Monday, September 15, 2008

I lost my heart to "The Galway Girl"

I have a nice set of posts about authors from three continents lined up for the near future, but for now you'll have to put up with a bit more about Ireland, this time about its music.

Two comments on this blog a while back alerted me to a controversy that broke out when the manager of an Irish bar in New York banned "Danny Boy" because its composer was English. (Quizzed about this in a Northern Ireland radio interview, apparently, he claimed to have banned the song not because of its origins but because he was tired of drunks butchering the song. Imagine that: a bartender shocked — shocked! — to find that drunks sing badly.)

Happily, Irish music in Ireland seems to shun such ideological purism. In more than one pub, I found myself singing and stamping along with the crowds to "Galway Girl," a smash hit that has become an Irish standard though composed by an American, Steve Earle. How thoroughly have the Irish embraced this wonderful tune? The singer Mundy, who recorded the song in English with Sharon Shannon on accordion, also recorded a version in Irish.

But cultural influences move in multiple directions, and Shannon and Mundy told an Irish radio interviewer how Earle had written the song after spending time at traditional music sessions in Galway. I like to think of the tune, then, as Earle's ode both to the girl whose "hair was black and her eyes were blue" and to Irish music itself.

The musical ecumenicism is no new thing, either. Luke Kelly of The Dubliners did not hesitate to tell audiences that the beautiful "Peggy Gordon" was of Scottish origin and had been a hit in America.

My exposure to Irish music is no deeper than one could expect of any acquaintance less than three weeks old. So far, though, the apparent avoidance of identity politics, whether among The Dubliners, among the pub musicians of Dublin and Belfast or among today's international stars, seems to have enriched this already rich music. Now, click on these links and start dancing.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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41 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

As the owner of a Chieftains album or two, I like Irish music just fine.

As long as you don't ask me to admire Michael Flatley.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

(And yes, I know he's from Chicago.)

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" turn up on at least one collection of Irish music I found in Dublin. I don't know if they are the Michael Flatley numbers or earlier songs that share their names. Flatley could have used older songs in some of his shows, I suppose.

I had never heard any of the music from Flatley's shows until I listened to a few seconds of the original "Riverdance" just now. The snippet sounded to me like Irish music taken to its wussier, wiftier extremes, the sort of thing that turned into flute- and whistle-heavy New Age music in the hands of some performers.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and I had not known he was from Chicago. But stage shows of ethnic music don't appeal to me in the least in Seville, in Dublin or anywhere else. I'd likely never have posted this comment had I first heard the songs from a stage. It was hearing and seeing them sung in pubs, by Irish people and tourists, by the young and the old, that pulled me in.

I may have mentioned this elsewhere on the blog, but these singalong sessions reminded me of seeing and hearing flamenco in clubs in Seville and Madrid where local folks sang, danced, and erased the line between spectator and performer, a moving spectacle, though spectacle seems the wrong word. I think that in Ireland as in Spain, I was seeing folk music happening, even popular, composed music being transmuted to folk music before my eyes. Hell, in Seville, I even heard young kids tapping out flamenco rhythms as they conversed in the street. That was a hell of a lot better than hearing their counterparts elsewhere jabbering away on cell phones and saying "like" every third word.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I have a videotape of Riverdance around somewhere. As spectacle, it's pretty good, although I never understood why there was a flamenco piece in the midst of an otherwise all-Irish performance.

Anyway, my gripe about Flatley has more to do with his departure from the show; from what I could tell he concluded he was bigger than the rest of the performers and wanted to control everything, and the owners of the product disagreed. That's when he took off and created "Lord of the Dance," which I didn't think was nearly as good.

In my mind it was as though Barry Bonds had concluded that he should manage the Giants, and when the owners disagreed he left to form a new team.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Artistic differences, I suppose.

Yeah, that flamenco bit must have been odd. Maybe the point was to express some sort of kinship between the two types of music and dance. Or maybe some powerful member of the cast who happened to like flamenco wanted the number included.

