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Susan Nicholson Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with Susan Nicholson, January 24, 2019

Fiddler Susan Nicholson has been active in the Milwaukee Irish music since the 1990s. In this interview as part of the Midwest Irish Music Oral History Project, she discusses her life and career playing Irish music in the Milwaukee community, ranging from her early life, the forming of the Glenghillies, and her current project Frogwater.

Susan Nicholson Interview Transcript


Interviewed by Daniel McCollum

January 24, 2019

Ward Irish Music Archives, Milwaukee, WI


McCollum: Just to introduce myself, my name is Dan McCollum and I will be asking the questions for this interview. And the purpose of this interview, it belongs to the Midwest Irish Music Oral History Project. Whose goal is to collect the music and stories of musical artists in Milwaukee and the larger Midwestern region, so that they may be shared with future generations and their influence can be truly appreciated and understood. So, beginning, do you want to introduce yourself behind the camera?


Ksiazek: I’m Jeff Ksiazek, Archivist for the Ward Irish Music Archive and the videographer.


McCollum: Alright. So, I guess we should begin with, can you just state your name for the camera.


Nicholson: Susan Marie Nicholson.


McCollum: Okay. And I guess for the first question, what is your personal history? You know, where did you grow up? Could you kind of describe your family life and everything?


Nicholson: Well, I was born at Children’s Hospital, Milwaukee Wisconsin and lived on the Southside of Milwaukee for the first two years of my life. My Father was an employee of the US Forest Service and took a job in the Upper Peninsula when I was two. And so we moved to Ironwood, Michigan when I was two ‘til I was five. My Father passed away early, at 27, of complications from diabetes. Kidney failure. He was an artist for the Forest Service. He did cartoons and maps and was very influential, to me. He played guitar, was self taught, loved the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, anything folky, and just wonderful fun for me. We loved the outdoors, animals, stuff like that. And when he passed, my Mom felt very isolated and moved back to the city to be closer to family. And we moved into an upper flat on Southshore Drive in Bay View. It’s called Bay View now.  And she wanted me to get into music, and she really wanted me to play piano or cello, but as it was an upper flat, anything large was out of the question. And my Grandfather, her Dad, Hal Callan, bought me my first violin at a rummage sale, for 25 bucks. But I was really tiny, so it was a ¾ size, so it was huge. I started lessons with a Sister of St. Francis at Sacred Heart of Jesus School, named Sr. Mirial Hurtell, and she rented me a ¼ size violin. I had an itty-bitty teeny. And then she started me with classical training and souzouki, which is a lot of, you know, working with the ear and that. And I loved it. I really loved playing. And she would ask me, “are you reading the music?” “Yeah, I’m reading the music, sister.” She’d take the music away and it's a lot of ear training. So, that was there.


I continued playing throughout High School, Classical music, with Music for Youth, which is now MISO in Milwaukee. And I had another teacher, Sr. Helen Svancarek and I went to St. Mary’s Academy, I went to their string ensemble, you know, that. And then after High School, you know, playing the violin wasn’t so cool. So I stopped and really pursued my love of travel. I lived in London for a while, I traveled in the UK and in Europe a little bit, and came back and started up at the University of Wisconsin, taking classes. And I worked at an art gallery there, downtown, called Double Gallery and befriended a coworker there named Jan Earnest. And we both had a lot of similarities. Her father was an artist, mine was. She had an alaskan malamute, I had two alaskan malamutes, and it turns out our dogs were from the same breeder, which was really cool. She played violin and then I was asked to play for a friend from high school’s wedding. My friend Sandy. And she wanted the Canon in D, and for one violin it’s kinda lame, so I said to Jan, I asked her, “would you do this wedding with me, cuz I don’t want to play by myself. And I haven’t played in years.” So I had just moved into my first apartment with being back home, we had no furniture, so we taped the score to the wall. I read it that way. And so began our friendship. And she invited me to her birthday party the following March, so this was probably 1988, 89, a long time ago. And she said, “Bring your fiddle, we’ll be doing some sight reading and playing Irish tunes.” I was like, “ooh.” Immediately, sight reading, you know that fear of Classical reading? It’s not the same. And I went and was really hooked. It was wonderful. The people who played Scottish music, Irish music, were so exuberant and really into their heritage. And some people even weren’t of Irish and Scottish descent and they still loved it, the music. So, that’s kind of how the seed of Irish music was planted in my life.


McCollum: Nice!  We actually took care of the second question, which is what do you do and do you begin. So I guess we’ll just move on. Um. So what was your first memory of Irish music? Was it playing at that one show, or were you exposed to it at an earlier age?


Nicholson: Well, I did ask, when I was a kid, I asked Sr. Muriel about Irish music, not specifically, but more, you know, Folk, kind of a general, cuz I’d heard Bluegrass. Everybody plays really fast and it’s really cool, and it looks like fun. Everybody wants to play fast. Even now. Students, you know, they wanna, they invision, fun. So she got me a book, I can’t even remember the title Fiddle, Fiddle Music for Violinists. And I actually dragged it out recently, it’s been really really helpful for dances. Finding some of these old chestnuts, a lot of them are in there. But, I think the one that I’d got was The Devil’s Dream and I played that, and I loved that. And that was like my first, I mean, when I was a kid, playing this music, was my first foray into Irish. And, yeah. And then, kind of a gap, and then when I met Jan, and I was invited to play with the Glengillies. And we played gigs, you know, so that was kind of it. Yeah.


McCollum: Okay, so this kind of goes in again, so how did you, can you talk about, a little bit about your first forays into really playing Irish music as part of the gigs and stuff? Was, what was that like for you? Sharp learning curve? Did it come naturally?


