A U.S. Senator for Maryland informed an Irish button accordionist, composer and teacher that he won a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Billy McComiskey, recently retired from his day job as an air-conditioning mechanic, was at home in Baltimore when the phone rang; the woman on the line said she was calling from Senator Ben Cardin’s office. Assuming she wanted a monetary contribution, he went looking for his checkbook.
“Next thing, the woman says ‘Hold on. Senator Cardin will be right with you’,” he said. “Senator Ben Cardin took the time to tell me that I was receiving the (honor).” He recalled feeling shocked. “I can’t put that into words. It’s national recognition. It’s America. There is nothing to compare to it,” he said. “I was just lucky I was near the kitchen table because my knees actually came very close to going out from under me.”
Local folks can see a performance by McComiskey and friends–Myron Bretholz on bodhran; Josh Dukes, guitar; Jim Eagan, fiddle, and Tina Eck, concert flute–as well as hear a talk by maritime culture advocate Mike Vlahovich, another 2016 National Heritage Fellow, at the Maryland Traditions Heritage Awards ceremony and concert set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. Maryland Traditions, the Maryland State Arts Council’s folklife program, holds the annual event to celebrate the state’s top stewards of folk and traditional arts and culture in the categories of person, place and tradition. This year’s honors will go to Montgomery County’s Chum Ngek, a master of traditional Cambodian music who promotes the music in the state and beyond; the country’s oldest family-owned amusement park, Trimper’s Rides and Amusements of Ocean City, and the generations of families like the Steyers and Shinholts who make maple syrup in Western Maryland.
“I think (the ceremony) is a chance to recognize a sort of art that is sometimes under-recognized,” said Chad Buterbaugh, Maryland Traditions’ co-director. “One of the ways folklore is sometimes framed in folklife is that it is the stuff that is happening in our backyard that seems so normal to us and seems so everyday that it is sometimes difficult for us to recognize how special it is. Well, this is a chance to recognize exactly how special it is. The diversity of folks that we are going to be honoring and featuring at the event, I think, speaks to the diversity of the state.”
As a long-time collaborator with Maryland Traditions, McComiskey was chosen to perform traditional Irish music at the ceremony. “I doubt that I would be in the position I am in if it weren’t for Maryland Traditions,” he said. Buterbaugh pointed out that McComiskey is “known in the Baltimore-D.C. area for really being a linchpin of the Irish traditional music scene…(and) as an extremely inclusive performer. He is always inviting people in to learn or to know more about Irish traditional music.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y, McComiskey grew up surrounded by Irish traditional music; his uncle Matt played accordion, his uncle Andy, the Irish flute, his mother danced, and at age 6, McComiskey began playing the button accordion. But during his sophomore year of high school, a master of the East Galway style of traditional Irish music changed his life. Sean McGlynn showed him what the accordion could do, and became his teacher and best friend, even serving as best man at his 1982 wedding. In tribute to McGlynn, who died in 1983, McComiskey performs on the 1940s two-row Paolo Soprani button accordion his friend once owned.
McComiskey, who won the 1986 All-Ireland Senior Button Accordion championship, has released albums both solo (“Makin’ the Rounds,” “Outside the Box”) and as a member of groups including Irish Tradition. For more than four decades, he also has been teaching others to play the accordion. Some of his current students, courtesy of Skype, are as far away as Russia and Ireland.
New York’s Catskill Mountains play a large role in McComiskey’s story. It was where his parents met. “For their first date, they went out to a bar to hear accordion player Joe Derrane,” he said. “Joe was the first Irish accordion player to receive the National Heritage Fellowship. How’s that for a coincidence?”
At about age 12, McComiskey met a traditional Irish accordion player at his godfather’s pub in the Catskills. “I can remember absolutely loving everything about being in Joe Cooley’s presence and the people who were attracted to him as a musician,” he said. “Every year I return to the Catskills. I’m hoping that I can rekindle that spirit in myself and the people around me.” He has kindled that spirit in his three sons, who all play Irish music.
McComiskey has performed all over the world, but his all-time favorite venues are in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., he said. “The support in Maryland can’t be matched.”
The Maryland Traditions Heritage Awards ceremony and concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. A reception, which will include an Irish traditional music session, will follow the awards ceremony and concert. Click here to reserve your free tickets. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.