Jews in Irish Music ~ Peter Kasin

Peter KasinPeter Kasin is a fiddler’s fiddler; or really, a musician’s fiddler.  His clean take on traditional tunes, with strong bowing and great intonation, makes him a wonderful tune leader.  I’m very grateful that I am able to follow him every week.

“On both sides of the family we can’t go back any further than my great-grandparents. They all emigrated in the 1890s. On my dad’s father’s side, the Kasins were from Lithuania while on his mother’s side there were some Austrian-Jewish folks as well. Her maiden name was Wachtel.  On my mother’s side there was Russian and Polish Jews. Her maiden name was Sherman, but who knows what it was before they arrived at Ellis Island. As far as my great-grandparents, the only thing I’ve seen is an old photo of two old people. He’s standing with a white beard and yarmulka and she has her wig on. On my father’s side, his grandfather Simon Kasin came to New York with his brother Abraham, who became a police captain in New York City. Abraham was resented by a lot of the Irish policemen who didn’t like taking orders from a Jewish police captain. Simon was a big, 6 foot-four guy, when most Jewish men at that time were like 5’7”. He was known as the Scourge of the Poles, because when the Poles came into the Jewish neighborhood to attack the Jews, he would defend them. This was back in Europe and here, too, in NY.

ballMy grandfather, Ben Kasin, was a minor-league baseball pitcher in a sandlot league in NY.  He was also chief dance instructor at the Roseland Ballroom and a licensed plumber. His wife, Frances, didn’t have a career, but had a gambling problem and lost a lot of money.Grama







This is my dad when he was about 3 years old, taken in Detroit when they had separated for a while. They got back together later. I met them twice. In 1961 we went to NY to visit and then in ’65 they came out and stayed with us in Berkeley when I was little. I was born in ’53. My dad left home when he was 17.

bw dad

This picture was taken when he was about 20.

His brother was handsome, too. Larry, the middle brother, was 6’4” and was a pro-baseball pitcher in the NY Giants farm system. He got a sore arm and had to quit, so never made it to the Majors. My dad left home and became a plumber in Panama, and then in WWII he was a Navy SeaBee stationed in the South Pacific, on a little island near Borneo called Manus Island. With him there was Willie Johnson of  The Golden Gate Quartet, the people who backed up Leadbelly, and my dad befriended him. Dad brought him over to his side in the then-segregated barracks, and the other guys got really angry. They said don’t bring that “n*****” over again. My dad then moved into the black barracks. The singing group had no connection to San Francisco; the name referred to the “Golden Gate to Heaven” or something like that. They were a Gospel group. A little later after the war, dad was asked to be Josh White’s manager. At one point he gave a house concert in Berkeley where he lived and one of his friends said Josh needed someone to look after him.

Dad and mom both went to Brooklyn College in NY. Mom graduated at 20, because back then they offered an accelerated program. Then she went to grad school at the University of Chicago in Psychology. Dad went out there with her shortly after he was discharged and they got married there in 1946, and immediately came out to California. Dad went to CAL Berkeley for his Engineering degree, and in the mid-’50s started his own firm called Kasin, Gutmann and Associates. Mom practiced psychology. When she was at Brooklyn College there was a student there called Oscar Brand who had a radio show on campus and played a lot of folk music.

She liked it a lot. When I was little they would play Young People’s Records for me. I had no idea at the time, but that was from the “left”, you know “People’s Music”. Not that far left, but liberals. Pete Seeger gave free children’s concerts at Live Oak Park in Berkeley in the ‘50s, so my mom would take my sister and I, and drop us off. When she’d come to pick us up shPetee’d buy us a folk music record, like this, my first one, the Pete Seeger sampler. One side is studio, the other side is live. Recorded in 1954 on Folkways.



The earliest ones I can remember are from listening to the Young Peoples is Burl Ives.



Then there were the musical “IT’ moments that hit me personally, when the light went on. When I was about 12 I was at home on a rainy day, and I just took out one of my parent’s classical records at random and put it on, and see if I like it.

This was the one, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and I LOVED it. I kept playing it over and over.

BeethovenAnd then, of course you had the “IT” moment for all of us, Meet the Beatles. I remember Ed Sullivan, early as a family we watched that show. And for so many, it changed everything.Beatles






The first album I ever bought for myself, with my own money, for 99 cents, in early ’64, was not a music album. It was album of Kennedy speeches. When I grew up Kennedy was a hero to me. In 1962 we heard him speak at Memorial Stadium on the UC campus. And dad being an alumnus, we got in.