Nicholson: It felt, I don’t know, it just felt kinda natural. It felt, I don’t want to say a calling, that’s sounds very lofty, that’s not it at all. Just, fun. And you understood why this music was/is so important. This is part of our, our bloodlines. And some of the people who are drawn to it are German and Polish, and it's just this, this, vibrant, wonderful, music. And I think we’re, you know, we’re the vessels that continue to carry it, and obviously it's going to change a little bit. I think, I think that’s part of the folk process. I’m not a purist. I can’t and I don’t, when I’m teaching, and working with people, this is the way it goes. I think there are people who are far more into studying various styles, regions, stuff like that. It's like a linguist, I think, when you focus on certain things. I tend to me more broad about my approach to it. Just the I don’t know, the nature of the music, the love of stuff that is so vivacious, so infectious. And it’s connection to, to dance and culture, because there is a huge connection there. So that’s kind of more what I’m into. I do have to say, one of my first experiences with the Glengillies that really made an impact on me was going to my first house concert at the Wooford’s house on Prospect. That blew my mind. I got to see Alasdair Fraser, right there in their living room. And I, it’s funny, through the years, I realized that our dear friend Patricia Lynch who’s become our dance caller and a partner of our Frogwater family, you know she’s awesome, she was at that same house concert! And I didn’t even know her. I think Maria Terres was there, and just this guy who was, I think he was classical trained, but he’s really into the Scottish tradition, really hit home with that. That was huge.


McCollum: Do you remember his name by chance?


Nicholson: Alasdair Fraser.


McCollum: Oh. Alasdair Fraser.


Nicholson: Mm-hmm.


McCollum: Okay.


Nicholson: And he’s still out there, working. He has a school on the West Coast and works with Natalie Haas and he’s charming and wonderful as ever. He’s great. So.


McCollum: Nice. So you said your first band was the Glengillies, correct?


Nicholson: Mm-hmm.


McCollum: So, what was your can you kind of explain, kind of describe what your time with them was like? How long were you guys together?


Nicholson: Oh gosh. Well, ‘89, Spring of ‘89 was when I went to the party for Jan’s birthday, March 16, she was born the day before St. Patrick’s Day so you never forget that. And I played with them through many incarnations. We gained members, lost members, I mean, we had so many amazing cast members, if you will. Phil Rubenzer played with us, Gene Schwartsgiegel, ba da da da da da, Steve Wurser, oh my gosh, what an amazing musician. Timothy Schmitz was one of the founding members. Jan, I joined them after. And then we also had Angus Fallon-MacGregor. That was his stage name. Michael Spratlan. He was from Illinois and he could play so many instruments. He played harp with us, he played tin whistle, he was an arranger, fabulous musician and quite a character. We recorded one album with him, called Plaid Attitude which he recorded at Joe’s studio on the East Side of Milwaukee. Victor DeLorenzo’s studio. And I wish he would have done more, but we lost Angus early on. He had passed of complications from HIV. And just a devastating blow to us and to the community. And actually, through him, I digress, a memorable experience here in the community, we had friends at the Pabst Theatre. Ah, they were friends with Phil Prockter who was the manager there and he called us, and said that the Chieftains were fogged in in Memphis. Would we be able to stall and be their opener? I mean, the Chieftains don’t need an opener. They don’t need that at all. And we said, “Yes! We’re out the door!” I mean, this is back in the day when we wore kilts, little costumes, and Angus got a call just as he was dashing out the door, they said, “Don’t worry, they just landed at Mitchell, we’re fine.” He says, “We’re on our way.” So, we got there and the Chieftains were, as ever, gracious and wonderful and they said, “would you care to play our encore with us.” And thus began a friendship with them. They played Irish Fest and we played with them there, and we played the Pabst a couple times with them. And that was setting the bar really high, you know? They were amazing. And, we had met Derek Bell the first time and he said his hellos to us, you know, at the end. We’re all hanging out and having fun. He went to his dressing room and, of course, he had a score spread out and some whiskey set aside. And he was writing stuff forever. But he was going to premier, I guess, a harp piece and he wanted to premier it in Milwaukee with Angus as the featured soloist, but we lost him before it could happen. So, just an amazing brush with greatness and wonderful people. So.


Ksiazek: Do you remember what year that Chieftains concert was?


Nicholson: I want to say early ‘90s, probably ‘91, ‘92? I have pictures and I have stuff written on the back, and I forget. I don’t hang on to dates. It’s terrible, I’m bad that way.


McCollum: I’m a historian, I know the feeling.


Nicholson: Yeah, so. That was fun.


McCollum: Nice! So, bum bum bum bum bum. So, when you were with the Glengillies and also with, Frogwater, we’ll get to that in a little bit. Where did you normally play? Did you have a home venue, or just a handful that you’d go to, and what were they like?


Nicholson: I think the big one for us was Nash’s Irish Castle. That was homebase and we, you know, handmade out posters, you know, hand drew them up, went to some copyshop, had them copied, you know, charge a nominal cover. I don’t think the bars really liked us back then, because a lot of people drank water or soda. We didn’t really make a lot for the bars. That changed over the years. People would come for the fish fries and they’d order pints, you know, change. But, Kit and Josie Nash were, they were like the Mom and Pop joint of the Irish community. Everybody was welcome there. It was just fabulous. And they would have session nights, they would have dance nights, they would have, you know, set and ceili. And you could show up for sessions and, I mean I would go there once in a bluemoon, not too often. Various members of the band would go there with regularity. But it was always a hub of learning, of fun, and sharing and merriment. So, a very welcoming atmosphere. It was great.


McCollum: Do you remember when those sessions began, by any chance?