As it happens, I think I read earlier today that one of the members of the Dubliners was trained in flamenco.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Flatley and Cahill and the bogus Hollywood Irish movies and the twee Irish shops one finds in every town in New England are a pernicious and damaging influence on a noble culture. We Micks from across the sheugh call it "Oirishness." Its the domain of the professional Irishman who talks about his drink and his red hair and the "awful English" and "up the IRA." Its so dreary. Its as if a whole generation grew up believing The Quiet Man to be some sort of gospel truth, in a way Scots rejected Brigadoon until they too were seduced by the ghastly Braveheart. Thank God the Welsh and the Micks East of Cape Anne are made of sterner stuff.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So you must have liked my appropriating Cahill's title for a subject considerably less elevated than the ones he writes about. An apocryphal tale (apocryphal because I happened not to be present) concerns a comment by a Dublin-born friend of mine at a party he hosted following his naturalization as an American citizen. Slipping into his most exaggerated Rocky-like South Philadelphia accent, as un-Irish a thing as can be imagined, he said he could now go around like any other American and proclaim, "Yo, dude! I'm Irish, too."

Re Irish music and professional Irishness, I was pleased to hear in person and on record that some players of traditional Irish music had obviously played some jazz in their time, for example. And two of my favorite versions of classic Irish-associated songs by Slavic musicians: Orthodox Celts' "Rocky Road to Dublin". and Hellawes' "Peggy Gordon." These are very different performances of very different songs, but they share a common feature: In both cases, the instrumental accompaniment builds up gradually, instruments joining in over the course of several choruses rather than all at once at the beginning of the song or after an a cappella verse or two. The effect is pleasing in both cases and confirms that Irish music has much life in it.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

A great way to see musical influences moving in different directions is a scene in the John Sayles' movie, "Matewan," when the striking coal miners - mostly Italian, Irish and "Negro" communicate with each with music.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may just have given me my next movie rental; thanks.

You might also like this view of the right front window of Murder Ink in Dublin , third shelf down, far right.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Wow, Peter, thanks. That's just so... incredible. Wow.

John Sayles also made a very Irish movie, "The Secret of Roan Inish," but his American stories are really terrific. Have you seen, "City of Hope?"

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nope, the only John Sayles movies I've seen are two early ones: Something Wild and The Brother From Another Planet. Yep, I got a kick out of seeing Dirty Sweet in that window. The Big O was part of a display in the left window, which made for a nice pair of bookends.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Pardon my voyeurism, Peter, but the comments make me heady enough to fly back to Ireland. Well, perhaps, only in my mind will I be able to make the trip. Fortunately, my memories are alive and well,as yours will be!

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Voyeurism is what this is all about, PM. No need to apologize.

"My memories are alive and well"

That sounds like a line from a slow, wistful Irish ballad.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger caite said...

At the fear of appearing to be suffering from that dreaded "Oirishness", I happen to like "The Quiet Man". But I love "The Secret of Roan Inish" and Sharon Shannon!

September 15, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Wouldn't be surprised, Peter. And thank you.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Caite, I like The Quiet Man too, but its a kind of parallel dimension film unrelated to Ireland in any way even in the
50's. Havent seen Secret but I'll rent it for my six year old daughter as long as there's nothing too scary in it.

8 Men Out - the definitive Black Sox movie.

Lone Star - best last line in any movie not directed by Howard Hawks.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Caite, Sharon Shannon is one my many discoveries on this recent trip. It seems to me that the most exciting performers of Irish traditional music can be divided into two broad categories: those who expand the tradition by stretching out instrumentally or vocally, incorporating jazz, for example; and those who keep the the music alive by doing the traditional things so brilliantly well. I'd put Sharon Shannon in that second group. And I'd love to see her live. She seems to have to much fun performing.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, this series of posts and comments has given me at least one idea for a story. Now I've given you an idea for a ballad. So let's start creating.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, I guess John Sayles will be planted firmly in my consciousness the next tume I visit the movie-rental store.

Adrian, your comment about Lone Star is a selling point. Hawks was one hell of a versatile director. The only things of his that I've seen and did not love were Man's Favorite Sport and, if I recall correctly, the ending of Twentieth Century.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Speaking of beautifully butchered renditions of Danny Boy - This is the thingie for the Muppet's version of Danny Boy, on youtube (-:

http://nz.youtube.com/watch?v=OCbuRA_D3KU&feature=rec-fresh

(Sorry, I don't know how to do the techie embed thingie on people's comments pages)

September 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I enjoyed that version. I think I like the second singer best, though I hope the recording did not get the Muppets in trouble with any New York bartenders.

September 15, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Hawks and Billy Wilder always get short shrift for some reason.

