A Friend Like Earle

Earle Hitchner, Irish Echo,
Wall Street Journal, Drew University

There was a time (actually, pretty much my entire career) when I wrote for a living. During that time, I met the Irish music journalist and former radio host Earle Hitchner. 

When I met him, I thought, "Earle is so cool." I mean, he wrote about music for the New York Irish newspaper and the Wall Street Journal back when newspapers paid music critics and people actually bought and read the news. When we first crossed paths at the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton this very weekend about twenty years ago, I was working as a book editor and I had just published my first book. He came to a lecture I gave, we talked, we clicked, and then my husband Steve and I hung out with him pretty much the entire week after that.  

I didn't understand why Earle took any interest in us at all. I mean, he was a trad snob and we were mostly bar musicians. I was writing for a small local Irish newspaper at the time and didn't know half the stuff that he knew. (Still don't.) I know what I like and can say why I like it, but I was never going to be an encyclopedia of Irish music. I was a sham critic, I thought—a "feeling" person, not a "fact" person; an essayist not a journalist. But Earle was interested and encouraging. He spotted the weaknesses a mile away and used them as friendly leverage, like all my favorite wiseasses. He teased me about my book:  "Oh, yeah, that's just a nice collection of secondary sources." I furrowed my brow, laughed with him. Like any good journalist, he was snarky, uppity, and self-righteous. We had that in common, though it took me about twenty years to become snarky enough to get his joke. 

Earle is/was widely considered the preeminent Irish music critic in the United States, back when there was such a thing. He's the guy whose job I wanted (not really), and next to Earle, I felt like a baby—a little sister in Garanimals with pigtails, braces, and headgear. I had just turned thirty. I already had nearly a decade of professional writing experience in my pocket and a grad degree, but I felt adolescent in Irish music circles. Sure, I had published a book about Irish music and was working in my field as a music education book editor, but my confidence was at least half bluster. It hadn't sunk in yet that I had pedigree, credentials, stats. Up until that point, my jobs had only paid me to write about government disaster assistance, renewable energy, and penguins. Penguins were cool.

In my mind, I was a newbie.  At twenty-eight, after those government and nonprofit jobs, I had returned to grad school to find a world in which I could get paid to write about the things I cared about most, which at the time was Irish music and bicycles. Through grad school, I paid my dues by writing borderline inappropriate things about my Irish music friends, and I paid my rent by writing about bicycles that cost more than the car I was driving. I was drinking a lot of Guinness but I was in very good shape. (Very little has changed about my pursuits, really, except the in-shape part.) 

In the first few years I knew Earle, I was writing about music for the Boston Irish Reporter and teaching Irish American studies at Irish music at a local college. Earle and I would write back and forth from time to time, about music and musicians, until one day I needed a job with benefits. I took yet another full time writing/editing job, this time in higher ed and far from Irish music. I lost touch with the Irish academic world, and I mostly lost touch with Earle. No biggie; he had moved on as well to pursue a PhD in literature. But a couple weeks ago, Earle emerged. He was touched by something I had written about the power of music. 

I didn't even know Earle was out there. He wrote to me because he had something to say and a brilliant poem to share. He had a reflection on what I was doing. He had advice, based on what he knows about the writers. Publish, he said. Get it out there. Make it happen. Not only did he have a directive for me; he also had a title. Well. I mean... how lucky am I? 

Preoccupied as I am with motherhood, wifehood, musicianship, teacherhood, and balancing the anxiety of the eternally frustrated artist, I don't know a lot about what Earle does day to day now. I do know that he is out there reading and thinking. He continues to write essays and poems, occasionally sending them to a select mailing list when something inspires him. He left newspapers when newspapers left him, but he is now armed with a doctorate. I Googled him and I couldn't find any recently published works, but I am sure that he is writing. 

Earle was cool then, and he's still cool now. This morning, on the twentieth(ish) anniversary of our first meeting, I am throwing some gratitude Earle's way. Thanks to Earle, work on Book 2 begins today. 

Thank you, Earle. Little sisters in Garanimals need big brothers like you.