Nicholson: I don’t! They existed before I was on the scene. And there was always stuff going on there. I’m trying to think, later on there was the Black Shamrock on Murray, and the Gillies played there. We’d shortened our name to the Gillies by then. And we played there for two years solid, every Thursday. And that was, times were crazier then and drinking was much more established. But it was fun. We’d have guests come up and, it was a great time.


McCollum: What were some of the other bands that you kind of rubbed shoulders with? Either at Nash’s or at the Black Shamrock?


Nicholson: Well …


McCollum: Who were some of your guests?


Nicholson: I think 180 and the Letter G was underway.  Was Brigit’s Fire? I can’t remember. Later on, no Cé, I don’t think Cé was started yet. They weren’t, I’m trying to think, I’m trying to think. Darnit all. Because we’d go out and see people once in a while. I mean, I can remember the musicians more than I can remember the bands. You know, John Ceszynski was around, Brett Lipshutz, Danny Beimborn. Gosh, I mean, just, and who we played with, you know, would come and go. We’d support each other and stuff. Maria was around, Ed, oh gosh, Ed Paloucek, oh, amazing. I’m just terrible at holding on to stuff, so it’s good that you put it down, what I got left remaining. You know. So, yeah.


McCollum: Nice. So, any particular stories about shows that you’ve played there that really jump to mind?


Nicholson: Well, I remember one, a show at Nash’s when my family came out and the place was packed, it was hopping. And my parents brought my little brothers, my brothers are much younger than I am. My Mother had remarried so I have my stepfather who adopted me into the mix. So I have brothers who are 13 and 15 years younger than me, and we’ve always been really close. And they’d come out to the Pub to see us, and my Dad, you know, bumped into our friend Joe Bradish and they went to Marquette High School together, so it was kind of an “oh!” it was kind of this family reunion, really fun. And into the mix this comes this bunch of lads who were looking to start trouble. To brawl and, you know, and they started being rather loud and rambunctious and kind of yelling racist epithats and my Dad, always being the peacemaker, kinda went down - and, ugh, the one guy was wearing a shirt that said “KKK Wants You” - and you could just tell that everyone was bristling, prickling. Josie was kinda, you know, handwringing, you know, it was weird. And my Dad went over to this one guy and talked, kinda talked him down. He was like, “Buddy, we got kids here. We’re just here having a good time with our families and friends.” And he was able, in my Dad’s amazing way, to talk him out of this, you know, brawling mode. And they had discovered they had a commonality in their family lineage. So there was, you know, some Irish in there, and they had a common name, a last name and so, my Dad within no time, was like backslapping and, and a short time this gang of guys left the pub. They kinda tumbled back out into the cold. And the whole place erupted in clapping and laughing and, and, and, there was with palpable exhalation oh, “oh my god!” You know? But I was always proud of my Dad for he did. 


McCollum: What’s his name?


Nicholson: Richard Dermoty. And that was part of my maiden name, I had a hyphenated last name. So I was Jesky from my biological Dad and Dermoty from my adoptive father. So, cumbersome, maiden name, which I’ve dropped in favor of Nicholson, because I didn’t want double hyphens. So, yeah. But it’s okay.


McCollum: Too many syllables.


Nicholson: Yeah.


McCollum: So this kind of actually does play back to what we were talking about before, but, what was the Irish music scene line? Has it changed over the years, and how? If it has?


Nicholson: Boy. I think the Irish music scene has, has seen its share of ebbing and flowing. I think in the late ‘90s, early 2000s there was this huge wave, I mean, when the Chieftains came to Irish Fest. Oh my gosh, it was humongous, you know? And I kinda, when I kinda joined in was learning, it was growing in popularity. And, I mean, we saw the likes of, you know, Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, all that stuff was, you know, huge. And, and, very theatrical. But, I don’t think the love of Irish music and culture has faded. Those people who are aware of what goes on, you know, and have been to Ireland ideally, are still very fervent and passionate about what’s out there. And I do still think it draws people in. Like I’ve said, people who aren’t, you know, but a hair’s breadth of Irish are still drawn to it. I don’t think it’s as monstrous as it was during that period, but I do think that everything does see, you know, waves in popularity. I still think it’s healthy. And I think what is done here at the CelticMKE Center continues to uphold the love and, you know, Irish culture, you know? Celtic culture. Which I think is great.


McCollum: Nice. So, you know, a lot of the stories we’ve been sharing have been when you were with the Glengillies, later just the Gillies. So, how did Frogwater come about?


Nicholson: Well, the Gillies had, a, been able to have an audience that was of, you know, multiple generations. We had young kids, we had old folks, we had everybody in between. We had punk rockers, we had solid Irish enthusiasts. We have a real wide range, cast of characters, because we did, we didn’t play just Irish. We played anything that appealed to us. Bluegrass genre, Blues, Old Tyme, stuff like that. And then jan with her Middle Eastern kind of stuff would kind of throw that into the mix. But the Gillies kind of ran their course, I wish we could have continued longer. Jan and Timothy weren’t getting along. You know, when you have a married couple in your midst. Just ask Fleetwood Mac. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. We tried to, you know, bridge that gap and maintain but it was difficult. And I kinda was kind of was a little tired in my own, wherever I was. John, now he calls himself Jack, that’s fine. Half the world knows him as John, half the world knows him as Jack, and he’s fine with both. He can’t stop playing. He loves music, he’s passionate about music. I mean, when he goes to relax he plays music. He’s like, hey, let’s keep this going. And I’m like, “Okay.” I was ready to throw in the towel, sincerely. And so, we started playing a few gigs together. And then he suggested we play with our friend Lil’ Rev, and I was friends with Tom Schwark, playing mandolin and we were, you know, doing stuff with that and Reed Buzzards and the Western Box Turtles. So we played a foursome on and off, but we always had me and John, whether Rev was there or Tom was there. Then we started playing at the Dubliner on 2nd Street and that was an amazing scene. I think Free Whiskey was around, Barry Dodd was around, and the Gillies played there a little bit. But we had our final show, I think it was December 7th, 1997, at Nash’s. And I think it was fitting to kind of end where we began. And then John and I started playing with Frogwater and then the rest tumbled from there. Now we’re a two-piece, but we play with others. I mean, when Craig Scotland’s in town, from Texas, he’s the third member, sincerely. Ugh, if he lived closer we would have him all the time. But we play with all kinds of people. We play with Sheila Larkin when we can, we’ve recorded with her. Our friend John Richey who lives in Michigan, when he comes back, he’ll play with us and record with us. So, it’s a changing cast of characters, but always me and John for sure.


