For fiddler Tommy Peoples, a key figure in the late 20th-century Irish music revival, Boston was a relatively brief but enjoyable interlude in a long and productive career.
A Donegal native, Peoples was an original member of The Bothy Band, appearing on its first album. He was involved in other seminal recordings of the era, including a 1977 release with Matt Molloy and Paul Brady and Brady’s “Welcome Here Kind Stranger” in 1978. He also made several of his own albums, among them “The High Part of the Road” (with Brady), “A Traditional Experience with Tommy Peoples” and “The Iron Man.” In 1998, TG4 presented him with its first Traditional Musician of the Year Award and honored him again in 2013 as Composer of the Year.
Respiratory problems forced Peoples to give up fiddling several years ago, but he has now released a concert album recorded in 2005 – at the tail end of his four-year stay in the Boston-area community of Malden. It’s a period on which Peoples looks back fondly: In a recent email from Donegal, where he returned after his time in Boston, he recalled playing music at favorite sessions in area pubs like Kitty O’Shea’s, The Burren, The Druid, O’Leary’s, Matt Murphy’s, and O’Neill’s – and with a long list of friends and acquaintances.
“I found the music sessions there lively, friendly, welcoming, and with great variety,” he said, “but like any city, I’m sure, people come and go.” Boston served as a home base for Peoples as he traveled around the US in an old Mercury Cougar he named “Bridget.”
“It was a wonderful companion that never let me down, and so comfortable to travel in and to drive. I drove that car from Boston to most everywhere between East and West coasts: Boulder in Colorado, Albuquerque and other towns in New Mexico, Seattle in Washington, San Francisco in California, all over North Carolina; up and down the East Coast, and northwards to Quebec in Canada.”
Also among the destinations for Peoples was South Bend, Indiana, where the Meehan family runs the Fiddler’s Hearth pub. Peoples played there shortly after the pub opened in 2002 and returned in 2005. Years later, his friend John Daly passed along a recording made at the latter concert, and persuaded Peoples to release it as a CD. Peoples asked Daly to edit the recording – specifically to take out his introductions to the tune sets (“My sense of humor sometimes can cause eyes to widen,” Peoples explained) – and the 16-track album, “Recorded at Fiddler’s Hearth,” came out last fall.
Peoples plays unaccompanied on the album, featuring some of his own compositions like “Pat McHugh’s,” “The Fairest Rose,” “The Rumour” and “Memories of Clare” as well another from his Boston period, a jig he dedicated to Dave Cory and Dan Isaacson, who were among the local musicians he befriended. There also are Peoples’ compelling renditions of traditional tunes, like “Humours of Ballyloughlin,” “The Sporting Pitchfork,” “Rakish Paddy” and “Hardiman the Fiddler” – plus two jigs (“Ship in Full Sail” and “Blarney Pilgrim”) normally played in G that he transposes to the “brighter” key of A. Bothy Band aficionados, meanwhile, will relish his reprise of the J. Scott Skinner strathspey “Hector the Hero” that he recorded on the group’s debut album. Peoples’s sleeve notes are informative and often entertaining, such as his recounting of the inspiration for his slip jig, “Heels Over Head” (it involved some accidental acrobatics by Co. Fermanagh musician Cathal McConnell).
Peoples cites the friendship and support of Daly, along with David James, who organized and recorded the 2005 concert, as part of the reason he decided to release “Fiddler’s Hearth.” “It kind of fell into my lap, and I said ‘Why not’?” he said. “John and David were wonderful in helping put this all together: John for his editing work, David for the recording and providing information used in the cover notes.”
Concert albums of any kind, of course, are keepsakes in and of themselves, a physical representation of the event. That makes “Fiddler’s Hearth” all the more special, because for Peoples, live performances are all about intuition and being open to impressions and sensations of the moment.
“It’s entirely impromptu. I never have a set list; it’s what hits me at the time. It’s dependent on mood and many factors, like the listeners, atmosphere – maybe it’s a particular friend in the audience, could be lighting, sound. It could be anything. And then that very much affects variation, so one night it might be pretty straight playing; another night it’s free and easy, as you want it. There’s no particular thing about the choice of tunes on the CD. Some are my own, most are traditional tunes, and indeed there are some that I rarely ever play.”
Given Peoples’s Donegal roots, “Recorded at Fiddler’s Hearth” might also be regarded as a valuable exposition of that distinctive fiddle style. But Isaacson (now living in Baltimore) cautions against pigeonholing Peoples’ body of work.
“There are different approaches to the tradition. There are players who are steeped in a regional style and play certain tunes a certain way, within regional guidelines. You could say that Tommy is a Donegal fiddler, and technically speaking you’d be correct, but he isn’t. He’s as singular player as has ever been. The Donegal rhythmic sensibilities, ornamentation style, repertoire, and so on are certainly the foundation of his playing, but he doesn’t play Donegal music. He plays Tommy Peoples music.”
Despite his unassuming, low-key personality (“a shy, quiet gentleman, a generous genius,” according to Isaacson), Peoples made a definitive impact on the Irish music revival that should not be underestimated, added Isaacson, pointing to Peoples’ 1998 album “The Quiet Glen.”
“At the time when that record hit, people were going for a much more produced kind of sound. I was in Boston when it was released, and all the serious musicians were really freaking out. ‘The Quiet Glen’ was recorded in his living room on a DAT machine, not in a professional studio. He released it himself. The whole approach –the notes, the feel, the playing – was unprecedented. I’d say it was like the beginning of a second revival, which is happily going strong today.”
Peoples, for his part, is upbeat about the state of Irish music, although he’s not necessarily enamored of all the innovations or cross-genre collaborations that have emerged in recent decades.
“There will be different strategies employed, I’m sure, and some that mightn’t sit too easily with me. But it’s a sort of live-and-let live thing and I think, by and large, they’ll come back to the old way. If the music is played as it could or should, then it’s got everything. It doesn’t need to be dressed in rock clothes or jazz clothes or any other clothes. It’s got its own wardrobe, unsurpassed by any, between songs, melodies, dance, and each area having a wealth of variety of material.
“Really and truly, if I felt like interfering with how it’s played, or adding rock or jazz elements, then I would hopefully play rock or play jazz. I don’t think rock or jazz players would want their music to be ‘brought up to the level of’ or embellished by traditional music; likewise, I don’t want traditional music to be ‘brought up to the level of’ or embellished by rock or jazz. To feel that that needs to be done is to not have faith in the music itself, and to not hear its true beauty.”
Peoples misses the presence of music in his life nowadays, but is trying to maintain a positive outlook. In 2015, he published the book “Ó Am go hAm – From Time to Time: Tutor, Text and Tunes,” a collection of his compositions that includes accompanying notes and stories, along with his own artwork.
“I meet some friends and family, and a lot of players call or I meet them here and there, and I’m happy with that. It renews old acquaintances,” said Peoples.
“ And,” he quipped, “I don’t have to worry about tuning!”
For more about Tommy Peoples, and information on ordering “Recorded at Fiddler’s Hearth,” go to tommypeoples.ie.