Clean Cabbage in the Bucket
and Other Tales from the Irish Music Trenches
Clean Cabbage
in the Bucket
414 pages with photos

By Frank Emerson, Seamus Kennedy, Robbie O'Connell, Harry O'Donoghue, Dennis O'Rourke

Edited by Dennis O'Rourke


One afternoon, in the summer of 2001, I was rolling across Florida's Alligator Alley to a gig in Fort Myers, daydreaming of nights, days, and seasons gone by-and where I might be if I hadn't picked the life of a road musician. I was in the twenty-fifth year of my career, and things were getting bleak. Irish pubs were springing up everywhere, it seemed, but they were relying less on live entertainment. Some of the best clubs had closed; others were struggling, staying afloat by cutting back on expenses, which usually meant paring down the entertainment. Irish pubs were never that lucrative, but I could make a living, and it was fun-great fun. Now it was a struggle to get by, and it was growing tougher to get an audience to pay any attention. Twenty-five years, I thought. How did I get here?


I learned to play the guitar because I loved music, I wanted to meet girls, and I couldn't dance. Someday, I was going to write songs and a few good novels. There would be no nine-to-five job for me. That determination was burned into my heart when I was fifteen and working a summer job that I would hold through my last two years in high school and my first year of college.

I worked in a factory-a sweatshop-that produced phonebook covers out of vinyl. My task was to sit at a table at the back of a machine that pulled in a roll of vinyl, silk-screened it with ad copy, and then perforated an outer ridge with a heat sealer. Hour after hour, I sat there, “pulling covers,” watching for the odd glitch, smudge, or off-center stamp in ads for clothing stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, and sub shops. Sales representatives had convinced retailers to pay to have their logos, addresses, and phone numbers inked on hundreds, sometimes thousands of covers tailored to fit their local phone directories. They were mailed for free to residents of small, wooded, country burgs in Pennsylvania or Maryland, farm towns in Iowa, or perhaps a dying manufacturing hamlet in New England, where “Sal's Little Sicily Pizzeria” gave the local teenagers a sanctuary in which to hang out long after dark on school nights; a place to come in out of a steel-cold rain on an unforgiving, melancholy, Saturday afternoon in November. That's how I saw it in my head when I read the ads.


In 1964, I was a high school kid playing in a folk-duo with Rob Morelli. We called ourselves the Wandering Brothers. Then we formed a rock and roll band. By the time I discovered the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, I was already deep into Irish history. In college, I was devoted to James Joyce. Ulysses was my bible. It naturally followed that I would buy every record the Clancys and Makem put out and learn the songs. In the beginning, I tried to sing like Makem.

My decision not to be trapped in an ordinary day job, or an ordinary life, for that matter, took me to sea for a couple of years. I sailed in the Merchant Marine-on oil tankers and freighters-a couple of them to the Far East. By the early seventies, the Irish folk boom was in full swing in America, and I wanted to play that music on stage. I felt my time at sea had given me the right, the integrity, to sing chanteys and sea-songs, even though the music aboard an oil tanker usually came from a sailor's tape player, and more often than not was George Jones or Johnny Cash. Performing Irish material was another matter. Most of the pub entertainers in America then were Irish-born. Since it had always been my desire to live in Ireland, I decided now was the time. It would go a long way to legitimizing my ambitions. In 1974, I set up shop in Dublin for eighteen months, acquiring dual citizenship. I played wherever I could and satisfied my writer's urge by reviewing books in the Hibernian Fortnightly, a publication of the Irish Times. (I began a novel that stumbled forward for a few hundred pages and then ground to a halt. The second was a fantasy/occult tale that I did finish, though it has never seen the light of day.)

I returned to the States. A week before St. Patrick's Day in '76, I got a call from a friend who knew an agent looking for acts to work on the big day. The agent's name was Billy Carson, an entertainer himself. He was a stocky Scotsman from Glasgow with a happy demeanor and a soaring voice. He had a gig for me at a restaurant. I was to walk around the tables, strumming, and singing. This was not what I had been expecting, but I couldn't turn it down. I felt silly, the diners studiously averted their eyes, and I swore I would never again do one of these strolling minstrel bits.

“Don't look at him, Millie. He'll come this way.”

After an hour of this, a manager asked if I would come into the bar and play, and I quickly agreed. A nice little group gathered 'round, and I had such a good time I played two hours longer than scheduled. At the end of the night, I was elated; I was also hooked-very hooked.

Billy Carson was my agent for a while. I worked as an EKG technician in a hospital and did the gigs on the weekends. Then he offered me an entire month at a club in Chicago. There it was. I was a working road musician, at last. I went to part-time at the hospital and finally quit.

After a year, I had established myself. I had safely skirted the deadly maw of a regular day job, and I was doing something I loved. I was on my own, and to a certain extent, was my own boss. The years roared by 'til I found myself on Alligator Alley, wondering where the time had gone and what I was going to do next. Where was the road taking me now?

I made a stab at a novel based on my experiences as an Irish pub singer, but after a hundred pages, I realized I was writing nothing more than a series of anecdotes. This led me to consider a non-fiction work, but there was a problem there, too. While I had some interesting stories, there was not quite enough to justify a book. The solution to this came quickly.



For four years, between gigs, tours, and personal travails, we followed a literary road and wrote these stories. (I spent a year in the Caribbean entertaining on cruise ships; in Cozumel or St. Martin, I went to Internet cafes and downloaded their new material.) My collaborators approached the project with enthusiasm. Stories are told in the third person, in dialogue, in play form and a few nice takes on Damon Runyon. I interviewed each of them and dropped the best bits into the text under the heading “Stray Chats.” The stories are grouped according to subject matter or other commonalities.


How do things stand now? Where am I, five years after that epiphany on Alligator Alley? Well, the music business, all facets of it, is just as tough as ever. It's a scramble for gigs, but I'm still at it. I ruminated for a time on what other work I might take on to carry me through the rest of the sojourn, but never too seriously. I perform where I can, and I write songs. I have a book I can look to-no small accomplishment-put together with four good friends, and I'm proud of it. We all are. We're still out there, on the road, in the musical trenches. Look for us.

Dennis O'Rourke
October 2006

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