Gotta agree with Dec about the Thin Lizzy version of Whiskey.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My early opinions of directors were shaped by Andrew Sarris, so I've always been high on Hawks and less so on Wilder. I haven't seen enough of Wilder's movies to form a comprehensive judgment, but I was surprised when Sarris revised his opinion of Wilder years later. I think he may have been right the first time.

Off my initial hearings, I like the acoustic verions of "Whiskey in the Jar" better, and I speak with the righteous assurance of the recent convert, so I know I'm right.

But Phil Lynott must have a special place in the hearts of Irish music lovers. He figures in the opening of one of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books, and there's a statue of him in Dublin. And I read recently that he used to play at O'Donoghue's, which must mean something.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger caite said...

Adrian, yes, certainly "The Quiet Man" is a very idealized view of Ireland. But..I would argue that there is a good deal of real Irishness in it. Not to mention Maureen O'Hara at her peak. "secret" is totally suited to your daughter's age..some wonderful music as well.

Danny Boy..yes, it is not Irish, but it is a very beautiful song, if done right. The best version I EVER heard. Geraldine Fitzgerald, on stage in NYC. I don't remember the event or the rest of the show, but I will ALWAYS remember her singing Danny Boy. I googled it and it seems I am not the only one who remembered ...http://www.winningwriters.com/contests/tomstory/2006/ts06_breen.php

I only wish there was a video record of it on YouTube.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This whole thing about sentimentality in Irish music and other arts is interesting, especially since most of it is so new to me. Take "Rocky Road to Dublin," as hard-edged, even brutally realistic a song as you'll find anywhere. In the first verse, to that stirring rhythm and minor key, the narrator admits that before leaving home, he "Saluted father dear, kissed my darlin' mother / Drank a pint of beer my grief and tears to smother."

That's the opposite of sentimental, but the potential for sentimentality, with grief, tears and mother all invoked, is there.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Theres also a nuanced football/sectarian politics with a lot of these songs. One of my favourites is The Fields of Athenry which I sing it to my daughters every night at bedtime, but if I were to sing it at certain pubs in Carrickfergus (not my sister's) I'd be in for a kicking because in the last decade or so it has become firmly associated with Celtic FC in Glasgow.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A disproportionate amount of what I've heard about or seen in my limited experience with soccer has inclined me to believe not entirely frivolously that the world would be better off if the sport had never existed.

I resent soccer because it made me wary of watching the hurling final in Dublin. With visions of European soccer brawls in my head, I asked Dubliners where I could watch the match without getting caught in a brawl between supporters of the rival clubs. All assured me that such things didn't happen, and they were right. Up and down O'Connell Street and on the road to Croke Park, fans wearing Kilkenny colors mingled in good fellowship with those in Waterford colors. I wound up seeing the game live, and the celebration was just as peaceful as the preliminaries. OK, maybe hurling is more peaceful because the game is more insular and thus less prone to sectarian and other violent rivalries, but still.

I hope none of the songs I've mentioned in these posts and comments has become a partisan or sectarian tool because all are too great for anyone to be deprived of the chance to hear, sing or perform them. As it was, I left my favorite bright orange shirt home in Philadelphia in order to avoid possible difficulties. I'd hate to have to worry about my choice of songs to hum or sing on future visits to Ireland.

I suppose you wouldn't want to sing "The Fields of Athenry" on the Shankill Road either, then. There's a Rangers supporters club there, and when a fellow passenger on my tour of Belfast yelled "Go, Rangers!" from the top deck of the open-top bus, he was answered with a rowdy roar of affirmation from the club that bubbled with potential violence for anyone who dared oppose it.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter,

I'm not saying that it would be suicide to sing Athenry on the Shankill on a Friday night after the pubs have closed but I'd check that my running shoes were in good order first.

I agree with you about soccer. Apart from the immortal "You Only Sing When You're Winning" or the truly evil "In Your Liverpool Slums" soccer's musical contributions to world culture are largely negative.

(BTW Dave Torrans - born and bred on the Shankill - has a lot of good stories about that particular scary piece of real estate)

A....

Oh and thanks for the shout out above. Me and Dec together at last. Its like Lennon and McCartney. (I'm Lennon.)

September 17, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

Perhaps the bartender took the song to heart and was tired of people doing their unholy liberties to it.

Why was this bartender being interviewed anyway? I take it him banning those people from singing the song was big news?

