Joanie Madden

Irish Flute and Whistle Player and 2021 National Heritage Fellow
A woman with dark hair holds a black Irish whistle and leans against a latched red wooden half door
Photo by David Knight

Music Credits:

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive.

“Cailín na Gruaige Doinne” from the album Heart of Home, performed by Cherish the Ladies, 2018.

“Woman of Ireland” composed and performed by Joanie Madden, from the album Song of the Irish Whistle, 1996.

“The Banks of the Ilen,” perfomed live by Joanie Madden and Mary Coogan, June 19, 2011.

Cherish the Ladies 20th January 2024 live at Celtic Connections in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

“The Cat’s Meow Jig” composed by Joanie Madden, performed live by Cherish the Ladies, January 31, 2022

Jo Reed: From the  National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed

(music up)

That’s Joanie Madden. She’s a trailblazing musician in the world of traditional Irish music, and a 2021 National Heritage Fellow.  Joanie's journey is a testament to passion, perseverance, and the power of music to connect generations and cultures.

Born in the vibrant Irish community of the Bronx, New York, Joanie's life has been steeped in music from the very beginning. With a father who was an All-Ireland Champion accordion player, Joanie was destined for a musical path, yet she faced her own unique challenges and discoveries along the way. From falling in love with the tin whistle at age 12 to founding the all-female Irish music band Cherish the Ladies, Joanie's story is one of breaking barriers and staying true to one's roots.  Joanie Madden—Thank you for joining me!

Joanie Madden: Thank you very much for having me on, Jo. It's a pleasure to meet you here.

Jo Reed: Not at all. Listen, I want to begin at the beginning. Tell me about where you were born, and the neighborhood you were raised, and your family?

Joanie Madden: Well, I was born in the Bronx, New York. My mother and father were both Irish immigrants. My father was from County Galway and my mother from County Clare. They met out here and married, and I'm the second oldest of seven children in nine years, <laughs> god help us. But we went to the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, where it was very much a very strong Irish community.

Jo Reed: And your father was a musician—a well-known Irish musician. And he was big influence—tell me about him. 

Joanie Madden: Yes. I had the fortune of having a fantastic father who was an incredible musician. My father was an All-Ireland Champion accordion player, and he emigrated out to New York and received a phone call upon his arrival from a very famous fiddle player and musician in the Irish circle, a man by the name of Paddy Killoran, and he heard that my father was new in town and he was looking for an accordion player. My father went to go hear Paddy, to see what he was going to be playing with, and he was all jitterbugs and all kinds of crazy music. My father was a pure traditional musician, and he didn't particularly care for the style of music. Was more like a dance band with a few tunes thrown in there. But when he went home after refusing the gig, a few days later he got a letter from his mother saying his father had a massive heart attack and they had no money coming in, and could he send more money from America, which was the way for a lot of the immigrants. So my father went back and called Paddy Killoran, and then Paddy said he was delighted and gave my father 50 or 60 shows, and my father was with him for years. And then Paddy Killoran’s orchestra on his deathbed became Joe Madden’s orchestra, and my father carried on the music. He played four or five nights a week, every week. All of our lives growing up, he was always playing. Carpenter during the day and music at night, and my mom would keep the home fires going. 

Jo Reed: When did you start with music. Did your father encourage you?

