Photo courtesy of Mr. Rafferty
Mike Rafferty talks about growing up in East Galway, Ireland, and learning flute playing from his father, as well as coming to America and eventually returning to Irish music in his 50s as both a performer and teacher. [26:37]
Jo Reed: That was flutist and 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Mike Rafferty, playing "The Shaskeen / The Green Blanket (Reels),"
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.
I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Mike Rafferty has devoted a lifetime to exploring, performing, and teaching traditional Irish flute and whistle music. Rafferty learned to play the flute from his father in Ireland's County Galway. After Mike came to the US and started a family he actually put the flute aside, but, when his children were grown and he was able to retire from his day job at a local supermarket, Mike began to play out again, and was quickly appreciated for his exceptional artistry.
He became known for his East Galway style of flute playing, and was soon considered an extraordinary teacher of Irish flute. In 2010, in recognition of his accomplishments as a performer and a teacher, Mike Rafferty was named a National Heritage Fellow.
I caught up with Mike at the Catskills Irish Arts Week -- the largest summer school devoted to traditional Irish music and dance in North America. We spoke in the common room of one of the local inns, and at points during our conversation you can hear strains of the flute and fiddle music played by some students who are sitting on inn's front porch.
I began my conversation with Mike at the beginning, that is, his beginning.
Mike Rafferty: I was born in the Village of Larraga, in parish of Ballinakill, East County Galway. You want to know my age too.
Jo Reed: I do. I don't mean to pry, but yes, I would like to know your age.
Mike Rafferty: Well, September 27, 1926.
Jo Reed: And how many kids in your family?
Mike Rafferty: There were seven of us.
Jo Reed: And where were you?
Mike Rafferty: I was the fourth, one of the boys. The three boys were older than me and the three girls were younger than me.
Jo Reed: So, you were sort of smack dab in the middle.
Mike Rafferty: I was smack dab in the middle, yeah.
Jo Reed: And what did your father do?
Mike Rafferty: He was just a small farmer, but he was a great flute player in his time and he was the one, of course, that showed me the music.
Jo Reed: So, you came from a musical family. There was music in your house.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, there was music in my house and my mother, she didn't play music, but she had a brother that was a great flute player. So, there was music on both sides of the family.
Jo Reed: Now, your dad's nickname was "Barrel."
Mike Rafferty: "Barrel," yeah.
Jo Reed: Where did that come from?
Mike Rafferty: That, somebody said he got a great tone out of the flute and they said he could fill a barrel with wind and that's how that came about. And there were seven families of Raffertys and we weren't related. To differentiate for the postman, the mailman if you will, they were all nicknamed. We were the "Barrels" and the other ones were the "Gads" and the "Slaps" and the "John-Jos," and "Jennings" and they went by that name. It's a remote area, like it's farm country. That's what it is. Everybody had a little small farm. Maybe 20 or 30 acres of land was the most anybody had around that area. Everybody was self-sufficient at that time and they had to be. You know, you had your own milk and made your own butter and bread and all that. There was no such thing as going to the store and buying stuff you couldn't get. You could buy the tea and sugar, that was about it, yeah, and maybe flour sometimes, but you had your own wheat and you went to the mill and you got to ground into flour and that was the way things were. Everybody was happy doing them things.
Jo Reed: What did the countryside look like? When you opened the door of your farm, what would you see?
Mike Rafferty: You find plenty of fresh air and the green fields, the different colors when they have the crops planted, like oats is one color and wheat is another color, bale is another color and a little field of potatoes is another color. And if you could fly over, it's beautiful, but if you're up on a hill and look at it, it's beautiful and I really treasure that today when I see a picture of it, yeah. The green fields, in Ireland, the fields stay very green because they get quite a bit of rain. Mother Nature takes care of it.
Jo Reed: So, your dad would work all day in the fields and then in the evening when you were doing chores would he play?
Mike Rafferty: Oh, yes, at night, when I come in from school or whatever. I started learning how to play when I was about seven and a half on the whistle and then he would show me every chance he got, every time that I might be around, especially at night and the wintertime was more appropriate. There was less work to be done.
Jo Reed: Are you the only one in the family who plays?
