The Chieftains: For 50 Years, Irish Music For The World Over a long career, the Irish folk band has worked with almost everybody, just about everywhere.

The Chieftains: For 50 Years, Irish Music For The World

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It was 50 years ago that the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys had just come on the scene, leading the way toward a new sound for rock and roll. At the same time, in 1962, a band was formed and became famous for offering a look back.


MONTAGNE: The Chieftains led the revival of traditional Irish music, and the band is celebrating a five-decade run that's produced more than 50 albums, six Grammys and an Oscar. Paddy Maloney founded The Chieftains. He told us he lost his heart to Irish music back in the 1940s, when his mother gave him a small gift.

PADDY MALONEY: I was six years of age. My mother bought me what you call a penny whistle, a tin whistle, for one shilling and nine pence.


MONTAGNE: The Chieftains were and are consummate musicians. And their roots music quickly caught the attention of the rock stars of the day. Of course, Paddy Maloney's goal was not only to bring back traditional Irish music, but to breathe new life into it as well.

MALONEY: So I adapted my own style of, you know, arrangements and little compositions and riffs here and there, and harmonies. And it got to be heard everywhere. The likes of John Peel, who was the great disc jockey of that era, in the '60s and '70s and '80s, and John was playing our tape in amongst the Beatles and Rolling Stones.


MONTAGNE: You have been through this amazing range of collaborations: Tom Jones, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, John Hiatt, Mick Jagger. Let's play a moment of your collaboration with Mick Jagger.


MICK JAGGER: (Singing) She walks these hills in a long black veil. She visits my grave, when the night winds wail...

MALONEY: Talk about Mick, you know, I remember, in the '60s, Mick coming to one of our concerts in Dublin. I never realized, you know, there was people out there listening and wanting to get back to roots, get back to where it all might have started from, you know.

MONTAGNE: Talking about roots, what were you thinking when you collaborated with some of Nashville's top artists: Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs?

MALONEY: Yeah. For us and for me to go to Nashville was almost going to another part of Ireland and meeting up with all your country cousins and just go for it. Because you didn't have to duck and dash with these people, they knew the music. And if you played it once or twice, naturally they'd just pick it up and play it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I would not be in Richmond between all the hail and rain, then for to be in Georgia wearing ball and chain. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more. Won't get drunk no more way down the Old Plank Road.

MALONEY: Touching base with that world of country music to me is, you know, somewhat Doc Watson, for instance, that the fishers' hornpipe, you know, and that kind of stuff - the fisherman's hornpipe is what we call it back home. But it's all related. You know?

MONTAGNE: Fisherman's horn?

MALONEY: Hornpipe.

MONTAGNE: Hornpipe.

MALONEY: A hornpipe is a dance, an old Irish dance. You know?


MALONEY: So, Doc Watson, when he got hold of it, it went like...



MONTAGNE: That's the bluegrass, right?

MALONEY: That's the bluegrass side of it, yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Double-speed, right.

MALONEY: Double-speed, yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: There is one collaboration that took you far, far away. And that was that in the 1980s you traveled to China and blended traditional Chinese music with your music. Let's just play a moment of that.


MALONEY: You have there playing which is what they call a Chinese orchestra. But it's their folk instrument. So, some of the pieces you will hear - I mean melody-wise there's a big difference. But the same ideas about music, to do with the seasons, to do with love, to do with battles that took place, just is so Irish in a way. And we took a trip down the Yangtze River with all our Chinese friends, and we got them up dancing the "Walls of Limerick," which is a set dance, an Irish set dance.


MALONEY: So, they were very suspicious about that at the beginning, you know. And they weren't quite sure what to make of us, you know?


MALONEY: But the Maotai was taking effect on them as well as us. The Maotai, it's a little drink, you know? And gan bei is their - instead of slainte or good luck to you. You know, it was gan bei. That means bottoms up.


MONTAGNE: In Chinese.

MALONEY: That's right. That's when we got them all dancing.



MONTAGNE: One thing that you maybe never would have predicted when you first started The Chieftains back in 1962 was that one of your penny whistles would end up in space. Tell us about that.

MALONEY: Well, a very good friend of mine, Cady Coleman, she's an astronaut. She's been up six or seven times and recently spent six months on the International Space Station. And Cady asked if she could bring Matt Malloy's flute and one of my tin whistles into space. And I gave her some music, as well. And on Patrick's Day, she sent down through the Internet, right onto Matt Malloy's iPad comes this Cady. And she's floating as she plays a tune that I gave her, "Fanny Power," which is on the album.

And she floats away, her hair sticking up in the air, and the tin whistle floats with her.


MALONEY: And so, I took that recording and put it on so when you hear her whistle start to disappearing to the left, I come in on the right. So, we have done funny things in our time. You know?



MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us to talk about this half-century of making music.

MALONEY: The 50th chapter, you might say. But lovely to speak with you and hope to be - come back and talk about so much more in the future. Thank you so much.


MONTAGNE: Paddy Maloney is the founder of The Chieftains. Their 50th anniversary album, "Voice of Ages," will be released next week. You can hear a couple of tracks from that album, plus that flute playing in space right now at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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