I Know Where I’m Goin’
A Ballad Singer’s Memory
This edited blog was first published on Facebook March 17, 2011 at 9:37am.
March 17, 1981: Spring suddenly popped up out of a dull, wet too-long Chicago winter. A day not unlike today, warm and breezy, with a tropical-taste in the fresh, moist air. That St. Pat’s Day, this Catholic girl from the suburbs had a first city gig on Lincoln Avenue, arguably the Northside’s greatest music street in the 70s and 80s.
Some Jazz cats at the DePaul Music School (where I studied voice) were doing a steady gig at The Jury Room, the local Irish bar. The leader was John McDowell, a composition major, piano player and the coolest longhair in the school. John is now a world class composer, known for his film score Born Into Brothels and more. He stopped me in the hall at school. “I heard you sing Irish songs. You want to sing St. Patty’s Day with my band?” I liked this, something new and different from the art songs and operetta arias I sang in vocal competitions and master classes. “Sure.” I said.
The band was John on piano, Steve on flute and Randy on violin, guys I’d hung out with since Sophomore year. And there was Travis, a skinny, quirky Oklahoma boy from the DePaul theater school. We practiced a few times at John’s smoky studio apartment. The guys played jigs and reels, and noodled through sheet music from my aunt that I’d brought along: Londonderry Air, In Dublin’s Fair City, The Last Rose of Summer. Later, Travis and I picked our solos while we waited tables together at the local pizza joint. He sang songs I didn’t know. One was The Lowlands of Holland, a compelling song about a couple separated on their wedding night when the young husband is pressed into service during Britain’s war with Holland. It became one of my favorite ballads.
Listen to Lowlands of Holland.
Back at John’s, the musicians veered off into a jam and Travis and I talked about wardrobe. For Travis, dressing-the-part meant his Boy’s Town/Dad-ware look: starched shirt, polished cuff links, pleated trousers, button-down cardigan and a tweed cap. For me, it was kind of a peasant skirt with high-heeled boots and an Irish shawl, like Maureen O’Hara and Judy Collins. (This became the uniform of my early singing years). And it meant I wore green. I found an emerald green knit dress with a gored skirt that circled when I spun around in the dress shop mirror.
Most of the night of the gig is a blur. I recall a crowded, loud, smoky room, iffy mikes, ruddy, red faced men with cigarettes dangling over pints, weeping in their beer. And I remember my nerves.
When the restaurant doors opened, strangers and friends and lots of family piled in and scrambled for seats. My Mom, my boyfriend, my siblings, Uncles Dan, Bob, aunts: Margaret, Pat, Dorothy, Jean and cousins. Then my father, James brought in the cast of the play he was rehearsing down the street at the Body Politic. I started singing I Know Where I Am Going, the song Aunt Dorothy sang at family parties.
Listen to I Know Where I’m Going
‘Quiet!’ My father’s Shakespearean baritone barked at the crowd. Then there was pin-drop silence. After that the night was like a singer’s dream. A captive audience. A transforming, magical night. On the walk home I was flush with true joy only singing gives me. My boyfriend Tom smiled and said, “Congratulations, Cinderella.”
After that, I put together and Irish art songs concert with Peter Swenson on classical guitar. We recorded an album’s worth of songs — 11 in all – in only 2 hours at WFMT studios. My professional vocal debut in 1984 was at Orchestra Hall, when I sang a tribute to the Centenary concert for the great Irish tenor John McCormick.
And I had started my Irish band: Jamie O’Reilly & The Rogues — playing for ten plus years. We got our chops in Irish bars. We recorded a few albums and sang alot of radio, festivals and street fairs.
Since 1980, I’ve sung about the Irish famine, Irish immigrants, the Easter Rising and Bloody Sunday. Of Yeats and the Fenians, and of my Irish American relations making their way at the turn of the 20th century. I’ve mastered the Irish parlor song, drawing-room ballad, and Victor Herbert operettas. I’ve learned obscure tunes from crumbling songbooks and old records.
In 2004, after receiving a project commission from DePaul’s Humanities Center, I sang Songs of the Kerry Madwoman, an original chamber opera by the late poet Patricia Monaghan with Michael Smith’s music. Madwoman was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival Home and Away. It is now a compact disc, with arrangements by Peter Swenson.
With the exception of the wonderful, musician-inclusive Chief O’Neill’s Pub, (where I perform Songs of a Catholic Childhood with Michael Smith), I sang my last Irish bar gig decades ago. I’ve broadened my musical scope considerably with Spanish songs, original music with my Trio, songs from the American Songbook and more.
I still get called up to sing the old songs for tributes and funerals. People still play my recordings on St. Patrick’s Day. I recorded Red is the Rose, a favorite ballad with my Trio on our Souvenir album. People really like that one.
Listen to Red is the Rose
Spring 2011 — I sang a memorial to Dan Tucker, performing several of his compositions set to Irish poems. I counted…I’ve been singing Irish songs for 35 years…I’m thinking about Uncles Dan, Bob. Aunt Pat, Eileen and Dottie. Of James, and that crowded room in 1981, all are gone now. And of dear Travis, gone too soon. I’m thinking about you who listened. And you who walk with me, as I compose this adventurous musical life.
(Note. That Saturday, The Feminist Lens, the radio show I produced in 2011 on WFMT aired Seeing Peace, Challenging War. We talked about peacemaking. We talked about Ireland. My eldest sister Cecilie read passages with a skilled Northern brogue. And, of course, we played the music.)
2015 UPDATE. This summer Jamie will release the remastered first album from 1984. 11 Irish songs, accompanied by Peter Swenson, guitar. For more information see the BLOG.