Dr. Michael Moloney, a Global Distinguished Professor of Music at New York University, recently delivered two lectures at Georgia Southern University.
Moloney was a guest of GSU’s Center for Irish Research and Teaching and the Multicultural Student Center at the Third Annual Distinguished Scholars Lecture. Moloney is, according to the Wall Street Journal, the “pre-eminent authority on Irish music in America.”
In 2013, he was given the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad by President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins.
He gave two separate lectures: “Irish and African Roots of American Music” and “If It Weren’t for the Irish and the Jews.” Both lectures dealt with lesser-known aspects of Irish music.
In his first lecture, Moloney stated that West African slaves brought over knowledge of a banjo-like instrument played by native tribes, which they recreated in America. This instrument, he said, was soon adopted by American musicians.
These “Virginia Minstrels,” white musicians who performed in “Black face,” popularized songs such as “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Old Dan Tucker” and sang of the plight of slaves in America. While touring in Ireland, they introduced the American banjo, which almost immediately was adopted as one of Ireland’s national instruments.
Moloney’s second lecture focused first on what forced the Irish and Jewish peoples to come to America in such large numbers. For the Irish, the cause was the devastation in Ireland as a result of the Potato Famine, and for the Jews, it was the brutality of the “pogroms” (organized massacres) they suffered across Eastern Europe.
He started with American songwriter Stephen Foster, the great-great-grandson of an Irish immigrant. His piece “Oh Susanna” sold more than 100,000 copies of sheet music in no time at all and became an American music icon.
Moloney stated it was really Irish-American Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, not John Phillip Sousa, who popularized marching music. Gilmore played at 11 presidential inaugurations and wrote many best-loved brass marching arrangements including “Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
As to the first Jewish-American musicians, Maloney said it was Al Dubin, the son of an Irish physician, who, after writing such memorable tunes as “O’Brien Is Trying to Learn to Talk Hawaiian,” wrote the now (in)famous “Tip Toe Through the Tulips.”
Dubin was followed by showman Florenz Ziegfeld, whose “Ziegfeld Follies” were comprised of a combination of everything from boxing women to trained animals to comedy sketches and, of course, large numbers of beautiful and nearly naked women.
Then came Irish-American George M. Cohan. Born to parents who had a Vaudeville act known as “The Four Cohans,” he struck out on his own, writing a seemingly endless string of Broadway hit shows, the most famous of which was “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” immortalized in the James Cagney film of the same name.
Moloney closed by stating that it was a long time before the Irish and Jewish immigrants had achieved respectability, but through their persistence and ingenuity, they carved niches for themselves and slowly but surely worked their way up until they were accepted into mainstream American music and culture.
Dr. Howard Keeley, director of the Irish Center, declared after both lectures that scholars like Moloney reveal how profoundly intermeshed America's ethnic populations are. This, Keeley said, underscores the power that popular culture has exerted over our national conversations about race and identity.