Mick Moloney talked to Peter Browne about his days in the 1960s folk group The Johnstons on Radio Eireann’s The Rolling Wave programme on June 19, 2011. He started by talking about what it was like to be part of a group like The Johnstons.
“In the Sixties it was almost impossible for any of us to believe that we would be out there getting paid for something we loved. It was such a big break for me to be part of a group that was signed up by Transatlantic records and to move to England and be able to play for attentive audiences and to go on and make LPs. It was one of the most important periods of my early life, absolutely.
We were very big at the time. It was when folk music, as many people who were around then will realise, was becoming very marketable. And Ireland was going through good times for the first time, I suppose, since the Republic was formed. People had money to spend and television had come.
There was a circuit where everybody could play and be listened to, especially in England where there were over 650 folk clubs. There was an audience that would buy your recordings. There was radio where they could be played and it was a very heady time.
In a way, our music was being legitimised at that time, having being ignored for so long. They were brilliant years altogether – to be part of The Johnstons, making LPs just about every year and having people appreciate your music. It was the ultimate dream for an artist really.
Everyone was sort of experimenting. If you wanted to make a living you had to appeal to audiences. And to do that with integrity: you had to satisfy yourself as well, there was always a negotion.
We were listening a lot to English folk songs. That’s where the harmonies – we were really famous for four-part harmony.
Paul Brady was a sort of visitor to folk music and traditional music. He started out on the beat scene in Dublin, a very respected figure in that scene. After Michael Johnston left the group, you had Lucy, Adrienne, myself and Paul putting our collective efforts into discovering Irish traditional music. We didn’t grow up with it, but we appreciated it and we were learning very fast. Adrienne and Lucy were very interested in learning traditional songs, having started off with newly-composed songs, some American, some British. They were eager, very much on a learning curve.
Our records, I suppose, represented very much an influence from the harmony singing of the Waterstones in England and The Young Tradition – some of the songs were very old. People like Sean Corcoran and Frank Harte were plugging into a rural Irish tradition which was also influenced by England because a lot of the songs were part of the Anglo-Irish tradition; there would be versions in Scotland and England and so on.
So we were recording a combination of Irish and English and Scottish songs and bringing instrumental music into it, new instruments at the time for the scene, like the mandolin and tenor banjo. Barney McKenna was my hero. And Paul Brady experimenting with the guitar, getting away from the ‘hum chuck’ king of thing that Willie Brady and people like that and Charlie Magee … they were the only guitar players that you would hear on the radio at that time. Getting away from that to sort of playing a style more influenced by the drones of the pipes and the rhythms of the bodhran. It was a very interseting time. Every time we got together there was something new coming at us or we were learning something new. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed my music more than then.
We were playing instruments that Comhaltas (Ceoltoiri Eireann) would have only been marginally connected to – maybe suspicious of – new instruments. The guitar was a new instrument. The tenor banjo, they didn’t know what to do with that. It was under the Miscellaneous Instruments at Fleadhs. The mandolin wasn’t even on the map. To be singing accompanied – Comhaltas people would have favoured everything unaccompanied at that time. They were really interested in preserving the centre, we were more interested in brancing out. And also learning about traditional music. We always had great, respect for it.
But what we were really about was something different, something new. We were playing traditional music all right and singing traditional songs.
It was inevitable what would happen – and it happened with Planxty – was that instruments like the pipes and the flute and the accordion would come into the music. They were on one side of the traditional music and the folk music on the other. They came together with Planxty in 1971 with the Prosperous LP that preceeded Planxty. But we were a step on that journey and so were Sweeney’s Men. They were our cohorts in Transatlantic, along with the Fureys.
[After listening to a song on air from the 1968 The Barley Corn LP, Mick Moloney continues]
I think we were the only group to ever put out two LPs on the same day and it was this one (Barley Corn) and an LP called Give a Damn, which was all contemporary songs with a lot of orchestration, and represented our dual identity at the time as a contemporary slash traditional folk group. We put out the two albums on the same day and I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the history of popular slash traditional music.
I like The Barley Corn. Looking back there’s a kind of innocence about it. One of the tracks I really like on it is Andienne Johnston, the lead singer, singing The Flower of Northumberland. I played the mandolin, Paul Brady played the guitar and we all did harmonies – four part harmony – and its one of my favourite tracks on that album.
We gelled together tremendously (as a band). In the opening years, when we were all caught up with Irish songs and people, like I said, like Sean Corcoran and Frank Harte, were feeding us songs and we were learning then, we gelled very well together.
Lucy left the group and we were pulled in two directions: one, and it’s not that we ever objected, the record company Transatlantic wanted us to be a replacement for The Seekers. The Australian group had just broken up. They wanted us to be a boy/girl harmony thing, they wanted us to be a poppy group. Nat Joseph, the head of the company, had very good taste. He wanted us to be a pop group, but also was quite prepared to have us honour out traditional roots as well, our folk roots.
We were pulled in that direction … of listening to contemporary songs. And just about every week we would go into the studio in London, in Marleybone High Street, and we would be fed a constant diet of new songs from new songwriters. Most of the people had never heard of them and we had never heard of them. One of the songs that took our fancy was a song by a complete unknown woman called Joni Mitchell. She had just written a song called Both Sides Now. We recorded it and strangely enough in America it went up to number 90 or so in the hit parade just by virtue of radio play.
But looking back it was almost like a schizophrenia in the group. There would be two different forces pulling at us – one the forces of traditional folk and the other, this kind of singer/songwriter, poppy orchestrated direction that the record company wanted us to go in. We never really objected and I can’t say we were manipulated, we went there by choice. We typically went to the studio to record vocal tracks with bass and drums andcame back two weeks later to hear a whole orchestra.
A fellow called Barry Booth, he used to do the orchestrations. We liked him, he was very affable. Mostly it was just an adventure. We weren’t on top of our game as far as protecting our rights as artists, copyright and that kind of stuff, and artistic control. They were new issues at the time. When I look at musicians today, they are a lot more smart about these issues. We were a bit naive, I suppose. We can’t blame anybody.
We only did one tour in America and then I left. So we had a brief encounter with America. The group continued on for a year after I left, but there was no future for them really there.”
The Johnstons reunite for Slane festival concert