Joanie Madden: Well, he noticed early on that I had music in me, and he wanted me to learn classical music and started me with a fiddle player by the name of-- violinist by the name of Paul Ryan, because the fiddle always went great with the accordion. But anyway, it didn't go great with me, and I quit. <laughter> I told my mother to go out and tell him I quit, that I didn't like it. Anyway, he came running through the house, “Where is she? She could be great. Where is she? She could be great.” I hid under the bed, I jumped under the bed. Then I took a couple of piano lessons. We had a piano in the house and I asked the teacher “Could you give me an Irish reel?” She said “You have to give me the sheet music,” and I said “Well, there is no sheet music,” because my father played by ear. Anyway, after that, I quit that after two lessons, and then a few years later, when I was about 12, almost 13, I saw a friend of ours by the name of Mary Naughton. She was taking tin whistle lessons with a man named Jack Coen around the corner. I saw it, and as soon as I saw the instrument, I fell in love with it. I fell in love. I said “That's it.” I said to my father “I want to play that.” He said  that he wasn't wasting any more money on me, that he wasn't spent anymore money in lessons. So I had just finished coming back babysitting, and thank god, a tin whistle was three dollars at the time, and. I called up Jack, would he give me a lesson? He said of course, he would. Jack Coen was the National Heritage Award winner as well. He lived literally five doors away. So I walked over, and Jack was so nice to me and the phone rang, and then the next thing, Jack was on the phone for about five or ten minutes, and then he came back and his demeanor had completely changed, and that he was not accepting me as a student unless I was going to go for a year, and he would not waste my time. He wasn't going to waste his time. Of course, it was my father that had called Jack to warn him. <laughs> Jack and my father were the best of friends and had come from 11 miles away from each other back in Ireland, back in County Galway. Anyway, long story short, I had my first lesson with Jack, and I ran home from school at lunch, and after I was immediately addicted and hooked, and I never put it down after that.

Jo Reed: Tell me, Joanie, what was it about the whistle that so appealed to you when the fiddle didn't, and the piano didn't?

Joanie Madden: I don't know what it was, it just touched me. The crazy thing was the whistle in the traditional Irish circles was a steppingstone to the flute. Jack Coen used to say “The tin whistle is just a toy.” But I never considered it a toy. I fell in love with it. I loved it. The crazy thing about Jack teaching me was that my father's uncles had taught Jack. The music was passed down. My great uncles were fantastic musicians back in Ireland. It's usually the case in Irish music, where music is in the family, and it goes down through the family tree. Of course, but here was Jack, had learned from my great uncles, and now Jack was teaching me. But he had a wonderful way about him. He would be working the trains all day and come in five or six o’clock in the evening, and he would have a couple of lessons, and he would give me 30 minutes. My father gave me a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I set it up in my room and I had all my father’s old tapes. I would go through those old reel-to-reels one by one and learn each tune as I went along, and just creating this big mess of repertoire that I had. But growing up, it was always a part of our family. Every function, a wedding dance, christening, the music was a part of it. But for me, the whistle, as soon as I-- that was it. The light went on and I fell in love with it, and I got hooked.

Jo Reed: Who were you listening to?

Joanie Madden: Well, again, we grew up in a time when there was no-- we didn't have any of the luxuries people have now. So where I was really learning was learning from my father's albums. Again, having a father that was one of the most prominent, important people in the Irish traditional music world in the tri-state area, it opened so many doors. My father was always buying new albums and records for me to-- well, for him and for myself to listen and learn from. So I really became an incredible sponge. I was learning tunes. So, finally, when I was going to Jack, maybe after about a year, Jack would give me one tune a week, and I would learn and go back with three or four that I had learned. Finally, he was like “You don't need me anymore.” 

Jo Reed: I know Mary Bergin—the great whistle player was a great influence—when did you begin listening to her

Joanie Madden: It wasn't until I went to a competition, and I actually won first place at a tin whistle competition. We were up in Yorktown Heights at a feis, which a feis is a competition, and a gathering. Means more like a little bit of a festival. So, it was Irish dancing competitions going on, and music competitions. I happened to get first place that day, and my father ran into an old friend of his that he hadn't seen in years, from his hometown. His name was Billy Connors, and he invited us back for a BBQ after the feis. We went there and there was this music playing in the background, and I said to Billy “Excuse me, what instrument is that playing?” He said “Well, that's the tin whistle.” I said “No, no, no, I play the tin whistle. A tin whistle can't do that.” He said “Well, that's a woman named Mary Bergin. She is the best whistle player alive.” So, the next day, my mother took me down to the Tara Irish gift shop, and we bought Mary's album. I got home, and I tried to play with it, and I couldn't because it was the wrong key.  So back again, my next day up to the Tara Irish gift shop, and we bought a selection of the whistles. Again, you were talking three dollars a whistle, which was <laughs> not  a big layout of money. So then I started playing with Mary every day after school, and for every 15 notes that she would play, I would get in 1. But I just kept playing with that album over and over and over again until finally I could play side A, or side B, inside out. 

