John O'Brien Jr.,
Festival Legends: Songs & Stories
(AuthorHouse, 2006)

Festival Legends is an essential source book for anyone remotely interested in Irish folk music.

John O'Brien Jr. has a lifelong involvement with the people who are Irish folk music. His father founded the Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, and John has been assistant director of the festival for 24 years. This, the first of a projected three volumes, is proof that Irish America is connected to the Emerald Isle in its love of words, music and history.

The subtitle tells it all: "The people who made the music that defined a people." The book looks at a selection of these legends.

One common thread is that the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem -- and in particular their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show when they had to fill in with extra songs because Pearl Bailey could not appear -- was a turning point. The date was March 13, 1966, and Irish folk music was reborn as a worldwide phenomenon.

Makem, a man steeped in our music and history, is also -- to our everlasting benefit -- a supreme performer and writer. It is a revelation to see a list of the songs he actually wrote and the number of shows he has hosted or appeared on throughout the world, especially in the U.S. and Canada. We learn that crushed fingers need not preclude a career as a banjo player.

It is excellent news to note another legend included here is the collective Makem & Spain Brothers. I only heard of this great group in recent months, but they have been performing for years, so even folk fans can miss out on important performers. They continue the Makem gene in folk music with panache and brio. You cannot have Makem without Clancy, and Liam is prominently featured. We learn of the coincidences in life that bring legends together, and the results of good luck backed by talent, apprenticeship and sheer hard work. I was particularly amused by the fact that in the early days he used a Grammy Award nomination miniature gramophone as a paperweight, completely oblivious to the importance of the honour.

Danny Doyle was the cream of the crop for many years with hit after hit. He was admired by international stars like Elmer Bernstein and sang with the greats of the entertainment world like Gregory Peck and Nancy Sinatra. His songs could bring our history home better than any 10-part series.

One of the legends that still lives and works in Ireland is the prolific Johnny McEvoy. The section on this man -- who has spanned decades, battled demons and written many songs we consider ancient -- is especially important because so little has been written about him. A profile of Sean McGuinness of the Dublin City Ramblers brings in the tale of Zozimus. It also reminds us that Pete St. John wrote "Dublin in the Rare Ould Times" especially for them. The Barleycorn and the New Barleycorn mean more than "Men Behind the Wire."

Other legends include Brendan Shine, Dennis Doyle, Batt Burns, Cherish the Ladies and Tom Sweeney, among others. Each chapter has extensive discographies that will have me broke seeking out forgotten gems of our history.

Sadly, I do have a bit of constructive criticism for John before he brings us the next two volumes, which I eagerly await. The book appears to have been written as a series of articles because all too often information is repeated verbatim if it refers to two artists such as Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. I would also urge you to use your spellchecker. It uses site instead of cite, course instead of coarse and base in place of bass a little too often for this pedant.

All that aside, this is a top-class book that must grace the bookshelf of every folk music lover in the world.

by Nicky Rossiter
7 October 2006

Buy it from