Then the next really big moment was listening the first Bothy Band album; that’s when I fell totally, head over heels in love with Irish Music. I lived next door to a student co-op with a central kitchen.  I was on-call and I got a call that they needed some help. I happened to be home and I came right over and worked. Another student and I got to talking about folk music. She said “ well, if you like folk music you might like this Irish group The Bothy Band. Never heard of them. A few weeks later, I was thumbing through the LPs in the public library, and I saw The Bothy Band, and said, “that’s the one she was telling me about.” Took it home, put it on my record player; floored ~! I mean it was like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for me.

Bothy Hag

Julia Murphy was the one who told me about them in the coop kitchen. A few weeks after that I was going through the Pink Section in the Chronicle, and two members of the band were going to be playing at The Great American Music Hall, with two other people I had never heard of at that time: Phil and Johnny Cunningham. OK, but I recognized Micheal O Domhnaill and Triona Ni Domhnaill. I asked her if she wanted to go, but she said no, it’s not her favorite stuff. I said OK, but I’m going !! It’s funny, but in that chain of events I met people after the concert that told me about the Irish session in Berkeley. This is in the Fall of ’85. I began going out to listen to the music at Moriarty’s Irish Pub at that time. That’s where I met Cathy Chilcott and Lani Herrmann. One Tuesday night this concertina player, Alan Lochhead, saw me and said “you come here every week to listen to us; do you play an instrument?” I said, “well, I played violin in high school, but I haven’t touched it in years.” And he said “Do you still have it ?  Why don’t you bring it down sometime?”

I brought it down and started to learn Irish tunes. I was off and running. The Irish Sessions.

In 1986 I went to an open house at an Irish import store in Oakland. I sat and listened to the two musicians playing, a fiddler and a harp player. It was my first time hearing Irish harp, and the fiddler was really outstanding. I asked him if he gave lessons, and started lessons with him. He is Joe Edelberg, who plays classical music in orchestras and small ensembles, and, before moving to Berkeley, played fiddle in the Massachusetts contra dance band Wild Asparagus. He was an excellent teacher, but I wasn’t his most excellent student, not practicing enough at the time of what he was teaching me. But I benefit even many years later, remembering and working on his lessons about relaxation while playing, and even using what I now gather is a method actor’s approach to paying attention and getting into the weeds with it. The harp player at that gig was Maureen Brennan, and we struck up a friendship. Joe and Maureen’s gigs were magical. Joe went on to concentrate more on his career in classical music. He is one of those rare musicians who can switch gears between classical and trad playing and show excellence at both.

In 10th grade I had started playing violin and continued for two or three years. I was inspired by the music teacher, Laura Weber, who started a beginning orchestra. We could choose whatever instrument we wanted. She had a syndicated show on KQED that went out to NET/PBS later, “Laura Weber ~ Folk Guitar.” As her music class we got to go on the set in the studio . She had Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten, who wrote “Freight Train”, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. An incredible thing to be able to see those people.

I tried french horn when I was in junior high, and clarinet later, and then gave those up. The wind instruments weren’t doing well for me. And, I wasn’t into practicing very much. But the violin, I really loved that. But then I just stopped and kept the violin in my closet for many years. It was unused from maybe ’72 until December of ’85.

So, I fell in love with the Bothy Band, but when I went to the session and heard the uilleann pipes I was disappointed because I had heard Paddy Keenan in the Bothy Band. I’d sit and listen and said “it doesn’t sound like the Bothy Band,” as my tastes had yet to evolve. I had not yet heard the sources, or the old players and such. It was just “the bands” who played fast and furious. I grew to like the smaller ensembles and buy CDs of duos or trios. A little calmer approach where you could hear the nuance. I still love Altan, the Donegal way, that seems to be perfect for that fast playing, but it doesn’t sound rushed. I really like Tommy Peoples.  Tommy

In the ‘70s, between the folk music and Irish music, I was listening to The New Lost City Ramblers playing Old Timey, and joined the after-school folk dancing at my high school at The Urban School of San Francisco. We’d dance to albums from Israel. At International House on UC Berkeley campus they had International dances every Friday night, and then at Hillel they had more Israeli folk dancing. Shalom

Another music I kind of grew up on was Theodore Bikel and Fiddler on the Roof. My parents had records of Candide and My Fair Lady and musicals like that. Then I listened to a group called the Klezmorim, who were a local klezmer band in Berkeley. But it didn’t have the effect on me that Irish music and Scottish music had, to inspire me to get the fiddle out of the closet. I think the connection me and my parents had with our Jewish background was more of a cultural one, between the kind of folk music I grew up with, their attitudes about the music and such. When I was in my 20s I got involved in the local reform synagogue on my own and would go every Friday night and Saturday morning to services. I never got bar mitzvah; but in my 20s I started thinking about 2000 years and the wisdom of Judaism and that I had not grown up with that. So I developed a real thirst for the knowledge that religion imparts.

