In the wild circus of a musical ant farm that we call Los Angeles, Pat Mac Swyney and I almost crossed paths a hundred times over the past fifteen years. Finally, in the late teens…we made contact. I met this intense, quick-witted musical titan of a character who had an obvious itch for American old-time music. Pat was already a virtuoso of Irish, Balkan and Traditional Jass. Next thing I know, he joined Chris Berry, Susan Platz, Tim Riley and myself in the old-time collective known as Sausage Grinder. He’s toured with us, taught mandolin at old-time festivals and makes damn good bread. He is a traditional music yeast lord!
A powerful instrumentalist, Pat has been posting videos from his cozy lair throughout the pandemic. These videos showcase his undying love for uncommon traditional tunes. Rather than have you wait fifteen years to hear about this guy like I did, I decided to ask my comrade a few questions about his musical paths. I also asked him to say a few words about these intriguing videos below.
For you, this is a big question. Which instruments do you play?
If I had it to do all over again, I’d take up fiddle and clarinet and call it a day but over this 40-year journey of playing traditional music, things just kind of escalated. I’d divide the instruments I play into 3 groups: Western Strings; Near Easter Strings; and Near Eastern Winds. In that first group, I play mandolin and cittern (octave mandolin) primarily, but in the same tuning; tenor resonator, tenor banjo, a restrung bajo quinto and a converted 5 course Romani “Gypsy” jazz guitar. I also play Macedonian tamboura, Greek bouzouki, baglama & laouto for Balkan & Near East music. In the wind category, I’ve played Irish tin whistle for most of my life but over the past 20 years, my main wind instruments are kaval (Balkan-Anatolian end blown shepherd’s flute) and ney (Ottoman classical end blown flute). More recently, I’ve become totally smitten with Siberian & Central Asian Turkic khomus (jaw harp) and attempting to throat sing.
How did you go about learning these musical styles?
I grew up playing cornet in Chicago public school jazz ensemble so learned to both listen and sight read in elementary school. On days off, I enjoy sight reading through collections of dance tunes & jazz standards on my back porch but caution that this is only gives a skeleton of the tune and needs to be brought to life by carefully listening to source recordings and playing with other musicians. Aside from attending workshops at festivals over the years and a few isolated lessons; I am primarily self-taught. A notable exception being a 16 hour Makam (Ottoman modal theory) virtual course I took over this past pandemic summer. Increasingly though, I am cultivating learning mostly by ear by listening to recordings and by playing with other musicians in bands and at jam sessions.
Who are some musicians/bands/ensembles that you’ve played with over the years?
In my early teens, I played guitar very briefly & badly in a few garage punk outfits but by my senior year of high school, I was busking at the Renaissance Faire in Agoura playing Celtic Trad. back when that term still required Cornish, Manx, Breton & Welsh and not just Irish & Scottish fiddle tunes. At UCSB in the mid-80s I really cut my teeth playing Irish Trad. at Borsodi’s Coffee House and busking on Stearn’s Wharf for rent and beer money. This led to playing maritime punk with The Crusty Seamen, cow punk with The Cropdusters, and conjunto punk with BCPS with whom I made a 45 single! I returned to Ren Faire for all of the 90s recording 5 CDs; 2 solo, 2 with pan-Euro Trad. band StinkEye and another with Irish mandolin quartet Buzzworld. Around 2000, I organized a fundraiser for the non-profit Search for Common Grounds with the ulterior motive of starting the Balkan dance band The Baksheesh Boys who went on to play countless dances, concerts & festivals up and down the west coast as well as recording another CD. About the same time, I started playing with Near East choir Nevenka with whom I still play as well as touring with Radio Skopje star Dragi Spasovski and the Mehanatones. In recent years, I’ve played Romani & Trad. Jazz with The Swing Riots Quirktette; Irish & assorted Trad. with The Dirty Mickeys; Old-Time with you in Sausage Grinder. Somehow during this pandemic we managed to put together another Balkan dance band Orkestar Pečurka with members of Nevenka & Swing Riots and our son Seán on fiddle; currently attending UCSD from home here in north Los Angeles during the pandemic.
Which musicians do you place on godlike pedestals?
Not to be overly macabre but I’ll split this into living and dead. For those no longer gigging in this world: New Orleans Trad. Jazz musicians George Lewis & Louis Armstrong; Balkan/Near East artists Markos Vamvakaris, Esma Redzhepova, Selim Sessler & Talip Ozkan; Parisan Romani Jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and especially the lesser known Matelo Ferret; Irish fiddler John Doherty & piper Liam O’Flynn; Modern Jazz giants John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk; and in Old-Time, banjo-fiddler Tommy Jarrell and mandolinist Charlie Simmons from the Scottdale String Band.
