As the Cherish the Ladies 30th Anniversary Tour begins, Kristin Cotter McGowan talks to founding member, the award-winning whistle and flute player Joanie Madden.
Irish music was the soundtrack to life for Joanie Madden and other Irish American kids growing up in Woodlawn, a heavily Irish section of the Bronx, NY, back in the 1970s.
“I was lucky – even if you didn’t want to hear it, or weren’t into it, you were learning Irish music by osmosis. It was sinking in,” Joanie recalls. When we speak in mid-February, she is preparing for the 30th Anniversary Tour of her musical group, Cherish the Ladies.
“Anytime there was a function – a christening, a funeral, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter Sunday – the accordion was pulled out and a few tunes played. It was a big part of our youth.”
Joanie’s father, Joe Madden, an All-Ireland accordion champion from Galway, headed a popular 13-piece band for years, playing weddings and county dances.
“My father opened doors for me that the average Irish-American kid didn’t get to experience because he was a great musician and so well respected.
He was a carpenter by day and played four or five gigs a week at night and he would do weddings practically every Saturday.”
Joe Madden’s daughter, you’d think, would take to music effortlessly, but her first attempts at fiddle and piano fell flat. It wasn’t until a family friend, Mary Naughton, visited the house with her tin whistle that it clicked.
“As soon as I heard it, I was like, ‘This is it.’ I don’t know what it was about the instrument but I was addicted from the get go. I used to run home at lunchtime just to play. I’d play before school and after school. I just adored it.”
Joanie started lessons with Jack Coen, a National Heritage Award winner, and one of the flute players in her father’s band. “The crazy thing about it was that I had known Jack all my life. I have pictures of me crawling through his feet – but I had never heard him play a whistle,” she recalls.
When she was 13, Joanie moved north, away from her old neighborhood and lessons with Jack Coen.
“We moved to Yorktown Heights where my father’s great friend Sean McGlynn gave me a silver flute.” She really didn’t want the flute at the time. (Most trad purists turn up their noses at traditional Irish music played on a silver flute instead of wooden one.) Still, she practiced endlessly trying to master the fingerings on the silver flute. It was hard going.
“I was at a session when Mike Preston, a great flute player, grabbed me and said, ‘Give me that flute. Don’t you play any other note until you can make this bottom D sound like this. Don’t play any other note! It’s not about your fingering, it’s about the tone.”
“For two weeks I went around playing that bottom D until I understood what he meant, and I got this raspy, woody sound.
“So, I had these great guys always giving me tidbits, but basically I taught myself the flute. There’s a few things I’m doing wrong, but anyway, we’ve managed to fool people. I’ve gotten away with it,” she laughs.
Joanie is self-effacing but make no mistake, she’s a brilliant flute player. And her decision to stick to a silver flute instead of wooden one was validated when at 16, playing in a flute workshop at the Philadelphia Irish Festival, Chieftains member Matt Malloy approached her.
“The god, the King of the Flute Players! He said to me, ‘Jesus, I’ve never heard anybody make one of those things sound like you do.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been trying to find a wooden flute, and I can’t find one.’ And he said, ‘Well, if I were you I’d never switch. You make it sound like a wooden one and you have all the keys. Don’t switch.’
“So once Matt Malloy told me that, that’s all I needed to hear,” she laughs.
Classical flautist James Galway also gave a boost to Joanie’s confidence. “He was standing behind my back listening to me for a half hour and I didn’t know he was there. When I turned around he said, ‘Your tone is remarkable.’ He asked me where I studied and I said, the kitchen table. I’m just trying to mimic those old flute players.”
The two wound up doing a couple of shows together. “He’s in a whole different league. I can’t do what he does, but then again, he can’t do what I do,” Joanie says. “The funny thing about it is there are only two silver flute players who ever won the All-Ireland Championships – myself, and believe it or not, Michael Flatley. I have a few wooden flutes in the house, but when you’re playing with the band and the singers are in E-flat, B-flat, I have a lot more flexibility with keys playing the silver flute. It works.”
For all her prowess as a flautist, Joanie still loves and plays the whistle, switching between the two instruments during concerts. And though she never had a formal lesson with her, it was Mary Bergin, whose mastery of the whistle opened Joanie’s ears to the instrument’s potential.
“I was at a house party – Billy Connors’s house – with my parents after the Yorktown Heights Feis and I heard this music playing in the background. ‘What instrument is that?’ I asked Billy. And keep in mind I had just come from winning first place at the Feis in the under 14’s on whistle.
“‘That’s Mary Bergin playing the whistle,’ he said. And I said, ‘No, no, I play the whistle, that’s not a whistle – it can’t do that.’ Then I realized my God, it is the whistle.
“Well, the next day I went down to the Tara Gift Shop with my mother and bought Mary’s album, ‘Feadóga Stáin.’ When I realized I couldn’t play along with her because she was playing all different keyed whistles, I went back to the gift shop, bought every keyed whistle they had, and played that record all night into the morning until I could play Side A and Side B. At first I was only able to get one or two notes in for every one of her 50, but I kept at it and eventually I could play along with her.”
