Writer, musician, organizer, academic, Dan Neely is on the lookout for insights

NeelyNeelySo what do you do if you’re a Boston-born, banjo-playing, soon-to-be ethnomusicologist with a special interest in Jamaican music living in New York City?

Well, you might decide to take up Irish music, become a session regular and organizer and, eventually, work for a premier Irish-American journal – at a job formerly held by Earle Hitchner, one of the more prominent Irish-American journalists of the past few decades.

That’s the path Newton native Dan Neely chose almost 20 years ago, and he couldn’t be happier about it.

Neely is marking his fifth anniversary this year as the traditional music columnist for the Irish Echo, the oldest Irish-American newspaper in existence. He’s also the public relations officer for the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Mid-Atlantic Region branch and leader of a popular weekly New York session, the former artistic director for the now-ended annual Augusta Irish/Celtic Week in West Virginia, and he was director of New York’s Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra during its last years. In addition, he is a lecturer on Irish music in America at New York University, from which he obtained his PhD in ethnomusicology.

Writer, musician, organizer, academic: These activities have given Neely a pretty sizeable window on the Irish music scene, not only in New York but also worldwide, and a deep appreciation for its history – some of which is almost literally in his old back yard.

Neely was in town recently to share some of that history at a combination lecture and performance, sponsored by Boston College’s Gaelic Roots series, that focused on Irish music in Boston from the late 19th century to the Great Depression. He talked about some of the major figures of the period, like entertainer, piper, and songwriter Shaun O’Nolan, and particularly Daniel A. Sullivan (called “the most famous professional fiddler” by celebrated Irish tune collector Francis O’Neill, noted Neely) and his son Daniel J., who would go on to form the Dan Sullivan Shamrock Band, which played a mix of traditional Irish music and popular songs.

In an aside, Neely said that when he had first started researching the Sullivan family, he had been intrigued to discover that Daniel J. had owned two houses in Newton, and is buried in nearby Holyhood Cemetery – not to mention that one of Sullivan’s compositions was titled “Neely’s March.”

For the second part of the event, Neely traded the lectern for his tenor banjo and played tunes associated with the era, along with local musicians Joey Abarta and Sean Clohessy.

All in all, a good night’s work.

Earlier during his visit home, Neely relaxed over a pint in a Newton Center pub and talked about a job he may not have envisioned for himself originally but has fully and enthusiastically embraced.

“I write about music that I think is interesting,” he said of his work at the Echo. “If I wrote about something I don’t like, I’d probably have terrible things to say. Every Saturday, I go to my session, and I want to have a good time. I want to hear something stimulating. When I get an album from, say, [tenor banjo player] Angela Carberry, I can assume it is of a certain quality that will make me want to listen to it. That means more to me than the number of sold-out performances or how many times someone’s been on TV.

“I see my job as talking about why something is good, and in a way that will be of interest even to those readers who might not be as familiar with the music. It’s the public-sector aspect of ethnomusicology, and part of that means being an advocate for people you work with.”

But Neely also constantly seeks to build on his own understanding of the music. For him, listening to an album isn’t just about how well the musicians play, the singer sings, how varied or interesting the material might be, but what kind of deeper insights he might glean. One such album was “As It Happened,” by accordionist Danny O’Mahony and concertina player Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh.

“When I listened to it, I found it told me about the scene in which they grew out of – I was able to connect the dots and get a sense as to what they might’ve heard, what might’ve made an impression on them,” he explained. “What resonates for me about an album like that is, it makes me understand some experiences I might not have had in Irish music.”

Contrary to expectations, Neely – although he has Irish ancestry on both sides of his family – did not start playing jigs and reels before he could walk, nor recite all the verses of “Morrissey and the Russian Sailor” by kindergarten. Yes, there were Clancy Brothers records in the Neely household, but Neely himself didn’t listen to them much. The music that first captured his fascination was ska, a precursor to reggae, to the extent that he even became a guitarist for a local ska band. This led him to the NYU ethnomusicology program, through which he ventured deeper into Jamaican music, including mento, a form of social dance music that incorporated banjo – an instrument he thus added to his luggage.

It was at NYU that Neely made the acquaintance of Mick Moloney, a highly regarded scholar of Irish and Irish-American music, and a top-notch tenor banjo player. Through Moloney, Neely began learning Irish banjo, joined the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra – eventually succeeding Moloney as its leader – and in the process discovered New York’s rich Irish music scene, including its sessions.

