Kevin Burke

Irish fiddler
A man playing a fiddle.

Photo courtesy of the artist


Like most professional musicians, Kevin Burke has spent a good portion of his life on the road, and his travels have taken him on a long and interesting musical journey. Burke was born in London, England, to parents who came from County Sligo in Ireland, an area known for its unique style of fiddle music. Frequent trips to visit relatives in Ireland immersed him in Sligo music and, by the age of 13, he was playing with Irish musical groups. For a time, he pursued a job on the London Stock Exchange but eventually came back to music. "Music kept interfering with every angle of life," Burke said. "Then I realized it wasn't music that was getting in the way, it was everything else." In Ireland he ran into Arlo Guthrie, who heard him perform and invited him to Los Angeles to play on Guthrie's Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys album in 1972. After performing with Irish musician Christy Moore, Burke joined the seminal group, The Bothy Band. In 1979, Burke left Ireland to re-settle in Portland, Oregon, and for the past 20 years he has been a fixture in the northwestern United States. Initially, Burke teamed up with former Bothy Band member Michael O Domhnaill, and then went on to form two influential bands: the traditional Celtic supergroup, Patrick Street, and the more eclectic ensemble, Open House. Today his name is synonymous with Irish fiddle music around the world.

Interview with Mary K. Lee

NEA: Congratulations on receiving the award. Could could tell me about your reaction when you heard the news?

MR. BURKE: I was at home and I thought it was a hoax at first. When I got over the initial surprise I was very gratified. But it's humbling. I thought of all the other people I know who are just as deserving. It's a big honor to be selected among out of all those people.

NEA: Can you tell me how you started your musical career?

MR. BURKE: My parents are from county Sligo in Ireland, a place that's had a very strong fiddle music culture for most of the last hundred and fifty years. Fiddle and flute music in particular, but mainly the fiddle. Neither of them played but they had a strong interest in it and they had lots of friends who played. My mother's uncle was a great fiddle player, my father's aunt was a fiddle player and my father's father played the fiddle as well. I grew up in a house where people would come over and visit and we'd drink tea and have dinner and then music would start. And people would tell stories about the tunes, where they learned them or some story about the guy they learned it from. Often they were slightly scurrilous, you know, like neighborhood gossip.

NEA: Any particular occasions particularly fun or any songs that you remember that you really liked during that time?

MR. BURKE: I remember a friend of my parents called Leam O'Hara, who was probably about twenty when he first came to England and ended up staying with us for a while. There was an interesting story about him and my mother, as it turned out. My father came from a village called Tamara West, which was about eight miles from where my mother's family grew up. My mother's brother moved there to set up a tailor shop and not long after my mother came to work with him. Well, Leam O'hara was a young boy in the village at the time, maybe ,three or four years old, and he used to get up to see her cycling to work down the hill past his house because he was fascinated with her long red hair. She always noticed him I suppose because he was always looking out the window or sitting on the wall and waving at her. And always very jolly. So when he came to stay it was fun for both of them, you know, because he really didn't know her except from seeing her pass by going to work. And she didn't know him except to see him wave. They were relative strangers until he came to live with us.

He played the fiddle and the flute and sang. And I was aware of this guy and what a jolly young man he was supposed to be. I was probably about ten at the time. He sang lots of songs, funny songs. There was one song he sang about cod liver oil which was kind of a comic music hall song. But, of course, when you're ten years old cod liver oil is no laughing matter. I couldn't understand why they thought he was such a great guy with him singing about cod liver oil all the time. But he taught me lots of great tunes and I heard him sing lots of great songs.

NEA: Were there any other people who had an influence on your career or your early development?

MR. BURKE: When I'd go to Sligo I'd visit my parents' families, you know, my mother's side and my father's side, and there was a neighbor called Jimmy Flatley who lived just across the fence from where my father grew up. Jimmy played the flute and was also a really funny guy. He had a whole gang of kids and his wife made serious apple pies. That was a great house for me to visit because I'd get that music and I'd have a bunch of kids to play with and then at the end of the day we'd get these huge slices of apple pie.

NEA: It doesn't get any better than that.

MR. BURKE: I know. That's why they call it having a holiday. And near where my mother lived there was a family called Stenson, distant relations of hers, and one of them, John Thomas, played the accordion. He was really a sweet man. Very quiet and again very funny. One of these guys who didn't say a whole lot but when he said it, it was quite telling, you know. A very gentle man and very witty at the same time. And it was the same thing - he had a big family, all real lively people. His youngest daughter played the accordion as well. From the age of say ten up through my teens, whether I was visiting my mother's side or my father's side I'd often spend a lot of time with either the Flatley's or the Stenson's. I learned a lot of music and learned a lot about having fun.

NEA: Sounds like the kids in the community were pretty musically oriented.