Jo Reed:  Tell me when you finally met Mary…

Joanie Madden:  Later on, when I finally won the All-Ireland Championship and I had the cup. The greatest thing about having that cup, the All-Ireland Champion Cup, was that Mary's name was on it. She was my hero.But I had never met her, and I heard she was going to be playing in New Jersey. So I went to the concert, and I met her, and I said “I just want to thank you for teaching me how to play the whistle.” She looked at me and she says “I'm so sorry now, but I don't even remember ever meeting you.” I said “Oh, no, no, no. I never met you, but you taught me how to play,” just playing with her. Now, 30 or 40 years later, we’ve become the best of friends. But really that's how I learned, was picking it up by ear. There was no slowdowns, like they have now, to figure out how you should do it. No videos. <laughs> You just had to do it with your ear. 

Jo Reed: Yeah, so tell me, when did you get that you really wanted to make music your life?

Joanie Madden: Oh lord, as soon as I could play a couple of tunes, I was in my father's band, every weekend. We'd go play dances and weddings, Friday and Saturday and Sunday night. I just loved everything about it. I loved performing. I loved the social aspect of it. I loved being on the stage. Of course, I was very shy back then, but I still loved everything about it. Especially, the social aspect, meeting all the people. Every time you went to play a wedding or a dance, it was a joyous occasion, and people were always in great moods.  I would get paid $20 a night, which was a lot of money to a 12 or 13-year-old kid. Finally, after about two years  of doing the gigs and getting paid $20 a night, I saw my father getting paid, and then I saw my father giving $20 back to the organizer of the event, and the guy coming over and giving the 20 to me. Because every time I played, the organizer would come over and pay me. The promoter would pay me, never my father. <laughs> I just realized that okay, <laughs> he didn't want it coming from him, he wanted me to show this is how you make a buck. At that stage, I just really became addicted.

Jo Reed: Were you also playing the flute at this time? 

Joanie Madden:   I started the silver flute. I was trying to play a wooden flute. My parents bought me a wooden flute and it split open. And we kept trying to find wooden flutes and we just couldn't get them here. There wasn't makers like they are. There was a wonderful man by the name of Sean McGlynn, who was another great friend of my father's. Sean always was going to instrument auctions.So my father called up Sean and said “If you come across a wooden flute for Joanie, we're looking for one.” He landed at the house with a silver flute to me, and I pretended that I liked it. I just vividly remember him, he says “I know you don't like the silver flute.” I said “No, no, no.” He said “Listen, you're going to be a great flute player someday, and I want everybody to know that I gave Joanie Madden her first flute. I also want you to know that if anybody can make this sound wooden, it's you.”  So, that's how I got started on the silver flute, which I'm one of the few musicians that play that.

Jo Reed:. We should just explain that silver flutes are usually played by classical musicians in orchestras.

Joanie Madden: Yes, for sure. The traditional Irish flutes, they went back to the 17-1800s, and the history of the Irish flute in Irish music is-- basically, 99.9 play <laughs> the wooden flute. Actually, in the history of the All-Ireland Championship competitions, there's only two flute players to win the All-Ireland on the silver flute, and that is myself, and another National Heritage Award winner, Michael Flatley <laughs>..

Jo Reed: When did you decide you were going to stick with the silver flute

Joanie Madden:  A few years later  I was in a workshop along with Matt Molloy, who would be probably the king of flute players. He's from The Chieftains and from The Bothy Band, and probably one of the most famous names in Irish music. I was also with three of my heroes. There was Mike Preston, who was a fantastic flute player from County Sligo. Played with the Tulla Ceili Band. He was one of the greatest flute players. He taught me about tone. There was Mike Rafferty, also a National Heritage Fellowship winner. Mike was my father's best friend. Again, came from a few miles. When I think about it, that I grew up with two out of the three heroes, my mentors on the flute are both National Heritage Fellowship winners, how lucky was I? 

