Troubadour with Athlone roots makes album inspired by New York gang leader

James Corcoran, a Dublin man who emigrated to New York City and became the leader of an infamous 19th century gang, has inspired a new album by the singer-songwriter, and former Athlone resident, Vincent Cross.

Entitled 'The Life and Times of James 'The Rooster' Corcoran', the album will be released on CD, vinyl and streaming services from Friday next, August 7.

Its ten songs make for a compelling, occasionally boisterous, and often beautiful time capsule.

Using traditional folk instruments and the language of bygone years, Vincent evokes a picture of James Corcoran's life which is "partly researched and partly imagined".

Vincent himself has been based in New York City for many years but much of his childhood in the 1980s was spent in Athlone.

His parents operated a pub in the town, the Festival Bar on O'Connell Street, and as a result Vincent lived here from the ages of 10 to 17. He was was educated by the Marist Brothers, and has remained a regular visitor back to Athlone.

His musical journey began in 1989 and over the years he has shared stages with a number of well-known performers including Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, and performed at a tribute concert for the folk legend Odetta.

Vincent Cross in performance. Photo: Jack Hirschorn

An album which Vincent released in 2013, 'A Town Called Normal' featured a vintage black and white photo of Connaught Street, Athlone, on the front cover.

In 2016, he released 'Old Songs for Modern Folk' and subsequently went to work on the new album after learning that he was a descendant of James Corcoran.

Most of the songs on the expertly-crafted album are originals, but it also contains Vincent's adaptations of traditional material including his version of 'Creole Girl', the ballad also known as 'Lakes of Ponchartrain'.

Vincent recently answered these questions from the Westmeath Independent ahead of the album's release.

* For how long have you been interested in James Corcoran's story?

As a songwriter I found I'd noticed that I'd drifted further and further into narrative and topical songs with 'Old Songs for Modern Folk' (2016). However, the seeds for 'The Life And Times of James 'The Rooster' Corcoran' where planted back in 2015, while I was touring that album, and my sister mentioned Corcoran and the fact that we're related. As I was living in New York City, she asked could I visit the inscription to him and take a picture? She sent his obituary from The New York Times, and his Wikipedia page, and I found the inscription hidden under some construction work on an awning.

Once the 'Old Songs' album was finished I needed a new project, but wasn't sure what it was until, having read numerous tabloid articles about Corcoran (there are no books), and reading 'Gangs of New York' (where his son, Tommy, gets a brief mention), the first song 'King Corcoran' appeared. It was titled after one of the headlines from the New York Times in 1899.

* Where does this project fit in with your own musical progression? How do you feel it compares to the work you've done in the past?

It really was a perfect chance to unpack my own immigrant experience and try to address the missing history that many of us have as our ancestors are often lost to time. For this project, I really looked into the language of broadside ballads, which were a type of ballad that was popular in the past. They used to be the earliest form of journalism, depicting in detail murders or tragic events. I wanted to write songs that sounded like they had been written by an anonymous ballad writer of the 1800s.

I studied the forms of traditional ballads, and in particular Irish ballads as the language needed to be right, and setting these together with the newspaper language it started to take shape. The language needs to sound like it's from the period, essentially.

After that it was how to create an authentic sound for the piece, and I knew I wanted no guitars as these would be too modern. I needed a fresh approach so I went and learned the concertina, and I had a mando-cello specially made, and tuned it for Irish-trad. Those sounds along with the bodhrán were essential to the soundscape, as well as the minstrel-style banjo playing which fits the time too.

* How have you been coping with the Coronavirus crisis in New York? The restrictions around live performance and travel must be tough.

Firstly, the American response has been hard to understand. At the earlier stages I was listening to the Governor and Mayor contradict each other, and then the President making no sense at all.

This has made it impossible to move forward, and I see businesses trying to get started and then having to reconfigure at some new policy change daily. With businesses unable to open, there will be no gigs to be had for anyone. My 15-date tour of Australia in July was called off, even though there was the chance that gigs were still happening, but I would have had to spend 14 days in quarantine on arrival, and that would be the end of that.

I also had a lovely little East Coast tour, with traditional fiddle player Malachy Bourke, planned for April and this was cut too. Right now, I think everyone is waiting to see if and when a vaccine will come along. Otherwise, sit tight and watch this space.

* Finally, when was the last time you had a chance to return to Ireland and to Athlone?

Great question! I was so lucky that last year I was over many times for tours and family visits. I was over for the Christmas, meeting friends, and I even had a night out in Sean's and some late-night chips from the Genoa. If anyone could have told me that it might be my last visit for the foreseeable future, I would never have believed it. I'm hoping that I'll be able to make it over for this Christmas, but it really depends on many things and the vaccine is probably the first on the list.

* The Life and Times of James 'The Rooster' Corcoran by Vincent Cross is being released on August 7 on Rescue Dog Records. For more details, see: www.vincentcross.com

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