ASPIRING ARTISTS shuffle about New York City seemingly stricken by Frank Sinatra’s hypnotic mantra: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” If they can just stay in this cocoon long enough, they reason, their raw skill will one day transform into payable perfection. When the angry city collapses around them, they recite Frank’s little line, just hoping to survive.
Comedians labor through routines at tourist-filled clubs hoping they’ll get recognized by some talent scout. Prodigies at Julliard devote whole semesters to a production hoping for a chance to star in some off-off-Broadway show at a cramped theater on the Upper West Side, where alcohol is more expensive than tickets. Ramen Noodles: 2/$1.00. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
But in a city of big-break-hopefuls surviving through cramped bars and musty theaters, some love their art so much they could care less if they play in pubs filled with drunken regulars and one-stall bathrooms. They make music for the sake of making music; because they must use their gifts whether they’re paid or not. Because they love to play.
Meredith Bogacz is such a person. Sometimes five times a week, she attends “sessions,” informal Irish folk music gatherings springing up at Irish pubs across the city. Participants bring their fiddles, accordions, guitars, whistles, or flutes.
Meredith grew up in Chicago and got her undergrad degree in art from Hillsdale College in Michigan, where she fell in love with Irish music. An Irish band (known as ceili bands) in the area needed a fiddler, so she volunteered. “I needed an excuse to play,” she said. While with that group she mostly played house parties, but those do not compare to the Irish scene in New York. It’s difficult to get into the music when “next door is the Amish farmer,” she said.
Classically trained since third grade, Meredith practices on average about four hours a day. She came to New York about a year ago to study sculpture, not music, at the New York Academy of Art. Why art? Partly because she’s “burned out” from years of classical music. Classical violin, with all its rules and rigid structure, can become oppressive. She uses the sessions to break free and have fun.
Unlike many young artists, “making it” doesn’t consume her. “The goal is to gain skills and not starve,” she said. “Sure, it’d be great to be a ‘someone’ in New York City, but with such a plethora of talented people in one place, that isn’t likely.” Right now she just wants to play: “As long as I can get some gigs on the side, I’d be happy.”
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ON A RECENT rainy Saturday night, Meredith and I boarded the 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens, an area once blanketed with cornfields before the concrete weeds crept over from Manhattan. During the mid 1900s, it was also staunchly Irish—something Meredith is not. As we rode, she explained that only her Mom has faint shades of shamrock green running through her veins.
We walked through the rain and ended up at Murphy’s, a bar about the size of a large Manhattan living room. In the back, right corner, the pool table had been pushed against the wall and a patchwork of chairs, stools, and a bench took its place. Fake spider webs wisped across the walls and ceiling to celebrate Halloween. That night’s audience slouched over the bar watching a scrambled college football game while a black cat occasionally wandered through the table legs. Kat Johnson, the bartender, said it was an unusually slow week: there were three patrons. She kept them happy by making popcorn in the microwave behind the bar.
The characters were as colorful as the myriad of liquor labels behind the bar. One patron, an older man in a gray sweatshirt, tried grabbing something near the door and dragged part of the drooping spider web back to the bar. Kat snickered as he tried unsuccessfully to shake it from his sleeve. A drunk guy later asked Kat where she was from. “Michigan,” she said. “You know, I consider Michigan and Wisconsin the same sate,” he replied. “You know why? Because Michigan stole that northern peninsula from Wisconsin.” As quickly as the raindrops falling outside, Kat fired back: “Well, they should have fought a little harder.”
MEREDITH SAT down, took out her violin, and rosined the bow. She was one of six musicians. Tara Benton, a mousy figure drowning in a sweatshirt also played the fiddle, and Don, a true Irishman with a thick accent who looked like a boat captain—plaid shirt and a full beard. But if he was a fisherman, he must have used music to lure his prey; he never looked up the whole night while he strummed his guitar flawlessly. The night’s featured player, a blonde fiddler named Liz Kennedy, sat alongside flautist Gail Neely and an accordion player named Ian—the only other Irish musician besides Don. Three fiddles, one flute, one guitar, one accordion, three patrons, and a collage on the wall with Ireland’s most famous writers watching it all.