Jo Reed: Amazing.

Joanie Madden: Yeah. But after that, I played on the silver flute, and I was always looking for the wooden flute. But in that workshop at the Philadelphia Ceili Group, Matt Molloy tapped me on the shoulder. I couldn't even believe he was speaking to me. I was in shock. He was such a legend. He said “Jesus, I never heard anybody make one of those flutes sound like a flute.” I said “Well, I'm just waiting to get a wooden flute.” He said “Well, if I were you, I wouldn't switch. You make it sound wooden and you have all the keys.” So once Matt Molloy gave me the stamp of approval, that was all I needed. <laughs> So that's why I still play the silver flute to this day.

Jo Reed: Oh. <laughter> Well, Joanie, listen, your dad was a musician, and you played with him, but yet he did not want you to pursue it full time.

Joanie Madden: No. So, when I finished high school, my parents said “What do you want to do?” I said “I want to be a musician.” My mother goes “No way.” Oh, the big war at the kitchen table. Absolute war. I was applying to all of my schools. I got into every college, and my mother said “Joan, be an accountant. You're good with numbers. Be an accountant.” When I was choosing schools, my parents suggested that I go to the furthest school away from New York City, to take away any chances of me of attending Irish music events. So I actually signed up to go to Oswego State up above Syracuse, five hours drive from our home. But the first weekend I heard there was <laughs> something going on, and a friend of mine had a car, and down we came. My parents went “Oh, good lord.” But anyway, I was taking the required courses, and the only course that I loved was the music classes. So I called up my parents and I said “Listen, I don't want to do anything more than music. Please let me switch my major to music.” My parents went “No. Absolutely not.” My father got on the phone and he screamed at me, says “Joanie, over my dead body are you being a musician! Do you hear me? Over my dead body!” He said “You do your nine to five job, and you play your music on the weekends, and that's how you get ahead. That's what I did. That's how you get ahead.” I was depressed. I was in no mood, and  I quit school, and I came home, and I walked in the door. I'll never forget, my father was reading the paper, and he looked up and he said “Oh my god, Joanie. What the hell am I going to do with you? What are you going to do now?” I said “Dad, I'm going to play my music around the world,” and he said <adopts mocking voice> “You're going to play your music around the world.” He says “Joanie, I'll be picking you up in the Bowery. Joanie, you're going to break my heart.”

Jo Reed: That must have been hard to hear—what did you do?

Joanie Madden:  Well, I just got to work and I started playing. I got a friend of mine who had played down in an Irish pub. His name was John Morrison. He was a beautiful singer and guitar player, and he hired me. I had won the All-Ireland. At this stage, I had won the All-Ireland on the flute and the whistle, and won the duet, and we won the Ceili Band. I had a great year for prizes. My father says “Now, all that is great. Now you've done everything. Now, put it away and just get on with life now. Settle down and get your life together.” 


Jo Reed: But instead you started Cherish the Ladies—tell us the group’s origin story

Joanie Madden:  Thank god for the Ethnic Folk Art Center, and Mick Moloney. Again, another <laughs> National Heritage Fellowship winner. Mick, when I won the three All-Irelands, one day Mick called me up to congratulate me, and said “This is unbelievable.” He says “You realize you're all women?” Because the ceili band that I was in, we were nine women and one fella. I won the duet with Kathy McGinty, and Eileen Ivers won the fiddle, and it was an incredible year for America. Wound up that none of us noticed it. We didn't even notice, but Mick noticed that we were all women. He said “I've gone back to the Philadelphia Irish Musician’s Society, and I've gone through the records since 1901.” He said “In the 100 years, you know how many people have been women in this organization?” I said “I don't know.” He said “Zero.” I said “Oh my god.” So, he said “We got to do a concert series,” and he approached the Ethnic Folk Arts Center in New York City, and they applied for a grant. He called me up and said “Listen, we're going to do three concerts featuring women. But you're going to be the MC.” Now, I was not up for that task at all. <laughs> I was afraid of the microphone.

