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Cherish the Ladies Brings Celtic Christmas Show to the Tarrytown Music Hall

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December 5, 2022

By W.B. King–

Restless one night lying in bed enveloped by pulsating Irish melodies and merriment bellowing from below, a four-year old Joanie Madden snuck downstairs peaking around corners with her ears wide open — she was a magnet to the action. The home, located in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, was once again playing host to well-known musicians honing their craft in-between laughs, drinks and traditional tunes that pluck the heart strings.

Madden’s mother, Helen, who hails from Miltown Malbay, County Claire, chased her daughter up and down the stairs that evening in unsuccessful attempts to get her back to bed. Noticing the cat and mouse game, one musician stopped playing and said, “Ah, leave her alone. She’s got the bug.”

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“That was one of my earliest musical memories,” Madden, the second oldest of seven children, told The Hudson Independent. Not soon after, Joe Madden, her father, realized she was indeed “mad for music.” As an All-Ireland accordion champion from Portumna, County Galway who fronted a successful 13-piece band in the states, he knew from which he spoke. Finding the right instrument for the young upstart, however, would prove challenging.

“My father started me on the fiddle, but I couldn’t stand it. Then I took two or three piano lessons and I didn’t like that either,” said Madden, who added that when her father wasn’t playing weddings, festivals or other events at night or on the weekends, he put food on the table working as an master carpenter.

Some years later, after more musical fits and starts, an instrument chose her. “One day I saw the whistle from a friend who was taking lessons from a man named Jack Coen who lived around the corner from us,” she recalled of the legendary flutist. “He was a great friend of my fathers who had learned his music from my father’s uncles. After my first lesson, I was hooked.”

Changing of the Tides

The family later moved to Yorktown Heights where Madden attended Yorktown High School. Throughout those formative years, she fervently practiced the whistle and concert flute. Her hard work paid off when she won the All-Ireland Championship in both disciplines. During her senior year in 1983, she made history becoming the first American to win the coveted Senior All-Ireland Championship on the whistle, which was exactly 25 years after her father’s win in the accordion category.

It was at this time that Madden came on the radar of Michael “Mick” Moloney, an Irish-born American who co-founded Green Fields of America, a touring ensemble of Irish musicians, singers and dancers.

“I won three gold medals — the whistle, the flute and the duet championship and this friend of mind Eileen Ivers, who is a brilliant fiddle player [also from the Bronx], she won the fiddle,” said Madden, adding that the 10-piece ensemble she was performing with featured nine exceptionally talented ladies. “America had a great year winning at a lot of competitions. Mick realized we were all women and thought it was amazing. He called to congratulate me, saying this was a real change in the tides.”

The conversation soon turned to the idea of doing a female-based series of concerts. Moloney asked for Madden’s help. “I said ‘sure,” but doubted anyone would come to it. But I also said, you better call it ‘Cherish the Ladies,’ which was off the top of my head because it’s an old traditional jig that we all play — it’s been around for hundreds of years,” she recalled.

In short order, Moloney secured a grant for three concerts that took place in Manhattan. Madden was not only a featured performer but the emcee fronting the new group officially named, Cherish the Ladies. “I was absolutely clueless, but the shows all sold out,” said Madden. On the strength of those performances, the group, consisting of 12 members, recorded Cherish the Ladies: Irish Women Musicians in America (1985), which was produced by Moloney, who also played guitar. The album was chosen by the Library of Congress as the Best Folk Album of the Year.

A secondary grant was secured from the National Endowment of the Arts that resulted in a two week tour. Later in 1985, the group released Fathers and Daughters from Cherish the Ladies: Irish Traditional Music in America.

“Everyone [in the group] kept saying I learned this [song] from my dad, and I learned that [song] from my dad,” Madden said. “We realized, my God, the music had always been passed down from father to son, it was now being passed down from father to daughter.”

Madden not only learned from her father but would go onto perform and record with him countless times until his untimely passing in 2008. The duo released a posthumous album, Joe and Joanie: A Galway Afternoon, in 2010, which the Irish Voice called “One of the most important relationships in Irish traditional music.”

Over the course of her career, Madden has earned numerous awards and accolades, including being the youngest member inducted into both the Irish-American Musicians Hall of Fame and the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Hall of Fame. She shares the latter distinction with her father. In 2010, a street was named in her honor in the Bronx on the Grand Concourse: “Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies.”

Along with releasing 18 Cherish the Ladies albums to date, Madden has sold over 500,000 copies of her five solo albums. An in-demand studio musician, she has performed on over 180 albums with iconic artists like Pete Seeger, Sinead O’Connor and Arlo Guthrie, among many others. She has toured with The Eagles’ Don Henley, was a featured soloist on the final Lord of the Rings soundtrack as well as the soundtrack for the PBS documentary, The Long Journey Home – The Irish in America.

