Quick Q and A with Vincent Cross

This interview with Vincent Cross is perhaps one of the most unique interviews I’ve ever done over the course of the past 15 years that I’ve been blogging.  I’ve come to think of him as a time-traveling musician who takes his art to new levels by assiduously incorporating history into his songs.  The devotion to the time and place of his concepts creates magical musical atmospheres.  There is a lot of depth of detail in each and every song.

I first got to know Vincent around 2016 when he appeared at Campfire at Club Passim.  Without going into too many details, Jim Trick, our Harvard Square “tour guide” deftly choreographed some memorable hijinks like being asked to leave one establishment while setting up a photo shoot and then persuading the hostess at another local hotspot that Vincent was a celebrity and needed a table apart from the general public so that he wouldn’t be hounded by autograph seekers.  (It worked.)

During this past COVID blur of a year, I realized that Vincent had released a new album called The Life and Times of James (The Rooster” Corcoran. It is a tour de force that is knit together with love, awe, history, and scholarly research. Vincent uses historical and genealogical facts to piece together this intimate ode to his distant relative, James Corcoran, who amassed great fame in the annals of New York City history.

To learn more about Vincent’s background as an Irish-Australian singer-songwriter who resides in New York, visit his website.

Here’s a video of Vincent Cross performing “King Corcoran.”

Your latest recording, The Life and Times of James “The Rooster” Corcoran has one of the most interesting back stories I’ve ever heard. How does history fit into songwriting?

There is so much history surrounding us each day, but we are often too busy just surviving day to day to really notice. It was in 2011, when my sister in Ireland first emailed to tell me about Paddy Corcoran. She forwarded his 1901, New York Times obituary, which spelled out his remarkable rags to riches tale. When he died at 81 years of age, a huge funeral took place along the Lower East Side, for “Jimmy,” as he was affectionately known, was deeply mourned.

I understand that your writing and research process went way beyond your initial discoveries. You continued to do a deep dive into your ancestor’s history and that of his infamous neighborhood.

I’d admit I had fragmented connection with Ireland anyway, and this was partly my own lack of interest in the country, but now it seemed Corcoran’s story might be the catalyst for me to begin my own personal excavation of the here and now through the lens of the past. As I arrived at Tudor City, I walked back and forth confused not knowing what I was really looking for till I noticed hidden under an awning over a doorway a gothic inscription:

Here in 1877 was Paddy Corcoran’s Roost,

How did you go about imagining the right kind of music for this project?

I needed something both old world and the new world, and the first song grew out of this combination. I remember slowly picking out the tune and reading the articles again, and gathering lines from the many obituaries, until I found a title from The Sun newspaper[3] “King Corcoran is Dead” that really grabbed me. Though it always seemed to me to be racially tainted — implying Corcoran was not really a “King.” Maybe, I thought, it connected Corcoran to King Kong an ape or savage running amok in the metropolis. But the name ‘King Corcoran’ works on many levels aside from the alliteration. Soon a story began to form, and it was clear that this song was about how he was represented by the media in America, and that clarity made it possible to characterize him:

King Corcoran[4]

King Corcoran was a gentleman

He came from decent folk

  He found a spot on the crack of a rock

And it’s there he made his stand

He built a shack upon that crack

From the wood from the east river bed

And for sport and recreation

Dropped rocks on policemen’s heads

He’d bludgeon you with an old cart rung

The leader of the colony

With goats, and pigs, and hens and dogs

All a roaming free

Then one day a police captain came

To eject him from his roost

Instead his wife stripped the buttons

From the Captain’s suit

They hang like decorations

On the shanty wall

The police can have them when they come

And to hell with them all

King Corcoran’s house was a castle

A phrase both bold and true

And whoever invaded

Did so at his peril


With caustic tongue and ready wit

His word it was his bond

He’d help you out if he could

But he’d never spare the rod

In ‘King Corcoran’ the rhythm really takes over, and the words took a while to sync up, and I thought it might never happen where I could play and deliver the words at the same time; however, slowly and surely the song fell into place. I now had one song, and that was a huge step as I knew the next song had to come from him before he left Ireland. If I could create that song, then everything else would sit in between. These two songs would bookend the cultural journey.

After more research, you came upon the realization that playing a concertina would best convey the music of the times and you moved forward from there, right?

It would be impossible to explain the inner thinking further, but I began to consider the concertina, which I’d heard in Ireland years ago, and its size & cost fit my budget. I knew it would a gamble. Not knowing whether I could even get something usable out of either I choose the English as I didn’t want to be completely sidetracked down a road [6]I would never come out of. I remember sitting down and just droning on and on, and layering notes and hearing something ancient coming after me.

I read about his visit to the court house to bail out his friend Dougherty and the article characterizes [7]Corcoran’s speech and words and through the heavy patois, you get a sense of the man coming off the page as he defends his friend for fighting and even offers up the deed of his own home as bond to release Dougherty on bail and now I had “A Man After My Own Heart.”

A Man after My Heart

Oh, my name is Jimmy Corcoran,

And the same I’ll ne’r disown

I used to be live in happiness Just north of Dublin

By trade I was a fisherman

And full the nets came in

We hauled them up by hand

 In the port of Balbriggan.

We’d cast out the line

 And let the small ones go

That’s what my daddy taught me It’s all I really know

You can’t fight the crown

 So don’t take the bait

You know you cannot live

 So it’s better to escape.

It’s well that I remember

 The year of 44

I eloped on board the Charlotte Out of Liverpool

As Irish you could travel free

 If willing to stay below

Six weeks of darkness on route

 To America- heave ho!

They call me a Paddy,

But I’m an Irish gentleman

A little bit of fighting

 Never did no harm

My father he was hunted

Through the mountains and boreen

A rebel he was persecuted

Under the monarchy.

Come all you gallant Irishmen,

Wherever you may be

And I hope you paid attention

 And listened unto me

It’s not where I’m from

 But it’s where I got my start

I’ll lend a hand you’ll understand

 To a man after my heart.

The rest of the songs slowly came from more articles, and they’re still coming.  I’m sure I’ll resurrect him again for a tour when the COVID-19 pandemic has less of a hold on the world