Jo Reed: Seriously?

Joanie Madden: Yes. Oh, completely. But anyway, I was the MC, and I helped pick the people, because he didn't know. Basically, most of my friends. But it wound up all three concerts were sold out, and then we went on to record an album on the Shanachie label. We couldn't believe it when the Library of Congress picked it as one of the top folk albums of the year. And then the Ethnic Folk Arts Center and Mick Moloney went back to the NEA and applied for a grant. So we received a two-week grant to go across the country, on the tour, in celebration of this. Then we did a tour in New York State. Ethnic Folk Art Center received a grant from New York City Council in the arts to do a tour around New York. That was it. Then the Ethnic Folk Art Center said “That's it. You're on your own. We can't do any more for you.” 

Jo Reed: What did you do? Did you take on booking the band yourself?

Joanie Madden: So about a year went by and we didn't do anything. Then I called up the girls and said “Guys, do you want to see if I can get a few shows?” Everybody said “Yeah,” because we were having an absolute ball. I was playing in the bars at night, and then I'd be on the phone all day long. Again, I'm going back to when there was no <laughs> internet. I'd be writing down places that people would play. I would clip the newspapers, and I would call these people up and I'd say “I'm Joanie Madden from Cherish the Ladies and wondering, would you like to do a concert?” They’d say “What church are you with?” They thought I was saying The Church Ladies. But anyway, slowly and surely, I got five gigs, ten gigs, twelve gigs. I just kept pushing and pushing. Finally, I was booking so many shows I got to the point where I told the girls to quit their jobs. I said “I'll keep you working, I promise,” and I did. So I became a booking agent, and I was handling all the bookings. 

Jo Reed: See, your dad was right. You got the day job, Joanie.

Joanie Madden: <laughter> Yeah, Night, noon and morning, mailing out packages. Then we were doing over 200 shows a year. I went back to Shanachie to make another record. Myself and Eileen Ivers went for a meeting, and they said they would not make a record, that they would only make cassette tapes, that they didn't see a future. I said “The cassette tape’s no good. People want a record.” Well, they wouldn't come up for it. So then we went to Green Linnet Records, and they insisted that it was a three-record contract deal, and Eileen Ivers refused to sign the record deal. I said “Well, I'll sign it.” Nobody else would sign it. But I signed it, that I would provide three albums. Now we've recorded 18 albums. 

Jo Reed: You've been together for, what, 30 years?

Joanie Madden: We’ll be 40 years. January the 5th will be the first concert, since the first concert.

Jo Reed: Forty, oh my gosh.

Jo Reed: Yikes. I want to backtrack just a few places to fill in a couple of gaps, if you don't mind? You mentioned winning the All-Ireland Championship, and I don't want to just zip through that, because that's like the Olympics, isn't it, of Irish music?

Joanie Madden: Well, yes, it is. But I remember the first time I went to compete, a lot of these kids started playing the whistle when they were five or six. Especially in Ireland, every child gets a tin whistle in school. So they all start at six. Because I was so late starting, and Jack played very simple, <hums musical tune>. For every note that Jack would play in his lovely East Galway style, Mary Bergin would be putting in 500 notes. That's the way they were playing in Ireland, and I knew to win I needed to have that intricacy of rolls, and cuts, and crans, and articulation. So, we had loads of accordion players that won All-Ireland Champions. We had loads of fiddle players that had won All-Ireland championships. But we never had a whistle player do it. I got in second place, and the next year, I got second place. The next year, my mother came to me and said “Joanie, we do not have money to send you to Ireland. You have one brother going into college, and we just don't have the money. We can't send you.” I was so devastated because I had composed all my own pieces of music to play. Anyway, I just kept practicing like I was going, and it was like two days before <laughs> we would go to Ireland, and I made my father lunch. If I didn't go the next day, I was not going to make it. I made my father lunch and I put a note in his lunch, because he was leaving for work at 5:30 in the morning. I just put in the note “Dad, mom doesn't understand, you do. It'll be 25 years to the day since you won your All-Ireland, and I know I'm going to do it.” So, anyway, my father came home that day, and he came into my bedroom that night, and he said “I'm going to tell you, your mother bought you a flight yesterday to go.” But I came in that door, and I told my mother “Sell the accordion.” “Whatever, she's going.” So--

Jo Reed: Aw. 

