Jews in Irish Music – Danny Carnahan

Float DCDanny Carnahan is a successful novelist, with 3 well-received books under his name, and leader of a wildly popular Celtic-concept-band that fills venues to dancing-room-only capacity. This band is the third musical endeavor linking his Irish name to his unique approach to Irish Music.  Yet he self-identifies as a Jew.

“My dad’s side of my family was half Irish and half Jewish, and my moms’s was half Irish, half English or all Irish depending on how far back you look; the Carnahans were from Northern Ireland and McCarthys from the South. Grandma McCarthy married a Ukrainian Jew named Miloslowsky, giving her problems with her side of family. My mom was was shown the door at 19 when she married my father. They couldn’t decide if it was worse that he was 1/2 Jewish or 1/2 Catholic.

She was born in Yonkers NY. Her dad was a graphic artist. When she was two years old her mom died and her dad married the housekeeper. They then moved to Nashville to be near her Southern family, who were rather closed-minded about anything that wasn’t Southern Methodist. My dad seemed like some sort of alien life form when he showed up there. They ran away and got married in Alabama and then moved to Ann Arbor Michigan where they had family.

So, I really only knew the Jewish quarter of my family in Michigan. Dad’s mom lived in NC, Mom’s parents lived in Nashville and I never met them until I was 8 years old. We stayed there in Ann Arbor until I was 9, with one or 2 trips to NY where dad’s brother lived.

My great-grandfather Israel Miloslowsky changed the family name to Lewis. His son Sam was the last one born in Russia. My father was the first one born here, in Iowa, and then they moved to Minnesota, which I guess looked like the Ukraine and felt like home.

We were not observant and I did not know what “Jewish” meant, but we had all these wonderful warm, fuzzy, elderly relatives who took care of us. Later in life we called ourselves food-Jews; we’d get together and eat a lot. No one sang. I learned that my father’s mother and my mother’s father were both musicians, my mother’s father being a really good pianist. He played in speakeasies in Baltimore during Prohibition. My father’s mother played the violin. I did not know them and never got to share music with them or receive encouragement from them. Never went to a Seder until we moved to CA in ’61. We were invited to one in Terra Linda where we landed when my dad got a job in CA.

sky_jacketBefore that my father was an Astronomer at University of Michigan, and would have followed some of his colleagues into aerospace. Two of them were leaders of the Hubble Telescope Project. But Dad couldn’t get a security clearance, I think because of his father’s politics. My grandfather, Morris Lewis worked for Jewish Relief in 1919 after the first World War, resettling Polish refugees, some in Cuba and some in Mexico. In the ’40s FDR named him to the UN relief organization in China and he worked there. He and his wife Helen, the 4th wife, the one I knew as “Gramma” were about as far left as you can get. He didn’t sing, but I have one radio transcription from 1950 when he was thrown out of China. He wanted to stay there. He actually knew and worked with Zhou Enlai. He hated Chiang Kai-shek’s guts. I have letters he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt talking about the horrors of that regime. During the Yellow River Project Chiang Kai-Shek was punitively flooding out millions of Chinese because they supported Mao. After grandpa died, dad inherited his address book and Zhou’s phone number was in it.

I remember learning to read on my dad’s lap from early Pogo comics, when he explained to me that “Simple Jay Malarky” was really Senator McCarthy. I learned about American politics through the lens of Walt Kelly. There was no discussion of the Holocaust at all. The notion that my mom’s parents didn’t like him because of his religion didn’t pop up until I was grown-up. My parents were really good at not discussing anything deep with us; they kept it real “light”. My dad would chew his own arm off to avoid confrontation.

The music that I grew up with consisted of a 2-inch stack of LPs and 78s. 78s were Spike Jones and some cowboy songs. The LPs included some Broadway, Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, and Kismet. Also the first two Tom Lehrer records with the devil playing the piano on the cover, which my mother actually bought FROM Tom Lehrer in Boston. We had The Weavers Live at Carnegie Hall.

