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 “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 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 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 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