Joanie Madden: -yeah, and--

Jo Reed: So, they came around?

Joanie Madden: They came around, but I did, I won the three All-Irelands, and I wouldn't only for <laughs> my mother and my father. I’ll tell you, they’re great people. But I was so proud of that, was to win the whistle. Then I went back the next year and won the senior. For an American winning a whistle, it was an amazing achievement. But again, it was because of Jack Coen, Mike Rafferty, Mike Preston, these guys are my heroes that helped and guided me and encouraged me. <cries> <laughs> You got me teary here now, Jo.

Jo Reed: Oh, I’m sorry. 

Joanie Madden: <laughs> It's a community. The community nurtured me and got me where I was. Because you had such support from the community.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I think that's one of the absolute joys of traditional art, is that it really is so rooted in community. Traditional artists can only come from community.

Joanie Madden: That's true, 1000%.

Jo Reed: So, you were mentioning Cherish the Ladies without ever mentioning how you got the name, Cherish the Ladies <laughter>.

Joanie Madden: Well, when Mick called me up, he said he was going to do a series of concerts. He said “I need your help to put it together,” and he said “I need a title.” I said “What are you going to call it? Cherish the Ladies.” He says “That's fantastic!” “Cherish the Ladies” is the name of a traditional jig. It's hundreds of years old. I mean, let me tell you, <laughs> I never thought I'd be stuck with it 40 years. <laughter> Because it did limit--   Cherish the Ladies is an all-female band, you knocked out 70% of the talent pool <laughter> to pull from [ph?] when you have a change. 

Jo Reed: Was it rough in the beginning, as an all-female group?

Joanie Madden: Oh, completely. <overlapping conversation> I remember when I was calling around to people, and then they thought we were like a cutesy marketing ploy. That's all I could say, is people thought we were a marketing ploy. I just remember one promoter. We were out West, and we played the concert, and this woman came running back to me after the stage, and she says “Oh my god. I just thought this was a marketing ploy, but damn, can you girls play.” <laughs> We were powerful. I might’ve been the front person, but at the end of the day, you're only as good as every spoke in the wheel. We loved having not just the music, but we always had the dancers, and the singers. I've been blessed with such great, great friends, and lifelong friends, and the music. Down through the years, the most terrific thing that ever happened to the band was always “Babies.” <laughter> Because once the babies came along, in traditional families, if you had a musician that was the father, he'd go off and do the tours and come home, and the mothers be there to keep things going. But in our situation, the mothers were the mothers, and the babies needed them. So even though every one of the women that would have a baby would say to me “Listen, this isn't changing anything, I'm not going anywhere,” <laughs> but that was never the case and they'd always eventually leave because of children.

Jo Reed: So there was a turnover?

Joanie Madden: Yeah, we had <overlapping conversation> turnover. Plus people like Eileen Ivers, she got the offer from Hall and Oates to go on a world tour, and she had “Riverdance”. I had been called by “Riverdance”. I had been called by other opportunities that came my way as well. But I had promised the girls, I said “If you quit your jobs, I will be loyal to you,” and I am. I'm still doing that.  

Jo Reed:  Cherish the Ladies has worked a lot with Boston Pops.

