John Glatt: The Chieftains: The authorized biography (Print and Audio versions)

Kim Bates wrote this for Roots & Branches.

It’s difficult to underestimate the Chieftains’ impact on Irish traditional music as an international phenomenon. They have an artistry that weaves individual and collective creativity together to reveal this traditional form of music as both sophisticated and compelling. They have collaborated widely on over 30 albums, and paved the way for many other traditional musicians to make a living in music, carrying the banner of the renaissance of traditional Celtic music beyond the British Isles. Today, going to see a Chieftains show is to be treated not only to great music, but also to their unusual generosity of spirit, as they showcase local musicians and young talents among their sets.

This book comes in two formats, printed and audiobook (a 4-CD set). The audiobook is narrated by singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. Although I find Griffith’s singing voice annoying, her narration is low key and pleasant. She does have some odd pronunciation quirks that one notices when she says a word that is followed by a different pronunciation by a band member. I should caution the reader, however, that this comment comes from someone who never pronounces anything Irish correctly if she has the misfortune to read the word before hearing it. The audiobook, nominated for a Grammy award, also contains 12 tracks of music that provide a pleasant distraction from the text and remind the listener what this extensive history is all about. The music spans the Chieftains’ careers and includes arrangements by several band members, although it is not clear if these are previously unreleased or taken from other recordings.

Hmm… audiobook or print version? With the print version come more pictures, and a much easier reference, if one is curious about something. And of course not all readers will appreciate the imposition of another narrator, having their own inner narrator that suits them just fine. Those with an extensive Chieftains collection may wish to read their authorized biography with the album of their choice playing in the background. On the other hand, it’s fun to hear the interviews, and one can listen in the car. Of course, the next generation of audiobooks, with pictures, interviews, and hopefully indexes and search capabilities, will solve this dilemma. In the meantime, take your pick; they both have limitations and advantages. One advertisement for the audiobook lists it as abridged, but the narration is largely true to the prose in the book based on my limited experiments of listening and reading. Since I read the book after listening it to it, Nanci Griffith remains the narrator, even for the print version!

The Chieftains goes a long way to putting them in the context of the Irish traditional music scene in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Chieftains emerged when piping and music clubs were formed to provide a place for music sessions at a time when it was feared that Irish traditional music would die out. Today you can find Irish traditional music sessions on every continent and in every major city — even listed on the Internet, from Tokyo to Chicago, Rome and London as well as in Ireland itself. But in the 1950s and 1960s private clubs rather than pubs hosted the sessions, and actively recruited musicians from rural areas to rekindle the musical form in Dublin. Here the members met and formed relationships that would lead to the creation of the band.

The book highlights the dedication of Guinness heir Garech Brown who formed their original label — Claddagh Records, the sponsorship of Sean O’Riada and his ensemble Ceoltõirå Cualann — a forerunner to the Chieftains, and the radio and television specials on RTE and the BBC that helped launch them. It also details the individual paths that brought band members Paddy Maloney, Michael Tubridy, Sean Potts, Peadar Mercier, Sean Keane and Martin Fay to finally leave their day jobs in the mid-1970s when the Chieftains first found international stardom. I found this portion of the biography the most interesting, not for the inevitable personality clashes and struggles, but for the glimpse into a world where the Irish traditional music phenomenon was not a certainty, but one of many possibilities, and one not seriously considered by the players themselves. I found the interviews and background information from this period fascinating.

As this is an authorized biography, the focus is on how the Chieftains’ musical career progressed, what the members contribute individually, the collaborations with a multitude of pop stars, the successful resolution of problems between band members and others over the years, and the creation of the Chieftains phenomenon. Although the book does not fixate on Paddy Maloney, it is clear that his guidance, dominance even, has always been a motivating force behind the band. The account here differs little from general impressions created in the press over the years. The book does show how Maloney learned to shine the spotlight on other band members, a policy that led ultimately to the Chieftains’ role as collaborators that brings out the best in their pop star guests. His genius as a composer and interpreter of Irish traditional music is drawn out in a subtle way as Glatt describes the band’s many accomplishments over the years.