For most of the three and a half hours, Liz started a tune by tapping her foot and playing a few notes. Almost instantaneously everyone joined in, either because they knew the tune or because their skill is so honed they could pick it up immediately. There’s no sheet music or stopping to teach someone a chord progression. If one comes, he is expected to know the material or record what he doesn’t and learn it at home. Before long Liz would call out a startling, “Hut!” after which everyone stopped as she played the first few notes of a new tune. After watching her fingers dance on the violin neck like Celtic tap-dancers, the group would once again join in. Liz usually played a set—three tunes strung together. Some sets never change—the tunes they contain always go together—while others differ with whoever leads.
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There were no open music cases, stained Starbucks cups, or raggedy, sweat-stained hats for money. The only payment the musicians received was some free drinks. After the first set Kat told the musicians that a gentleman at the end of the bar bought everyone a round. They looked over at him and yelled, “Thank you!” He raised his hand, tipped his head, and asked if anyone was from Ireland. Only Don and Ian could claim Blarney blood. He asked again, shouting in surprise, “Are you serious?”
“I like the idea of getting together without the restrictions of classical music,” Gail said. “Everything is done by ear, and you can chat and play.” Like Meredith, Gail is classically trained. Her instrument is a wooden, simple-system flute. “It’s similar to a Renaissance flute,” she explained. Gail’s Irish roots are deeper than Meredith’s but she doesn’t bare them for all to see: Her family immigrated to Canada so she identifies herself more as a Canadian than an Irishman. Her love for Irish music didn’t even sprout until she spent her honeymoon there. “While in Ireland I realized there’s something you can do while drinking besides talking and I liked that,” she said while sipping whisky. “It’s a productive thing to do at the bar.”
Meredith agrees: “For a lot of people . . . [the sessions] are a social scene. It’s not like we play all the time. We’ll stop, take a smoke break, or go to the bar and chat. It’s a good way to make music in a social setting. There’s really no room for egos, just friends.”
That’s much different than the rigid Julliard. Meredith said when another fiddler tried to explain musical keys to an older Irish fiddler, the old man gave a puzzled look and said, “Oh, so you just put your fingers in different place and it’s the same tune?” He had been playing the music for years in different keys but never had any formal training; his parents probably gave him a fiddle as a young boy and he learned by observing.
Like social gatherings anywhere else there’s etiquette, “rules of the game” as Meredith calls them. “These aren’t just open jam sessions; you can’t just show up with a shaky egg. If you’re new, introduce yourself; play along if you know the tune; wait until you’re asked to start a set before doing so; and don’t monopolize—a session is not your personal stage.” Meredith gathered her rules by attending different sessions throughout the city—each one with its own structure and regulations. But one rule holds true everywhere: “It’s frowned upon if you come and just start playing away.”
Maybe that’s why both the classical music scene and the Irish folk scene have their dissenters—they don’t like the rules. Gail thinks that’s part of it. “It’s funny, some are classically trained and they turn to this scene [to rebel],” she said, referring to Irish folk music. “Others grow up with this music and classical was their rebellion.”
Kat sees that rebellion often in her mostly Irish clientele: “Some of the guys grew up with this music and they’ll leave when it starts. They left that in Ireland—it reminds them of another life.”
Meredith takes that as a compliment. She explained how during a recent session an Irishman approached her while faint tears pooled near the top of his nose. In a thick accent he admitted that the music brought him back to Ireland. “I love how a well-played piece of music can have such a profound emotional impact,” she said. “You know you’re doing something right when they say it reminds them of home.”
That’s something you can’t get at Julliard. Only at a cloudy Irish pub at 2 a.m.
Jonathon M. Seidl is Patrol reporter in New York.
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