Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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(b c.1945, County Clare, Ireland) Traditional Irish fiddler. His first instrument had no strings; he strung it and tuned it and began teaching himself to play by slowing down 78rpm records and finding the notes one at a time. He discovered to his dismay that he was doing it all wrong--he had tuned the fiddle in fourths instead of fifths--and had to start all over. Nevertheless, only a few months after that he won his first all-Ireland solo title in the under 14 age category. He first recorded in 1966, but Banks of the Shannon in 1973, only six tracks, recorded in less than two hours with button accordionist Paddy O'Brien and pianist Charlie Lennon, was instantly heard as a masterpiece (originally on Comhaltas, late on Green Linnet). Since the first all-Ireland competitions were held in 1951, no fiddler has won more championships than Connolly, his ten titles including two senior championships, in 1961 and 1963.

He first visited the USA in 1972, with the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (CCE) tour, an ensemble of 26 musicians, singers and dancers, and emigrated to New England in 1976. The first Masters of the Folk Violin tour in 1988, sponsored by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, was a seminal event, presenting six fiddlers, including 80-year-old Claude Williams (who had been Count Basie's first guitarist, eased out of the band because John Hammond didn't like the violin), and a 16-year-old called Allison Krauss, who has since won 26 Grammys. Also in 1988, the intensely self-critical Connolly released his first solo album, Notes From My Mind, at the age of 44, featuring his original reel "The Bridge At Newtown". His next, Here And There in 1989, including four of his own tunes, was named one of the top five releases in its category by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers. More albums have included My Love Is in America (1991), 22 live tracks including six by Connolly, that came from the 1990 Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival; and Warming Up (1993), all on Green Linnet, His productions include Gaelic Roots (1997), a 2-CD set on Kells Records of 27 tracks recorded during the summer school and festival.

Still at Boston College, he teaches fiddle, directs workshops and lectures, and helps oversee the archives of the Burns Library Irish Music Center. The greatest traditional musicians are just as committed to preserving and passing on the tradition as to performing; Connolly remembers the Kerry fiddler Julia Clifford playing one tune after another for his tape recorder, hour after hour. He is compiling an Irish Music Tune Book, 400 transcribed tunes that 50 musicians are recording for companion CDs.