Seeger Sessions Revival Raises The Roof In Donegal

by Sean Hillen

What a wonderful uplifting sound an enthusiastic sell-out audience creates – especially when a talented 13-member band is playing a medley of instruments as diverse as banjo, trumpet, saxophone, accordion, tin whistle, trombone and steel guitar.

The location was An Grianan, the largest theatre in Donegal, this weekend and the exuberant group was The Seeger Sessions Revival playing a mix of bluegrass, folk, country, dixieland, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s homage to Pete Seeger, a legend of American folk music in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Photos and videos by Columbia Hillen

Led by guitarist and lead singer Dermot McGee, the evening platformed music about ordinary people in ordinary places, a historic treasure-trove of melodies down through the years that once supported labor and civil rights in America. 

The repertoire included classics such as ‘John Henry, describing a man’s contest with a steam drill, symbolising workers’ struggle against machines; ‘Pay Me My Money Down, which originated among Negro stevedores; ‘My Oklahoma Home,’ a song born out of the 1930s dust storms in America that devastated agriculture; and ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ an old melody rewritten for the civil rights movement. 

The concert also featured anti-war sentiments in the 19th-century Irish song, ‘Mrs. McGrath,’ about a woman whose son joins the British Army and returns seven years later having lost his legs to a cannonball while fighting against Napoleon, and contains the memorable lines, ‘All foreign wars I do proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.’  

Having once lived for a few years in my mid-20s in the little Missouri town of Pleasant Valley outside Kansas City, a few miles from the former home of outlaw Jesse James who was shot dead there, I was curious to hear the band’s classic tribute to the legendary bank and train robber. Though the lyrics utilise an immense amount of poetic license (Jesse was no American Robin Hood taking from the rich and giving to the poor), the group’s musical rendition was impressive, kicking-off with some dazzling banjo picking by Chris Speer, followed by Tex-Mex accordion by Anne-Marie Devine, ending up with some Dixieland sounds from the lively four-member brass section of Amanda Kosher, Donal McGuinness, Matt Jennings and Robert Goodman, with lead singer, Dermot McGee, in great voice. The rendition even featured western-style fiddle by both Derek McGinley and John Byrne, and a giant Lambeg-style drum, with Allan Cooke on steel guitar and Darrell Nelson on drums.

‘Further Up The Road,’ best described as a Texas shuffle, featured a medley of voices as well as a wonderful tin whistle solo and guitar playing reminiscent of the transition from 1940s blues to 1960s blues-rock.

Tempo varied throughout the two hour-evening, from the hymn-like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ a black spiritual that featured local vocalist and double bass player Michael Gillespie and keyboard wizard Zara Montgomery, and Springsteen’s ‘My City of Ruins’ about the deterioration of Asbury Park in New Jersey where the singer grew up, to the lively ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and ‘Buffalo Gals,’ about the dancing girls who performed in the bars of Buffalo, New York, the western terminus of the Erie Canal where workers received their wages..

It was impressive to hear McGee, who doubled up musically on guitar and harmonica, proudly announce that just five years ago he was a transition student listening to a concert at An Grianan and now here he was leading an energetic, 13-member band.

Reflecting the infectious enthusiasm of the band, well before the concert’s end the audience was on its feet swaying in full flow on a merry, devil-may-care singalong, making me feel I was in the midst of a passionate Gospel hall revival, with the jolly tuba player, Kosher, waving a flag above her head and the saxophonist, Jennings, dancing with himself quite happily.


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