Joanie Madden: One of the best things that happened. I received a phone call from the Boston Pops. I nearly dropped dead. Anyway, they had heard about us. They wanted to do an arrangement for symphony orchestra, for traditional Irish music, with an Irish band. They said “We've heard great things about you, and we want to hire you.” We wound up doing our first show. They arranged six charts. We didn't get paid, we got paid in charts. And it wound up now we've become the most successful Pops in history. We've done over 300 nights of orchestra. Keith Lockhart, who was the conductor of the Boston Pops, fell in love with my penny whistle playing and he invited me up to play Tanglewood. Just myself, not the band, just me. I went up to play Tanglewood and their summer series, of course, and I'd had my parents come up with me. Keith Lockhart gave me an incredible introduction and said “There's people that are born musicians and then there's people that can play with such heart that you cannot teach, and have soul that you cannot give,” and he brought me out onto the stage. So I played my solo with the Pops, with the 100 Piece orchestra, and I looked down, and there was my father and mother, both. My father was crying hysterically. I had never seen my father cry before. He came back after the show and he said “My god. You did it. You've done everything you said you were going to do.” He says “All I did was put up roadblocks and try and stop you, and I didn't get behind you. I hurt you with my decisions.” I said “You know what, dad? You said I couldn't do it and you pissed me off, and you drove me to do it. I wouldn't have done it if you didn't <laughs> tell me I couldn't. Because you made me mad, and I wanted to prove you wrong.” But I'm so glad he got to see me with the symphony.

Jo Reed: Oh, that had to have been so special -

Joanie Madden: It was, yeah. It was amazing.

Jo Reed: When did you begin composing?

Joanie Madden: Well, I was going to Ireland to compete, and I needed a jig, and I didn't have one. So I remember I was maybe 14, 15 years old.  Anyway, I just said “Let me try and make one up,” and I sat down the kitchen table one night around midnight, and I stayed at it all night, and my father was going to work at 5:30 in the morning, typically. He came in, and he said “What the hell is that?” I said “I just made it up.” Even though he turned away from me, I saw his jaw drop. He said “Play that again.” I played it for him again, and he says “Nice,” but I knew that he was so impressed. Anyway, I went back to Ireland, and I played it in the competition. I came back to New York, and I never played it again. I mean, if I was playing a session, I wouldn't play a tune that I wrote. I just didn't. But the following year I went back to Ireland and Sean McGlynn had passed away. I called the jig after him, “The Cat’s Meow”, because the last time I saw him, his headlight was out, and I said to him “You're like a cat winking.” Like the cat’s meow. I went back to Ireland and everybody-- I'm not kidding, it was being played everywhere. I couldn't go 50 feet. It was the tune of the year, and now it's become a complete and utter staple. It’s been recorded by so many of the great musicians. It's made its way into the tradition. I'm constantly composing. I'm not somebody who sits down and writes, I'm somebody who something comes to me, and I write within two or three minutes and that's that.

Jo Reed: Well, I think it's so interesting. So, it became incorporated, “Cat’s Meow”, into the tradition, and I think people often think of traditional music as being fixed, “It's done, it's over.”   But in fact, that's not true. It continues to expand.

Joanie Madden: Yes, Definitely. But when I compose, I really compose in the traditional idiom. I want it to sound like it's been around for hundreds of years. I have all those beautiful tunes and melodies in my head, and the heart and soul that was passed down to me from the East Galway style of music that I play. With Cherish the Ladies, I've been a complete purist, a purist all the way. Our tunes, we write a lot of our own music, but we always stay true to the tradition. I can always remember and picture, when we'd be doing the concerts with Cherish the Ladies, all of our dads would be at the back of the hall, lined up and talking the whole time, whispering after each tune, discussing each number. When we would record an album, I would be more worried about what my father would say than what the New York Times music critic would say. Because our parents, all of our fathers, they gave us their music, and that was their heart, that was their soul, that was everything to them. That was their life, and their love was music. That was their most precious thing that they owned and that they gave us. So I've always been true to that tradition.

Jo Reed: Well, and you’re also true to the tradition of passing it along, and you see that as an important role in your life. Tell me about that aspect of the work that you do?

Joanie Madden: Well, now, the people that were my age and had a bunch of kids, they wanted their kids to learn music and there was nowhere to teach them. So eventually, all these mothers got together, and they went under the beds and got the fiddles and dusted them off and got the flutes out, and they started teaching. People like Rose Conway, and Margie Mulvihill, and Eileen Clune. These were all great players when I was growing up, who went into careers in their own right, but started teaching. I didn't have the time, or I wasn't home enough. A student needs to have regular lessons and a consistency. I didn't have that. But what I did have was I told all of them, “I'll certainly make myself available to anybody. Any of you want to send any of your kids.” So I would get a lot of the kids-- they're almost at the finish line, but they just needed tweaking. I would spend a couple of years with them, coming and giving them tunes, and mentoring them to get them over the finish line. Now I've had three students that have gone on to win All-Ireland championships on the whistle.