McCollum: How’d the name come about?


Nicholson: Oh, it’s so boring. It’s really boring. But I’ll keep it really short. I worked for a short time at a place called the Puzzlebox in the Grand Avenue, it was a toy store that appealed to both the young and old. So, that Christmas was great for my little brothers, we had all kinds of great toys. But I bought myself something. I bought myself this little box that was called “Grow a Frog” and you would send away your postcard and they’d send you a tadpole. And they said, “Please, whatever you do, if you live in a colder part of the country, don’t do this in the winter, because you’re likely to have your tadpole frozen in the mailbox when you return.” And so I got my tadpole and put him in this little box and it seemed cruel and inhumane, so I had to get him a tank, bigger. And it became apparent to me that this was not a North American frog. It was an African Clawed Frog, and they’re actually illegal in parts of the South because if you let them go, they proliferate and knock out he native species. So then you have to get it a filter, because their water gets stinky, but you can’t put in tap water because it has fluoride and chlorine. So then you have to go to the pet store and buy this chemical that takes out the junk. So I had made these jugs and labeled it “frog water” so nobody would dump it out in my flat. It sat there. So Jack, John, came over one day, we were gonna practice for Frogwater before we were Frogwater. And he said, “Oh, can I go see your frogs,” cuz I had to get another frog to keep my first frog company. And he’s like, “Aw, look man, it’s frog water” with his Okie, California accent, cuz you know how John talks. I’m like, “That’s hilarious, man! Frogwater. I love that. We should call ourselves Frogwater!” So I suggested that to the band and they said, “That’s lame!” “That’s a really dumb name.” And I said, “Fine! You come up with a better name,” you know. But they didn’t, and it stuck, and here we are. That’s that. So there was another Frogwater band in Florida, and they sent us a Cease and Desist email, but I looked back and we had been around longer than then. So I said, “I think you need to do that.” So, oh well, it’s okay.


McCollum: And what happened to them?


Nicholson: I don’t think they’re around anymore. But we actually, their website was really awesome. They were kind of this, this stoner band from Florida. They were this Rock band and their website was like the Hooka Smoking Caterpillar from, you know, Alice in Wonderland and stuff like that. And real psychedelic. And I was like, “Gosh, can you imagine if someone looks up their website and gets our, you know, gets them mixed up with us?’ I don’t know if we want Frogwater for our wedding, or whatever, you know? But.


McCollum: So, and this is something that you’ve kind of touched on, or, well, yeah this is something you’ve touched on already a little bit. But who are some of the other people that you’ve collaborated with over the years?


Nicholson: Oh my gosh, that’s so many. Every once in a while I get asked to play on recordings for local musicians and it doesn’t matter if it was, you know, Rock or Blues or that. I mean, I recorded with Melanie Jane on cello when she started playing cello again for Victor DeLorenzo from the Violent Femmes and he and Connie Grauer were in a project called Pancake Day, and this was after the Femmes, so it was really fun working with them. So we did a piece for them. I worked with Alex Ballard and Sugarfoot. I played in a band with Martin Jack Rosenblum aka The Holy Ranger. So we were kind of a Harley Davidson Biker Band for a number of years. I played with the Woolridge Brother who I always loved, they were wonderful. Who else? I play now with a band called Panalure. Not very often, I wish it was more often, but it’s more Alt Americana, Rock, original stuff. Probably can think of more later, but there’ve been a diverse cast of people. We just actually, John and I just recorded with Tom and Barb Webber, Fair Webber, kind of more Folk original stuff, singer-songwriter stuff. Our friend Jason Moon who is wonderful. We continue to collaborate with him and his recordings. He’s a veteran of the Iraq War and he has taken his struggles with PTSD out on the road to help other veterans, he founded a nonprofit called Warrior Songs that uses music and writing poetry, music, combining them to help veterans heal and work with their struggles. And we really ,really support that, we’re onboard with that 100%, so I don’t know. The future is bright and different interesting opportunities continue to present themselves, so.


McCollum: Nice. Now, obviously, what, obviously you said when you were with the Gillies you played mainly Irish music, but did other styles as well. What other  genres or just influences have you had besides just standard Irish music. 


Nicholson: Well, as a kid, I really enjoyed playing by ear,  if you could, you know, suss out, find, you know, certain instrumental parts, or just the melody, just the vocal line of the piece. Like, I love picking apart, you know, Beatles songs or playing along with them. And that was always fun. I was never one to practice, and I’m still not, I don’t like playing when other people are around. But it’s really fun playing along to recordings and trying to find out other harmony parts, you know, having listened to, grown up with the Beatles, the Everly Brothers and stuff like that. Harmonies kind of present themselves in fun ways, I wish I had more, I don’t know, I wish I thought more than thirds and fifths, stuff like that. But I think that’s kind of the traditional way of stacking it, you know? But working with kids nowadays. That’s another opportunity, because they’re really into that, with the ukulele and stuff like that. We started a ukulele club at the school where our kids go. I don’t know, I, I, welcome all kinds of other things. Jan would bring to the front,  Macedonian Goergian, as in from Russia, Georgia, Serbian stuff, cuz her father was involved in Folk Fair and all these really wonderful time signatures. It’s still really lost on me. I kinda, am a theory-phobe. I, I’m kinda, ugh, I run for it. I tend to play more for about feeling and then I’ll try to fit in that way, but when it comes to theory, I kinda run away, you know? Yeah. All kinds of styles. I don’t know if that answers it.


