Irish Musical Traditions and Traditional Adirondack Music
Irish have been arriving in North America since the early day of colonization,
the 1840 potato famine was responsible for a flood of new emigrants. Often
arriving in Boston, New York, or Halifax, plenty of Irish found work as
laborers, woodsmen, and farmers in Northern New York State. Many North Country communities have a
significant percentage of Irish heritage, but few have maintained active
musical connections to their heritage, perhaps because new emigration slowed to
a halt in the 20th century.
Irish communities in larger centers like Boston and New York continued
to receive new emigrants, keeping people closer to the source of traditional
music. Nevertheless, music has remained
important in the maintenance to some North County families’ Irish ethnicity.
Dan Hurley (1932 - ) of Potsdam comes from an Irish-American family that settled on the French Hill Road
near Colton, New York around 1870. His
grandmother Maria McHale Hurley (1876-1961), came directly from County Mayo,
Ireland at age 18 and joined a growing Colton Irish community that contained
others from her village and extended family.
While Hurley remembers his grandmother speaking Gaelic and distinctly
recalls Irish Roman Catholic customs, including family all-night wakes, with keening and rosary sessions alongside the body of the
deceased, his Irish musical ethnicity is
most strongly associated with his family’s singing activities. Sometimes accompanied by a harmonica, fiddle
or pump organ, Dan Hurley and his family loved to sing together.
Depending on the season, Hurley’s great
uncles were lumberjacks, peddlers, and farmers. Their repertoire ranged from
traditional Adirondack ballads to the popular Irish songs such as “Rose of
Tralee,” and “Danny Boy.” Dan Hurley’s
father, Stephen (1903-1969) was a noted
local “Irish barroom tenor,” with a beautiful voice, great charm, and command
of a vast number of popular and traditional songs, both serious and
humorous. Stephen’s cousin, Father
Charlie McHale (1923-2006), a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of New York
and an admired singer of Irish songs, frequently visited his family in the
Adirondacks. His musical legacy has been preserved in a recording of Irish
songs that he made for his congregation in the 1950s.
Beginning in the 1940s, the Hurley’s loved to sing close harmony songs in barbershop style. Mills Brother’s standards like “Down by the Old Millstream” were great favorites. The Hurleys also participated in the town’s minstrel shows by acting, singing, and dancing in these productions. Subsequent generations of Irish-American Hurleys have continued to be actively involved in music, and some of the Irish songs in their repertoire have retained special meaning. In fact, all three of Steve Hurley’s male grandsons are professional musicians today, and some granddaughters are involved with music, as well.
While the North Country Hurley family did retain some songs that evoked a specific Irish ethnicity, other Irish-American families have retained a more authentic Irish style.
“On the Hoko Moko Isle”
song “On the Hoko Moko Isle” illustrates how songs can serve as markers of
ethnicity and family heritage as they are passed down from generation to
generation. This song was a favorite with the families of both Stephen Hurley
and his friend Roy Thomas from Colton.
We don’t know who first learned it; perhaps someone had sheet music for
it, but my grandfather Steve Hurley was often asked to sing it, and his
children all learned it, too. While not
at all politically correct by today’s standards, the song tells the silly story
of an Irishman shipwrecked on a tropical island who writes home to Ireland to
ask for his sweetheart’s hand. Around 2000, my brothers Steve and Phil Hurley
decided to perform and record the song as a Christmas present for our father,
My family knew nothing of the history of the song. Research eventually revealed that it was published in sheet music form in 1916 by Tin Pan Alley songwriter Harry Van Tilzer (1872-1946), a well-known song composer who wrote numerous popular parlor hits including the classics “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie.”
collaborated on the lyrics for “On the Hoko Moko Isle.” Tin Pan Alley composers
wrote many similar Irish-themed novelty parlor songs, and this song might well
have been performed in vaudeville shows or Irish reviews around 1920. An instrumental version of the song performed
by the Jaudas Society Orchestra was recorded onto Edison wax cylinder in
1916 and is available for downloaded here, or to online listeners by clicking the audio clip below.
Novelty songs, popular songs, and Traditional Adirondack Music were often featured in community minstrel shows, which were popular forms of North Country entertainment well into the 20th century. This particular song combines Irish ethnicity with the exotic as part of a wave of popular songs during the early 20th century inspired by Hawaii and other South Sea islands. It is interesting to see what survived of the song after some 85 years in the oral tradition. A close comparison of the two versions reveals that a good percentage of both the melody and the lyrics survived intact. While this song is not really Irish, in my family it serves to remind us of our Irish roots and our love for making music together.