Long before he was praised as "Ireland's Woody Guthrie" and "the Noam Chomsky of Irish balladry," a 15-year-old Andy Irvine tried reaching out to a newly discovered musical hero. "I sent a letter to "Woody Guthrie, USA,' and it came back marked "insufficiently addressed,'" recalls the folk veteran, whose work with bands like Sweeney's Men, Planxty and Patrick Street has left an indelible mark on Irish music.
Undaunted, Irvine got the address from Guthrie's friend, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, after a London performance and began a correspondence that nearly resulted in him moving to East Orange, N.J., to stay with the ailing folk legend.
"My life might have been a totally different story," says Irvine, whose pilgrimage was derailed by a last-minute BBC acting opportunity that ended up lasting two years.
Nevertheless, Irvine was bound for a glory of his own. By 1966, he was recording with Sweeney's Men, the first group to introduce the bouzouki to Irish music. Two years later, he traveled to Bulgaria and began a love affair with Balkan music that has resulted in collaborations with Marta Sebestyen and Irvine's ongoing world music group Mozaic. And in 1972, he founded Planxty with singer Christy Moore, whose popularity in Ireland was so great that a song by Black 47 has the audience baiting the group, "'D'yez not know nothin' by Christy Moore? / The next thing you'll be wantin' is "Danny Boy.'"
"It's a very interesting discovery to find that you have become an elder statesman," says Irvine, who's a big fan of Black 47's Larry Kirwan. Indeed, both songwriters have penned odes to Irish martyr James Connolly, and both are continuing a tradition of rebel music that's at least as important to Irish culture as its drinking songs. Irvine is even a card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies), though he suspects it's more for the union's historical significance than its current accomplishments.
"It's very hard to see that there have been any social improvements during my entire lifetime, and now we seem to be on a bit of a global downturn," says Irvine. "People should probably admit that capitalism doesn't work, but they're not going to because it's all they know."
Four decades after Sweeney's Men, Irvine continues to champion the bouzouki, though it's a custom guitar-shaped version that leads many reviewers to compliment his guitar wizardry. He also still sings his ode to Woody Guthrie, "Never Tire of the Road," which these days could just as easily apply to him.
For Irvine, Guthrie will never be surpassed. Asked his opinion of Billy Bragg and Wilco's recordings that set Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to new music, Irvine says he's friends with Bragg and was invited but unable to participate in the project.
"I've never really listened to it, because I didn't want to have a reason to answer that question," he says. "I have a nasty feeling that I probably wouldn't have liked it, and I didn't want to find that was true."