Mike Rafferty: Yes, I was the only one. He tried with my three older brothers. They tried it, but I don't know how they fell away from it. They weren't successful with it. Somehow or other, their fingers wasn't doing anything for them and he used to bring that to their attention - "Your fingers aren't moving like I want them to." So, when I started out, he was bent on making me play because he knew that I could do it.
Jo Reed: Was he a good teacher?
Mike Rafferty: Oh, yeah. I used to watch his fingers. We didn't know any notes. Nobody could read or write music in them days - well, around there that I know of and he showed me his fingers and he's play a little section at a time and we'd go back at it and he say, "Practice that section now" and so on. That's how it went, from section-to-section and then you grew into it.
Jo Reed: Your father lost his eyesight.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, at an early age. I was very young when he lost it. I wasn't playing when he lost his eyesight. I just barely remember when he did have some sight, you know, and it was from cataracts and in them days, of course, there was no cure for it. Nobody knew how what it was and my mother thought it was from blowing into the flute make you go blind.
Jo Reed: So, she didn't like it when you start playing.
Mike Rafferty: She did not and as I grew up, she gave away a flute that belonged to me, by the way. She gave the flute away, but I can't blame her for that, you know, but I can't blame her for that. This was her thinking, yeah. She said, "Maybe we could get a fiddle and you take up the fiddle." My father's first cousin over the road, over a couple of fields away, he was a nice fiddler, but I wasn't interested in the fiddle. I was starting on the whistle already. Well, of course, I was advancing onto the flute. Then, I used to work nearby for farmers. You just work for, you know, different people. I worked for the Land Commission making grains, draining the water off the land and stuff like that as I grew up and then when I was 23 I come out here.
Jo Reed: Can we backtrack just for a second?
Mike Rafferty: Mm'hmm.
Jo Reed: So, your father was blind when he was teaching you the flute, but yet he could just hear your fingers were not doing what they were supposed to be doing?
Mike Rafferty: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. All I had to do was watch him and he was left handed and I was right handed and that made it that much easier. Oh, he'd hear them, yeah - "That's wrong." So, he would be able to raise his fingers again - "It's this finger." It wasn't C or D. We didn't know the notes. If it wasn't the right note, he knew it.
Jo Reed: You'd play at home, but would you also play at parties before you left Ireland and came to America?
Mike Rafferty: Oh, yeah. I played with a band. We used to play for dancing. We used to play for Ceili. They had the dance halls over there at that time and of course, I had gone away from them for a number of years now, but there was local bands. There was a band in the parish where I was, Ballinakill Ceili Band and there was the Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band. There were so many in the parish that was in the band where I come from. I couldn't get my place. I was a bit younger than them. So, there was 11 miles down a road they'd come and hear me. I'd play with them. It's known as the Killimor Ceili Band. And once a week, or it might be sometimes twice a week, we'd play as a ceili or something. There was money involved in it then.
Jo Reed: What's a "ceili?"
Mike Rafferty: A Ceili, it's a gathering of people and dancing and you're playing for them, the different sets and stuff like that. Like a dance-- the parish priest would run a dance in aid of the hall or in aid of the church and of course they'd get so much money for them. The rest would go for in aid of the church or a fundraiser sometimes and all clubs would be doing the same. So, you'll play for them
Jo Reed: I've got a couple of questions about Galway and the flute. Is there a particular Galway style of flute playing?
Mike Rafferty: I suppose there was in them days, but right now, Galway and across the neighboring counties, there's more or less a standard style. I wouldn't be able to tell whether you were from Galway. But years ago, you would tell, especially a fiddle player, but I don't know about the flutes that much. And of course, like everything else, the transportation wasn't great. You walked. There was no cars. There was only one or two cars in the parish. Of course the priest at the parish, he had a car and maybe a teacher that was teaching in the schools; they might have a car. They were making the money, you know, so they could afford a car. There weren't that many cars around anyway in them days.
Jo Reed: Why do you think Ballinakill, am I saying that right?
Mike Rafferty: Yes, Ballinakill - B-a-l-l-i-n-a-k-i-l-l, yeah.
Jo Reed: Why do you think there were so many flute players there?
Mike Rafferty: Well, there were fiddle players too, yeah.
Jo Reed: Or music.
Mike Rafferty: I don't know. It was just a nest of people that got together and I don't know. That's the way it was over there, you know. I guess one person learned it from the other, yeah. I don't know why, but they were there and they're all gone out of there. The older ones have passed away and the younger ones, some of them didn't take up the music.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first flute?