McCollum; Yeah, no, it does. So, you mentioned playing with kids, so can you explain a little bit about, what that is?


Nicholson: Well, recently, on December at our daughter’s behest, we started a ukulele club in their middle school, so this is 4th through 8th graders and we have anywhere from 12 to 16 kids every tuesday, when we can. This is kind of our community involvement. And we’re playing ,you know, the old chestnuts, like You Are My Sunshine, you know, Jubalaya, stuff like that. Two and three chord numbers. Just to get their fingers used to it. And they, of course, complain, most vociferously, “oh, my hands hurt, it hurts,” you know? I’ve worked with young kids, both with private lessons and then oh goodness, a handful of years ago. Probably the early 2000s. Marsha Gorapadick, she was teaching at Homestead High School and she had an event called Strings in Spring and she brought in Jerry Lochney and Randy Sabine and me, there might have been, I think, Kathy Pike was involved there. And we were teaching the kids varying techniques of fiddle and, you know, Jazz, Irish, Bluegrass, stuff like that. So I was working with four and five year olds and up through into High School. And the four and five year olds were really fun and then the Middle School kids were really fun and they were really little sponges, and then you start to get the High School kids where they’re smart and they’re accomplished and they know everything. You know? So then you’re like, “Okay, what am I gonna do?” So in that instance, that’s where “I, I, oh my god, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with these kids.” So I brought up cross tuning, because I remember when I first tiptoed into that, it kinda blew my little Classically trained mind. “It’s just E, A, D, G, that’s all there is. Standard!” So that, that got their attention, that was kinda fun. But a handful of these kids are still playing. One of my friends that I met there, Ben Kroger he’s still playing. He’s a Jazz wizz. He’s like in his 20s, which just blows my mind. So, some of these kids keep going, and whether or not it’s for pleasure, for your own happiness, or if you’re doing this, I don’t think you could go wrong, you know, playing what you love, if it’s Irish or whatever. And that’s what, you know, my Mom said, “I wanted you to have music in your life as something to fall back on for enjoyment. I never thought you’d be playing in bars for a living!’ So there we are.


McCollum: So, when you, you were saying We quite a bit, does your husband play as well?


Nicholson: Indeed.


McCollum: What does he play?


Nicholson: Everything with strings. He’s primarily guitar and banjo, but he taught himself fiddle. And people are always asking me, “Oh, you taught, you taught him” I have nothing to do with it. This is his own creation and he’s quite good. He’ll play ukulele, he’s written some books of instruction on that, and I mean, he’s wonderful, he’s my comfort zone, he’s my rock and a lot of fun to play with. So yeah.


McCollum: What’s his name?


Nicholson: John, Jack, Nicholson.


McCollum: Ah, yes.


Ksiazek: So did you and John meet through the Gillies, or, how did you guys first meet?


Nicholson: We met through music, definitely, and we have varying stories. He claims that our mutual friend, Sean McNally introduce us, which I tend to think is correct. We were out seeing a friend’s band on the East Side. We had so many bands to go see, you know, in kind of the Punk and Alt Americana. Really fun stuff. You know, Joker’s Henchmen and Loyal Order of Water Buffalo and, you know, all these great Milwaukee bands we’d go out and see. And, ugh, I do remember him there. And then we, we met another time, we went out to see Michelle Shocked at Shank Hall, and she was always so much fun to go see. And she had audience members, you know, dancing, just having a blast. And she wanted us all to do the worm. And nobody would do the worm with me, but John did the worm with me. So I was like, “Ahhh! Friend!” you know? So he was just fun, you know? And when he came back to town, he’d been living in California, he came back to town and I was just totally smitten with him as a person. He was just so full of appreciation of music and life in general. He was really fun to hang out with. I said, you know, after a few pints, I said, “You should come to my band’s practice! The Glengillies. You gotta meet my bandmates. You should come hang out with us and play with us.” And I just invited him, not knowing what he played. And he came and he played, and the band was like, “Do you want to join our band?” So it was like, instant, you know. So, you know, love through music is really wonderful. Beit, you know, partnership, you know, as like a coworker or a life partner. It’s really a wonderful foundation for us, you know, it’s been great.


McCollum: So, obviously, excuse me, obviously your primary instrument is the fiddle. Do you play anything else?


Nicholson: I play mandolin, because it's tuned the same. I played with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra for a number of years, that was another one. I play viola because its very similar, but, my reading on viola of remedial at best. I can do it if I have to. But I just love viola, you know, low instrument. I’ve tiptoed into ukulele territory, because I’m part of this club now, and tipple, which is another jack instrument so that’s, that’s akin to the ukulele. I can play guitar if I have to, but I kinda stink at it. But I do that. I just, we just finished a recording with, New Vintage Frets which is a Milwaukee-based mandolin ensemble. We play all Bega instruments and we’re focusing, for the recording that we did, on tunes and songs that have connections to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. So, that was another recent project. So, yeah.


McCollum: Nice. Now, what’s your association, if any, with Irish Fest?


