Music » Folk

Indy's Irish Soundtrack



It's about nine o'clock on a chilly Saturday night- it's so cold you can see your breath. Inside The Aristocrat, though, the mood is anything but frigid as the Celtic band Hogeye Navvy takes the wooden stage to the sounds of rowdy cheers and footstomps.

As the five members begin to play, their voices rise in harmony above the chatter. Some diners join in and clap to the rhythm. The band members are used to the chants and applause - they are a part of the oldest Celtic band in Indianapolis. They've played at pubs, festivals and even overseas. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, they will play even more events, including the Indy Folk Series at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis on Saturday.

The walls at The Aristocrat are lined with rusted trinkets and antiques, paintings and old machinery parts. Three miniature sailing ships sit along one shelf, a reminder of Hogeye Navvy's history and inspiration.

The band started out singing sea chanties, the "songs of the tall-ship sailors" that originated in Ireland, according to guitarist Mac Bellner.

"We're very history-oriented," Bellner says. "A lot of our songs have historical significance or at least stories that go with them." Though the band plays some contemporary songs, it tends to focus on the traditional, or "trad," songs of Ireland, Scotland and England.

The band also plays traditional American folk music, especially when touring countries such as Ireland and Scotland. Bellner adds that their fans love drinking songs and songs that allow them to sing along.

Sally Childs-Helton, an associate professor of ethnomusicology and librarian at Butler University, is a member of local Celtic band Wild Mercy. She attributes the popularity of Hogeye Navvy and other local Celtic bands partly to Indianapolis' large Irish population. According to Childs-Helton, the Irish are currently the second largest ethnic group in the city, and they have played a significant role in shaping Indianapolis.

During the Great Famine of Ireland in the 1840s, many people left the country, sailing across the Atlantic to the United States in search of work. Work existed in Indianapolis in the form of canals and railroads, so many Irish settled here, bringing their music, and their instruments, with them.

Hogeye Navvy now plays these traditional Celtic instruments, such as the fiddle, the harp, and the bodhran, an Irish frame drum. Every member sings, but they all specialize in different instruments. Bellner and Ken Langell play the rhythm guitar, while Bellner's husband, Terry, plays the concertina. Garry Farren plays the bodhran, Erik Peterson plays the mandolin and cittern, and JohnandrewBellner, the Bellners' son, plays the Irish tenor banjo.

Hogeye Navvy, along with other Celtic bands in Indianapolis, plays to maintain the vibrant Irish culture within the city. "There's a fair amount of Irish expression that does go on in this city," Childs-Helton says. "Indianapolis is more diverse than a lot of people think."

This diversity is reflected by events such as the Indy Irish Fest, which is held every September, and "sessions" hosted regularly at Irish pubs around the city. At "sessions," Celtic musicians gather together to play for fun. Usually anyone is allowed to attend and listen, and Childs-Helton says that these are one of the best ways to hear high-quality Celtic music.

This strong Irish culture in Indianapolis has cultivated a fan base for Hogeye Navvy that Bellner says she can't explain. "We have a really wonderful following of faithful fans that we love dearly," she says.

Childs-Helton says that St. Patrick's Day provides a wonderful opportunity to begin listening to local Celtic bands. She suggests that newcomers to Celtic music go online and search YouTube. She says there is enough variety to interest just about anybody: "Celtic music is now combining with everything - bluegrass, jazz, all kinds of pop and rock music."

She also recommends visiting local pubs and restaurants, such as Claddagh Irish Pub and Mo's Irish Pub, to hear Celtic bands play. For those looking to hear good Celtic music in Indianapolis, it is not difficult to find.

Celtic music "has become a really common and widespread form of music," Childs-Helton says. "You may have heard the saying, 'On St. Patrick's Day, everybody's Irish. [The] music is the same way. Everybody enjoys it."

This is certainly evident on Saturday nights at The Aristocrat, as Hogeye Navvy fans shout out the familiar lyrics: "IT'S ALL PART OF BEING A PIRATE!" And at that moment, everyone is Irish.

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