FolkWorld #73 11/2020
© Walkin' T:-)M

A Phantom from the Past

The Life & Times of James The Rooster Corcoran

The silver screen gave us the infamous Bill the Butcher and his Gangs of New York. Another larger-than-life 19th century ganglord who might have escaped one of Scorsese's celluloid reels had been James Corcoran of Corcoran's Roost in Manhattan (now the site of the world's first residential skyscraper complex, Tudor City). This Irish immigrant, who reputedly killed and maimed policemen for exercise, has a present-day descendant, singer-songwriter Vincent Cross, who just wrote and recorded an enthralling and entertaining folk music album about the life of his colourful ancestor and the time and place he lived in. There are a couple of traditional Irish-American ballads, otherwise he heavily draws from both traditions and fleshes out his tales and stories with Anglo concertina and minstrel banjo to paint a graphic picture of roguery and shenanigans.

Tracklist: A Man After My Heart | Creole Girl (Trad) | Come Ye Ladies & Ye Gentlemen | Albert W. Hicks (Trad) | King Corcoran | Red Haired Mary Corcoran | A Stranger I Came | Handsome Henry Carlton | Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (Trad) | Farewell Sweet Lovely Katherine (Trad)

Artist Video Vincent Cross "The Life & Times of James ‘The Rooster’ Corcoran", Rescue Dog Records, 2020

Across the Western Ocean

Irish-American singer-songwriter Vincent Cross has recorded a folk music album dedicated to his ancestor James 'The Rooster' Corcoran. I became curious about this infamous and larger-than-life 19th century ganglord who might have escaped one of Martin Scorsese's celluloid reels.

Vincent, please tell me a little bit how you ended up playing acoustic music!

Initially I got turned onto acoustic music through early blues and Dylan while in secondary school in Ireland. I moved to London where I busked on Carnaby Street and performed at several acoustic venues around the city, including the famous Bunjies in Leicester Square, The Troubadour, Cecil Sharp House, and even The Railway Inn.

By the mid-90s and into the 2000’s, I was touring regularly across Ireland, England, Europe and Scandinavia. I was also getting back into songwriting while based in Dublin, Ireland. Before what I’d been in Galway and was getting immersed in Irish traditional music. In 2001, I met long-time collaborator Shane Kerwin in the Isle of Man. We recorded a debut self-titled release. The album caught the ears of Arista Records A&R folks, and we arranged a number of shows in NYC. Back in Ireland, Jon Richards of Galway Bay FM also took notice of the new material and included tracks on two separate nationally released compilation albums, Undercurrents (2001) and Inundations (2002), which led to a series of high-profile openings for Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, Paddy Casey and The Devlins.

Who would you consider particularly inspiring?

Guitar players like Isaac Guillory. Ballad singers like Ron Kavana (The Pogues), and harp blowers like Rory McLeod, all influenced me directly. Later the bluegrass guys like Chris Thile, Michael Daves, Mark O’Connor and Greg Garing caught my attention. When it came to songwriters I was tuning into John Prine, Richard Buckner, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan, Damien Rice, Glen Hansard, Paddy Casey, and of course the great poets.

You're based in New York City. Is there any kind of music scene you feel associated with?

In 2006, I moved to New York City where I became a regular at the legendary Baggot Inn bluegrass jams, playing with top bluegrass and old-time musicians such as Chris Thile, Michael Daves, Mark O’Connor, and Greg Garing. I formed the traditional bluegrass band Good Company and released an EP and my first full-length album Home Away from Home in 2008. On May 8, 2008, I was personally invited by folk legend Odetta to perform at a historic tribute concert hosted by Wavy Gravy at Banjo Jim’s. I gradually began to move more toward the folk side sort of after running into Odetta. She was so kind and on hearing me gave me one of the best quotes I’ve ever received.

Vincent Cross

Artist Video Vincent Cross @ FROG

Your latest album is a special affair, dedicated to a fellow by the name of James 'The Rooster' Corcoran. Let's hear about it!

James J. Corcoran was a notorious Irish-American gang leader, colony chief and truckman in 19th century New York City (he was also an ancestor of mine). A well-known personality among the Irish-American community of the historic "Corcoran's Roost," which was a rough old spot that he colonized. He is alleged to have been somewhat of an underworld figure and operated with his sons on the Manhattan waterfront during the late 19th century. There is an animated video about.

How did you find out about this ancestor in the first place?

An email from a relative alerted me to an inscription where the “roost” used to be in mid-town Manhattan. I went down to take a picture, and I began to dig into his life back in 1800s. As there were no books on him, I researched the tabloids of the time, and found plenty of material for songs. I was also surprised to discover his grave located three stops away from where I was living in Queens, at Calvary Cemetery.

The songs on the album are a mixture of traditional ballads and original ones...

Yep. As a songwriter I was compelled first to write and King Corcoran came first, while reading the initial articles. As I read more books about the time I came across Albert W. Hicks, a serial killer and last pirate hanged in NYC. I followed that line of inquiry, and picked a select group of musical influences to guide me; The Boys of the Lough, Planxty, etc. Some of the influences were so strong, and the songs so pertinent to the tale, I kept them for the album like Creole Girl, and Albert W. Hicks. The location and my interior life guided the selection and the writing process. As I was living in NYC it made it easier to visit locations such as the Five Points, The Roost, and his gravesite. All this was essential to my imagining of his life and the arch of his life.

Is there any song you like to talk about in detail?


“I heard a crystal clear voice that took me back to when I was being introduced to mountain music groups and families of Appalachia. It was a pleasure to hear such beauty coming out of Vincent Cross.” – Odetta
Artist Video
Odetta @ FROG

King Corcoran was the first song that formed itself in a meaningful way from my original researching of the newspaper articles of the time. Once I visited the physical locations of where 'Corcoran' Roost' had been (it's where the United Nations Building is today), I was able to imagine how the area looked in the 1800s, and imagine how it felt to stand on that rugged piece of ground with livestock running round, and ready to defend it from invaders.

What was your musical goal then?

Musically I wanted folks to feel that the songs came from the period of time that the lyrics speak about. Also, it was an attempt at bringing different sounds associated with traditional Irish and American music together such as banjo, bodhran, mandolin, concertina. I’d not heard these instruments together before, and so it was very experimental for me.

I realized that you added the concertina and the banjo instead of relying solely on your trademark guitar...

I love the guitar for so long that I began to get frustrated with it. I thought, "Why does this one instrument dominate so much of the musical landscape?" I also wasn’t happy with what I was playing, and so wasn’t inspired to create using it. So, for this album there are no guitars at all. The real joy was learning how the concertina influenced my accompaniment, and key choices. The banjo, too, I tried to approach it from an older style of playing rooted in the 2-finger-picking reminiscent of Dock Boggs or Lee Sexton. A sort of minstrel style.

Speaking of minstrels, I think you've toured the length and breadth of Europe. Is there any chance, the pandemic permitting, to see you over here again?

Absolutely, but when things settle down. Maybe when we’ve all access to a vaccine. I always feel the call to get out and share songs with people. That’s such a part of the creative process. Sometimes I cannot believe the distances I’ve driven to play some songs for folks. It’s a spiritual thing, it’s a pilgrimage into the soul.

What's in the pipeline in other respects?

I’m trying to pull a memoir together that sort of deals with my mixed parentage: an Irish father and English mother. It’ll draw from early life in Australia, and Ireland, and stereotypes or societal assumptions and norms based around those selections. Corcoran will probably appear as a phantom from the past who visits me in dreams.

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Vincent Cross, (3) Odetta (unknown/website).

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