Nicholson: I love Irish Fest! It's like Christmas in August, it’s really fun. I, since the Glengillies we’d always played Irish Fest, be it at the Harp tent with Angus, featuring that instrument, or at the Snug or at the Village Pub or playing Ceili Dances. We were always involved when, I think somewhere in the beginning of Frogwater, after the Gillies breakup, I think we missed one year. But we had played, I’ve played Irish Fest every year since, I believe, 1989. So that’s a pretty long run and, certainly for Jack, my other half, for him it’s really Christmas in August. I mean, that’s the be all, end all. I mean he changes his strings, he changes his batteries, he, you know, and no matter what we do it’s just like the weather around Irish Fest. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. I mean, you’re there with the big family, and it’s truly like a family reunion. You see people that you don’t see all year, that you haven’t seen in a few years. And inevitably, something will happen. There’ll be a heatwave, there’ll be a typhoon, there’ll be floods, you’ll break strings, your pickup will be haywire. There might be feedback when you’re doing an a cappella number as we did with the Glengillies - Oh my gosh! But you keep going and it’s just all about, you gotta punt and you gotta have fun. It’s, it’s the best. It’s great. We’re so, I have to say, we’re so blessed to have a festival of its calibur in our town. So, its cool?


McCollum: What’s one of your favorite Irish Fest stories, or more than one?


Nicholson: Oh boy, there’s so many. I mean, the Chieftains. The Chieftains, that was the year of the floods. It was horrifying. It was so crowded that year and that was when we still wore our costumes, you know, our plaid. And a lot of it was dryclean only, wool and this and that, and I mean, how many plaid/dress top ensembles did you have that time? I mean we lived a lot more simply. It was a little desperate at times but that was, that was memorable. And just the chaos of people wanting to come back stage. Chicago families, Milwaukee families, and the stage crew being besides themselves with, “We have the Chieftains, we can’t have everybody back here.” It was, it was mayhem, it was crazy, but it was fun. It was really fun. I think, one of my, one of my biggest memories of Irish Fest ever was, we have finished, Frogwater had finished a show at the Snug, I think it was a Saturday night, the late slot, and it was crazy. You know, it was pretty fun and spirits were high. And we finished the show and I went outside just to get a breather and there’s this little old man who wanted to strike up a conversation with me, and he was from Scotland. I, you know, and he was from Glasgow. His name was Danny Freel and we struck up this instant friendship. I gave him out CD, I just adored him from the second I got to talking to him, and we continued our conversation, you know, he wrote me letters, I wrote to him. He’d call me from Glasgow, he’d send me little packages. Just darling. His daughter lives here in Milwaukee, she still does, Rosemary Legit and her family. And through the years I became friends with his wife, we actually traveled there and we met Rose. Rose was afraid of traveling on planes, so we had to go to her. We had to go to the mountain. And I lost, we lost Danny, but I just, you know, he was a treasure to us, to all of us. And, when he’d call from Glasgow, it’s so hard to understand the Glaswegian accent. And I was like, “Oh my Gosh, how did I understand him from the beginning,” you know? And my Mom asked me, she said, “well, when you first met him, had you had a pint?” And I said, “Well, yeah.” She said, “that’s why you understood him.” But he was darling and I’ll always treasure that. That was the coolest.


McCollum: Nice. I guess, moving us out of Irish Fest and stuff, but another question about a story. Is there, do you have, do you have any story about just playing in the Bar scene and everything else, which, obviously, your Mother didn’t expect you to do.


Nicholson: Yeah.


McCollum: Just really jump out at you? Just something that you still like to tell even years later?


Nicholson: Wow. Gosh. There are so many. I mean, for me, I mean, it’s really hard to pinpoint, you know, certain things. Because I’m a, I’m a door watcher. I’m a people watcher. And I will occasionally tell our audiences we realize we’re on stage, but you can’t forget that we’re watching you, you know? You’re my entertainment, you know, and I like, you know, the little things that happen. And occasionally we’d get, you know, somebody you’d least expect, some, some dude, you know, who’d hop up and start doing the Irish dance. And you’d be like, “wew,” the whole place would just, “whoa,” you know? So cool. Fights would break out as it does when tempers flare alcohol is involved. Playing with the Glenngillies as a small ensemble at Highwind Books on Oakland Avenue, when my brothers were little, and Timothy got up in his full, you know, kilt, his Scottish regalia, and danced a fling. And my brothers were really little at the time and Tim always, Tim always loved this story, so did Jan. And he’s not a small fellow, he’s small, broad you know? He’s dancing this fling and my brothers were watching the floorboards bouncing, like, whoa, looking up at him in his kilt, you know? That was, that was fun. I don’t know, seeing the gathering of generations, especially in pubs, because pubs are Public Houses and, you know, all are welcome. So seeing people from many backgrounds, any races, any beliefs. Old people, little people, always say I have to watch my jokes. They can be a little bit bawdy because, you know, you might be old, so you’re kinda censoring certain things, because somebody’s grandma might be there. You might be old, but you’re not dead. It’s the same thing, like, when we go out and we play in our community. We play at the nursing homes and the senior homes. These people are still there and they’ve lived lives and have experienced so many more things than I have. They’re not dead, they’re still there, you know, so you have to pull at these things?


McCollum: Can you share a joke with us?


Nicholson: Oh god! On camera? Are you serious?


Ksiazek: Only if you’re comfortable.


Nicholson: Oh god, I, I, think one of my favorites and the problem for me is I collect jokes, cuz when we change instruments there’s downtime. And people don’t want silence, they don’t want radio silence. They want you interacting. So I started collecting jokes and stories, just to have a little stall time. People will send me jokes all the time, stories all the time, and darn it all if I haven’t, I haven’t heard them all, got them all. Every once in a while one will crop in, one of my favorites. Everybody’s probably heard it, but, Brenda O'Malley is home one night making dinner, waiting for her husband to come home from work. And there comes a knock at the door and she opens the door and it’s her husband Paddy’s coworker Tim. She says, “Oh Tim, what brings you to our house tonight? Where’s Paddy?” He said, “I’m here because there was a terrible accident at the Guinness plant today. May I come in?” “Of course you may. Oh dear Lord.” He says, “Brenda, dear, I’m afraid Paddy is, Paddy’s died today.” She says, “Oh, sweet Jesus. This is terrible news.” She says, “Tell me Tim, did he suffer? Please tell me he didn’t suffer.” And Tim says, “Well, he fell into the vat and he got out three times to pee and then he finally went down.” It’s a good joke, you know. I don’t do an accent very well, but I keep working on it.


