McDermott’s Handy - Hall Of Famers Come To Cumberland County
Many musicians never liked the term folk music. They would debate what was and wasn’t folk, believing that the term was tossed aside so casually that it lost all meaning. The genre eventually became known as roots music, a term that describes a musical tree that includes folk, bluegrass, celtic, klezmer and more. For decades, Jim Albertson has been introducing people throughout the region to these sounds as a performer, festival emcee and host of the “Down Jersey” radio program. His “Down Jersey on Stage” music series at the Guaracini Performing Arts Center at Cumberland County College takes a look at traditional Irish music with McDermott’s Handy on January 9.
McDermott’s Handy, named in honor of an Irish fiddler named Ed McDermott, features the husband and wife duo of Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley. The pair has been performing traditional Irish music together since 1979. Songs are sung in both Irish and English with plenty of traditional Irish sounds from Celtic harp to fiddle, flute, guitar, banjo, mandolin and even tinwhistle and bouzouki.
McDermott’s Handy has performed throughout the Delaware Valley (South Jersey/Philadelphia region) and has been honored for their efforts in recent years. In November, they were inducted into The Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame. A year earlier, they were inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame.
“Our journey began in the early ‘70s with a fiddler from County Leitrim, Ed McDermott, who came to this country in 1915, played in the dance halls in New York in the 1930s and then spent his twilight years passing on his music to a new generation of musicians like us, none of whom had a direct connection to the tradition,” said DeAngelo in her 2014 acceptance speech.
As a student at Douglass College, she was able to return the favor to McDermott for introducing her to traditional Irish music. She was part of the crew that, along with festival founder Angus Kress Gillespie, helped put together the first New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University. DeAngelo was named music coordinator and responsible for recruiting the musicians, dancers and singers for the festival. The idea was to present a mix of traditional and revival music. DeAngelo brought McDermott on board to headline the traditional part, with Albertson headlining the revival side. Albertson also served as the emcee for the main stage, a position he would hold for many years.
“Many people consider Irish traditional music to be a part of American roots music,” explained Albertson. “It had a big influence on the development of bluegrass, for example. A lot of the old time string band sounds that were used primarily to accompany dancing were either directly traditional Irish fiddle tunes or they were based on Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes. Bluegrass sounds came from a mixture of Appalachian and Irish traditional music. So, there is a close relationship.”
One of the great things about the “Down Jersey on Stage” series is the way it turns the theater into the only listening room in Cumberland County. The audience sits on stage with the performers, with an intimate setup that ensures every seat has a good view of the performers and excellent sound. The theater setting also encourages people to put away their cell phones--stopping them from the constant texting and picture taking which happens at most shows.
“I found that there were no places in the area where you could go and respect the music,” said Albertson. “Bands that play in bars usually play rock music. As the volume goes up, the audience yells louder. As the audience yells louder, the volume of the band goes up until everybody is screaming and it’s just a huge noise. I wanted to create a listening room where people could get together in a small number--like the old days at coffeehouses.”
Another interesting aspect of the series is the way each show features the work of a visual artist in front of the stage. For this show, the work of Dorothy Conte will be on display. She is a local folk artist, which generally refers to work that uses a lot of primary colors and rural scenes. Albertson said he is a fan of her work and has purchased several of her paintings.
McDermott’s Handy first performed in 1977 when the New Jersey Folk Festival asked DeAngelo to put together a tribute to McDermott after his passing. She gathered a number of musicians who, like her, had all learned Irish music from McDermott.
“It never ceases to amaze me how one’s life can be significantly changed by one influential person, though sometimes when you’re right in the middle of being impacted, you don’t know that to be the case,” continued DeAngelo in her acceptance speech from 2014. “Had I not met that 75-year old fiddler when I was 17, I’m sure my musical life would be very different today. I certainly would not be standing here having spent so much of my life playing Irish traditional music.”
Down Jersey: Onstage with McDermott's Handy is on stage at the Luciano Theatre at the Guaracini Fine & Performing Arts Center, 3322 College Drive, Vineland, NJ 08360, on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. Admission is $7. Seating is limited.
Albertson’s “Down Jersey” radio show can be heard every Thursday evening at 9pm on WVLT-FM 92.1 in South Jersey. His recording entitled "Down Jersey" is on the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways Label. Albertson earned the New Jersey Folk Festival's Second Annual Award For Distinguished Contribution to Folk Music in New Jersey for his work as President of the New Jersey Folklore Society from 1980-1982.