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, it belonged to my father. That was my first flute. Naturally, it would be handed down.
Jo Reed: And it must have been quite an occasion when he gave it to you.
Mike Rafferty: Well, it was sitting there. "Just play it," he'd say. He wanted me to play it, yeah. "You try it" and we shared the flute in other words, yeah.
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you played out, played outside of your home at a party, at a ceili?
Mike Rafferty: I was maybe 16 or 17 when I started but I couldn't tell you the exact age. There was a fiddler, he was a bit older than me, and I used to fiddle and flute. We used to be asked to play at house dances or parties. There was another thing they used to have too and I played a lot of them was Harvest Home, when they'd have all the harvesting done and the wheat and they'd be thrashing the wheat and all of that and there would be a party in the house that night. And I worked for a guy that had that machine. We'd go from house-to-house. Then, of course, I was 18, 19 and 20 and I had to work. I was 23 when I came out here.
Jo Reed: Why did you decide to leave Galway?
Mike Rafferty: For a better living. The environment wasn't that much-- and of course, it was just after the Second World War and things weren't that good over there or any place in the world as a matter of fact. So, I had a sister who came over here ahead of me and she got me out here.
Jo Reed: When you came here, you went to New York City.
Mike Rafferty: Well, I did. The person that picked me up, he was a policeman in New York and he put up the papers for me. He was a friend of ours. I knew his brother in Ireland and his sisters and he agreed to put up the papers for me. Anyway, that's how I come out here. I came to White Plains, New York.
Jo Reed: Oh, White Plains.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, that's where I first came to.
Jo Reed: But the difference from Galway must have been enormous.
Mike Rafferty: It was enormous and it was just before Christmas and you're coming through the city and every place is lit up. It was very exciting, and to look at the big buildings. Yeah, it was exciting, yeah. I was really greenhorn to be honest with you. That's what they called them years ago. They were greenhorns. They knew nothing. You come from the country, you come into the city. It was a different lifestyle all together. So, I got used to that in a short time.
Jo Reed: Well, you were lucky you had family here.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, I had my sister and I stayed with her and then I went to work in a private estate as a gardener. That was my first job here and then I stayed with that for a while and they were hiring. The Grand Union Company was a food store. They're not around anymore. They were a food store. I went to work for them. It was more money.
Jo Reed: Were you playing at this time?
Mike Rafferty: No, music was slack. I thought everything was gone. Music was slack at that time, yeah. There was nobody to play with. There was one fellow, he came over two months ahead of me, but he was living in the city and I was living actually in Purchase, New York. And then, of course, I moved to New Jersey and he was living in New York and transportation was rough at that time, you know, until you got to know the trains and then I got married in 1953 and then you're raising a family and you had to concentrate on work and music, I hadn't played for a long time.
Jo Reed: Would you play at home occasionally?
Mike Rafferty: No. Then I worked two jobs. I worked as a part-time bartender as well.
Jo Reed: So, you were busy raising, how many, four or five?
Mike Rafferty: We had five, five children, yeah.
Jo Reed: That's a big family.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, it's a nice-- yeah, five was plenty let me tell you. Keep an eye on them and you know how it is, yeah, but they all turned out good.
Jo Reed: Well, what brought you back to music?
Mike Rafferty: There were two accordion players from home with me, that they were only boys when I left and they come out ten years later and they were the ones that got on to me - "Why aren't you playing?" They encouraged me back into it again and then I got a flute and then I could get around a little bit here and there. They had sessions in New York, in the Bronx and I had my tape recorder and I used to tape the tunes; tunes that I forgotten to be honest with you and then I would come home and practice. And then, I don't know if you knew him, I'm sure you did, Mick Moloney, he came along and he was the one that took me out of my box if you will and he recorded me in the house. Then I got into it, yeah, and then I went on the tour with the Green Fields of America. That was three weeks.
Jo Reed: Now, how old were you?
Mike Rafferty: When I did that, oh, 1979 I went in the tour. Yeah, that was the year we went on the tour, but I was practicing for a year before that, before I could make that, you know.
Jo Reed: So, you were in your 50s when you picked up the flute again.
Mike Rafferty: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, I was playing a lot before that, but not good enough to go on the stage and play without a lot of practice. And then, you have to learn more tunes, yeah. As we went on the road, I picked up a lot of stuff, yeah.
