Honored April 2, 2011
Don Meade was born in 1954 to Don and Gladys Meade, Irish-Americans from the Boston area. He grew up in southern California, where his earliest exposure to Irish music came from listening to his mother sing songs like “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder” or “My Wild Irish Rose” while she washed the dishes. He was introduced to a different sort of Irish sound through his father’s collection of recordings by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Though his first instrument was the trumpet, he also acquired a harmonica in 1965 and used it to play the melodies he’d learned from the Clancy & Makem LP’s.
Don also took up the guitar in the mid-60’s and for a few years Irish music took a back seat to Bob Dylan and Neil Young, as well as Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. But he couldn’t resist the lure of Irish melodies and began trying to pick out reels and hornpipes on the guitar and, later, the mandolin, an instrument much better adapted to playing Irish dance tunes.
After graduating from UCLA in 1976, Don moved to New York City and eventually found his way to the weekly sessions and concerts at the former Eagle Tavern on 14thStreet, where he was particularly impressed by Longford fiddle great Paddy Reynolds and Donegal melodeon player Tom Doherty. In 1982, the noise level in the Eagle’s back room drove him to get a tenor banjo, if only to be able to hear what he was playing. And despite sage advice from music teacher Maureen Glynn that he stick to one instrument, he also took up the fiddle and started making pilgrimages to Staten Island, where Paddy Reynolds graciously taught him tunes and played tapes of Lad O’Beirne and other great fiddlers of the 1950’s and 60’s.
Don joined Comhaltas in the early 80’s and was a frequent participant in branch sessions at the Michael Coleman Club in the Bronx (where he briefly served as vice-chairman to Brian Conway), the Mulligan-Quinn branch in Long Island and the Martin Mulvihill branch in New Jersey.
He never stopped playing the harmonica, but recordings by Cavan-born virtuoso Eddie Clarke opened his ears to the greater possibilities of the chromatic instrument, which has similarities to the two-row button accordion. Playing on a chromatic harmonica, Don won the All-Ireland mouth organ championship in 1987 at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Listowel. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mouth organ competition has since been restricted to diatonic players!
After founding Eagle Tavern concert producer Dan Milner stepped down, and his successor Mike McQuaid left town in 1986, Don took over running the weekly shows together with County Meath native Trudie Callaghan. And when Trudie too departed, he kept the shows going until the Eagle closed at the end of 1993, after which the concert series moved on to a ten-year run at Tony Brady’s Blarney Star bar on Murray Street. When the Blarney Star was sold, the concerts moved again (though now on a monthly schedule), first to the Washington Square United Methodist Church and then, after the church was sold, to Glucksman Ireland House on the New York University campus, where they continue to this day. Don Meade’s moving musical feast has now been presenting the finest Irish and Irish-American traditional musicians to New York audiences for over 25 years.
Don served as the Artistic Director for the first six years of the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York, and remains on the teaching staff of that annual extravaganza of classes, concerts, dances and sessions. He was a traditional music columnist for ten years for the Irish Voice newspaper and has contributed articles on Irish music toCurrent Musicology, New Hibernia Review, New York Irish History and Fintan Vallely’s The Companion to Irish Traditional Music.
Don continues to play regularly at concerts, dances and sessions throughout the New York area. He currently leads a weekly session at the Landmark Tavern on Manhattan’s west side and is a member of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra directed by NYU Professor Mick Moloney, a group that recently released the CD Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley.