Kevin Burke adds another string to his bow with Gradam Ceoil honour

As Kevin Burke picks up his Gradam Ceoil honour, he tells Richard Fitzpatrick how a boy from London in the Swinging Sixties ended up becoming a top Irish fiddle player
Kevin Burke adds another string to his bow with Gradam Ceoil honour

KEVIN BURKE’S parents emigrated to London from Co Sligo. After starting their family, they wanted their seven-year-old son, who was born in 1950, to learn the fiddle so they hooked him up with a classical violin teacher. “She was an old Victorian lady,” Burke remembers. She started him on nursery rhymes and baby tunes.

After about six months, Burke’s father asked her if she could teach him an Irish tune. She was up for it; all she needed was a songbook so he picked up a copy of Allan’s Irish Fiddler. She taught him the first few tunes in the collection. His parents, were a bit mystified though at his lack of progress.

“They said to the teacher, he’s putting the time in but he doesn’t seem to be getting any better. If anything he’s getting worse. They played her a record, ‘The Connaughtman’s Rambles’ and said: ‘This is how we expect him to sound’. She said: ‘What the record is playing is not what’s written in the book. If you get me a book with that written in it, I’ll make him sound like it, but what’s in this book is different.’

“That was a huge revelation to me — that the written music and the sound of the music were not necessarily the same thing. I started to think of music very differently. I read the book and then heard somebody playing and I’d try to match the two.”

At school, Burke’s mates were into The Supremes, Otis Redding, The Kinks and the likes. His love of Irish trad music made him an outlier, although he says any baiting he got for it was indiscriminate. “I went to an all-boys school. You got teased if you had freckles or if you didn’t have them. Slagging was the currency.”

There was, however, one boy at school who shared an interest in trad music — Paddy Bush, who properly introduced him to English folk music. “Paddy’s mother was from Waterford,” says Burke, “so he could see the connections between [the two schools of music]. His sister became the lady we now know as Kate Bush.

“Kate was probably only 10 or 11 in those days but she was already writing songs and playing the piano.”

Burke feasted widely when it came to availing of what was on offer in the live music scene in London. On a Friday night in 1966, say, he could catch Peter Green or John Mayall in a blues club. On a Saturday night, he’d be playing reels and jigs “with a few fellas from Co Clare”.

It was in Co Clare — during a music week in Miltown Malbay — that Burke first met Arlo Guthrie in the summer of 1972. Burke walked into a pub one morning looking for a cup of tea when he happened upon half a dozen American musicians. “They started to play,” he says. “They were obviously real musicians. They weren’t off a tourist bus and one of them had brought a guitar. I was edging closer and closer to them and finally one of them said: ‘Is that a fiddle you’ve got? Do you play?’”

The day took a few turns from there. They motored on to Quilty down the coastline. It was a glorious day so they lounged on the cliffs playing, popping backwards and forwards to a nearby pub for pints.

About six weeks after Guthrie and his band returned to the United States, Burke got a letter telling him that if he ever fancied coming to America, October would be great because of the autumn colours.

“Arlo lived in western Massachusetts,” says Burke. “He said you’d see this amazing landscape with all the colours from the trees and we’re recording around that time. The recording thing excited me more than the trees so I said ‘What the hell’ and went out there.”

Burke recorded on Guthrie’s album, Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, which was released in 1973. It’s one of dozens of albums Burke has been part of it. He’s had nine musical lives. Later this year he’ll release an album with the legendary Celtic Fiddle Festival. He’s also collaborating with the electric guitarist John Brennan for a collection of “Irish versions” of rock’n’roll, blues and gospel songs.

Over the years, he turned out nine albums with the all-star group Patrick Street, which included Jackie Daly and Andy Irvine, and he boarded the Bothy Band train for its second album in 1976, the memorably titled Old Hag You Have Killed Me, and toured and recorded with them for the rest of their journey.

They were helter-skelter days with the Bothy Band. He remembers they arrived in the wrong German town one time to play a gig, which had the same name as the town they had been destined for. Another time their van was stolen in Northern Ireland.

“A few days later, we got a call from the RUC,” he says. “They’d found it; myself and the roadie PJ Curtis went up to collect the van. We had to go to the police station. The guy at the station said, ‘We have the van but…’ We thought, ‘Oh, dear, what’s this all about?’

“In those days, they were very nervous about bombs. They thought this abandoned van might be booby-trapped so they took some precautionary measures, basically shooting holes in it, and blowing the back doors off it. The van was drivable. We drove it back, but I remember there were bullet holes in the door.”

As well as playing Gradam Ceoil in Cork Opera House on Sunday, Kevin Burke will be teaching at the Fiddle Fair Autumn School, Baltimore, Cork, 6-12 November.

Gradam Ceoil 2016 Award Winners

1. Musician of the Year — Kevin Burke: London-born, Oregon-based, Bothy Band fiddle master.

2. Young Musician — Órlaith McAuliffe: A precocious flute soloist and composer; the 23-year-old north Londoner has already made a splash guesting with Altan and the London Lasses.

3. Hall of Fame — Arty McGlynn: Has been playing with bands since his Co Tyrone youth in the 1950s. His groundbreaking guitar playing is perhaps best captured on his 1979 album McGlynn’s Fancy and recordings with Van Morrison, Paul Brady and Dónal Lunny.

4. Musical Collaboration — Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It: Imaginative archival CD project to harvest forgotten songs and tunes from the Sliabh Beagh region in Monaghan, Tyrone and Fermanagh

5. Singer — Pól Ó Ceannabháin: The popular broadcaster, and son of Michael Mháire Gabha, is the latest in a long line of gifted sean-nós singers from the west Galway Gaeltacht.

6. Special Contribution — Cairde na Cruite: Founded in 1960, thanks to a drive by former president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, the organisation has successfully promoted the harp tradition, including public performances and commissions

7. Gradam 1916 — Gael Linn: To mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, Gael Linn, which was established in 1953 to spread the use of the Irish language and was made famous by the musical scores of Seán Ó Riada, is being honoured

A concert featuring Gradam Ceoil award winners takes place on Sunday, at Cork Opera House. It will also be broadcast live on TG4.

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