Ksiazek: Yeah.


McCollum: It was pretty good. So, probably better than mine. So …


Nicholson: I’m all ears.


McCollum: Not right now! So yeah, where do you, you know, we’ve touched on some of this, but um where do you see the scene developing in the years to come?


Nicholson: I am continually impressed, not that I’m one to be, you know, I’m always amazed by what is being done here at the CelticMKE [Center], and I’m never quite sure what to call it at this point, but with the archives. We had played a gig once for the archives [Ward Irish Music Archives] and brought people from all over the country, all over the world, who are archivalists here. This is stunning. This is amazing. This draws people from all over. The Irish Fest Summer School is incredible. I am wracking my brains - brain - I only have one, why we don’t have more people here. This is a wealth of knowledge and experience. People who come here, I don’t know, I see Milwaukee as a real hotbed of things Irish, things Celtic, and I would hope that somehow, some little, you know, wave gets out there that draws more people to this. Because we have so much to offer. Milwaukee does in general. I mean, I think for a city of our size, we have such a vibrant arts community. Our theater, our ballet, our symphony. And I think that Irish community, our ethnic community, feeds into that. I think we’re really blessed to have what we have here and I think if we just continue like this, I mean, we’re not really out to get rich, I guess. I mean, I’d take it if it happened, but rich and famous. I mean, that should happen here. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. I think we have all the makings of something wonderful.


McCollum: Thanks. So, if you, if you had an opportunity to do one thing within the Irish scene, either personally or with the scene itself, self, that hasn’t been done, what would it be?

Nicholson: That it hasn’t been done in general, or that I haven’t done?


McCollum: Both.


Nicholson: Well, because Jack and I work a lot with United Performing Arts Fund in Milwaukee, raising money and awareness for the arts, we work with Renaissance Theater Works which we have long, long ties with. I would like to see more Irish theater. We have done that and I think it’s really cool when they do it. And actually there’s been a little spike in that recently. Next Act has put up a few things and I should be thinking more of what’s been happening recently. Milwaukee Chamber Theater did one, they did Chapati not too long ago. There’s a lot that could be done in that regard. I wish more original work could be done. Jack and I are writing tunes, we probably should be doing more, but when ever we can. We’re contemporary Irish-Americans and while we strive to keep the old tunes going, you know, Phil Rubenzer’s book and all these great collections of tunes, the Archives, that’s a wealth right there. But there’s no reason why we, and other local musicians, can’t be writing new tunes that have ties to Milwaukee in the Irish style or in the Scottish style. And actually, on that note, Jack and I have been working with our dear friend Jennifer Rupp. She’s been writing a series of Scottish, historically based, Romance novels, and I always feel like blushing. People scoff at Romance and, since tip-toeing into this genre, I don’t think people should. What’s wrong with the feeling of a little amore in our lives? And Jennifer is an amazing writer. She asked us to underscore her books if you will and write tunes for the characters and the settings. And so, she commissioned us to write music for her website which we’re in the process of, and she said, “By the time I’m done with the series of books, and you’re done with the tunes that go along with the stories, you should have an album.” So, dot, dot, dot. Yeah.


McCollum: That is really cool.


Nicholson: I think that there is a lot that can be done in our community.


McCollum: Okay. So, I guess, that’s about all the questions I have, but I’ve been told that you wanted to play a little bit for us, possibly?


Nicholson: I could. I could.


McCollum: Yeah.


Ksiazek: One, one, one follow up, question …


McCollum: Yes.


Nicholson: Yea.


Ksiazek: On my end. So I know that you play for ceilies, I think you’ve played for sets as well. 


Nicholson: Mm-hmm.


Ksiazek: Can you describe a little bit of your involvement beginning with, for, Irish social dancing?


McCollum: Ah.


Nicholson: Oh my Gosh. I remember that well. I was with the Glengillies and we would play predominantly ceilies. There was a VFW post, the George Washington post in Bay View, which they tore down, which breaks my heart. This was recently, they’re making way for more multi-story condos in Bay View. We would play ceilies, and I will never forget just the process of jumping from, I didn’t want to play one tune for the whole thing because it gets, for us it gets boring. And I think dancers notice the shift in gears, and you’re like, “Yeah!” you know? So we would do sets and I just remember my brain going, “okay, what’s the first two bars?” So we would copy and paste, you know? And I just remember dances felt, it was so hard, man, playing for ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes. Play continuously. Now it’s like, meh. You know how it is.


Ksiazek: Oh yeah.


Nicholson: And it’s, it’s great. But, honestly, that was huge. To do that, that really lays your foundation. That’s a blast. I mean, now I, I get it and I should dance more, I hardly ever dance, but the little light bulb, what you put out there to the dance floor comes back to you tenfold. It’s this big, amazing, circle of energy. And if you’re playing cool, edgy tunes, the dancers feel it and they fly, you know? We’ve done sets. Sets are much more regimented and set dancers know what they want, when they want it. They want their, their tempos the way they want it. And I’m completely fine with that. It’s a little more arduous because they’re ready to go. They don’t need to be taught, so you’re working, you know, you’re earning your muscle for those. It’ cool. And watching them, it’s, it’s an art form. I really love ceilies just because of the craziness, the zaniness, the fact that there is this person who just learned that dance, but they’re bringing him into the fold. They don’t care. This is social dancing, this is welcoming, and we have, oh my gosh, Gail [McElroy] she’s doing this for the love of the art, you know? I absolutely adore, you know, Gail and Julie [Clark] and all these callers, Patricia, you know, our friend. So, yeah, bigtime. I hope that answers.


