Copley Street is a little longer than a block, tucked away in Roxbury’s extreme western flank, and dead-ending at the southwest at the Jamaica Plain border on School Street. But whatever it may lack in relative size or scale, Copley Street has some important connections to the past, present and likely the future of Irish music in Boston.
For one thing, the street is all of about a mile from Dudley Square, the storied hub of Irish dance halls that flourished for decades during the 20th century. That era resounds in the very name “Copley” – the Roxbury-based record label that issued recordings of some of Boston’s most prominent Irish musicians.
Today, Copley Street is home to a pair of Irish musicians, uilleann piper Joey Abarta and fiddler Nathan Gourley, who while not native to Boston are keenly aware and greatly respectful of the city’s Irish music history. Small wonder, then, that they titled their recently released album “Copley Street.”
The 16-track CD, however, is not a tribute album in the conventional sense. There’s no attempt to recreate the Dudley Square-era “big band” sound, nor are all of the tunes that Abarta and Gourley play specifically associated with Boston Irish musicians from the dance hall days. The title is more an expression of gratitude for the many people who played the music during that time, and the many others who, in various ways, helped make the music a central pillar of Boston’s Irish-American community – and in doing so, established Boston as one of America’s strongholds for Irish music.
As they write in the album’s introduction, “[The] legacy of that era undoubtedly helped shape our path to Boston, where we found echoes of their music on many happy afternoons, drinking tea in the kitchen while sifting through old books and records.”
“We thought about our ‘thank you’/explanation in the liner notes for a long time,” said Abarta, as he and Gourley – who first met at the 2008 Catskills Irish Arts Week – relaxed in their living room on one recent late-summer evening. “We didn’t want this to be a ‘themed’ record, but we felt ‘Copley Street’ would be a nod to the past generations of musicians. And we thought that the title, and our little foreword, could be educational for people who are unaware of the history, and of an older form of the music that’s not around as much anymore.”
“I moved to Boston for the quality of the music here, which is largely due to the legacy of the Dudley Square scene,” said Gourley, a Midwesterner who arrived in Boston (and on Copley Street) in 2013, about three years after Abarta relocated from his native Los Angeles (As Abarta recalls, Gourley was passing through Boston on his way to resettle in New York City: “I told Nathan, ‘Just take a room.’ He never left.”).
It’s a legacy that has sometimes surfaced in unexpected places, said Gourley: Once, leafing through O’Neill’s Music of Ireland – considered one of the foundational collections of Irish traditional music – he came upon a tune by fiddler Paddy Cronin, a Kerryman who emigrated to Boston and became a Dudley Square mainstay. Its title? “The Pride of Roxbury.”
While the quality of Gourley and Abarta’s playing is characteristically top-notch, there is an air of informality about “Copley Street,” as if the two were passing a leisurely afternoon in that aforementioned kitchen. It’s not flashy, nor do the tune sets seem meticulously arranged and curated; for the most part, the two saddle up and go, with prodigious accompaniment on bouzouki by Owen Marshall, a one-time Boston-area resident who is a member of Maine quartet The Press Gang. The result is exhilarating, whether it’s driving reels – including a set that encompasses “Jenny Pippin,” “The Cashmere Shawl” and a Clare version of “Toss the Feathers” – nimble hop jigs like “Miss Johnstone’s/The Tipperary Hills/Cucanandy” or the regal “Allistrum’s March/March of the King of Laois.”
That’s not to say there isn’t some judicious crafting and arrangement, building anticipation to a satisfying conclusion. One such highlight is a set that begins with the Fermanagh reel “The Boys of 25” – Abarta playing without use of the pipe drones until the third time through – until Marshall enters on the venerable “The Girl That Broke My Heart,” which here is played in A as opposed to its more customary G. The trio spends a little extra time on it, exploring nuances and flourishes to an almost mesmerizing effect, then finishes off with “Jerry O’Sullivan’s.”
Suffice it to say, Abarta’s and Gourley’s move to Boston has worked out very well for all concerned, not the least Boston. Together, individually or in other collaborations, the two have become fixtures at local sessions and performed regularly in the area, including at The Burren Backroom, BCMFest and the Irish Cultural Centre of New England. Both also tour regularly throughout the US and elsewhere. Since their arrivals, Abarta has released a solo album, “Swimming Against the Falls,” while Gourley has recorded “Life Is All Checkered” with fiddler Laura Feddersen – both works have been widely acclaimed.
Their Copley Street house, meanwhile, has arguably become a small-scale Irish music enclave in its own right. Its other full-time residents are also firmly ensconced in the local Irish scene, and there seem to be musical friends, visitors and guests passing through at almost any given moment, resulting in impromptu sessions and ceilis. “The line between house parties and a typical night,” Abarta and Gourley write in the “Copley Street” introduction, “is not always clear.”
So the album is largely a culmination of Abarta and Gourley’s three years at Copley Street (plus the occasional get-togethers before Gourley came to Boston), a time of sharing tunes and company, and of finding their way as full-time musicians. From their standpoint, “Copley Street” was a project waiting to happen, if nothing else because of their respective instruments.
“To me, the fiddle is just perfect for playing with the pipes,” said Abarta. “The pipes have that kind of raw, unbridled power, and while the fiddle can sound gentle in comparison, it also has a certain drive to it. And when you have a great player like Nathan, all the better.”
“I’ve always enjoyed the fiddle-pipes combo, but I haven’t had a lot of access to great pipers,” said Gourley. “So I feel pretty lucky to be sharing a house with one.”
Part of the challenge in making “Copley Street,” say Gourley and Abarta, was carving out time in the midst of their various other musical activities and focus on fine-tuning their duet playing.
“We just had to make it a priority at some point,” said Abarta. “Fortunately, if you play together for a while, good things just become inherent. I haven’t dueted with anyone but Nathan so consistently and for so long, and that helped us get to a place where we were ready to record.”
When it came to deciding which tunes to record, Abarta said he and Gourley made a point of seeking a balance between the fiddle and piping repertoires. “In most of the albums I’ve heard with just fiddle and pipes, it seemed like the focus was more on the pipes, even the ornamentation. Nathan and I met in the middle ground, so instead of two solo musicians playing together, it’s a duo – both keeping our individuality even as we blend.”
The tunes on “Copley Street” come from a variety of sources: published collections like O’Neill’s, Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hEireann and Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion, among others; recordings of traditional musicians such as Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Willie Clancy and Johnny McGreevy, and more contemporary performers like Dervish and John Carty; or from friends and acquaintances – Gourley and Abarta credit Boston-area fiddler Helena Delaney for the jig “The Pretty Brown Girl.”
And then, adds Abarta, there were the tunes that “just follow you around.” One was “Cucanandy,” an example of a dandling song – a sort of anti-lullaby, made for entertaining children rather than lulling them to sleep – famously recorded by Elizabeth Cronin as part of a collection by Seamus Ennis in the 1940s. Here it’s included as part of a medley of hop jigs.
“Ever since we started playing, I wanted to get that onto an album,” said Abarta. “It’s one more reason why this was such a fun project.”
There’s every reason to believe Copley Street will continue to have a palpable Irish music presence for the near future. Abarta and Gourley and housemates seem quite content and settled there, and a new tenant arriving shortly will bolster the Irish trad character of the household.
“This house has been a good home to us,” Abarta and Gourley write in the liner notes, “and to Irish music.”
For more on “Copley Street,” go to www.copleystreet.com.