Jo Reed: What was that like when you first went back and there you were on a stage?
Mike Rafferty: Yeah. Well, I was in denial until came back to me kind of thing. It was like learning all over again in one sense, but I had what it took to do it. I knew how to do it, you know, except get the tune in your head and that's about it, and practice with the other ones. I didn't have too much of a problem with that, yeah. It was there except to do it and as you know, practice makes perfect.
Jo Reed: You retired from the Grand Union.
Mike Rafferty: I retired from the Grand Union in 1989 and that's when I really paid attention to the music and then, of course, my daughter was, she had taken on the music.
Jo Reed: Your daughter, Mary.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and that was a big interest to me and that was a big thing for me, and when she was little, wandering around, anything she seen me do, she wanted to do as well - "Dad, I can do that." "By golly," I said, "There's no reason why you can't" and that's what it all started from. But then, at that time too, I was working two jobs, at night the bartending at that particular time when she took up the music and I wanted to send her to Martin Mulvihill. He was a great teacher in - the New York area. He said to me, "Why are you sending her to me?" I said, "Because you're going to teach the notes and I can't and I don't have time, Martin and I'll appreciate it." But when Mary at home, she had a tape recorder with her and the tune she'd be learning from him, he'd put it on the tape and I could learn and show her and she went back with the tune off by heart. So actually, she had two teachers. I gave her a lot of attention, you know. And of course, as she grew up then she was a little shying away from him. I said, "Don't hide your Irish culture. Never be ashamed of that because" I said, "You can be proud of that." So, I coaxed her into it. I was very happy with her.
Jo Reed: You were clearly teaching Mary, but you also became a renowned teacher, one of the great teachers of Irish flute playing.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, but I retired. My wife Tracy got on to me. She says, "Why don't you start teaching" and when I had a bunch of little kids and some of them were beginners and I didn't care a whole lot for that. I said, "It would be better if they were advanced," but I did that for about a year and a half or something. And then, Mary grew up at that time too and she was helping to teach. She used to teach the accordion and I was teaching the flute and whistle. I didn't travel around to teach any except I used to go-- they got me to go to North Carolina and West Virginia to teach and of course to come here and other places that I've gone for weekends and stuff. That was part of your job. You have to do workshops they call it.
Jo Reed: Well, how was that for you? Did you like doing it?
Mike Rafferty: That was nice. You meet nice people. You meet nice people along the road. Some of them were good. I was there a week in Milwaukee one year. I spent a week there teaching and that was great, yeah, and my wife traveled with me. That was only a few years ago, you know.
Jo Reed: It's so interesting isn't it that Irish music, how many generations old is it and here we are in the 21st Century and you're still teaching it, people are still playing it. There's a whole younger generation out there eager to pick it up.
Mike Rafferty: Well, there was another thing that amazed me and I was very happy with when they took up the Irish music here in America and people that didn't have Irish names and there's a lot of people of Irish and they don't know a damn thing, excuse the word. They don't know nothing about Irish traditional music. That's as true as I'm sitting here and yet people with no Irish blood in them at all and they love it and play it very well indeed, yeah.
Jo Reed: What makes Irish music "Irish music?"
Mike Rafferty: Well, for one thing, the songs, they have sad feelings in them. Irish traditional music has a sad part, but it has very lively parts as well and I guess that's the only way I can word it. You know, there's a lot of feelings in it. Like for dancing, they hop around and everybody seems to come to life if you're sitting down and you're watching somebody dance. It's nice to watch them dance to be honest with you and they enjoy that. The dancers, they understand the music as well and the timing for and then the songs, some of the lovely songs that sang. There's lovely feelings involved. A lot of them are love songs, but they're very nice. A lot of people fell in love with Irish music, yeah.
Jo Reed: What was your first recording? Do you remember?
Mike Rafferty: Mick Moloney came to the house and eat. "Light Through the Leaves" I think was the first one, and I forget what year that was.
Jo Reed: What was that like for you, the first time you're in a recording studio?