Ksiazek: Yeah, that’s good.


McCollum: Yeah.


Nicholson: Okay.


BREAK [56:21]


Nicholson:  well, Pike Creek Bluegrass band was a group of guys who were friends from High School on in Kenosha and they started this Bluegrass thing and it, it wasn’t purist Bluegrass, but it just kinda good time, fun stuff, Bluegrassish tunes, you know? And, they had a string of musicians through the years, and then there was, you know, a number of fiddlers. I came on the tails of Jerry Lochny. He was leaving mighty big footprints to fill. But it was just fun, I mean, we played pretty much, a few times a month, in Cederberg at Morton’s, Wisconsin, which is a good time bar, you know? Eatery. And we’d play occasionally parties and weddings, stuff like that, just fun times. But, man, that really builds your, your stamina, your stuff. That’s why I first started getting trigger finger, you know. Then it went away, then I got it back. Now I think it’s here to stay. But it is just what it is. You use what you have. I don’t know, I mean there’s, I just thought of another one, playing with Martin Jack Rosenblum, the Holy Ranger and Spirit Farm when the Harley Davidson 90th was happening, absolute mayhem in Milwaukee, and we played, or we were about to play, at the Outlaw Club House on the Southside of Milwaukee, but we got rained out, outside. So we went inside for awhile, it was kinda interesting. We played the Outlaw Alternative in Waukesha, so we opened for Tommy Chong which was really fun. Yeah, I mean there’s tons of stories, I just, you know. Of course I’m braindead now, on camera. But, I don’t know, thinking back to the pubs too, I mean, when you’re on stage and you’re really focusing on people, you see people in front of you rekindling friendships, you see people falling in love, you see people falling out of love, you see, you know, so many things. And a lot of the guys at the Black Shamrock, the O’Keefe brothers were tending bar there.


Ksiazek: Was that Jim and ... 


Nicholson: Right


Ksiazek: John?


Nicholson: I can’t think now. Jim?


Ksiazek: Yeah.


Nicholson: I remember, but, just fun, fun times. It’s like, seeing them now is like a family reunion, you know? Again, but  I miss that, I really do. I mean, now we have, we have the County Clare, we have the, you know, sessions and stuff, which I never get to. One day, I will! But you know, House of Guinness out in Waukesha and all kinds of places. O’Donoghue’s posts stuff and, you know, we get out when we can. But, yeah.


McCollum: Any genre that you’ve always wanted to play, but never had the chance to?


Nicholson: Oh, wow. I love, probably stemming from when I hung out with Jan, I love Gypsy music, Blue Translyvania. She took me to see a band from Transylvania playing at a church on Oklahoma, right across from Humbolt Park, years ago and they were stunning. Absolutely stunning. They had a cymbalum in the band, and their fiddlers, they played kind of a little down lower and they played with this very robust, ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh. Lot of push to it. By the end of the evening’s concert the guy’s white shirts were soaked and stuck to their skin, they were playing so hard. It was just breathtaking. We would hang out, we used to hang out at Miro’s on the East Side, Serbian restaurant, and we’d sometimes dance through the restaurant. And there’d be a long string of people and somebody at the end with a towel. I would love to play that music. I would love to play Klezmer music. The Jewish people have this, I mean, we were playing at the Jewish Home and Care Center on Prospect a week ago, it was a birthday party. And I said to Jack, I said, “play Finyenta, its Norwegian, but it’s in a minor key. The Jews love things in minor keys.” It’s just, it’s, it’s great. It’s just this, this, heart wrenching, you know, missing the homeland kind of stuff. I love that stuff. I mean, it’s great. I mean there’s weird stuff that we see, like African music. I don’t know, I, I saw that Jap-, was it Japanese or Chinese with the captive bow, where it’s on there? I’d like to try that, you know? There’s not enough time in one lifetime, you know. And looking back I’ll never forget being up North with Jan, Ernest and Timo, Timothy Schmidtz. We were staying at a friends’ cottage on an island outside of Rhinelander. So we had to row out and row back. And we went to a pizzaria I used to go to as a kid outside of Minocqua called Mama’s. Mama’s Pizza. And, we were just drinking wine and having pizza and laughing and talking and crying, you know, and I said, “You know, I wish I could live many lifetimes.” And not be responsible for what I do, you know? Like a Casanova. But we kinda sat there and talked a while longer, and then I realized I, you know, I have, even back then, lived many lifetimes already. And now, you know, I’m a mom, I’m married, I never thought, you know, I’d walk in those shoes. I still play music, because, well, its my livelihood, but, and you don’t, gosh, it, you don’t wanna be in the position of, “but we need this gig, we’re broke. We gotta make,” you know, “make the mortgage, and.” And sometimes it is kinda tight, we do it for our living, but anytime I’m feeling, there are times when you question why do I do what I do. And you’re out there playing for people and looking at, you know, the joy that you bring. And, you know, any everybody does it differently. When you’re feeling down in the dumps there’s always, no matter what, there’s always gonna be somebody better than you. Always. Even if you’re, you know, King of the Heap, there’s always gonna be somebody who’s still coming up and learning and, you know, doesn’t know as much as you. So it keeps you human, keeps you in a good place. I don’t know, I think I’ve got the best thing. If you wanna call it a job, I’ve got the best job in the world, you know? It’s good. So.


Ksiazek: Well thanks so much for coming.


McCollum: Yeah, thank you!


Nicholson: Thank you.

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