‘Dan travels the world with his fiddle, and in his spare time lectures on the positive aspects of sarcasm.’ These words are written in a book made for Dan Cassidy by his sister, Eva. I’ve heard the fiddle – and Dan’s occasional flashes of sarcasm - but I can’t say there’s been much sign of lecturing.
The first time I ever met Dan was in Poet’s Corner in the Loggerheads pub. I sat with my family in one corner, talking about the amazing music of the Stanley Brothers, and this quiet, solitary man sat in the opposite corner looking in a bit of a fug. Slowly it became apparent that he knew the bands we were talking about. As he began to share his knowledge we realized he was an American. He loved country music, and so did we. There was a directness about him - a way of saying what he thought and not holding back that we instinctively warmed to.
Dan grew up with country music. Folk too. His father was a musician, though he had a day-job too, and his mother played what Dan describes as ‘good’ folk and classical music on the record player. There was always a guitar on the wall, and Dan’s father played the banjo too. He introduced his children to music through folk songs. Very quickly Dan’s sister, Eva, emerged as somebody who could carry a melody. She and Dan were very close. Dan’s father admires him now for his sink-or-swim attitude to making music his career, and respects him for the lessons he’s learned in the school of hard knocks. But he wasn’t so keen when first Dan set out. To begin with, his son went off to Germany with an English outfit, the Bobbie Barnwell band and only just squeezed out a living, then he came back and failed to hit the big time in the US too. What he needed were qualifications, his father said. He should go to college, have a proper career. It took Eva Cassidy to give her brother the encouragement that kept him going, propelling him into the musical career he has today.
Eva was a year older than Dan, a person of great courage and unswerving instinct who would never willingly do anything she wasn’t happy about. She went on to achieve great things, but at that stage she didn’t have Dan’s confidence in terms of public performance. It’s tantalizing to wonder what sort of band they’d have made if they’d started performing together at that stage. But when Dan left the US for a second time, determined to go it alone and make something of himself, Eva remained behind in suburban Maryland where they’d grown up .
The first place Dan headed for was Iceland, a country he loved. After his stint with Bobbie Barnwell, Dan had done some gigs in Iceland and had been impressed by how uncrowded everything was - a clear, unpolluted country with a creative vibe and comfortable affluent lifestyle.
Now, courtesy of a one-way ticket, Dan was back with $500 dollars in his pocket and nothing else but his fiddle. He had no band behind him this time, but he succeeded in infiltrating the Icelandic music scene as the only electric fiddle player doing it his way. He may have been a big fish in a small pool, he said, but it paid the bills. He was never out of work. Everybody wanted Dan Cassidy playing on their albums. The money was good. He found opportunities in Iceland that wouldn’t have been available anywhere else.
‘I had a second teenager-hood,’ said Dan. ‘Iceland’s a place for hard drinking – and I drank hard. People lived fast lives. Rejkjavig was a party capital – a regular free-for-all. And that’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t feel squeezed in a country like that. I didn’t feel part of the rat race. Back in Washington DC I’d had to work as a courier eight hours a day, with a further three hours commute home afterwards. Any music I made had to be squeezed in after that, when I was exhausted.’
Back in Washington DC, Dan had played part-time in a couple of bands, but no way had he made the living he was doing now. One had been a 13-piece big band dressed in smoking-jackets playing 20s-30s music for the well-to-do. The other was an all-black outfit, playing in a rough part of town, from which Dan would need escorting at the end of the night. ‘I remember thinking if they accept my electric violin here, they will anywhere,’ Dan said. And they did. And here in Iceland, they did too. But this time they were paying good money for it.
How easy had it been acclimatizing to Icelandic culture, I wanted to know. Dan said the hardest thing about it had been the language, which he still struggled with. ‘If you want to know what Icelandic sounds like, listen to Robbie Burns read by a Highlander,’ he said. ‘The Viking influence is plain to hear in both of them.’
Dan’s home-base is Iceland to this day. He’s married now and has a little daughter, Eva, who is seven years old. ‘The day she was born was the day I laid off the booze,’ he said. ‘Drugs, the lot. I cleaned up my life. And it’s been that way ever since.’ Being a musician was a balancing job, Dan said. He was a family man. He had a teaching job. He played in Iceland. He’d formed a swing quartet that toured Europe doing gigs. Sometimes he worked on TV. Sometimes he collaborated in other ways with musicians. Sometimes he played alone.
But every year he comes to Shrewsbury. ‘It was Bobbie Barnwell who first brought me here. I was with her band for three and a half years before returning to the US to that job as a courier. Every six months she’d come back to this country for a short period, and because Shrewsbury was where she hailed from, that’s where I’d come too.’