I was always musical. Music was like air to me from day one. I remember listening a billion times to the yellow 45rpm records we had on a Mickey Mouse record player and playing along on my little Mickey Mouse guitar. When I was in 2nd grade I was in an ocarina band at school and I was sent home with a note asking my parents to take me out of ocarina band because I had no musical aptitude. What it turned out to be was I was so bored playing in unison with everyone else that I was playing harmonies.

piano 62I then started hanging out with a kid who had a piano and taught me how to noodle around with it. Then I started whining for a piano. My parents let me whine for a year and then they bought me a $75 piano which still sits in the next room. I took lessons from the Dutch lady that lived across the street. I enjoyed that. We brought the piano west to CA and I kept taking piano lessons on and off and then in 5th grade I fell in love with my teacher who played the cello. So that was the beginning of the cello for me. I got really serious about it, and played cello all the way into college. I was a cello MAJOR; basically trying to not end up in Vietnam and figured that was my ticket, staying in the orchestra, going to UC Irvine for undergrad and Berkeley for my graduate and then play the cello in some symphony someplace. That was my plan.

That lasted until I realized I couldn’t stand most of the people I played with. I liked the music; the highest I’ve ever been in my life was playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the most powerful piece of music, EVER. I starting playing guitar with the people I DID like, including my roommate in my dorm, who wrote little songs, and we started playing as a duo. He showed me you can WRITE songs, which hadn’t really occurred to me before. Then we both started writing songs and performing in the little coffee houses around Irvine.

The orchestra leader had me as sort of his pet cellist. I was always available to play for senior recitals. I was working 6-1/2 days a week for him, and playing guitar the other 1/2 day in a coffee house. He got wind of this and called me into his office and said “if you’re ever gonna get good at something you’ve got to pick one thing. Guitar or cello; what’s it gonna be ?” It was the wrong thing to say to me at that particular moment, and I basically said “OK, I quit.” Walked out and didn’t touch the cello for 7 years. It was wrong. I have very few real regrets in life but that’s one. I still own a cello but only play it a few times a year. I just played it for a Shabbat service. I actually managed to play the Kol Nidre seven or eight years ago when the designated cellist got sick and couldn’t make it. My problem is I remember just how good I was once and I’ve never been that good again. But I have a cello, which I bought 25 years ago from Laurie Lewis when she had a music store in San Rafael.

I switched from the cello to the guitar because you could get more girls with the guitar. I have noticed throughout life that interest in music tracks social context. And so if I had a bunch of friends who played X kind of music, that kind of music was fun and if it was just me by myself, it was just drudgery. Why bother practicing ? No fun at all. I’m just playing for old Arthur Eisler, one of my piano teachers.

I saw The Sons of the Pioneers on our way to CA in ’61 in Arizona or New Mexico at some big outdoor venue. I liked cowboy songs and to sing along. I knew all the words to all the songs in Guys and Dolls. I knew a bunch of Gilbert and Sullivan, stuff from The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance. I started playing guitar at 10 or 11 years old.

The most important music in anybody’s life is what they were listening to within 18 months of hitting puberty. So, of COURSE, the late ’60s is the wheel-house, where I can close my eyes and probably hum to myself and replay in perfect mental harmony probably a thousand tracks that were recorded between 1967 and 1970.

willyFor me, the most powerful overwhelming desire was to BECOME one of those who played the music. The music was inextricably tied to the history and culture (or perhaps just the context) of those playing the music. At 10 I sang along with Broadway soundtracks imagining myself singing on stage (Lancelot in Camelot was a particularly strong dream). I learned all the requisite 60s pop rock stuff and played badly in several teen garage bands not trying to express my own music but rather trying to dress up in the pop culture clothes of those just enough older and cooler than I, and I found that utterly fascinating.