Living, I am a lifelong fan of Dave Alvin, David Hidalgo, Ry Cooder, Flaco Jimenez, Robin Williamson and would add that Tom Waits’ approach and phrasing are woven into every genre I play in. Of living improvisers, Macedonian Romani saxophonist Ferus Mustafa, Son Jarocho requinto player & singer Ramón Gutiérrez Hernández and New Orleans clarinet player Michael Magro are off the charts aspirational for me. In contemporary Old-Time, I love the effervescence of Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains and their commitment to their native Kansas and southeast Texas fiddle traditions. Having met & played with her at The Tiki Parlour, I have been learning a lot of the repertoire of Métis fiddler Jamie Fox which also sent me down the rabbit hole of other Native American fiddlers. Lastly, I had been exploring Old-Time for a few years when you put out the Dan Gellert box set but this record is what really pulled me into the world of Old-Time and Gellert’s music continues to inspire me.
What music-related books have had a great impact on your music-making?
So many but a few favorites are Manuel Peña’s The Texas-Mexican Conjunto; Michael Dregni’s two Django biographies; Alan Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll; Tom Bethell’s biography on New Orleans Créole clarinetist George Lewis (George Lewis: A Jazzman from New Orleans). One of my favorite genres is the music from Epirus in NW Greece and Chris King’s book Lament for Epirus is both hugely informative about Epirus and its traditional music but his insights into music and the human condition are the real pearls in this book. Highly recommended and for more info, you can read my profile and interview with Chris here on FolkWorks
How about your favorite music documentaries?
Two favorites are the Thelonious Monk documentary Straight No Chaser and Fiddler on the Road which follows John Doherty as he works as a travelling tinsmith, storyteller and fiddler in 1970s Donegal. Off the top of my head, I recently re-watched for the bazillionth time: Genghis Blues, Gypsy Caravan & Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul.
What old-time recordings have inspired you the most?
Already mentioned but I have gotten lost for weeks at a time in the recordings of Spencer & Rains and the Dan Gellert boxed set that you put out was an absolute game changer for me as both a musician and as a listener. I really dig the anarchic exuberance of Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, Hoyt Ming and those old Edn Hammons recordings. Working my entire life in food service, I have a deep love of modern and older Norteña conjunto music from the American Southwest & northern Mexico and would be remiss by not mentioning the Tohono O’odham Gu-Achi Fiddlers from Arizona and contemporary champions of New Mexican Trad, Lone Piñon.
How did you get into bread-making?
Honestly, I brewed beer for a dozen years back in the 80s-90s and got into sourdough bread 20 years ago as a much simpler way to scratch that grain & bacterial process itch. Unlike beer that consumes most of a day brewing and weeks before bottling & enjoying; sourdough is comparatively quick, easy and like home brewing, pennies on the dollar. I’ll share that en route to the EEFC’s annual Balkan Music & Dance Camp in Mendocino in the early 2000s, we stopped at the Boonville General Store for lunch. Best sourdough I’d ever had. The owner explained that she took the sourdough mother with her when the San Francisco restaurant she worked at closed. She said the sourdough was already old when the restaurant opened in the early 20th century and I’ve kept it alive and thriving here on the windswept steppes of north Los Angeles and freely share the mother with other bakers.
When do bread and music cross paths?
For me, music, baking, meditating, cooking, gardening & ocean kayaking are just different manifestations of the same internal process. Of course, there are a lot fewer sharks in music and baking.
Have you attempted sausages?
I have! I keep all the specialty ingredients on hand as well as several miles of intestines packed in salt in the back fridge. I’ve made a lot of fresh sausages and a few attempts at blood sausages although I can’t compete with imported Irish black pudding. I routinely dry cure small hams and the occasional salami-type rural French saucisson sec thanks to my neighbors who hunt wild boar. Looking forward to making more edible and audible sausages with Sausage Grinder in the years to come.
White Buffalo / Sitting Bull (Metis): Nevenka recently did an “Open Mic Night” with most of the choir offering an original, cover or something other than our usual East European Trad. I presented these 2 wonderful reels from Metis fiddler Jamie Fox on a 1916 Gibson A Mandolin, named Pumpkin.
Los Granos de Café (Mexican): I learned this early jazz style piece from the great Oaxacan group Pasatono Orchestra who specialize in early 20th century indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec string band music. This is an example of how early New Orleans jazz found a voice in Oaxaca. Performed here on a 1928 National Tenor.
Hicaz Taksim: Across the Balkans and Near East; personal taksims (unmetered improvisations) in a specific makam (mode) are as important as the body of traditional songs and dance tunes. I recorded this cathartic taksim in Hicaz makam on New Year’s Eve to express my feelings about the uncertainty of life under increasing fascism & a global pandemic. Performed on an old-style Greek Bouzouki played new-style through a Vox tube amp.
The Home Ruler (Irish): This hornpipe comes from County Antrim fiddler & piper Frank McCollam. I always assumed the title referenced the fight for Irish independence but read recently that Frank wrote it for his wife.
Cancion Mixteca (Mexican): I’ve loved this song for over 30 years. It’s essentially a Oaxacan blues from 1915 about a homesick Oaxacan living in Mexico City and pining for home.
Gocevsko Oro (Macedonian): A Macedonian “jig” from multi-instrumentalist, Goce Dimovski, the son of my kaval teacher, Angele Dimovski who directs the traditional izvorna orchestra at Radio Skopje.
Crook Brothers’ Breakdown: Sausage Grinder performs this old-time fiddle hoedown from the playing of Trevor & Travis Stuart.