By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Irish musician Shannon Heaton knows that a good story told well can entertain, illuminate, even educate. It’s something she’s experienced as a singer of songs from Irish, English, Thai and other folk traditions, as a writer of her own songs and prose, and, in more recent years, as the parent of a young child.
Now, supported by a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship grant, Heaton has embarked on a project that aims to tell the story of Irish music today through the individual narratives of people who are active in the tradition as performers, teachers, or simply enthusiasts who play purely for the joy of it.
Heaton plans to launch “Irish Music Stories” as a podcast this January; she also envisions it as a solo stage show, incorporating pre-recorded interviews, images, and narration with her live music performance. “I’ve spent decades learning about traditional music, how to hear it, how to play it, how to lock in with other people. From Chicago to Clare to Colorado to Cambridge, I’ve found many layers of meaning along the way – a lens through which to view the world,” she explains. “I think it’s amazing that so many of us have come to Irish music in different ways. I’m eager to tuck into the backstory behind so many influential, innovative, important voices in the tradition. And to share that with a wide range of listeners, from the Irish music enthusiasts to the people who don’t already know about the global Irish music movement.
“I am so honored and grateful that Massachusetts has this program – these MCC fellowships are an investment in artists, an affirmation that the work we do has value and significance. Receiving this fellowship makes me want to sit up straight and do my part, and hopefully bring a new perspective to the art that we’re doing.”
At the core of this project, Heaton says, are some basic questions: “Why do we play traditional Irish music? Why is there such an attraction to it, even for people who have no Irish roots whatsoever? I want to dig into the identity, the community, that comes with Irish music. And the best way to do this is to talk to people and see what stories emerge.”
Weaving through the stories, as told by the protagonists themselves, will be passages written by Heaton that provide context and color – describing, for example, the sights and sounds of a session and its musicians.
Heaton’s own Irish music story is compelling enough, rooted as it is in places like Chicago and Boston but also shaped by sojourns in Ireland and even Thailand. She has spent most all her adult life devoted to the music via flute, whistle, accordion and song, as a soloist and in a duo with her husband Matt, in collaborations such as Long Time Courting and Childsplay, and through a bevy of other projects – from After the Morning, a repertoire of songs arranged for flute and string quartet, to “Trad Kids: The Cupcake Ball,” a musical for young children. She’s also the co-founder and a co-organizer of BCMFest (Boston’s Celtic Music Fest).
“Irish Music Stories” is in many respects familiar territory for Heaton, but it’s necessitated making use of her other, non-music skills and experiences, notably writing and journalism. Heaton comes by these honestly, as the daughter of parents who wrote for publications such as The Milwaukee Journal and Mother Jones, co-published ethno-journalism books, and taught at universities around the world. She remembers them giving her her first journal at age 6, when the family was in Nigeria A few years after that, Heaton was given the task of reading their students’ term papers; for every error she found, she received a penny (she eventually got a modest raise).
“I was always encouraged to write and express myself,” says Heaton, whose writing pursuits nowadays include her blog Leap Little Frog [leaplittlefrog.com]. “My mom has always been my most trusted editor, offering thoughtful, respectful advice.”
Now, Heaton is having to add a new skill set: planning, recording, editing, distributing, and promoting a podcast. “It is challenging,” she says. “Each episode will be about 15 to 20 minutes long, and that seems like a lot, but you almost always have far more material than you need. So what do you use, and how do you use it? And, of course, there are a lot of podcasts out there, so how do you find an audience? How do you get people, especially those unfamiliar with Irish music, to listen?”
One way to do that, Heaton says, is the stage version of “Irish Music Stories”; she also hopes to develop a comprehensive resource website as a companion to the podcast, so listeners can explore further the themes and ideas on each episode.
It’s certainly a challenge, Heaton acknowledges – especially when she’s already got a pretty full schedule performing and teaching, not to mention a family life that brings its own special level of commitment. But she sees “Irish Music Stories” as something worth doing.
“You look at what we have here in Boston, whether it’s all the sessions, the concerts, BCMFest – you see a community right before your eyes. So I view this project as a window onto these community pursuits: heritage, authenticity, and real expression. It’s a way to recognize and show appreciation for the people who help make this happen, whether in Boston or elsewhere.”
Learn more about Shannon Heaton at shannonheatonmusic.com.