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The name of melodeon player Redie Johnston (c. 1886-1955) was known for decades chiefly because it served as the title of reels recorded by fiddle great Michael Coleman and other artists. Redie was, however, the first female Irish traditional musician to appear on a commercially issued recording and well worth remembering in her own right.

“Redie” was a nickname. Her real name was Rose M. McLaughlin. Her father Myles (c. 1861-1934) was a flute player and uilleann piper who moved his family in the 1880s from the townland of Granny near Frenchpark, County Roscommon to New York, where he operated a tailoring business on Columbus Avenue on Manhattan’s west side.

The Columbus Circle area in that era was a heavily Irish neighborhood, one that continued through the 1930s to be a home for some of New York’s leading traditional musicians and dancers. Donovan’s Halls, perhaps the most important Irish dance hall in New York, was on Columbus Circle, with other Irish halls, cabarets and music stores nearby. The champion step dancer James Egan and famed uilleann piper Tom Ennis both operated music stores in the area.

Myles McLaughlin’s large family and wide circle of friends played a leading role in the world of New York Irish traditional music and dance from the 1880s through the 1920s. So many McLaughlins, as well as Hebron and Johnston in-laws, are mentioned in the pages of The Advocate, one of the city’s Irish weeklies, that it is difficult to determine the exact relationships between them all. But they were a prodigiously large and active musical clan.

The Advocate of 21 December 1912 featured an article headlined “The McLoughlins of Roscommon Celebrate Birthday Party” (the spelling of the family name was usually McLaughlin), noting that “no introduction is necessary to Myles McLoughlin, the famous flute and Irish pipe player expert, or “Eddie,” the jig and reel wizard or the violin of Mrs. McLoughlin, sister, who can rattle off some lively reels on that accordeon. ”Among the distinguished guests at the event were “Mike Anderson, the famous Irish piper, late of the Hippodrome.”

Redie was still a teenager at that point, and not mentioned in print. She would soon be regularly mentioned in the Irish-American press, as would her half sister Margaret McLaughlin Hebron, born in New York about 1902, who was hailed as the “champion girl dancer of the world.” Redie’s nephew Jimmie McLaughlin, born in 1908, was an outstanding uilleann piper who made his first commercial recording at the age of 15.

In 1913, Redie married widower Herbert Johnston, a native of Sixmilebridge, County Tyrone, who had three children by his first wife. His two daughters, Florence and Jane, performed as the singing Johnston Sisters. Redie and Herbert would have one son of their own, Edward, born in 1915, who became a celebrated step dancer.

In February 1918, under the name Rose McLaughlin, Redie recorded four 78 rpm sides for Victor, but the label chose not to release them. In January 1923, she joined piper Tom Ennis, fiddler Tom Quigley and pianist John Muller on four sides issued on the Gennett label. Though the artist listed on the label was Ennis, this session made Redie the first female Irish traditional musician on a commercial recording in the 78 rpm era. In October of 1923, she returned to the studio to record another Gennett disc, this time as the featured soloist, with backing from pianist Harry Race.

In that same year, Redie was performing regularly with her father and two violinists, Margaret Walsh and the famous Michael Coleman, as the “Irish Victor band.” In 1920 Coleman would immortalize her name (albeit in a slightly garbled form) when he cut his first 78 rpm disc for Tom Ennis’ Shannon label, a recording that included a side titled “Reidy Johnson’s Reels.”

Redie also performed in this era with Coleman’s great fiddling contemporary James Morrison and with uilleann pipers Michael Carney, Tom Ennis and Patsy Touhey. She played with Morrison and Ennis as the “Celtic Trio” in an Irish Music and Dance Festival staged at Donovan’s Halls. The event also featured a “Three-hand reel by Margaret McLaughlin, Jimmie Egan and Tommy Brennan” as well as step dancing exhibitions and competitions, “the latest Sinn Féin songs,” comedians and “the marvelous boy piper, Master James McLaughlin.”

Jimmie McLaughlin, the “marvelous boy piper,” was born in New York in 1908 and mentored by his father Myles and Tom Ennis. In January 1924, when he was only 15, he recorded a 78 rpm disc for the Gennett label. His performances included the jig selection “Judy Hynes ; Sullivan’s jig” and the reels “Road to Galway ; Jenny Bang the Weaver.” Though a recording career never followed, McLaughlin was an active performer through 1934 on radio and at concerts and dances. He married Veronica Kelleher in 1941. She died the following July and Jimmie joined the army, after which he disappears from the public record.

Tom Ennis’ father John, a piper who had been a major contributor to Francis O’Neill’s music collecting in Chicago, commemorated a gathering of the McLaughlins and their circle of friends in a poem entitled “The Craft,” published in The Advocate on 21 May, 1921. He praised pipers Myles McLaughlin, Eddie Burke and Michael Carney, fiddler James Morrison and other attendees.

“But fair Reedy Johnson, who was next on the call, in tempo and style is the peer of them all ; Her reels, jigs and hornpipes caused a furore, And before she got through we were all on the floor.”
Ennis’ description of the party would seem to indicate that a “session” in those days consisted of sequential solo performances rather than the collective music making that has been the norm in more recent decades.

The last Advocate reference to Redie was a 29th December 1923 note on an Armagh Dancing Class: “Eddie Johnston, the boy wonder, danced a hornpipe and reel that took the house. Mrs. Herbert Johnston, mother of the boy played the accordion with Tom Ennis on the bagpipes.” Herbert Johnston died in 1931. Redie passed away at the age of 69 in 1955, when she was living in Broad Channel, Queens, a female pioneer of public performance and recording who had been forgotten by later generations of Irish traditional musicians.

  • Irish jig medley / Redie Johnston, accordion ; unidentified, piano

  • Judy Hyne's, jig ; Sullivan's, jig / Jim McLaughlin, uilleann pipes ; Frederic D Wood, piano