Mike Rafferty: It was kind of fun the first time, but then you'd make a mistake and you had to go back over it again and they didn't have the techniques of taking the bad part out and putting the good part in like they do today. The first time I did it, you had to play it all over again and hope you wouldn't make a mistake. So, that's what it was, yeah. It took three days to do the first one. Even the last one that we did with Willie Kelly, that took three days, you know. Well, the last day is kind of a listening session - what did you do wrong or this, that or the other, yeah. But, Mary was there with me and her husband and they had sharp ears and they listened to every little thing. "We have to change that" or so on.
Jo Reed: You made a CD with her.
Mike Rafferty: Oh, I did. I made four CDs. The first one was "The Dangerous Reel." And then of course the last one I did with Willie Kelly, Mary, and Donal backed us up with the guitar; that's my son-in-law of course.
Jo Reed: Yeah, yeah, you play often older songs; songs that you heard growing up.
Mike Rafferty: Yeah, I like to keep the old ones alive because some of the new tunes that's composed, I can't take a liking to them. But some of the older tunes, for the history of them alone and for the old folks that play them or even compose them, how they did or how they learned them is beyond me, but they left the groundwork for me to do them and any one of them that I think of, I can play. I love to play them and not alone that, the novelty never wore off on them. The tunes, there was nice feelings in them, yeah.
Jo Reed: That always stay fresh.
Mike Rafferty: They always stay fresh in other words, yeah, yeah.
Jo Reed: You play tunes that you learned from your father or that your father would play and you play them with your daughter.
Mike Rafferty: That's correct, yeah, because she was very interested in that. She said, "Did your dad play this," you know, so on. "I want to learn that," yeah. So, I used to make up a little cassette for her and I would give her tunes for Mary to learn them and every time we do a concert she would talk about that, you know. There's a couple of tunes that's gone down in the ground with the old Ballinakill Ceili Band as well. Besides the book, they had older tunes, you know, and some of them were a bit selfish with them in a way. My father wasn't that way. They wouldn't play it for everybody unless you were around and of course, like everything else, if you didn't know how to write it down and there was no tape recorders, and then they used to tape them to keep them, you had to learn them and you could forget it and that's what happened to me. I forgot some tunes in that respect.
Jo Reed: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1976; that was a big deal wasn't it?
Mike Rafferty: That was a big thing for me. That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, yeah. I learned a lot of it that week. That was the Irish week and the Bicentennial celebration, yeah. I don't know would I be up today on it because that made me spend more time, regardless, every minute I had to play and sit down before I went on it, yeah. Yeah, that was a big thing, yeah.
Jo Reed: Now, when you go back to Ireland, Mike, do you bring your flute? Do you play there?
Mike Rafferty: Of course I do, yeah. Of course I do. I just go to the pubs and have a few tunes with friends and stuff like that. We find out where there's a session going and they have what they call the Singing Pubs over there, but there's very little singing. Now and then maybe you get somebody to sing a song and then we play and drink a couple of pints of Guinness and so on, but it would be normally just for the fun of it, yeah.
Jo Reed: People call your flute player very lyrical. Do you think that's the case?
Mike Rafferty: Well, it's Galway style. Nobody's playing in my style. A lot of people want to learn my style.
Jo Reed: Can you explain what that style is?
Mike Rafferty: It's more or less a slow style. What I would call it is playing the tune and playing it with feelings, you know, like a good singer from a bad singer with the nice tone of voice and clearing the notes. That's my only way of explaining that.
Jo Reed: How did you learn that you received a National Heritage Fellowship Award?
Mike Rafferty: Barry Bergey called me on the phone. I was sitting on the couch and my wife answered the phone and she come down the stairs. We have a basement and I was sitting down there. I thought, I said to her, "Oh you played the lottery, we won the lottery finally." I thought that's what happened. I didn't think I was going-- I didn't have a clue until he called me up. He says, "I'm not joking," he said to me. Well, I hope you're not. He explained the whole thing to me. So, yeah, it was a surprise let me tell you. But like I said, I didn't think-- how could I have earned something like that? I love what I do. That's one of my loves. I love Irish music and I love to play and that was something that I loved really and I share it with others and that's about it.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much for giving me your time.
Mike Rafferty: Thank you very much.
Jo Reed: I appreciate it. Thank you.
That was flutist and 2010 National Heritage Fellow, Mike Rafferty.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts of the song "The Shaskeen / The Green Blanket (Reels)," is from the album Speed 78, performed by Mike Rafferty, used courtesy of Mike Rafferty.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, folklorist and recipient of the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, Judith McCulloh.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.