When John Carty was a kid growing up in London, Bowie was just coming onto the scene. So were bands like The Jam and The Clash.
They were cool. Carty was not.
“I was very un-cool,” the talented multi-instrumentalist admitted with a laugh, talking to us from a cell phone in a car that was bearing him to a fiddle clinic in Atlanta. “I wasn’t into any of that. I was into traditional Irish musicians like (fiddler) Bobby Casey and (accordionist) Finbar Dwyer. So I would be very secretive about my art form. It was a very private thing.”
At the same time, Carty explained, he could not have planted his trad roots in more fertile ground than London in the 1970s, where many Irish had come to live and find work. As is always the case, when they Irish move, they take their music and culture with them. Legends like Casey and Dwyer were playing their tunes in pubs and workshops around the city, and eager young students like Carty were flocking to their side, availing themselves of an opportunity to learn from the masters.
Carty took his first lessons from legendary County Clare fiddler Brendan Mulkere, who taught huge classes of 60 to 80 kids around London. In that environment, learning all the standards—Jackson’s Favorite, Off to California, The Blackthorn Stick—he could securely nurture his love of Irish traditional music. “As soon as the door was shut,” Carty said, “we were Irish.”
Carty’s own family was very much a part of that vibrant culture. His parents hailed from Roscommon and Connemara. (Carty, who has yet to shed his London accent, now lives in Roscommon.) Father John P. played banjo and flute and was a member of the highly regarded Glenside Céilí Band. So it is not in the least surprising that Carty is himself now a master, a highly regarded and accomplished banjo picker, fiddler and flutist, (More recently, he added tenor guitar to his arsenal.).
“The instruments were just available to me,” he said. “There were instruments all around the house.”
Carty began his musical studies on fiddle. At some point, he moved on to mandolin and from there to the banjo, which became his particular passion. (He won the senior All-Ireland banjo title in 1982.) He still played fiddle, but lacked the confidence to play it much outside the home. Along the way, he added flute to his repertoire.
For those of us who muddle along on a single instrument, talent like Carty’s is cause for a bit of envy. How does it happen that so many Irish traditional musicians seem to become such gifted multi-instrumentalists?
One inevitable explanation is natural talent. You either have the gift, or you don’t. Hard work plays its role, for sure. But all the rest, Carty explained, is just a matter of making natural connections from one instrument to the next.
“A young, inquiring mind will see that a fiddle is similar to a banjo,” he said. “Or you’ll start with whistle—one of the simplest ways to make music—and move on to the flute.”
Somewhere along the line, Carty must have gained just a bit of confidence on fiddle. He’s regarded as one of the best. (And he’s no slouch on banjo or flute, either.) His talents are much in demand. He plays often with Chieftains flutist Matt Malloy, and he has performed with that band and with De Danaan. He is a member of the supergroup Patrick Street, which includes Kevin Burke, Andy Irvine, Jackie Daly and Ged Foley. He has recorded three highly acclaimed CDs, and recently accompanied his brother James (also a flutist) on his new release. On one set of tunes, the two brothers are joined by their father. "We do a three-flute track, good old Roscommon tunes,” he said. (Details.) Delaware Valley-area fiddlers will have the opportunity to pick Carty’s highly creative brain on Tuesday in a workshop at the Philadelphia Irish Center. The workshop begins at 6, and continues until 7:30. (Call Frank Dalton for details at (610) 486-2220 or e-mail him at email@example.com.)
Playing this tour with Gaffney gives Carty special pleasure.
“I just find this gig special,” Carty said. “It’s a real bonus for the listeners this time. His rhythm is impeccable and he has a great feeling for the music. He lets the fiddle breathe. It’s very important for accompanists to do that. In my mind they should enhance everything that’s being done, and those are the qualities Francis has.”
With two such mighty talents together in the same room, a special night is in store.