The Cherish the Ladies “Celtic Christmas” tour has become an annual tradition. But it’s also an unlikely Christmas story itself.
Founded in 1985, the group came about after flute and tin whistle player Joanie Madden and other Irish-American women won at the All-Ireland traditional musical competitions. The Bronx-born Madden recalled musician and professor Mick Moloney saying to her, “ ‘Do you realize you’re all women?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I really didn’t realize it, because it had been such a male-dominated scene for centuries.”
Moloney said the “changing of the tide” needed to be celebrated. So they organized a short series of concerts with Irish-American female musicians, which Madden dubbed “Cherish the Ladies” after an old Irish song. The successful series led to an album and a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a tour by the group, which took the Cherish the Ladies name for itself. Almost 40 years later, the group has toured the world and released 18 albums, including several Christmas-themed ones.
“We just like to bring joy to people — especially this time of year, with this Christmas concert,” said Madden, who will perform with Cherish the Ladies in Rahway, Dec. 3, and Toms River, Dec. 17.
Madden said the idea for their first Christmas album came to her about 25 years ago, and she conducted research into both familiar and obscure holiday songs they could arrange. On Christmas Night (2004) was picked as a top holiday album by The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. “So we just rode that wave,” said Madden, adding that “we just go back to the same place every year, because once we go in (to that place) and we do a show, people just love it, and it becomes a family tradition.”
Along with the band, as usual, will be Irish dancers, including champion step dancer Tyler Schwartz, who lives in Jersey City.
The group, Madden said, often will give an Irish spin to a well-known song such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.” “I found an old Irish tune from the 1700s that fits perfectly with it. We just weave these Celtic melodies in and they go together hand-in-hand.”
Along with Irish-flavored Christmas classics, Madden said, they have introduced little-known songs such as a 1725 carol from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. Reflecting on the bittersweet history of immigration and leaving family behind, they also play songs like one based on a poem from County Clare about a mother whose children have all left Ireland due to the potato famine of 1850.
Madden said that back in the days before easy global communications, her mother would gather letters from distant relatives and put them under their Christmas tree and read them as her holiday gift.
“There was never Christmas without the accordion,” Madden recalled of her childhood in the Bronx. “My parents emigrated from Ireland and I grew up with my father — he was an amazing accordion player in a big band for 35 years. He played thousands of weddings and dances. So it was kind of natural. I grew up listening to him play and that’s how I picked it up.”
While Madden was introduced to her love of Irish music through her father — who won an All-Ireland championship — and her mother gave home dance lessons to her and her six siblings, her parents were adamantly against her becoming a professional musician. Madden went to college to become an accountant, but decided she wanted to follow her passion for playing Irish music.
After telling her shocked parents of her plan over the phone, Madden said, “I came home and I came in the door and my father looked up in absolute disgust at me and he just said, ‘What do you do now?’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to play music around the world.’
“His philosophy was you get your 9-to-5 job and you play your music on the weekends and that’s how you get ahead. But for me, it wasn’t good enough.”
Madden said a turning point came when she played with the 100-piece Boston Pops orchestra. “The conductor gave me an incredible introduction,” Madden said. “He said, ‘I’ve played with the best musicians; there are musicians and there are musicians, and this girl is a musician’ … And there’s my father crying his eyeballs out. I never saw him cry in my life. And he came back (after the show) and said, ‘My God, you did everything you said you were going to do and I just tried to stop you.’ ”
As Cherish the Ladies returns to the region with their Christmas show — even bringing it to St. Barnabas High School in Madden’s former Woodlawn neighborhood in the Bronx, Dec. 22-23 — she said the tour has special resonance for her.
“I really, really love this time of year,” she said. “It’s the only time where you see grandma and grandpa and their children and the grandchildren — the whole family’s out for family night. It’s wonderful to see — they’re all out singing together.”
Cherish the Ladies will bring their “Celtic Christmas” to the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m.; visit ucpac.org.
The group also will be at the Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.; visit grunincenter.org.
For more on the group, visit cherishtheladies.com.
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