Fireside Book

This book Fireside Book of Folksongs was in so many peoples homes in the 50s. Mom would sit at the piano and my sister and I would sing along. And we’d sing in the car; we had car songs.

And I do think it has a connection to being Jewish and liberal and all those things. When I was 11, I went to summer camp at the Quaker-run Hidden Villa down the Peninsula, and then there was one in Marin County called Forest Farms. It was in Forest Knolls and we used to hear rock music coming from over the hill. One of my cabin mates was Craig Chaquico. He was inspired by the rock music, and he went over to talk to them. It turns out it was The Warlocks, who later became The Grateful Dead. He later went on to being a rock guitarist with The Jefferson Starship.

I joined a madrigal group in high school that Laura Weber put together. I loved being in the madrigal group, but was not confident in my singing enough to branch out and sing outside of it. I stopped singing altogether until ’87, when Allan MacLeod and Dick Holdstock encouraged me to sing and invited me to the singers circle in Ross.  In November of ’89 two friends of mine from the Starry Plough, Simon Spalding and Beth Clark, who later became Beth Zekley, said “hey, we’re going to a chantey sing tonite; want to go?”  I went and when I saw the ranger running it, Celeste Bernardo, that was another “It” moment for me, in terms of what I want to do with my life. I started volunteering at the park and got hired as a ranger.


This is a few years later at Hyde Street Pier with my mentor chantey sing rangers Revell Carr and Celeste Bernardo. My first actual singing gig was with Revell in 1996, doing a park program at Eugene O’Neill NHS.


In 2002 I started singing with Richard Adrianowicz, and we’ve sung together for the past 14 years.

Think  of this chain of events, how one thing lead to another, for me in Celtic Music. I happen to be in at the time I get a phone call from the central kitchen. If I wasn’t in, I wouldn’t have met that student who would have told me about the Bothy Band, and then I wouldn’t go to the concert and meet the people who would tell me about the session at Moriarty’s. One day Alasdair Fraser came into the session there and then I started in Scottish music. You wonder some days what your life would be like if I wasn’t at home that time the phone call came in.

AFThe SF Scottish Fiddlers held their first meeting at Alasdair and Sally’s place in Sausalito. A guy I knew from Irish music, Bill Dennehy, told me about it and I went over. That’s how I got involved. Athena Tergis was a little 11 year old girl was also there at the first meeting. Janette Duncan and Duncan MacIntosh from Sonoma County were both there. So I was in love with both Irish music and Scottish music. I went to Alasdair’s fiddle camp many years. Not the first one, but I was at the 3rd Valley of the Moon in ’87 with Aly Bain and Buddy MacMaster. Wow, what a year ! The music and the community of the SFSFC was very important in my life. Open, welcoming kind of a group. There was a whole lot of cross-over between the Irish Music crowd and the Scottish Music one. But at Valley of the Moon Alasdair was very much into expanding our whole world. So he was always bringing in people from all over, and bringing in these univeral music connections. Martin Hayes was there in 2000. I missed the years John Kelly and Liz Carroll taught, but I was there for Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh a few years ago. He brought in Scandanavian fiddlers from Sweden and Norway. He has two camps here; Sierra Camp and Valley of the Moon, as well as camps in Spain and Scotland. I’ve only attended Valley of the Moon.


I started going to the Starry Plough Monday night sessions/dances around 1986, also to sessions and taking in gigs at the Plough and Stars in SF. Then in ’97, Laura Risk invited me out to the Sunday night session that Shay Black was leading. Shay is another influential person to me. I first saw him at a session at Moriarty’s earlier, but didn’t get to talk to him. His brother Michael Black used to come and brought him one time. Brian Theriault was kinda Shay’s right hand man on fiddle there on a Sunday night. After Brian stopped playing fiddle for that session, Shay asked me to take his place. And The Starry Plough is where I met the love of my life, Susan Walsh.

nauticusAnd Shay and I knew each other from Nauticus. That was a fun band. It was relaxed; no pressure. We got some nice gigs.

I think a thing that brings Jews to Irish music is the melodies.

Our Jewish ancestors in the old world sang so much; they went to services and SANG the prayers. When their offspring came to America, even if they were not religious, they sang. It’s just part of our DNA. I also think it’s a part of liberal Jewish upbringing that got you looking at things that were real, and without artifice. So this music, traditional music, presents something that expresses true emotion, history, and so much that is attractive.