“Mary Bergin, for me, is what every whistle player should aspire to – pure trad. She just came out with a book on playing the whistle and asked me to write the foreword, and actually we’re both being honored at the Catskills Irish Arts Week. I’m really thrilled about that,” she says.
Cherish the Ladies was formed in the 1980s when Mick Maloney, folklorist and musicologist, gathered Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers, and some of their fellow women musicians for a series of concerts that Joanie dubbed “Cherish the Ladies,” after an Irish jig of the same name.
The concerts proved immensely popular, and Joanie saw the potential. “I went to the girls and said, ‘If you quit your jobs, I promise I’ll keep you working.’”
And she has. Over the course of 30 years the group has gone from playing small parish halls to selling out performing arts centers around the world. And last year, the Ladies won an Emmy for their PBS Special “An Irish Homecoming,” with vocalist Maura O’Connell.
But looking back on the last 30 years, Joanie admits that her chosen path was not always easy. “It’s a tough career. It’s fantastic, but you’ve got to work very hard.
“When I think about years ago trying to book gigs and find the venues with no Internet or cell phones . . .” she pauses before continuing. “I remember a time we were to play in Kansas City – but there’s a Kansas City, Kansas, and a Kansas City, Missouri, and I sent half the band to the wrong state! And there was no way to call them!”
Life is so much easier now, she admits. “But when people comment, ‘Oh, you’ve got the life of Riley,’ you want to haul off and slap them one,’” she says laughing.
In its 30 years, Cherish the Ladies has proved to be a solid launching pad for solo careers for such founding members as Eileen Ivers and Cathie Ryan. And Winnie Horan went on to become a founding member of Solas.
Some members come and go and some remain. “Mary Coogan [who plays the guitar, mandolin and the banjo], and I have been here 30 years,” but they all have something in common. “All of us in the group have a similar story, growing up with fathers who played music – it was a large part of our upbringing. We try to be the real deal. A lot of the music we write ourselves sounds like it’s a couple hundred years old,” she says.
For the anniversary tour, many old friends will join the group for guest performances. “We have singers Maura O’Connell doing some of the shows and Cathie Ryan doing some. It’s an evolving thing,” says Joanie.
But there’s one thing the audience can be sure of. “People know that when they come to see Cherish the Ladies there’s going to be great music, great singing, and great dancing. And they’re going to have a great time.”
In addition to the anniversary tour, Joanie will be hosting her fourth annual Folk ’n Irish Cruise this spring where she will be joined by an astonishing arena of musicians, singers, and dancers, including Maura O’Connell, Tommy Sands, Cathie Ryan, the Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band, and many others. “When I do the cruise I always get people who I know are going to get along together. I don’t want any attitudes. The people that are coming are so fun.
“I did my first cruise with the Clancy Brothers and did a total of 16 with them.” Eventually, Joanie continued the tradition on her own. She estimates close to 700 guests will ship out this spring from New York to Port Canaveral, Florida, and on to Great Stirrup Cay, Nassau, Bahamas. Aboard the ship, guests will enjoy traditional Irish sessions, sing-a-longs, and set dancing – even some ceili dance instruction. “We’re a mixture of a lot of trad music, ballad singing, and dance music with lots of set dancing and waltzing and jiving. It’s a great time.”
It’s a moot point to say that Joanie Madden’s ear for music, coupled with her focused commitment to the craft, is widely recognized. In addition to playing on over 200 albums, winning a Grammy Award, and being the youngest member inducted into both the Irish-American Musicians Hall of Fame and the Comhaltas Coeltoiri Hall of Fame, and being the top-selling whistle player in history, having sold over 500,000 solo albums, she’s also received an Ellis Island Medal for exemplary service to the United States. Still, sometimes she just wants to pinch herself to see if it’s all real.
“I just took a booking today for December of 2016 – we’re going to Japan,” she says with glee. Here, Joanie slips into her father’s Galway accent to remark, “As my father used to say, ‘For God sakes, you couldn’t keep a dog, a plant, a man, or a child alive with your touring.’ So I do have fake plants in the house here in Yonkers, and outside, I have a sprinkler system.”
She admits that music is her life. “I eat, sleep, and drink Cherish the Ladies. I’ve committed myself to the band and its success. It’s been an incredible ride and I’m so honored. I wouldn’t trade my life . . . when I think of what I’ve done and what I’ve gotten to see, and what we’ve accomplished.”
And when she’s not on the road? “I live in Yonkers, only a mile from where I grew up in Woodlawn. I lots of friends that I’ve known for years. I have my house and my garden, and my new home in Ireland. Between it all I’m kept very busy. I have a home recording studio here and people send me tracks all the time. I have 14 nieces and nephews. There’s never a dull moment. I feel so lucky that I’ve gotten to make a living playing music.
“It’s a great life.” ♦