I was in the orchestra in high school. I tried desperately to be cool enough to like jazz, but I couldn’t. I had a bunch of buddies in a jazz band called The Geeks and tried to play jazz cello but was a flaming failure. For a while there my biggest influences were Stravinsky and Frank Zappa. About the same time I was listening to lots of folk stuff, like The Weavers, and Marais and Miranda from South Africa. In 1968 we went on the one and only family trip to Europe. My dad had gone to school in the south of England and he wanted to find his old Forest School, which was like the Summerhill progressive schools, down in the Salisbury Plain. So we went and found the school and his old school-master was still alive and we had this wonderful, tearful reunion. My mom’s sister lived out in the west of Wales where they were building a Shell Oil refinery, so we also went out there. My cousin Becky, a little younger than me and her brother Malcolm were also musical. We would sit and listen to IRISH radio together for weeks. That was when the Radio Caroline pirate station was broadcasting off a ship in the Irish Sea. That was the first time I heard Irish Music identified as Irish Music. At the time all music was lumped together; I made very few stylistic or cultural distinctions, but this time thought “Wow, I LIKE Irish Music!” Danny Doyle and The Dubliners were at the top of the hit parade, and I made it my business to get their records while we were over there. I got Danny Doyle’s WHISKEY ON A SUNDAY and the Dubliners SEVEN DRUNKEN NIGHTS, my first Irish records. Fast-forward 25 years and I actually met Danny Doyle in a pub on Bourbon Street in New Orleans where Robin & I were playing. We alternated sets with him.

Barney McKenna played banjo with The Dubliners. I was impressed and played along with the record on guitar. There was as yet no social context for Irish Music so it was not a hugely important part of the mix. Right about then I also discovered The Incredible String Band and they were playing jigs and reels, throwing them in between their songs. The very earliest fiddle tunes I ever tried to learn were from Robin Williamson, scratching away on his tortured versions. That was where Irish Music “really hit.”

rennI imagined myself as a scruffy folkie playing Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I had a guitar strapped around my neck at the first Renaissance Faire at China Camp in Marin. If you came on horseback you got in FREE ~! This was just after the Summer of Love, there’s hippies in Golden Gate Park, what’s not to like ?  I somehow associate Simon and Garfunkel with the Ren Faire since both of those influences happened simultaneously to me. I played a LOT of Simon and Garfunkel, largely because I’ve always been drawn to singing and good melodies regardless of ethnic origin. I wandered around Faire singing folkie pop and the Dubliners and Danny Doyle Irish songs and some of the Greensleeves-type old stuff that was kicking around in the Tolkien-rich environment of the time. Whenever I was singing and playing I ceased to be a suburban white kid and stepped into an alternate persona of some kind. I tried on personae like hats, as all kids do… mine just always involved music.

larkcampI don’t think I was aware of any Jewish Music until LarkCamp, where all the doors blew off and I’m listening to music from 56 different countries in one week, like a kid in a candy store. I met Gerry Tenney at that time and he got me involved with Jim Rebhan, the accordion player. I played fiddle and I was a reasonably fast study and they needed a fiddle player. They taught me a core repertoire and I played some gigs with them. And, I liked it, but didn’t really pursue it because I didn’t have enough of a social construct to plug it into.

lbbThe fiddle, yes. About the time I walked away from the cello at UC Irvine, I was playing the guitar and the school had the best music library on the west coast. So being a student we could take out stacks of sheet music. They had all this wonderful Early Music and Baroque Music, and we’d get like 2 inches of music and go home and sight-read the stuff. Robin Petrie, who I met there on my first day of college, and Bill, my roommate and a couple other people would play through it all. One guy had Rauschpfeifes, Cornemuses, and reproduction medieval woodwind instruments and I kept saying “a fiddle would sound really good in here”. Bill’s girlfriend and my other roommates got sick of hearing me say it and went out and bought me a fiddle. It was such a cosmic gift that I HAD to learn it. I pissed people off for a year. Learning a fiddle is never a pretty thing. When I got past the painful part, I loved it.

shira-crop-resizeI first met Shira Kammen in 1990. When I bought this house in ’89 the bill of sale actually included, in writing, Lorna, who was an 80-year old lady who was living in the cottage, an assurance she could live there for the rest of her life without me raising her rent. She lived about a year. After we got her stuff moved out I spent about 4 months fixing up the cottage to rent and I put the word out that we were looking for a tenant. Within hours, Shira shows up with her fiddle under one arm and a bunch of music under the other and she’s trailing bits of music behind her, and her hair is sticking up, and her skirt’s on backwards, introducing herself as a friend of a friend, and she’s looking for a place to live. I took one look and said “yup, you’re it.” My kinda gal. We got to know each other bit by bit and started sharing music and playing together.