MR. BURKE: They were rural people, farmers, so we'd often pile into a donkey cart and help bring home the cut turf or bring in the hay. Kind of enjoyable jobs because there was a lot of fooling around involved, not what you called hard work for those kids. And when we'd come back from a day in the fields the dinner would be ready or soon to be ready and while we'd wait someone would pull out an instrument and someone else would join in and someone else maybe would sing a song. Maybe a neighbor would drop by and the food would be ready and we'd sit around and eat and put the instruments to one side and then start again.

NEA: When you go back to Ireland do you see the same community involvement in music?

MR. BURKE: Oh yeah. But it's a lot more modernized. It's strange to see a fifteen year old kid at a session pull out his mobile phone or suddenly puts his fiddle in the case and runs off because he wants to get the record store before it closes to buy the new Britney Spears CD.

The children that I remember from my childhood would never really consider international travel as a holiday. But nowadays lot of Irish kids pack off and go skiing in Switzerland for Christmas. In the summer they might come to America for a visit. When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties travel usually meant immigration and while that was kind of a excitement for a lot of youngsters it was tinged with sadness because it was usually forced on them. So the attitude was enjoy your home while you can.

Lots of things have changed. I mentioned the donkey carts - that's not a common form of transport anymore. When I was a kid most houses had a donkey and a cart. Most houses when I grew up didn't have running water. That was another chore for the children, going down to the well to get the water. We'd go somewhere else to get the butter. All these things sound like hardship, but there was sense of fun. It would be like going to the mall today. You'd go down to the house next door and round up couple of kids there because they needed to collect their butter or their milk as well. Then we'd tear across the field, jumping over hedges and clambering over walls, getting chased by goats and meeting cross ganders, stuff like that, you know, which is all kind of, like I said, childish entertainment but it was exciting nonetheless. Then there would be big news when we'd get back to the house. Oh, Frankie got chased by the gander.

NEA: Tell me about the influences on you after you left Ireland.

MR. BURKE: Most of it was fairly unconscious, you know. I used to listen to a lot of different kinds of music. When Bob Dylan hit the scene I was impressed with his folk ballads. They sounded very different. There was a sort of blues influence that isn't in Irish music. A lot of tales that he told in his early records really struck a cord. There's one song I remember The Ballad of Hollis Brown, the farmer is having a rough time because his crops are failing and the drought is making the farming life almost impossible. There's another song being sung called North Country Blues about a town that kind of faded because the local mine closed down. We don't have drought in Ireland, far from it you know, and there's no town I know of that's dependent on mining but the same kind of things happen when people are hit by the climate or by the social conditions. Hearing him sing about those things really struck a cord with me even though his accent was different and the guitar accompaniment was unusual for me. And when he went on into the more rock and roll side of his career, I kind of followed with him, you know. I was listening to a lot of what he did. I was paying attention.

When Hendricks came along I was really stunned by his instrumental skills and his imagination. I used to listen to the Kinks a lot - they had a bit more than most pop groups with their catchy melodies and Ray Davis had great knack for telling a tale. Being an instrumentalist, I'm not that involved with producing lyrics, but the moods that lyrics can produce in a listener can also be produced by the music. So I'd often dwell on that kind of thing. I don't know if I learned much technically from the styles of music but emotionally I think I did.

NEA: The Irish music scene is pretty active there in Portland. Can you talk about what it was like to move there?

MR. BURKE: I didn't go to Portland knowing there was a strong Irish music scene. I'd barely heard of it the first time I came here. It was just another town on the tour list. But when we got here we found lot of people very receptive to our music and we quickly made lots of friends. And it's a climate that's very easy for us to take. In fact, it's a bit like home except for the good summer every year. So it was very easy to spend time here and gradually the periods of time that were spent grew longer and longer. Now it's home.

NEA: Could you talk about the workshops you do?

MR. BURKE: I usually do is frame them as a kind of question and answer period and a demonstration. Lots of people use workshops learn a tune or two. But I find the actual learning of a tune a fairly mundane exercise which anyone can do on their own. I think I have more to offer people by telling them how I treat the tune once I've learned it.

Because I give workshops while on tour I only have an hour or two in a room with ten or twenty people who I might not see again for another eighteen months. I try to give them as much information in that hour or two as a I can. To make sure I'm giving them useful information I try to get them to ask me questions so I know the kinds of problems they want to have solved. If I can, I tell them how I would approach it. I hope that when they do sit down to learn a tune they'll approach it in a much richer fashion than just, as I said earlier, as a memory exercise.

NEA: What sorts of emotions do you go through as you perform?

MR. BURKE: At the end I'm usually tired, which is a good sign - I think. At least I look at it as a good sign. It's probably a sign that I'm getting old too! But it's my job to deliver these emotions to the audience, so I have to maintain an overview in between the tunes. While I'm actually playing I'm usually oblivious to what's happening. Each piece of music I play represents a mood. It could be slightly playful or it could be a more aggressively playful, you know, like a more intense partying atmosphere. Or it could represent some kind of tragedy that you're trying to cope with, you accept that you've gone through something very difficult but you also accept the old adage "life must go on" and you try to make the best of it. All the feelings that we go through. Sometimes your happiness is tinged with a little bit of sadness and vice versa. Sometimes your sadness is, there's a silver lining in every cloud, you know. I try to let the instrument speak and let the melody speak and like it or not, my own attitudes get in there and they speak as well. I just try and let it all happen.

