Tripping the Blarney Stone fantastic

This one goes out to a bartender I recently overheard scolding a thirsty patron for mispronouncing the name of a brew. “It’s Keltic Ale, not Seltic,” admonished the keep. Well, according to Webster’s, both pronunciations are correct.

I was curious whether the order tasted any better to the lass after the correction. My guess is no, but to paraphrase the words (and spirit) of a popular song, “You say Keltic, and I say Seltic — let’s call the whole thing beer.

Of course, semantic questions are likely footnotes to any cultural revival, especially one as strong as the resurgent interest in traditional Celtic music. And overemphasizing words might mean missing the painfully beautiful melodies of these time-honored songs. After all, as Irish-American musician Joanie Madden points out, the tradition has always placed essence ahead of etiquette.

“These songs are hundreds of years old, written by people who didn’t know what key they were playing in,” she points out. “They [went by] what appealed to their ear.”

Madden is the leader of Cherish the Ladies, an all-woman ensemble that takes its name from an Irish jig. Appropriately, the group performs with a toe-tapping team of step dancers (two of them men) who could make even the Rockettes look sloppy.

Of the music, Madden says, “The melodies are very basic and simple, nothing intricate, but also haunting and beautiful.” Besides playing tried-and-true classics, the group pays homage to its heritage by writing some new tunes.

“We’ve developed our own style [through] unique instrumentation. We combine singing, dancing, music. We try to add to the music, never take away.”

All the band’s members are of Irish descent. The give-me-a-Guinness credentials of lead vocalist Aiofe Clancy are especially impressive: She’s the daughter of one of Irish music’s legendary Clancy Brothers. The group also features Mary Coogan on guitar and banjo; Mary Rafferty on accordion; Donna Long on piano and fiddle; Siobhan Eagan on fiddle and bodhram (an Irish drum); and harmony vocalist Madden on flute and pennywhistle.

Formed 10 years ago, Cherish the Ladies is the fruit of a folklorist’s pet passion.

“I got a call from Mick Maloney, [who was studying] the role of women’s music in the culture,” recalls Madden. Funded by an NEA grant, she relates, “He gathered Irish-American girls who were playing traditional music. There were only a handful of women playing traditional Irish music [at that time]. We did our first tour in ’87, and all the concerts were complete sellouts.”

When the grant money ran out, Madden took over, eventually landing the band spots on NPR, PBS and the BBC, as well as gigs with such luminaries as Joan Baez and James Taylor. According to Madden, nurturing the success of Cherish the Ladies isn’t so much a labor of love as an inborn urge, nursed since birth. “[All the band members] grew up in immigrant households,” she observes. “All our fathers played music. We all came from musical families [where] the music was held on a plateau. It was sacred.”

For her part, Madden never questioned keeping the faith. “I’m one of seven children, but there were five boys who didn’t pick it up. It was important to pass it on.”

The Ladies’ CD — New Day Dawning (Green Linnet) — showcases sweet, melancholy instrumentals and gorgeous ballads, replete with the usual themes of loss, joy, love, drinking and despair. A rueful amusement hovers throughout; Madden maintains that the oft-lauded Irish humor is largely responsible for the thriving state of Celtic music in this country.

“A lot of Celtic music is the basis of American music,” she notes. “Bluegrass is a direct descendant of Irish music. A lot of Irish tunes [also] have the same chordal patterns as rock tunes.”

Ironically, the biggest challenge for the band has been winning acceptance in the motherland — but that, too, has come with time.

“We’ve proven ourselves,” declares Madden. “[That’s] extremely difficult if you’re an American. We’re totally respected across the water, which is a great thing.”

But the proof is in the haggis, as they say. The group is scheduled to headline Celtic Connections, a major festival in Scotland, this summer, as part of a planned UK tour.

“We’re the only American band headlining,” says Madden proudly. Between that tour and multitudes of other upcoming appearances, she adds: “We have so much to do that we must be doing something right.”

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