She is another one of these wide-open people, who’s able to play in dozens of different genres and international styles, with such love and soul. She is a delight, no matter what she’s doing. We’re actually playing a Shabbat service together on Friday. We both teach at Lark Camp.

I began teaching there on the 2nd year they held camp, in 1981. Chris Caswell and I went there and did a half-camp, and that was when I said I will never do a half-camp again. Been a full-camper ever since. I missed 3 years in the last 33. Mostly, I’m family up there. As long as it’s going, I’ll go. I met Mickie Zekley when he was in The Golden Toad, his band with Bob Thomas in the 60s. They were like the house-band of the Northern Faire for a while. They were the guys who would play weird Early Music at the gate when they opened.

Caswell-Carnahan was my first recorded group.

calgFirst recording I ever DID was on Michael Rugg’s album in 1980 on Kicking Mule down in Santa Cruz. I was playing Irish Music on octave mandolin and fiddle. Within a year Chris & I found our way into the Kicking Mule crowd and gotten a producer and some vague assurances that if we did an album that they would release it, so in 1981 we did the first Caswell-Carnahan record. Then, in ’82, we released Borderlands.

ccChris and I played feverishly for about 3 or 4 years, but in around 1984 we parted ways amicably, and I immediately just replaced him with Robin.

d&rI’d given her a hammer dulcimer, and she took to it like a duck to water, and we started performing together. I was totally sold on the touring musician’s lifestyle and see the world, and get paid to see the world, and I really didn’t care about putting a lot of money away. I knew I was young, and I knew I was healthy and I just wanted it to run as long as I could run it. And, I wanted to do everything with Robin, and I sort of railroaded her into doing it. She was willing to let me be the whip-hand and she would go along.

two4roadRR: I hear glimmerings of WAKE THE DEAD in your duo with Robin, the pairing of Dead songs with Celtic Music.

Part of this is my admitted Marin County, Northern CA, child of the ’60s worldview, that everything is fair game and I’d heard all this stuff, so why not just pick all this musical fruit off the musical tree I’m sitting under. Robin worked at Creative Merchandisers in San Rafael and Jerry Garcia would come there to buy his art supplies and Grace Slick would occasionally appear. We knew Stanley Mouse who did a painting for me on my 35th birthday. Also Alton Kelley; I attended at his wedding in Sausalito.

Michael Harmon had a party in 1998, and Maureen Brennan and Paul Kotapish and I were all there. Paul and Michael were talking about the playing of jigs and reels with Grateful Dead songs, and Michael said “You ought to talk to Carnahan, I just had the same conversation with him.” So the 3 of us sat around the kitchen table a day or two later just noodling around with a reel and China Cat Sunflower and other pairings the three of us had come up with. After about two or three hours we just looked at each other and said we have enough for an album, and we should just go in the studio and DO this. We used that as an excuse to put together a band that included all the people we always wanted to have a band with. That original line up also included Joe Craven, the percussionist, who had played with Garcia in the Acoustic Band. Paul knew Cindy, our bass-player, through Due West. I’d played with Kevin Carr years before, in Larry Lynch’s music and dance review, back in the late ’70s, playing fiddle and singing in Irish, embarrassingly badly.

WTD_front_photoThe actual Dead connection was the fact that Robin and I liked just good songs. LOSER, for example, that medleyed with something we’d learned in New Zealand. When we recorded it, we were honorable and wanted to pay Garcia and Hunter royalties on it, so I worked out I owed them something like $35. I wrote a little check and a little cover letter saying “thanks a lot, we just recorded this” and a copy of the CD. We happened to know where their office in San Rafael was, so we just dropped it by there. Somebody cashed the check and I figured we now had a business relationship. A few years later I was hanging out with Henry Kaiser, and he got me backstage at a Dead show at Shoreline. I looked around in between sets and there was Garcia sitting all by himself at a table. I walked up, stuck out my hand and introduced myself. He was reading two magazines at a time, scary smart. I told him that a few years before, I had recorded LOSER and sent you enough money for a lunch. He said, “That was YOU ? I remember you. You were like the only one who ever sent us a CHECK.” Independently I met Hunter through Tom Constanten and Henry Kaiser who I was playing and meeting socially with on a regular basis.