Jo Reed: Oh, that has to be so gratifying.

Joanie Madden: It is. Even though, I mean, I didn't take them from beginner to the end, but their teachers got them as far as they could, and then I took them and got them over the bar, <laughs> for the field gold. I'm very proud of that. You are who you come from. I had always these mentors, that even though I didn't have professional lessons, a bit of encouragement, a pat on the back, telling the kid “You're playing lovely. Keep it up.” Just all those little things that I received from the community, I'm passing that down. and you have to invest in the next generation. Especially in folk arts and folk circles, it's so important. The community has to be there, as we mentioned earlier. And the mentors. That's what it's all about.

Jo Reed: Well, you have been given many <laughs> awards. You've even had a street named after you in the Bronx.

Joanie Madden: <laughs> That was amazing.

Jo Reed: That is so way cool. I'm going to see it the next time I'm in New York, I promise. In 2021, pandemic year, you were awarded a National Heritage Fellowship. Even though the concert didn't happen, I still wonder what that award meant for you?

Joanie Madden: It's the cherry on the top. <laughs> There's no better. It's wonderful to be celebrated for something you do. But for me, I'd be doing it whether I won an award or not. I just love this music and I love what I do. I love bringing joy to people. I love people forgetting about their problems for two hours and entertaining them, and have them standing on their feet and laughing and joking, and changing their demeanor as they go out the door. But for me, and I received a phone call from Chuck Schumer, a Zoom call from Chuck Schumer, informing me that I had won. It was just wonderful, and he was singing Irish songs to me <laughs> on the Zoom call. The pride, again, when I looked up at-- just 3% of the winners have been Irish musicians. It was great that I joined my great friend Liz Carroll as being the second woman to win it, because the rest of them were all men. But again, I accepted it for me and for the community that I'm so proud to be a part of. Again, and having the band, and having all the support of great players and everybody behind me. But there's no words. There's no words to tell you how much it meant to win that award. To be appreciated like that, it's humbling.

Jo Reed: And so well deserved. Joanie, I mean, honestly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the pleasure you've given me, not to mention how many millions of other people who have listened to your work. I mean, it is pure joy.

Joanie Madden: Well, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate that.

Jo Reed: That was Irish flute and whistle player and 2021 National Heritage Fellow Joanie Madden—you can keep up with her at and stop by to find about the 2024 class of National Heritage Fellows!

You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcast—and don’t forget to leave us a rating. It helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.

An in-depth interview with 2021 National Heritage Fellow Joanie Madden, the legendary Irish musician and leader of Cherish the Ladies. In this podcast, Madden recounts her early life in the Bronx, New York, where she was born to Irish immigrant parents from County Galway and County Clare, and shares how her father, an All-Ireland Champion accordion player, profoundly influenced her musical journey. She discusses her initial struggles with the fiddle and piano gave way to a passionate love for the tin whistle at age 12, guided by National Heritage Fellow Jack Coen. She also recounts how her determination led her to become an All-Ireland Champion herself, despite initial resistance from her father about pursuing music full-time.

Madden also discusses the formation and evolution of Cherish the Ladies, an all-female Irish music band that has faced and overcome numerous challenges in a male-dominated field. She highlights the band's notable collaborations, including performances with the Boston Pops, and her dedication to composing music true to traditional Irish roots. We talk about her commitment to mentoring the next generation of musicians (which has seen three of her students achieve All-Ireland Championship success.) Finally, Madden reflects on her numerous awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship, and expresses deep gratitude for the recognition and support from the Irish music community. Throughout the episode, Joanie Madden's joy in performing and her impact on audiences worldwide shine through. 

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