“Arlo has become a good buddy and we are constantly writing back and forth. Pete [Seeger] came to our concerts and I got to play on his Grammy-winning record, Pete (2006),” she said. “We also got to play with Vince Gill, Nanci Griffith, the Boston Pops — some great people throughout the years. It’s amazing the amount of people who like Irish music.”

Madden believes Celtic music, what she called “ancient rhythms,” has directly influenced much of American music. “All those Irish and Scottish guys in the Appalachian Mountains, they created bluegrass and old time-y and country music — it all came down the river, so it’s familiar to a lot people,” she said.

A Celtic Christmas

The Grammy-nominated Cherish the Ladies looks forward to returning to the Tarrytown Music Hall on December 10, 2022 to perform their annual “Celtic Christmas” show. Madden, who now calls Yonkers home (a stone’s throw away from the family’s first house in Woodlawn), says the venue holds a special place in her heart.

“The first time we played there we had about 400 or 500 people,” Madden said, estimating that was around 2007. “It has just grown and grown. It is one of the most intimate, fantastic rooms we play — people are so geared up. We get on the stage and they are roaring already,” she continued. “Soon as the gig is over, I put on my winter coat, go out the stage door and come around to the front to hang out with all the people. You meet mothers and fathers, grandparents and their grandkids — it’s beautiful to see.”

While the band has seen a number of performers come and go over the years, Madden said the key to the band’s longevity, which includes over 4,000 performances, has been “having fantastic musicians, dancers and singers,” as well as “having fun” with audiences.

“I really enjoy making people laugh and having a good time with them,” she said. “But if you told me I would be running on 40 years of fronting a band…I wouldn’t believe it. It’s just amazing this has all happened.”

Joining Madden on stage will be a host of world-renowned, awarding-winning performers including Cherish the Ladies founding member Mary Coogin (guitar) as well as Mirella Murray (accordion), Nollaig Casey (fiddle), Kate Purcell (lead vocals, guitar), Catherine McHugh (piano), Bruce Foley (lead vocals, guitar,) and “four of the best” Irish dancers — David Geaney, Michael Holland, Nathan Pilatzke and Noel Spillane.

The band will be pulling songs from its vast catalog, including tunes from the albums On Christmas Night (2004) and Christmas in Ireland (2015). “We go from the beautiful haunting ballads to the lively, uprising tunes,” she said.

A Family Affair

The Christmas tour, Madden explained, is also special because it is the only time during the year the group features a drummer. And she doesn’t have to look far. Her brother, John Madden, who has played on a number of Cherish the Ladies albums, as well as Joe and Joanie: A Galway Afternoon, will once again be on hand at the Tarrytown Music Hall. “He lifts us up a good bit and it’s always great to have my brother with me,” she said. “And all the girls like to have him around as well.”

Not unlike his sister, John Madden, a Yorktown resident, has been playing music for just about as long as he can remember. He, too, values every opportunity to perform with his family. “It’s really special. I’ve been playing with her since I was 12-years old. My first gig was with her, my dad and some of the greatest Irish musicians in the world,” said John Madden, who has played in a number of successful Westchester –based bands like Jules and the Family and Fluid Druids, which featured longtime Phish lyrical collaborator, The Dude of Life (Steve Pollak).

His son James, a tenor saxophonist and senior at Yorktown High School, was recently selected as alternate for the 2022 New York State School Music Association All-State Performing Ensemble. Having blown his horn many times with Cherish the Ladies at the Tarrytown Music Hall over the years, James, his dad proudly said, is carrying on the family tradition.

“The ensembles Joanie puts together…the dancers are all just great. The way she plays these songs is so moving. I think Irish music mixes with Christmas and holiday tunes better than anything. I’m proud to be on that stage with these musicians — they really are a super group,” he said, adding that he loves playing the annual Tarrytown Music Hall holiday show, something he’s done 10-plus times. “Joanie and I have a special connection. There is something holy about it — she is the best. I mean, she literally is the best — everyone says so.”

Madden’s brother isn’t biased. In 2021, she received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The award is the United States government’s highest honor bestowed upon folk and traditional artists. Recipients are considered “national living treasures” recognized for lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and vast contributions to America’s cultural heritage.

“I just wish it didn’t happen during COVID so I could have gone to the Oval Office to get the award, but it is amazing — just three percent [of awards] have been given to Irish musicians, so I’m honored to be up there,” Madden said. “It brings pride. I learned my music in New York and it’s just great to carry on the traditions of this music that was passed down to me by my dad — to travel and tour all over the world. It’s really incredible where my little penny whistle has taken me.”

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