In this regard, the more recent history becomes a bit like a litany of “on to the next” success stories, particularly the third and fourth discs in the audio book. I really enjoyed the perspectives on Maloney’s leadership in the excerpts from interviews with the band. I’m not a fan who takes a great interest in the personal lives of folk musicians, so most of the information about band members, such as harpist Derek Bell’s interest in Buddhism, was new and added a fresh perspective.

By the time the Chieftains members quit their day jobs they all had careers ranging from orchestra musician to photographer to engineer. Over the course of their 30-year career two members, Peader Mercier and Sean Potts, retired.

Players added after the band’s initial success (Derek Bell, formerly of the Belfast orchestra, Matt Molloy from the Bothy Band and Planxty, and bodhran player Kevin Conneff) have clearly affected the band’s direction, adding depth and new perspective to the ensemble.

The book also focuses a great deal on the band’s relationship to the American market, and their ability to charm rock stars and “mainstream” audiences in the UK and US from the early days of their career. I vaguely knew that both the Chieftains and other Irish acts like the Clancy brothers were instrumental in igniting the resurgence of Celtic music in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. I never seriously considered the impact of the North American market on the careers of popular traditional musicians themselves, but it is clear that this large market has been an important factor in making the Chieftains’ career, and may explain their willingness to showcase young talent on their albums and in their live performances.

What isn’t explained is the lack of young Irish traditional musicians on the Chieftains’ albums, despite their willingness to perform with pop stars and singer-songwriters. So little is said about their links to the current generation of Irish traditional players, or other successful Irish traditional musicians, that my curiosity has been piqued. Is this the book focusing on rock stars, or does it say something about the impact of their international success on their standing in the Irish traditional music scene?

I came away from the book with the impression that in recent years the Chieftains have been great ambassadors for Irish traditional music, playing less of a role in developing young Irish talent. Over the course of their career they have played almost everywhere, winning converts as far away as China, shining the spotlight on other Celtic traditions such as Spanish and Breton, showing the links between Irish and North American country music, and carrying the music to mainstream audiences.

In a similar vein, while I have enjoyed some of their collaborative albums in recent years, the interviews with their star collaborators occasionally seemed irrelevant or odd. Country singer Ricky Skaggs confides that he loves all the guys and has something in common with each of the Chieftains, such as a love of Dairy Queen blizzards shared with Derek Bell. Cute, but not really worth the air time, in my opinion. Much more interesting were comments about recording sessions, and the Chieftains’ ability to complete collaborations with ease in astonishingly short sessions, making their guests feel comfortable.

Glatt has some interesting tales about the surreal experience of being evacuated just prior to a performance in New York, due to a bomb threat, and ending up in a bingo hall filled with cigarette-smoking nuns. However, I would have liked to hear more about how these collaborators approached the Chieftains’ musical style, such as Jackson Browne’s dissatisfaction with Christmas carols that led to his composing an original number for the album Bells of Dublin.

Fans with a deep knowledge of the Irish traditional music form may be disappointed by the emphasis on career development and star collaborators rather than the creative process behind the music, but they should still enjoy the interviews. Of course, if the author had met my desire to hear more about the creative process, and the Chieftains’ interpretation of Celtic music, the audio book would likely have run to 8 discs and doomed it with many fans.

Overall, I would recommend this biography set for serious Chieftains fans, particularly those in North America, for whom the world of Irish traditional music may be impenetrable and exotic, or at least a bit different from the way Celtic trad. is played in North America. Younger enthusiasts will find a lot of information on the Chieftains’ early years that may not be readily available elsewhere. Despite my minor quibbles, I enjoyed the book, and feel the interviews with band members alone are worth the price, as is the extensive history of the band’s background and early years.

(St Martins Press, 1997)
(The Publishing Mills, 1999)

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