By James Keelaghan
Sometimes an artist owns a song. Chances are they didn’t write it, but it’s their voice that you hear when you imagine the song being sung. Judy Garland—no one since has owned Over the Rainbow. Arlo Guthrie still has the definitive version of City of New Orleans.
Sometimes, you witness a hand off — that moment when one artist takes possession from the previous owner.
Since Irish Mythen and I share a bit of heritage, I have a confession to make. The first time I actually heard her, rather than just hearing about her, was at last year’s Folk Music Ontario conference. I walked in on the last song of one of her showcases. She ended the set with The Auld Triangle. The song was written by legendary Irish poet/playwright Brendan Behan, though the rumour persists that it was actually written by his brother, Dominic. The song has been owned since the 60s by Luke Kelly, the gravel-voiced singer for the band, The Dubliners. Shane MacGowan, of the Pogues, covered it in the 80s, but never really owned it.
When Irish Mythen started singing it, I did a subconscious eye roll. So many have attempted the song. So many have failed to do it justice. By the second line of the song, however, my hair was on end. By the time she finished, it was clear the song had a new owner. It was like the spirit of Behan and Kelly had descended from the sky and placed their fingers on her.
Irish is a powerhouse. If you combined the output of every generating station in North America, it would still not come close to matching the energy in her voice. It’s a voice built to silence a Dublin pub.
I’ve gone out of my way to see Irish several times since that conference. I have rarely seen a performer more in command of herself or her audience. The darkness of some of the material is tempered by a between-song personality marked by deep humour and a sharp, quick wit.
She is not just a voice. She was named SOCAN’s songwriter of the year in 2015. She has the Irish gift for a turn of phrase. She speaks her mind and the songs can be pointed or poignant as the occasion dictates.
What Irish Mythen has in spades is honesty. It’s the hallmark of all great performers and contrary to the old adage, it can’t be faked. Old Man Luedecke has the same quality, though he and Irish have distinctly different personas.
Music conferences can open a window on a performer’s stagecraft, but they can also let you have a more intimate glimpse of a performer’s personality. I was at the Folk Alliance conference last February in Kansas City. Nice though the hotel was, after a couple of days I had to get out of the conference atmosphere and get some real food. When you are in Kansas City, the real food is barbecue.
Fortunately, not far from the hotel, was the famous Jack Stack restaurant. I was standing in the lobby looking at a map when I saw Chris Luedecke. I asked if he would like to join me, as he had a hungry look about him.
We had a pleasant walk, but when we got to the place, it was jam-packed. The hostess mentioned that there was takeout at the back. That’s how Chris and I ended up eating a mass of burnt ends (you’ll have to trust me) under a bridge beside the railway tracks.
I have rarely had a better meal—it wasn’t just the food, it was the company. Chris is down to earth and although soft spoken, he has an easy humour and is a great conversationalist. You would be hard pressed to pick him out of a crowd, but there is no mistaking him on stage.
Chris writes about ordinary lives, but does it with extraordinary insight. He captures the everyday with such truth that you can’t help but see yourself in his lyrics. When I listen to an Old Man Luedeke song, my first thought is always, “I wish I’d written that.” I think that not because I am jealous of his writing, but because he is saying the things that I think, but never put into words.
His power is simplicity—a voice, a banjo—mostly—and some lyrics. With that, he creates an entire world. He seems like a modern day Pete Seeger, but where Seeger was earnest, Luedecke is laid back. There are no big issues, just small moments illuminating truth.
His is the kind of music that sneaks up on you. The first time you watch one of his shows, there is a pleasure that washes over you, some laughs, a knowing nod of the head, a hint of a tear. It’s not until a day or two after that you realize you have witnessed something extraordinary. It happens as you find yourself singing lyrics that you have only heard once. It’s the second time you see him that it really hits home. You hang on every note and every perfectly placed word resonates.
Folk music is about truth and honesty. We are pleased to present two of the most honest performers you will ever meet- Irish Mythen and Old Man Luedeke at this year’s Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival, August 19, 20 and 21st at Kelso Beach Park in Owen Sound. Find out everything you need to know at summerfolk.org.