Irish Music in America: Shamrockabilly in the Inland Empire

Craic Haus | Photo: Courtney Washburn.

Irish music in the United States is a curious thing to a girl from Belfast. Growing up I knew three categories of Irish music. The first: songs about livestock. These songs included classics like "Paddy McGinty's Goat" or, my personal favorite, "Delaney's Donkey" -- the first verse of which perfectly sums up the spirit of these songs:

"Now Delaney had a donkey that everyone admired,
Temporarily lazy and permanently tired,
A leg at every corner balancing his head,
And a tail to let you know which end he wanted to be fed."

Livestock songs tell good stories in countless verses and most often end in death, frequently suicide or, if it's a really good song like "Delaney's Donkey" -- mass suicide. They are sung cheerfully by adults and children alike at gatherings of all sorts.

Then there are the songs of war and rebellion. Having been born in the North into an Irish Protestant family, I learned Ulster Loyalist songs like "The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne" and "Dolly's Brae" that tell of ancient battles led by William of Orange, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. I've heard plenty of songs of rebellion too like "The Rising of the Moon" (also known as "The Wearing of the Green"). Rebellion songs were made mid-century modern by folk groups like the Clancy Brothers. Most of these songs are spit out in unresolved anger and have been passed down for generations by fathers and sons.

The Clancy Brothers also had a hand in modernizing old Irish drinking songs, of which there are plenty, each telling a story of love and longing -- for whiskey and beer that is, with the occasional and often unflatteringly portrayed woman thrown in for good measure.

These songs taught me something about myself and laid the foundation for what I believe to be true about the Irish in general: We are a simple people who like animals, hold grudges, and appreciate a drink and a good song or story to go along with it.

What is most interesting to me are the distinct differences between Irish music in Ireland and Irish music in America. To me, Irish American singers and musicians peculiarly out-Irish the Irish by assigning deep meaning to simple phrases and overt sentimentality to straight forward story songs, or as my Dad would say, they make our music sound "awful mournful-like." In Ireland, these songs are sung for fun, to amuse and involve people or to express anger at a history riddled with conflict. I know that there are millions of first, second and third generation Irish Americans in the U.S., many of whom are involved in cultural expression either as performers, participants, or enthusiastic observers. I am also aware that among Irish Americans is a shared understanding of the Irish experience that is completely foreign to me. For years, I shied away from any American expression of Irish-ness--music, plays, novels. Irish American work made me uncomfortable and I felt awkward both consuming and discussing it. Then I discovered an American band that, for me, truly exemplifies the spirit of Irish music: Craic Haus.

Craic Haus is an Irish/Hillbilly band from the Inland Empire led by songwriter, singer, drummer and guitarist Danny Oberbeck. This group is all about straightforward storytelling through song, coupled with extraordinary musicianship, an unwavering awareness of and involvement with its audience, and uncanny ability to re-create the real-deal experience of an Irish Pub no matter what the venue. Danny is the creator of the band that includes his son guitarist Dylan Blue who was recently made an Eastman artist, and Julian Johnson (from the band Jonny Come Lately) who plays a uber-mean KING double bass. Together they have developed Craic Haus' signature sound: Shamrockabilly.

Here's a Craic Haus story-song that, although there's no livestock involved, follows a traditional Irish story format. It's called "McGinty's Faux Pas" and is from a new album, Siren of the Sea, scheduled for release late this summer.

A couple of weeks ago, Danny and I met up at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood to discuss all things Irish-ish (Danny's word). He started by telling me how his love of Irish music started in the City of Orange where he was raised and spent time listening to the Clancy Brothers. In the early eighties, at only fourteen, Danny started a punk band called Lost Cause. Three months after the band came together they played their first show at The Cuckoo's Nest where they were well received and the club's manager asked them to return the following weekend to open for TSOL. The band's popularity grew fast and they were booked every other Saturday at the Cuckoo's Nest playing with groups like FEAR, The Circle Jerks, and Agent Orange. Lost Cause also got substantial air time on KROQ. Danny was the songwriter for the group and thought that Irish songs of rebellion would make for great punk material but was unable to convince his fellow band members. Rebellion songs were the songs that subsequently provided fodder for Irish punk bands like The Pogues and Flogging Molly.

Danny Oberbeck | Photo: Beth Melendez.
Danny Oberbeck | Photo: Beth Melendez.

Lost Cause began recording in the summer of 1981 and released a four song 7" record on red vinyl along with six songs on 8-track. In 1982, after a tour of San Francisco with Social Distortion, Lost Cause recorded their second album Forgotten Corners. The group quickly caught the attention of a record company called Rockshire, a subsidiary of MCA at the time. Rockshire signed two groups for the biggest distribution deal ever made with independent bands at the time-- the bands were Lost Cause and Metallica. A Lost Cause album would be released followed, in two weeks, with the release of a Metallica album. In the ensuing weeks between contract signing and record release, the principals at Rockshire were indicted for embezzlement, ending a big deal for both Lost Cause and Metallica. Sounds to me like there's an Irish song in that story somewhere.

Danny told me that with his first Lost Cause royalty check of $45, he bought a banjo - perhaps the beginning of his first Irish band? Lost Cause eventually disbanded but Danny went on to have a number of Irish bands including folk group Evans & Oberbeck with Kelly Evans, a traditional Irish band called Paddy Doyle's Boots, and Dublin Up--a traditional band consisting of Danny and Dylan. Craic Haus and Craic Haus Traditional play pubs and clubs throughout the Inland Empire, Los Angeles City and County, and San Diego County, and have toured nationally.

It's the love of music, stories and people that allows Danny to create unique Irish experiences for his audience. Not to overlook his artistic ability and versatility. He is a prolific song writer who does a fair bit of composing by whistling tunes while stuck on southern California freeways. Whistling is his preferred method of composition. I asked him how many songs he'd written --all together. He looked stymied. So I asked, "Have you written like 1,000?" First he laughed then he thought for a moment and said, "Well maybe. But most of them are in boxes somewhere." He also plays multiple instruments, anything stringed, drums, harmonica, penny whistle-- sometimes all at the same time, or so it seems.

Another rare (and I like to think Irish) quality of Danny's is that he likes to collaborate with other artists. Here's the title song from "Siren of the Sea," with Devil Doll.

It was a good lunch and a good conversation. I learned a lot about Danny and a lot about Irish music too. It turns out that America's most iconic Irish song isn't even Irish. It was written by an English lawyer and lyricist named Frederic Weatherly. In 1910, Weatherly published what was then an unpopular ballad called "Danny Boy." It wasn't until his sister-in-law in the United States sent him a tune called "Londonderry Air" that his lyrics found their permanent home. In 1913, Weatherly re-published "Danny Boy," set to "Londonderry Air," and it was a hit --in America. Neither Weatherly nor his sister-in-law ever set foot in Ireland.

Here's another one for you. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was written by New Yorkers Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr. in 1913 for a short lived Broadway called Isle of Dreams. Go figure.


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