by Sandor Slomovits
Michael Cooney is well into his fifth decade playing music professionally, and he has appeared at the Ark where he returns on Friday, August 1 in every one of those decades. Along the way, he's also played at most major folk festivals, coffeehouses, and concert halls throughout North America and Europe. "I've never seen a better performer," says Dave Siglin, who with his wife, Linda, has managed the Ark since 1969. Note that word, "performer." Siglin did not call Cooney a folksinger, and neither does Michael, who says, "I'm an entertainer who sings a few folk songs."
That's true enough, although in a repertoire of well over 500 tunes, there have got to be more than a "few" folk songs. Besides folk, Cooney also entertains with blues and ragtime tunes, popular and obscure songs from every period of American history, sea chanteys, work songs, cowboy songs, novelty songs, children's songs, and English, Scottish, Irish, and Australian ballads. And he seems to know the history and origins of every one. He also tells hilarious stories, old recitations, and bits of Maine humor, and accompanies himself on six- and twelve-string guitars, banjo, fretless banjo, concertina, and a suitcase of odd music makers that includes the harmonica, pennywhistle, and jaw harp.
Despite being accomplished at all of these instruments, there is no Michael Cooney style of guitar or banjo playing. Unlike Leo Kottke or Mississippi John Hurt where as soon as you catch a few notes you know who you are hearing Cooney makes each piece sound distinct and true to its origins. He lovingly crafts the right accompaniment to every song or story. Although you hear frequent flashes of virtuosity, his playing never draws so much attention to itself that it overwhelms the song.
And if a song needs no accompaniment, Cooney will just sing it a cappella in a voice that is unique. If you hear him once, you'll always recognize that still-boyish
voice, which, depending on the song, is front-porch-late-night-don't-wake-the-kids crooning, or exuberant, laughing, and whooping. Sometimes it even sounds as though it's about to crack, but it never does. Cooney's voice is the Everyman voice; he's a singing Regular Joe no put-on patina, no attempt to stick to a particular style, to sound like anyone else, or even to sound ordinary. What you hear in Michael Cooney's voice is the songs and his love of the songs.
Whether he's singing something you've maybe heard too many times, like "Sloop John B," or Leadbelly's "Fannin Street," which you can never hear often enough, or a song by an unknown contemporary writer Michael met somewhere in his wide travels, or a song so obscure you will probably never hear anyone else sing it, Michael will help you hear the song, sing it with him, and maybe even go home and learn it for yourself, so you can sing it again.
[Originally published in August, 2003.]