Jews in Irish Music ~ Robert Feiner

I was born in New York City, but raised in Mount Vernon, New York, home to such musical luminaries as Dick Clark, Sean P. Diddy Combs, Danny Kalb and Roy Blumenfeld of the Blues Project, Nina Simone. My next door neighbor was Jimmy Maxwell, trumpet player for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Woody Herman and The Tonight Show. I had no direct family musical influences but later found out that my great uncle Yossel (Joe) borrowed 50 rubles from his sister and emigrated from Brezeziny, Poland to Buenos Aires at age 15 in the late nineteenth century. There he studied violin. He apparently won $500 in a lottery, bought leather chaps, pointed toe shoes and a sombrero and went to New York. He joined a Jewish dramatic group and appeared at the Mosque Theater. He also learned to play piano, mandolin, accordion and banjo.

I very briefly took piano lessons in elementary school but switched to trumpet until I got braces in middle school and then quit (aided by the realization that I couldn’t play like Mark Gould, two years my senior and subsequently first trumpet of New York Metropolitan Opera and Juilliard faculty.)

About that time I started playing guitar and during high school in the sixties I frequented the West Village. I was able to walk from my house to the end of the subway line at 241st street in the Bronx and with one change get to West 4th street, where I’d catch some great street ball at ‘the cage’ (aka Fourth street Playground), then check out the wares across the street at Fretted Instruments next door to Izzy Young’s  Folklore Center. (When I played there in the seventies, the backboards were almost flush with the fence)

The Blues Project played almost weekly at The cafe Au Go Go and since the band had strong connections to Mount Vernon, I ‘adopted’ them and became a frequent Au Go Go patron. I got to see  so many great acts there in addition to The Blues Project: Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Youngbloods, The Village Fugs, Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Richie Havens, Richard Pryor, etc.

In addition to blues, folk and folk rock I was a big fan of Motown and got to see some of the greats (Temptations with David Ruffin, Martha and the Vandellas, Four Tops, Sam Cook) at Freedomland theme park in the Bronx which closed after only four years and is now the site of Coop City apartments.

Then the British Invasion and great Murray the K holiday shows at the Brooklyn Fox and New York Paramount: Little Richard, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Hermans Hermits, Chad and Jeremy. New York felt like the epicenter of what was happening in music with all due respect to the Swampers in Muscle Shoals, Funk Brothers in Detroit and Wrecking Crew in LA.

During high school, the only music I was actually playing was with a local cover band, The Wild Tones.

My bass guitar was a 1965 sunburst Fender Precision Bass ( the ‘P’ bass) purchased with an Ampeg B15 bass amp at the famous Manny’s Music on Music Row (48th Street) for less than $300 new.
Going to college in Ithaca, New York I was exposed to many great acoustic string players. A local band formed there in about 1970 was Country Cooking with Pete Wiernick (Hot Rize), banjo wizard Tony Trischka, and Nashville session guitarist Russ Barenberg. I was in another cover band, Cheap Mice. There was a great folk music radio show, Bound for Glory, broadcast weekly by Phil Shapiro from Anabel Taylor Hall on the Cornell Campus. I ran into Tony Trischka last month (August, 2017) in Asheville and he told me that Phil was still broadcasting the show, 50 years after starting it.

My first exposure to old timey music was in 1971 when I drove down to the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove, North Carolina. I then took a long hiatus from music while in medical school and post grad training, raising a family and working. Then in 1989 I went to a concert on Sanford campus by the Masters of the Folk Violin tour. Allison Krause, Kenny Baker, Claude Williams, Michael Doucet, Seamus Connolly. I was blown away by the sound and started taking fiddle lessons from Jack Tuttle at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto. Jack is an accomplished multi instumentalist and teacher. His daughter Molly is an incredible singer, songwriter, guitarist who is nominated for three IBMA awards in 2017, including the first ever woman to be nominated for guitarist of the year. Jack’s wife is the former roommate of another Jew in Irish Music, Marla Fibish. 

This began a continued love/hate relationship with the fiddle. If you really don’t like someone, give them a fiddle and one free lesson. I became obsessed with string band music and started playing in bluegrass and old timey jams, going to festivals (Strawberry, Grass Valley CBA, Telluride, Weiser) and music camps (Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp, Lark, Swannanoa, Irish Arts in the Catskills).

Spent a fair amount of time in Nashville as my daughter was in school there and would reenact my high school habits, checking out the instruments at Gruhn’s and hanging out at the Station Inn.

Eventually found my way to Irish sessions and got the bug. I started going to old time jams initially hosted by Jack Tuttle at Saint Michaels Alley coffee shop in Palo Alto. We then migrated to various coffee shops on the Peninsula and eventually ended up at the O’Flaherty’s Pub Sunday afternoon session in San Jose and hosted by Art Friedman. 

Took week long classes with Martin Hayes, Kevin Burke, Liz Carroll, and Seamus Connolly. Several trips to Ireland, most recently to Craiceann Inis Oirr where my wife was enrolled in bodhran camp and I got to be one of a handful of melody players on the island.

I still have a bit of MADD – musical attention deficit disorder, and float between Irish sessions, playing in the Accidental Klezmer Band, backing up singers Steve Gill and Feeta Bishop in productions of Fiddler on the Roof, and playing fiddle in a bluegrass band. I studied with Evan Price (Grammy award winner with Turtle Island and now with Hot Club of San Francisco) and at the California Jazz Conservatory (gypsy jazz ensemble).

Oh, yes. I am Jewish.

Early years hanging out at the local YMHA, basketball, day camp, wood shop classes. Three years at a conservative synagogue for Hebrew school. The year before my bar mitzvah I quit and enrolled in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul. Roy Blumenfeld’s (drummer for the Blues Project) mother was the director. Studied conversational Hebrew my senior year in college, tried hitchhiking in Israel the following summer with little success.

As my grandpa, ‘Max, the gonif’ would say, “das is alles”.

 Max on my motorcycle at his 91st birthday party.

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