I interviewed Andy Irvine at Don Quixote's in Felton on June 20th, 2010. Andy plays bouzouki, mandolin, and harmonica and sings in Patrick Street, Mozaik, and also solos. Andy is wonderfully unassuming, so full of experience and knowledge, and a joy to talk with.
Paul Edwards, Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay
I've been reading your recollections on your web site. What's up with your book?
Well, it's very forward in my consciousness. I do intend to do it, but I keep finding that there are things that have to be cleared away before I have a clear field. You know, I kept a diary from 1961 through 1963. I've been transcribing that. It's got to be in the computer before I start. If you live long enough you have a story to tell.
There's a fair amount on your web site about your mandolin and bouzouki. What about your harmonica?
The thing about harmonica is you can't see what you're doing, so it's hard to describe. Teaching people to play harmonica, I'd be lost. If you've a whole range of diatonic harmonicas, the actual note you're playing you wouldn't be aware of. There's a lot of feel to it.
I learned to play harmonica listening to Woody Guthrie, and I was good friends with Jack Elliott back in the very late Fifties and early Sixties, and he told me that Woody Guthrie played the harmonica upside-down. So I'm really glad that I learned that before I started playing harmonica. So I played it upside-down, and quite often people come up and say, "Hey! You play the harmonica upside-down!" And I say, "Yeah! Woody Guthrie did!"
So what harmonicas do you use?
Well, I generally use Hohner diatonic harmonicas, but I would have a lot of them tuned in what they call the Country Tuning, which means that the reed in 2nd position is sharpened, so it's played in major scale. I discovered this guy in England called Anthony Dannecker, who used to work for Hohner. He makes up harmonicas out of Hohner components, and he became the guy that I use to tune my harmonicas. I also play an old Hohner Meister Class harmonica.
What drew you to the type of music you play?
It was a progression. The friends that I had when I was in my early teens – when 45's came out; great music; early rhythm and blues, like Fats Domino; in the mid-Fifties — and they went, "Wow! Hey! This is fantastic!" And I thought, "Yeah, it's OK, but it's not what I'm looking for." And then this fellow, Lonnie Donegan, appeared, singing kind of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs. That was when I discovered the music I was interested in, and it was all American — "It Takes a Worried Man" and "Midnight Special" and all that kind of stuff. Then I discovered Woody Guthrie through Lonnie Donegan, because Woody Guthrie is mentioned on the back of one of his records. I was hooked on Woody. So then I got into an old Harry Smith anthology, old '78s from the 1920s.
Then I belatedly discovered my own folk music. It was common in that day. We all started back in the late Fifties and early Sixties into American music, and then people like Ewan McColl said, "Yes, yes, yes, but there is a lot of good stuff here." So eventually we all got into ours here.