An Irishwoman's Diary
AFTER celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first rock concert in Slane last month with the Kings of Leon, the village will host its first folk festival next weekend (June 24th, 25th and 26th) in memory of one of its own much loved and talented singers, Adrienne Johnston.
She was part of the folk group, The Johnstons, who became nationally known in the 1960s, with their version of the Ewan MacColl song, The Travelling People. She died in 1981, and 30 years later her friends, calling themselves
The Youth Club of 1964, have come together to celebrate her life.
For Adrienne’s family and friends she will be forever young. A slender, auburn-haired woman, she had a voice that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It was strong with a haunting quality that made it immediately identifiable.
Her family ran the pub, Live and Let Live, in Slane, which is now the Boyne Valley Inn. She and her sister Lucy, with their brother Michael, had been singing locally when they decided to enter the Wexford Ballad contest. It was 1966 and the folk music revival was in full swing.
Folk clubs like the Old Triangle, the 95, the Coffee Kitchen and the Universal were popular in Dublin, with young aspiring singers like Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew and Jim McCann. The showband era was coming to an end and the beat clubs that were springing up in Liverpool didn’t really catch on here. Folk music was complementing our own traditional music.
The Johnstons won the contest and appeared on The Late Late Show.A record deal followed and they performed all over the country.
The journalist and folk music columnist, Joe Kennedy, had married their older sister Margaret and he became an influence in their development.
At this stage Michael decided to leave the group and go back to farming, so a young guitar and banjo player from Limerick was drafted in. Mick Moloney was very much part of the developing folk scene with strong musical ties to Co Clare. He introduced Paul Brady from Strabane in Co Tyrone, who was a talented musician with a different musical background. The fusion of their styles led to what became the Johnston sound – a subtle mixture of the traditional, with contemporary overtones. They became synonymous with the modern folk revival, encompassing singers like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Tom Paxton. In fact they appeared with Tom Paxton in the National Stadium. In 1969, they moved to England and spent five years touring the English folk club circuit at a time when there were more than 600 clubs on the go.
Their popularity grew and America beckoned. Their records sold well in Japan, South Africa, Australia and all over Europe. They made a good living, but they were all young and individually wanted to explore other avenues in life. So, abandoning the excitement of show business, Lucy returned to Ireland; Mick Moloney went to university in Pennsylvania and completed a doctorate in folklore, and Paul Brady and Adrienne stayed on in America. They played together for another two years before Paul returned home to join
Planxty. Adrienne never returned home.
The Youth Club of 1964 headed up by Michael Scully have been talking about paying tribute to her for a long time. He insists that he is merely acting as a facilitator because everyone in the area who knew Adrienne wanted something organised to commemorate her life. “She was a bundle of energy, full of fun and enthusiasm and very talented. She organised variety shows within the club that are remembered to this day.” The weekend kicks off on June 24th at 5pm with the official opening in the Boyne Valley Inn, the former home of the Johnston family. At 7.30pm in the Catholic church there will be a recital of music of the Johnstons, with classical guitarist Pat Coldrick, cellist Claire Fitch and harpists Aine Allen and Grace Crilly. Afterwards there will be a discussion on the Johnstons’ contribution to the music industry with folklorist Sean Corcoran and Mick Moloney.
Sean was a fellow student at UCD with Mick and Paul and is a member of the traditional group, Cran. In the 1960s, he introduced a large number of Donegal songs and songs from his native Louth into the Dublin folk scene. Much of the repertoire until then would have been borrowed from the English and American folk song revival. No doubt this discussion will be passionate and lively.
The highlight of the weekend is the concert on Saturday at 8pm in the TLT Drogheda where Lucy and Michael Johnston, Mick Moloney and Paul Brady will be joined by Niamh Parsons.
Niamh is a fine traditional singer and has recorded several CDs. She heard the Johnstons sing in the Old Shieling in Raheny as a child when she and her sister Anne were brought there by her parents. “The Johnstons had a huge influence on my development as a singer. I loved their harmonies and choice of material.” She has the task of learning 25 new versions of songs for the event.
It will be a weekend of fine music and song and plenty of nostalgia.
The Youth Club of 1964 plan to buy musical instruments for the young people of the area so that the legacy of Adrienne Johnson will continue.