17 December 2013

A bit of history

From the BIB editor:

I'm delighted to be able to report that among the Dublin musicians providing the instrumental support for Dr Tim Sharp's 'High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass' later this month (see the BIB for 5 Dec.) will be fiddle and mandolin maestro Paul Kelly.

Paul's Wikipedia entry shows in ample detail what an asset he is to the music scene. I'll just add my comments to two passages in it:

'In the early eighties he discovered bluegrass and spent four years as fiddler with the Sackville String Band. [...] The band had been established by Niall Toner in late 1975.'

Niall and I had been previously playing together, for fun, a mixture of 'American traditional music, old-time songs and bluegrass'. In late 1975 we decided the time might have come to form a band and play this music in public. My memory (not impartial) casts me as slightly keener than Niall on taking the plunge. I just saw it as 'something that had to be done'; no doubt he, having founded the Lee Valley String Band in Cork seven years earlier, had a better idea of what we would be getting into. But neither of us, I think, would have gone ahead without the other.

Niall's other definitive contributions were (1) to bring in Mick Daly (of Cork, but at that time resident in Dublin) as guitar player to make up a viable group; and (2) to name the band. Our first few performances, in the basement of Hartigan's in Leeson Street, went under no name. I introduced us once as the Wild Turkey String Band; the others, who had not been consulted beforehand, understandably did not buy this, and Niall came up with the name 'Sackville String Band', which he had already had in mind. So from either very, very late in 1975 or very early in 1976, we were the Sackville String Band.

'... A typical line-up of the band when Kelly joined was Imor Byrne (fiddle), Colin Beggan (guitar), John Caulfield (fiddle), Niall Toner (mandolin) and Richard Hawkins (banjo).'

This is a lineup that dates from late 1976 to late 1977. For most of 1976 the original trio played on the top floor of the Stag's Head in Dame Lane. Mick then returned to Cork (where he has been not just a core member of the Lee Valley String Band but a founder member, and the original 'Dog', of Four Men and a Dog). His place on guitar was taken by Colin, and the addition of two fiddles, played by Imor and John, brought us closer to the sound of the Highwoods and Fuzzy Mountain string bands. This configuration played for most of 1977 in the Tailors' Hall, in Back Lane, Dublin, till Imor's tragic death in November that year. John (I think) left for the USA some time later.

The Sackville String Band then took a short break from performing and reorganised as a four-piece with a more bluegrassy orientation: Niall (mandolin), Colin (guitar), and myself (banjo), plus Bill Whelan (upright bass). Bill has since become the doyen of clawhammer banjo playing in Ireland, but for a long time he had a similar position in Dublin acoustic bass circles. This lineup was launched at the Tailors' Hall in the late summer of 1978 when we hosted, and opened for, guitar wizard Dan Crary.

In April 1979 I withdrew from music for a while and was replaced in the Sackvilles by Jimmy Kelly. This lineup - Niall, Colin, Bill, and Jimmy - opened for Doc Watson in his 1981 Dublin concert (see the BIB for 15 Feb. 2013). Any further contributions to Sackville String Band history will be welcome.

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