These were difficult years. Dan had constant money problems and frequent immigration issues. He had trouble connecting with people too. ‘I was a troubled young man’ is how he now describes it. As a relative newcomer to Shrewsbury Dan remembers trying to work his way into the local music scene. St Patricks’s Day in the back room of the Seven Stars in Coleham is one occasion he won’t forget. ‘It was a folk gathering,’ he said. ‘I had this weird home-made electric violin, and Bobbie’s brother-in-law, Cedric, and I played some bluegrass together. It wasn’t what people were used to hearing. At the end somebody went yeeehaaaa. I didn’t get the sense that it was meant kindly.’
After that Dan was on a mission to prove how versatile the violin could be. ‘I wanted to be Dan Cassidy the Fiddle Player, not Dan Cassidy the Eejit,’ he said. ‘In pub sessions, on TV and radio, doing rock stuff, Hendrix and all that, doing country & western – I was not an ordinary violinist and I was out to prove something.’
The friendship with Bobbie, Cedric and their families has grown over the years. Now Dan says Shrewsbury feels like a third home, and the Hickman/Barnwell clan an extended family. Returning to Shrewsbury has about it a sense of touching base. ‘I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of Shropshire, and the history of this town,’ Dan said. ‘There’s a sense here of natural protection against intruders. I suppose the river gives it that. It’s a fascinating spot.’
Since 2004, Bobbie’s nephew James has been playing in the Dan Cassidy Swing Quarter. Dan has watched him over the years turning from a little kid to a hulking six foot man. He’s seen him take up the guitar, learn from his dad, Cedric and, as Dan puts it, ‘take the ball and run with it’. For the past five years too, he and Dan have played UK gigs as Hickman and Cassidy. Every year, the two of them fill the Adam Ballroom at the Lion Hotel. This year they’ll be doing the same at Henry Tudor House, playing on May 19th to what ticket sales tell them will be a full house.
‘I have a real following here in Shrewsbury,’ Dan said. ‘I’ve made some great friends. There’s always such a pull to come back. Next year I’ll be celebrating my 50th birthday with a Dan Cassidy Swing Quartet concert in the Lion Ballroom. Then I’m taking my wife and daughter off on a cruise.’
Dan cracks a joke about financing the cruise, which is plainly important to him. We both have a chuckle. Dan’s sense of humour is very dry. It’s also has a direct quality that he says he’s had to tone down over the years. There’s a difference between what Americans and the British find acceptable when it comes to humour, he says. A line that can’t be crossed, and it’s taken him a while to recognize it. ‘I used to be quite tactless sometimes,’ Dan said. ‘But I learned. I’m better now.’
Dan said it was a profound experience first arriving in Shrewsbury, a young American in a foreign land. He loved listening to people and hearing what their angle was, but more often than not it was very different to the angle back home. ‘It was as if I’d been living in a bubble all my life,’ Dan said. ‘And now I’d broken out of it. Americans are so used to saying they’re the greatest, and it’s easy to maintain that view when you never go anywhere else. As an American abroad you want to be patriotic towards the country you love, but you have to accept that things seem different from abroad.’
Currently Hickman & Cassidy are on a six-week tour of the UK. They’re in the South-West next week, then Scotland the first week in June, including a concert on Skye. Dan only does concerts these days. He said his days of playing in bars whilst people talked over him were over. Playing concerts, he said, raised the bar. It was extraordinary, for example, to find oneself in the Adam Ballroom knowing that Paginini had been there before you on that very same stage. A hard act to follow – but Dan had never had a bad gig at the Lion Hotel.
Dan and James’s music is a mixture of swing, blue-grass, blues and folk. They’re writing their own material too. There’s more of it than they can fit into one show. ‘We’re not a cookie-cutter act,’ Dan said. ‘We love and play old classics, but we do it our own way, and we do our own stuff too. James wrote a song about the Battle of Shrewsbury recently. You should get him to play it for you.’
Dan has always loved the combination of violin and acoustic guitar, he said, the one so lyrical, the other with its percussive element driving forward the beat. ‘I find that blend of sounds intriguing,’ he said. ‘And when you add in someone like James, who can really sing, you’ve got it all. With Eva, I was used to working with a real high-calibre singer. And what James and I have today is built on the foundation of that partnership.’
Eva was uncomfortable with gigging. She honed her skills in the recording studio, Dan said, rather than the rough and tumble of live performance. Not that she was the unknown she’s so often presented as in the Eva Cassidy myth. On the contrary, she was on the verge of a contract with Blue Note when they suddenly got cold feet and said her style was too eclectic – the decision to pull out, Dan said, being one they regretted to this day.
‘There’s a lovely film coming out about Eva,’ Dan said. ‘Timeless Voice – Eva Cassidy’. It’s beautifully done. It’ll be on the Sky Arts Channel and eventually out as a DVD too. All sorts of people are on it talking about the impact of her music at that very highly commercialized time in the business. And there are some lovely clips of her singing, of course. You know, she came to see me in Iceland a couple of times. People were mesmerized by her. Not only did they sit in silence while she sang, they wouldn’t even touch their drinks until she’d finished each song. She had such a presence. Her voice simply commanded attention.’
