Sometimes, a concert’s setting can make all the difference. When Lowell National Historical Park first thought of partnering with the Franco-American Day Committee to help celebrate Franco-American Week in Lowell, we planned on presenting a Franco-American/Irish concert on Park grounds. But after much thought and discussion, we all realized that the better idea was to pair the Park-sponsored concert with a community event — the traditional ham and bean supper, which is typically held in a French Church Hall. This year, the supper was served in the Immaculate Conception School Hall. When we arrived around 4:45 p.m., the hall was full of people, many of whom had grown up in Lowell and the surrounding communities. Although there were some children about, the average age was about 75. French was being spoken and the aroma was heavenly. Home baked hams and plenty of Cote’s beans, both the light and the dark, were being served.
People socialized and ate from 4:30 to 6:30. Music was scheduled to start at 7:30. Several hours before members of the “Irish-French Connection” took the stage, they rehearsed in the Park’s Visitor Center conference room.
The leaders of this band – John Whelan and Donna Hébert –are icons in their Irish and Franco-American musical communities. Each brings 40 years of performing, teaching, and recording experience to the newly formed band.
The tunes and songs they performed during the evening concert were once commonly played and danced to in Irish and French-Canadian immigrant communities throughout the Northeast, where both groups migrated in the 1880s to work in the textile mills. Indeed, when we asked the 135 audience members how many had relatives who had worked in the Lowell textile mills, about half of the hands went up.
Seated at one of the many tables was Lowellian Raymond Breault, who throughout the evening played his wooden spoons and clogged his tap-soled shoes in time to the music. On more than one occasion, he made his way to the front of the hall to demonstrate his rhythmic feet. This delighted the musicians. As Donna remarked from the stage, “There is no better compliment to a fiddler than to have someone who is moved to get up and dance.”