16 years ago when we put the band together, I’d always wanted to sing with Sylvia Herold but never had a context to do it. I could then finally say “God ~ I got a context now; let’s do it.” She’d never HEARD any Grateful Dead, so I went over with a guitar and I didn’t tell her it was going to be a Dead band, just that we had an album idea, and we’d like her to sing on it. Let me just come by and toss some songs at you and see if you like them. I just played the songs with guitar, stripped down to their underwear, without any of their Grateful-Deadness, and after 3 or 4 songs she said “these are such beautiful folksongs, how come I’ve never heard them ?” Well, these were written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, and if you dolled them up in tie-die they’re the Grateful Dead, but if you take that away, underneath it all there’s these unbelievably cool songs. You can deconstruct them right down to their DNA and re-imagine them and this is what we can do with them: we can tart them up as Irish Music, and isn’t that cool ? And she said “I’m in.” Kevin and Cindy Brown were in in two seconds. Happily, Joe Craven was available, before he had to go off and put three kids thru college after about 2002. So Brian was our second percussionist for a while and then Joe left and came back to sit in with us from time to time.

The band’s magical mix of music and personalities is just so bloody fun. If the audience has anywhere near as much fun as we do on stage it’s a really good night. Even practicing is fun. I just love being in a room with these guys. Absolutely the best band I’ve ever had anything to do with. David Gans, the music journalist loved us since the first note he ever heard us play; so supportive in every way over the years. Blair Jackson, publisher of the The Golden Road, the Grateful Dead magazine has been very supportive of us. Unfortunately Jerry never got to hear us. He died in ’95 and we really didn’t get together until ’99.

wtd cd The first album was released in 2000. We tossed a copy to Peter McQuaid in the Dead office and two days later he calls us up and says, “we want to put you out on a major label, and can you play at Bimbo’s and also open for Bobbie Weir at the Fillmore ?” I said YEAH & hung up the phone & said “we gotta put the band together!” At no time had we all been in a room together. Everybody said “sure, that sounds like fun.” So we rehearsed and had barely enough material for one set, and there we were. We shared the bill with The Persuasions at Bimbo’s, and then played The Fillmore; our first two gigs ! Talk about hitting the ground running and jumping into the big leagues. They put us out on Arista Records and advertised us ONCE to the general Grateful Dead mailing list. We sold 25,000 copies in the first month, I think.

We have gotten some feedback from the Irish community on our mixing Irish Trad and Dead music. I was most concerned about Mick Fitzgerald, my singer-songwriter friend from Dublin who I met there in 1978 who got me going as an actual Celtic performer. I sent him a copy and he liked it; that was good enough for me. Not a lot of written reviews/critiques, but when someone is willing to book you, and then book you again, that says a lot about what they think of your music. We were booked twice that way at the Sebastopol Celtic Festival, a bonafide Celtic event, and the people who go there are self-identified Celtic Music aficionados. We showed up to play, and there’s a bunch of stealth-Deadheads there that kind of snuck in. As soon as the first Grateful Dead song in a medley we were playing was recognized 50 or 60 tie-dyed Deadheads jumped up and started dancing in front of the stage. It was like total culture-clash.

If I were to drop dead at this table right now, I would consider that I had just an unbelievably successful life. I was lucky in my choice of smart, well-educated and tolerant parents; I was lucky where I grew up; I was lucky I was born with a musical ear. I had polio and menengitis and a burst appendix and didn’t DIE. Success for me is that I am able to play with these amazing people, while I’m able to be paid to do what I love most. And I’m also lucky that I don’t need the money, it’s just nice to get.

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