Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Merv Griffin and his Doorman

If you've seen the Buena Vista Social Club, you'll know a story of once-famous musicians in Cuba rediscovered by Ry Cooder on his own musical journey. The resulting movie and recordings brought a second fame to such capable musicians as Ibriham Ferrer and Manuel Galbon, Orlando "Cachato" Lopez, "Guajiro Mirabal, Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos and Roberto Fonseca.

Something like that has happened before. In New York City. And the rediscovered music was the traditional Irish form of singing known as sean nos. Here's how that happened (as told on the Irish Rochester.org website):

Merv Griffin is best known as the producer of such popular game shows as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. In the 1960s he was the host of his own late afternoon talk show, always on the lookout for new and interesting guests. One day when he was vacationing in Ireland, he entered O'Donoghue's Pub in Dublin and was startled to see a familiar face on the wall. That's my doorman! the celebrity exclaimed in surprise. That, said the patient publican to the ignorant Yank, is Ireland's greatest traditional singer! They were both right. Joe Heaney (October 1, 1919-May 1, 1984) was acknowledged then (and is still so regarded) as the greatest exponent of Irish sean nos singing, but unlike Sarah Makem (see below) he had to leave Ireland to receive the popular recognition that was his due. The first prize winner at the Dublin Oireachtas in 1942 and again in 1955, musical partner of Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, and Mick Moloney (among many others), and a recording artist for Gael Linn records, he was a regular participant in the traditional music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


If, as the Bible says, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house," Joe was more warmly received in America. In 1965 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and the following St. Patrick's Day appeared on Merv Griffin's television show. In 1980 he was appointed an adjunct professor in Irish folklore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and was later appointed to a similar position at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was a regular performer at concerts and festivals across the country. Finally, in July 1982 he was presented with the National Heritage Award for Excellence in Folk Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ever a modest man, Joe never took himself or his art too seriously. "Where I come from," he said, "they all sing like that."

I've been to O'Donoghue's myself a time or two and sat under that very photo in 2004 and reeled this same story off to my husband and friends. And I certainly recommend the double CD set The Road from Connemara.

So let's raise a glass to Merv Griffin who was lucky enough to know Joe Heaney and to America who was lucky enough to see Joe at Newport and on TV, thanks to Mr Griffin.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Thanks for naming the Dublin pub; while I have heard the story, I never read where it was before. Merv, who "squired" as the NY Times put it, Eva Gabor, and who claimed he did not have sex with that man Denny Terio or the other guy who lived in the stable under his mansion. Fine Irish (that's what the obits insist despite his Cambrian nomenclature and logo) lad, sure. I hope Joe Heaney gained a bit of the largess of Merv-- worth 1.3 billion at his death, in part due to his clever scheme of the first game show to penalize wrong answers by contestants by deducting from their earnings. Ah, capitalism's old sweet siren song.