, though, are stories. If you do it right, you can tell a story about anything. I feel I'm genetically programmed to do that: My mother's father was a shanachie from Galway, and people hired him to come out to funerals, wakes, other events and tell stories.
Q. What kind of response has the show generated?
A. This concert at the ICC will actually be only the fourth performance of "Irish American Family," but it's been pretty amazing so far. I've gotten people from 5 to 95 years old in the audience; people bring their children, or they bring their parents. I don't try to make my family life seem like it was incredibly dramatic or eventful; just very typical for people of a certain time and generation; I say, "Between tears and laughter, this is how I grew up."
What I've found is that the show strikes a chord with people who didn't grow up Irish, or Catholic, or in the 1960s, or in Boston. Someone would say to me, "We're Lithuanian, but your stories remind me of my family." There is a real universality to family stories. And in this day and age, where families tend to be spread out geographically and there aren't as many opportunities to gather, to have a family life like the one I talk about is increasingly rare. I think there's a strong interest among people to get a flavor of what that era was like: for those who are older, it's something they probably experienced themselves, and they enjoy the memory; for those who are younger, maybe they get an insight into how families used to interact.
Q. Talking about Irish families, you were fortunate enough to form ties with one of the most celebrated, the Clancys. How did that come about?
A. Well, the Clancys were certainly a big favorite in my household, as was the case with plenty of other Irish American families, and I grew up with their songs. That came in handy because I cut my teeth in the 1960s "folk scare" - as Utah Phillips used to call it - and played at coffeehouses all around the Boston area, until around 1970 everything seemed to dry up overnight. But then you started to see Irish pubs springing up everywhere, and of course I had this Irish repertoire - including songs associated with the Clancys - so it worked out very well for me and I was able to find gigs.
My relationship with the Clancys didn't start until the early 1990s, when Aoife Clancy came over to Massachusetts. She worked as a waitress at the 1882 Restaurant in Easton - Bobby had called up the owner, Tommy McGann, and asked him to give her a job - which was a place I played regularly. Aoife used to open for my band, and eventually we worked as a duo for a few years until she joined Cherish the Ladies.
Then there was a concert in Binghamton, NY, where the Clancys were performing, with Cherish the Ladies and Solas as the opening acts, and I was asked to play with the Clancys. We rehearsed about 15 minutes for that show. I was sweating bullets - I'd been on stage before, of course, but this was something special. Anyway, it must've gone just fine, because Bobby said, "Come on tour with us if you'd like."
Q. What did that experience do for you, professionally and personally?
A. From a professional standpoint, it was amazing to work with them, especially Bobby and Paddy. You've got two guys in their 70s doing gig after gig, day after day, and they're jumping up every morning before I'm even awake. When you're around that kind of enthusiasm and energy, it's bound to rub off, so I definitely grew as an entertainer.
There was a lot more to it than that, however. Irish music had been defined for me by Bobby Clancy, but I don't think I really appreciated what he and the music were all about until we did a tour of Ireland. We went to Carrick-on-Suir, and stayed on the street where they had grown up, and every night Bobby would say, "Let's go to this pub or that pub," and we'd head over; often, there were all farmers in the place, and they all knew Bobby. He'd get a session going, and people would be saying, "Hey, get so-and-so to come down here!"
Bobby had this huge repertoire, with some pretty obscure songs, and it was absolute gold. But he'd also get the folks there to sing their "party pieces," just like was done years ago. So you could really see the social, and personal, side of the music. It wasn't just something to be performed, it was something precious that you shared with friends.
Q. It sounds as if "An Irish American Family" is off to a very promising start. But you're not about to give up your other musical activities, are you?
A. I'm a musical everyman. I play with a number of different people, like Alfie O'Shea or Shananagans, and I run a recording studio. There's always several things to keep me busy, musically, and I like it that way.
I'm also happy to see that some of my nephews are becoming musicians, so who knows, maybe there'll be an addendum to the Dillon family story some day.