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Five Questions for ...

Cletus McBride
Musician and Performer

1. Your song "Corktown (Irish Philadelphia" chronicles the progress of Irish immigrants from the 1800s to present day. (Listen to the tune.) What inspired this tune? How did the idea come to you?

That song came to me the way most of my original material doesmelody first, lyrics next (if I want to make a "song" as opposed to a "tune" out of it). I was sitting on my deck having a beer before going to work one evening here above Morning Star Beach and was watching a hawk diving, gliding, soaring, and swooping, and the melody just came to me based on the bird's graceful movements.
2. Was it always going to be about Philadelphia's Irish-American community?

I developed it with (fiddler) Harold Dunn as an instrumental but knew I wanted to sing about something Irish. I mentioned that to a customer at Emmett's Place, Billy Carroll, and he suggested I do a lot of what you hear in the lyrics. The old Irish parishes—Corpus Christi, St. Columba's, etc.—were his idea, the neighborhoods and personalities were mine. Of course, the Irish famine was the starting point for the migration.

3. How did you start out?

I started on piano and voice (still play the keys but normally just in the studio ... and at home) with the nuns in grade school, and moved to bass. My dad taught me my first licks. He moved from sax to bass in his own band which they began at LaSalle with my mom as vocalist, added guitar (more portable for hanging at Holme Circle and for camping and stuff ... and to attract "la chicas!") and mandolin in high school (the '70s). I took a trip to Penn State sometime in '79 to see a buddy and stumbled into a Holiday Inn gig. The friend who went with me and I stopped in the HI for a beer just as the guy who had been playing there got fired. I saw the opportunity, talked to the manager and drove right back to Philly and finished the guy's two weeks, starting the next night.

From there I played in upstate New York, Harrisburg, Ohio, West Virginia, and the Jersey Shore circuit.

4. How long have you been performing in the Philadelphia area? 
I came off the road sometime in 1980 to concentrate on performing in the Philly area. I got a plum gig at the old Depot in Chestnut Hill, and Binni & Flynn's (N'East Philly and Devon), and a bunch of other places, while working in much more Irish music on top of the covers and the few originals I had been doing.

In '85 I decided to get out for a while and started bartending, then managed at the Holiday Inn in King of Prussia and the old George Washington Motor Lodge before it closed and I was laid off. I hardly played during those two years. I went back to finish my second two years of college ('87 - '89, Holy Family University), started working in journalism (my degree), played maybe once a week, and wound up being hired by Holy Family in '91 as assistant, then director, of public relations. I stayed 'til March of '99 when I resigned to go back into music full-time. (I taught "The History of Irish Music and Dance" at HF in fall 2001).

I had put my band together in '95 or so and was working the Irish circuit in Philly (and the Wildwood festival) and then got the "offer I couldn't refuse" to play at Molly Molone's in St. Thomas (USVI), and I've been here from Thanksgiving 'til May ever since.

5. Irish musicians seem incapable of playing just one instrument or only singing. You play multiple instruments, and you sing. Which instrument came first, and what made you move on to the others?

I studied clarinet and flute at Settlement Music School while working at Holy Family, and the tin whistle is not too difficult compared to those. After my fiddler Harold Dunn left the band (since I was traveling so much anyway), I simply decided to begin Suzuki violin lessons at Settlement on my own about five years ago and I play a handful of Irish jigs, reels, and hornpipes pretty much at some point during every show. (It's tuned just like the mandolin, which I had already been playing, so the switch wasn't all that difficult.) 

April 17, 2006
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