Neely did plenty of academic writing – about Jamaican music, as well as the music of ice cream trucks – but then a new vista opened up when he began organizing weekly sessions. To help promote them, he sent out e-mails, adding some touches of humor to keep regulars and supporters engaged. It seemed to work, so he made the e-mails more elaborate and entertaining, using illustrations (most all of them his own), photos, satirical magazine covers (“Tunemapolitan,” “Pogue”), poetry and song parodies, among other things. The session mailing list grew, and so did the number of Neely’s admirers, which included some pretty distinguished members of the Irish music community.

One such person was Liz Noonan, who had briefly succeeded Earle Hitchener after he had retired from his Irish Echo column in late 2011. When Noonan left a few months later, she recommended Neely as someone who knew the music and the people who played it, and who could write with expertise but also in a way that was accessible to readers.

“I didn’t try to ‘replace’ Earle – he had his perspective, and his own style, and I have mine,” said Neely, who added that Hitchener has been helpful and supportive.

Neely hasn’t simply devoted his column to album or concert reviews. He has addressed issues that concern many in the Irish music community, whether in New York or elsewhere. One longstanding topic of controversy, the burdensome visa system for musicians from Ireland looking to perform in the US, rekindled last fall when legendary singer Andy Irvine announced he would no longer tour the US because of the red tape necessary to secure a visa, as well as the 30 percent withholding tax he and other foreign-born performers have to pay.
Then in February, Neely touched on a statement released by the Milwaukee Irish Fest – one of the premier Irish/Celtic events in the country – that underscored the complaints voiced by Irvine and others by breaking down the costs, in time and money, for visiting artists to get their papers in order to play in the US. Such a system is onerous, although manageable, for an international pop music act playing in big arenas, Neely said; for folk and traditional music performers, and their representatives, it has become a matter of diminishing returns that argue against even trying to go through the process.

“It is an issue that challenges everyone in the Irish community,” said Neely, “and the thing is, it’s also personal: This affects many musicians whom people here in the US have come to know as friends. What’s so ridiculous is not only the unfairness of the system, but that there are better ways we could be doing it. If you’re a small-scale musician wanting to perform in Canada, for example, you fill out a work permit; there’s no 30 percent withholding, and you don’t have to travel beforehand to Dublin to meet with Canadian officials.

“But instead we have Andy Irvine, who’s been a traveling musician for 50-some years, saying that it’s just not worth it for him to come play here anymore. How does that help America?”

One less-discussed consequence of the visa restriction, Neely added, is that large-scale entertainment enterprises in Ireland, and elsewhere, are likely to step into the breach because they have the resources to deal with the system.

“But what that means is, they send to the US only those acts they think people will want to hear – and ones that will turn a substantial profit. So this ultimately limits the range of performers who will get any kind of exposure in the US.”

Neely also gets passionate when he talks about changes in the recording industry – in fact, the whole nature of recording – and its impact on Irish music.

“Blame it on the 1960s,” he quipped. “With Internet technology, everyone’s talking now about the ‘disappearance’ of the album. Well, the album concept was largely a 1960s rock-n-roll idea, and it filtered everywhere, including into Irish music; the album – whether an LP, or a cassette, or a CD – became the gold standard for performers to get their music out there.”

That model may have worked for a while, said Neely, but with the growing costs of international travel, a performer from Ireland who pays to bring an extra suitcase of CDs to sell on tour is only cutting into his or her profit margin. Folk/trad performers should fully embrace the digital age, he said, building and maintaining a fan base by parceling out their music through downloads.
“Think about it: Before the advent of the album, there were 78s, 45s, sheet music. Instead of releasing one big chunk of their music, performers would do it a little at a time,” said Neely, citing Michael Coleman, a renowned Sligo fiddler who emigrated to the US and released a series of 78s during the 1920s and ’30s. “So by abandoning the album format, you’re actually going back to something which worked just fine for Irish music.”

Still, for all the challenges it faces, Irish music is in no imminent danger of extinction, Neely said. “It’s obviously become quite popular, and has attracted a certain amount of casual interest among a lot of the public. But what really gives me confidence is the young musicians I see, whether in their 20s or younger, who take the music seriously and really own it.

“I think over time, as the Irish music revival has taken hold, and more opportunities to learn the music became available, the talent level just rose across the board. So now you have these emerging generations of musicians who have the tools and the creativity to keep the tradition going.”