A moment’s silence falls between us. But Dan’s a natural talker in his own quiet way, a garrulous man you might almost say, and it doesn’t take much for him to be off again, telling me about one of his students, who is currently touring the world with Icelandic post-rock band, Sigur Ros, who are famous, amongst other things, for their bowed guitar.
Teaching is very important to Dan. His specialism, he said, was teaching classical-trained musicians how to play by ear. There was very little, if any, curriculm for non-classical studies at Conservatory level, he said, yet an inability to play instinctively was a missing element in any musician’s education. ‘Mind you, folk musicians can miss out too by sticking to the vernacular,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot you can discover about folk by learning about Baroque music. Either way, music students are limited if they adhere too strongly to one or the other, classical or folk.’
Dan runs Masterclasses on this subject, and hopes to develop these, introducing young musicians to the range of possibilities bowed instruments can provide - especially the violin. ‘Some day, if I live long enough,’ he said, ‘I’d like to change the way people think about learning stringed instruments. I’d like to see them borrowing from the best of jazz, folk, classical, pop. Teaching classes and performing go hand in hand. There’s a golden opportunity, via performance, to inspire young musicians. And inspiring young musicians is what I want to do.’
We’ve been talking about the violin for hours, but only now do I get round to asking Dan how he chose it as his instrument. As a child, he said, he was always grabbing bits and pieces of music and making something of them. But things really took off for him when a violinist came to school and played a piece of music from a TV commercial. Dan was inspired by the idea that the instrument could be fun, and not just arduous. He was given a violin for his tenth birthday. Eva had a guitar. Now they could play with their father – not as a family, because Dan’s mother and two other sisters didn’t join them, but as a musical entity within the family. It became a part of who the Cassidys were.
‘Soon I’m going to be playing Eva’s music again,’ Dan said. ‘I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a collaboration with a Dutch singer I met on TV in the Netherlands. Margriet Sjoerdsma is her name. We’re doing an Eva Cassidy tribute tour and concert, playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.’
But wherever Dan goes, he’ll always return to Shrewsbury. ‘There are lots of chapters in my life,’ he said, ‘and in between them all is Shrewsbury.’ A lot of Dan’s lessons in life have been learned here in this town. He arrived as a shy lad trying to find his feet. He used to drink heavily back in those early days. It was a way for a shy boy to fit in socially. ‘I wanted to be liked,’ Dan said, ‘and I thought I could do that by getting drunk. When you’re young that’s a common mistake.’
Dan has had thirty years of coming here. Shrewsbury, he says, is the place where he measures the changes in himself and charts his development as he strives to ‘prove his salt’. But he’s not the only one who has changed. Over the years, Shrewsbury has too. ‘When I first arrived here in 1984, Shrewsbury was a very different town to what it is now,’ Dan said. ‘For starters, there was no Pride Hill Centre, nor were there any wine bars or much of a night life.’
Back in those days, Dan sometimes sensed an unease that he could only describe as ‘bad energy’. It was quickly sprung up, and quickly gone again, he said, but he’d never felt it anywhere else. He’d asked extensively if other people felt it too, and was relieved when a few folk said they had. The balance to that, he reckoned, was that the town had a life about it, and creative flow, that he’d rarely felt anywhere else either. ‘This really is a very special place,’ he said. ‘That’s why I keep coming back. Eva would have loved it here, you know. She never wanted the big stage. She would have loved singing at one of the music nights in the Loggerheads. It was my dream to bring her over here. In fact in her last letter to me she talked about coming to Europe. But she never did.’
I left Dan in Poets’ Corner, at the back of the Loggerheads, ordering their special sausage & mash lunch. ‘Good to see you again,’ I said. ‘I’ll get James to send you his song,’ he replied. And he did.. Here it is:. Thank you Dan, and James:
And gave our lives fighting Glyndwr and the Scottish.
But by his word we found Henry, he would not stand.
What was promised was not given, no money, no land.
Earls we were,
Of Worcester and Northumbria,
With influence and power,
Betrayed we were,
By our King.
Died did we, in the battlefields of Shrewsbury.
We marched south through Cheshire, where we raised ten thousand archers.
And our numbers grew with Welshmen from the Marches.
Then by the banks of the Severn, we spied Henry's army.
Drew our swords and knocked our arrows, just 3 miles north of Shrewsbury.
On that day,
Shropshires fields were golden,
The summer sun was setting.
We set forth,
To kill our king.
Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.
The battle would be won by the deadly English longbow.
Arrows filled the air and men lay stricken on the meadows.
And though our archers were the finer,
And their men fell like leaves in autumn.
One stray arrow struck Earl Percy, as he rode forth to give orders.
That single arrow,
It ruled the fates of many,
Robbed us of our victory.
Defeated we were,
By our king.
Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.
Died did we in the battle fields of Shrewsbury.
[copyright James Hickman]