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Andy McGann, born in west Harlem in 1928, was the young Yankee in the group of immigrants in Lad O’Beirne’s circle. His parents were good friends of Michael Coleman, who gave the boy a music stand and much encouragement. Andy got more hands-on instruction from Catherine Brennan-Grant, who gave Andy a foundation in classical violin technique, lending a polished elegance to his Sligo-style traditional music repertoire.
Andy McGann’s elegant and urbane interpretation of the classic Sligo repertoire and style brought him a deserved reputation as America’s finest home-grown Irish fiddle player. His father Andrew and mother Margaret were immigrants from Marlow, Ballymote and nearby Keash in south County Sligo. When Andy was born, the family lived in west Harlem but moved soon thereafter to 140th Street and Cypress Avenue in the south Bronx, a neighbourhood that in the 1930s and 1940s was home to many of the finest Irish musicians in America, including Sligo fiddle greats Paddy Killoran and James Lad O’Beirne.
With his brother John, Andy took step dancing lessons from Kerry master Seán Murphy. J.P. Cuffe, a family friend, interested the boy in playing the fiddle. His father tried to get another friend, Michael Coleman, to give Andy lessons but Coleman didn’t teach beginners. He did, however, give the seven-year-old Andy a music stand and much encouragement. For hands-on instruction, they turned instead to Catherine Brennan, a classically trained violinist who had been adopted into the Sligo fiddle fraternity in New York. Andy studied Irish and classical music with Brennan for five years and got a further dose of classical education as a teenager in the orchestra at Cardinal Hayes High School. By this time, Andy was sufficiently advanced to be able to play with Coleman during the master’s visits to (and occasional residence in) the McGann home. He maintained a musical friendship with Coleman until the latter’s death in 1945.
Andy was a frequent attendee at sessions in Lad O’Beirne’s apartment in the 1940s, sitting in with the fiddling aristocracy that gravitated to O’Beirne, a coterie that included Louis Quinn and Philadelphia-based composer Ed Reavy. In 1948, he struck up a friendship with Longford immigrant Paddy Reynolds, another follower of O’Beirne. Andy and Paddy formed a musical partnership that lasted for decades, playing at parties, Gaelic League céilidhe and dancing feiseanna, often taking gigs passed to them by Paddy Killoran, who took a small commission for the referrals.
In 1958, Andy was one of the founders of the New York Céilí Band, an all-star ensemble that included button accordionist Paddy O’Brien, then living in New York, as well as fellow fiddlers Paddy Reynolds and Larry Redican. He recorded a couple of unreleased tracks with the band, but family and work commitments prevented him from joining them when, in 1960, they flew to Ireland to compete at the fleadh in Boyle.
Andy’s other lasting musical partnership was with Galway button accordionist Joe Burke, who lived in New York from 1962 to 1965 and was a frequent visitor thereafter. It was Burke who gave Andy, at age 37, his first chance to make a studio recording. A Tribute to Michael Coleman, recorded in a few hours with Burke and pianist Felix Dolan, was issued in 1965 on Burke’s own Shaskeen label. Issued at a time when very few Irish traditional music records were being made, this disc, which includes several outstanding McGann solo tracks, was one of the most influential traditional albums of the 1960s.
When Dan Collins and Rich Nevins founded Shanachie Records in 1975, Andy again got the opportunity to record. His first LP for the label was a duet outing with Paddy Reynolds, backed by a young Paul Brady on guitar. A solo disc, again with Brady, followed in 1977 and The Funny Reel, a reunion with Joe Burke and Felix Dolan, in 1979.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Andy played bar gigs in New York with a series of singer/guitarists who included Corkman Donie Carroll. He was often joined at these engagements by Leitrim button accordionist Gus Murray, Kerrymen Johnny “Fiddle” Cronin and Johnny “Accordion” Cronin or Kilkenny native Joe “Banjo” Burke. Andy made occasional visits to St. Louis in these years to play with Joe Burke at McGurk’s pub and was in demand to play at traditional music festivals and concerts in New York, the Catskills and Philadelphia, occasionally reuniting with Paddy Reynolds at these engagements.
The esteem in which Andy’s music was held in Ireland was seen in 1990, when he was flown across the Atlantic to serve as the honorary president of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, held that year in Sligo Town. He returned in 1992 to perform at a Sligo fiddlers concert in Tubbercurry.
Echoes of Andy McGann’s music are still heard in New York today in the playing of Brian Conway and his students. The 1986 All-Ireland fiddle champion was taught more directly by Martin Mulvihill and Martin Wynne but was strongly influenced by Andy’s playing. Brian, in turn, has passed on McGann’s style and repertoire to Pat Mangan and many other younger fiddlers. Andy’s final studio recording session was a guest appearance on Conway’s 2002 Smithsonian disc First Through the Gate, on which the old master joined Conway and Mangan in seamless fiddle duets and trios.
Andy McGann, who worked as an accountant and bookkeeper, was married twice. With his first wife, Marie, he had four sons. Some years after her death, he married Patricia, with whom he had a daughter, Meghan, a flute player and step dancer. Andy succumbed to cancer in 2004 and was interred, with a fiddle-playing guard of honour at the graveside, in St. Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx, where his monument stands not far from those of Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison.
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His early years as a radio and television technician and later as a Modern Studies teacher, coupled to his passion for the outdoors have, in diverse ways, fueled and complemented his central interest in folk music; as a concert and folk club organiser, author and record producer.
For many years Geordie has collected songs, working with Hamish Henderson, Helen Fullerton and A.L. Lloyd. He has an interest that combines hearing the songs in the community and researching their background.
He has written song notes for numerous recordings along with album reviews. His first-hand experience has added greatly to his articles on the legacy of Hamish Henderson, edited by the late Paddy Bort, in the Gracenote Publications.
Geordie has sung at clubs and festivals in most corners of Britain and Ireland as well as Italy and the USA.
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