I interviewed John Doyle at a Haworth House Concert in Aptos on September 28th, 2010. John plays guitar and sings with Karan Casey, Liz Carroll, Joan Baez, and many others, and also as a solo act, and was a founding member of Solas. He writes his own songs. John is so easy-going, so full of amazing experiences and knowledge, and he is one of the most talented, amazing guitarists on the planet.
Paul Edwards, Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It takes time, but over the course of years you find a collection of songs. You find something, a song that you hear, a reference of it somewhere, a song that someone sings. Take Ewan MacColl for example. He's done so many great songs. You'll hear a song from him that you've never heard before and you'll go, "What an amazing song." Then I'll put it on the back burner. And then there'll be another song that I've written about some subject, and that's on the back burner. And then you might know a song [and learn a new approach], for example Shay Black sang a song yesterday, "Muirshin Durkin", but he sang it in a minor key. So that's on the back burner now. So it's just over time these songs become collected and part of your repertoire. And then I'll find some guitar parts for them or I'll work them up for a particular project.
With writing songs, it's when the mood takes you. You'll find a piece with historical songs, with historical context, like the song I was singing today, the Antietam song, "Faugh a ballagh, Clear The Way". [Go to Links > Videos > John Doyle, first video to hear a great rendition of his song.] I went to Antietam and I went to Fredericksburg a couple of months ago, and I'd always read about Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade. And when I saw it, it moved me to write something, because to have Irish fighting against Irish in a battle — I mean, how bizarre? — in a foreign country? How does that happen? The Civil War in itself is such a strange concurrence of events. Anyway, my being an immigrant myself, leads me to be interested in immigrant experience.
Ewan MacColl had a particular way with melodies and the way that he wrote. The way with Ewan was that he went to these places, he went to visit coal miners, and he interviewed coal miners, and he talked to them and got into their lingo and into their minds, and then he'd write about it.
So where do you think folk music is going?
I don't know. You'll always have the progressives, who'll try and break the boundaries of what is traditional music into the most modern form of music. As a youth I've done that, too, because that's what you want to do. You want to change and innovate. And then there're the keepers of tradition. As you get older you become a keeper of tradition. I find myself veering in that direction. And then you have the keepers of tradition that don't want any change. We need those people, too. We need all the varieties of folk music. I'm kind of in the middle. I think you have to make folk music as innovative as much as you can, but you try not to lose the heart of it.
For example, if you talk about Andy Irvine as an innovator, he really did change — between Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine — the music. There nearly wouldn't have been a folk revival without them. Like the Planxty band was three long-hairs and one piper. It was a strange phenomenon — a piper would never have played in a folk band. And they changed everything. Without Planxty there would have been no Riverdance. Andy [and playing in Planxty] influenced Bill Whelan [creator of Riverdance]. So Andy had a huge influence.
Do you ever run across Brendan Power?
I do. I'll go meet him next week, actually. I have played with him. He's an amazing harmonica player.
What are the great festivals you love going to?
Sebastopol is a great festival, and still a traditional festival. I like that about it. I know all the people, and it's fun to go meet all the people you like and hang out. I like going to Milwaukee just because it's one of those huge festivals where I meet everyone I know, too. It's so huge, it's just crazy. There was a great festival in Boston called the Celtic Music Fest. I don't know that it's still going. The Vancouver Folk Festival is always nice. The National Folk Festival is one of my favorites for all the diverse performers. But Celtic Connections in Glasgow is my favorite, at the end of the day, because I end up being there every year.
[At this point members of Molly's Revenge joined the conversation, and far into the night they and John traded horror stories of the Glasgow hotel that they always stay in, with details too grizzly for fair eyes to read...]