NEA: If a young person came to you and said, "I really want to learn how to play the fiddle," what would be your advice?

MR. BURKE: The main thing is to soak your mind in it. It really helps to get to understand your instrument and the tunes that your using so you know how these sounds are produced. It also helps to hear what's possible and by that I mean listening to other musicians. Every player that you hear, if you have any affection for the music at all, will give you a glimmer of another way of looking at things. It's just like when you hear one actor delivering a speech or playing a role, it's always different from another actor doing the very same thing even if they use exactly the same script. Each actor brings his own qualities. And I feel the same way about musicians. I keep hearing people say, "Oh, this guy's great and that guy's great" and "this guys okay, he's not so good, he's a bit like this and a bit like that..." But nearly everyone has something to offer if you just listen to them.

NEA: What have been the challenges to this art form, Irish fiddle music, over the years?

MR. BURKE: In my era, if you like, I started learning this music as a hobby. I had no idea that I might make my living doing it. I just did it as a hobby. And everyone else I knew did it as a hobby. I didn't grow up knowing professional musicians, maybe one or two. But out of the hundreds of musicians that I've met some were doctors, some were farmers, some were bus drivers. One guy I knew was a cameraman for the BBC. Some of them were architects, priests. They all had jobs or careers outside music. I just thought that was the way it was.

But then when I grew up - and this is probably an American influence - I realized that an awful lot of people in America were playing American traditional music, folk music. America has so many different kinds of folk music. I don't know if jazz is considered a folk music but to me it is, it's a music that grew from a certain population in a certain geographical area and it was not fashioned to be a commercial entity initially, it just grew into one. The same with what's more typically referred to as folk music. And there's the blues as well, which is a folk music, and bluegrass. You could play any of these kinds of music just as easily at home in your kitchen with one or two neighbors as you could in Carnegie Hall.

Rock and roll is very different. The Rolling Stones don't really sound the same if they're sitting around your house with guitars and harmonicas. It's not the same as hearing that thunder and bass and the drums crashing and the thousands of people screaming. Mick Jagger needs a huge room to prance about in. You can't imagine Mick Jagger sitting down by the fireside exciting you with Jumping Jack Flash in a small cottage.

But all these kinds of music I mentioned you can. That's how they began. Irish instrumental music is a late bloomer with regard to the stage and the concert hall. The Chieftains brought it into the concert hall. They probably started it. Irish vocal music has been heard on the stage for a couple of hundred years. But the instrumental tradition never really got an airing internationally until probably the sixties or the seventies.

When I first came to America in 1972, most people that I met - including folk musicians who you'd think would know quite a lot about the history of music - most of them were unaware entirely that this kind of music existed. But you can't say that thirty years later. Every record store in the country probably has a Celtic music section and that section you'll find an awful lot of Irish music. And if you ask the guy working at your local gas station what he thinks of Celtic music, he might not like it but he'll know what you're referring to. When I came into America, most people didn't have a clue. I remember people recommending places to play and I'd call up and say "So and so told me to call because he thought you might be interested in putting on a concert. I play Irish music." I was playing with Meholla Donner at the time who plays guitar and sings. I'd have a really hard time explaining to these people what we did. They've never heard anything like it or even heard of anything like it. Those days are long gone.

That's been my role, if you like, in the last thirty years - helping in the translation of this music from the kitchen to the concert stage. Trying to bring across the emotional side of it. It's one thing to just stand up there and play the same as you would at home, but you're not at home, you're in an artificial situation and so is the audience. A concert hall is not as intimate as a home. I'm trying to recreate the intimacy and trying to make people realize why I was so taken with this music as a child and why I continue to play it now.

NEA: Why do you think that the Irish fiddle music is so valuable or important to that community, the Irish community?

MR. BURKE: I really don't know. I grew up with it. I was hearing it before I was born because my parents were listening to it. I literally heard this music in the womb. It was a shock to me to come to America, this place that's so rich in music, and find that outside the local Irish communities Irish music was almost unheard of. That was the question I thought should be posed - not why it's so important to people, but why it isn't more important to more people. That was my puzzle, my conundrum.

NEA: What you're most looking forward to during your trip to D.C.?

MR. BURKE: I've never been involved in anything like this before, so I'm curious to see what it's like. I believe there's a banquet and that suggests to me good food and wine. I'm hoping that I'll enjoy that. My sister is coming over from England and I have a feeling that she's going to find it even more exciting than me. She's never been to D.C. She's been to America before, but not often and I know she's looking forward to this big function. I'm looking forward to seeing her get excited.