September 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CS, I didn't hear the interview myself, which is why I said that the bartender "apparently" used the tired-drunks defense. I think the interview came about because an Irish bar had banned a song so widely identified with all things Irish.

September 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So the Shankill can still be scary even in this era of murals tourism? Given a visit or two of convivial conversation and tea at No Alibis, perhaps some of Dave's stories about the Shankill would emerge. And I mean it about the tea. I had so much fun browsing, talking with visitors to the shop and, yes, being offered tea or coffee at No Alibis, that I was jolted by the realization, sometime after the scheduled closing time, that I was in a store rather than in a friend's living room or an especially literate pub.

I was referring to the violence generated by soccer rather than to the songs club supporters sing, but "You'll Never Walk Alone," as sung by Liverpool fans, is no masterpiece. And this talk of ugliness reminds me of a high school game in Massachusetts in which a vocational school had soundly whipped a school from the good side of town, whose supporters proceeded to chant: "That's all right; that's OK / You're going to work for us some day." You don't need to know much beyond that to understand sports' potential to exploit ugly divisions.

I'd say you and Declan are less like Lennon and McCartney than like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. And you, I'm sorry to report, might have to be Williams.

September 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Dec gets Marilyn and I get my head chopped off?

September 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Think of it as Dec getting Mr. Coffee, and you getting worshipped in a wheelchair by peers in front of a television audience of millions, not to mention having a tunnel named for you. OK, the tunnel killed a woman, but how many of us get any kind of infrastructure named after us at all?

September 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I found a clip of "The Fields of Athenry" on YouTube, and I realized that I'd heard it, too, in a pub on my recent trip. It's a slow, wistful song, not the kind of thing I'd picture rowdy soccer fans singing. But then, I'd never have thought "You'll Never Walk Alone" would become a football song, either.

Did you like that song before you, like Michael, set out for Australia?

September 18, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

There are alas clips of Celtic Fans singing Athenry on YouTube too. Click on them if you want that lovely tune ruined.

No, I learned the song because (cough) its only three chords on the guitar. The girls like it because its got a good bedtime quality. The other song I sing them most nights is The Streets of Laredo. (I'm probably warping their minds with this tragic stuff).

Leah (the missus) occasionally sings them tragic Yiddish songs too.

I dont know if its the melody or just depression that puts them to sleep.

a...

September 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What happens to a child who grows up having been sung to sleep with "The Fields of Athenry" and "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen"? Will that child have visions of lonely prisoners being consoled at night with raisins and almonds?

I can well understand your attraction to the simplicity of "Fields of Athenry." Indeed, I've taken up my guitar again since I returned, and I have already set myself upon "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Peggy Gordon." That simplicity makes for easy playing, but it also allows skilled musicians lots of room to do interesting things with harmony and melody. I like the Orthodox Celts' version of "Rocky Road to Dublin" that way, and the mild Slavic accents are an extra treat. The band Lunasa also seems to do interesting things with harmony, though the liner notes for the album I bought focus solely in rhythm.

Then there's the slip-jig rhythm of "Rocky Road to Dublin" -- hard to master for non-musicians like myself, though I've been practicing. That odd rhythm may help explain Luke Kelly's dramatic eyebrow-raising and arm-thrusting when he sang the song. They make a great spectacle in one excellent clip I've watched repeatedly, but maybe they also helped him keep the song's time, the way beating time would for a simpler tune.

September 18, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

In a few years when the girls start raving about Thomas Hardy I'll know this was a mistake.

One of the things I thought was missing from Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union was any sense of the music. Take two million Yiddish speaking Jews, plonk them in the Alaskan backwoods and expose them to C&W, R&B etc. you're bound to get something interesting. Chabon however didn't really try to follow that road.

I forget to mention that the working title of The Dead Yard was "I Am Your Bold Deceiver" before Simon and Schuster complained that it was too long.

A..

September 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Could have been worse. You could have wanted to call it "Mush-a Ring Dum-a Do Dum-a Da."

That's an interesting criticism of Chabon's book. If Jews had been plunked down en masse in Alaska instead of in New York, klezmer music would likely have developed differently.

My first real professional article was a profile of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, one of whose whimsical brass players said the band had contemplated calling itself Jews With Horns.

September 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I forgot to mention that I was chewing a colleague's ear off this evening about my Irish trip when the colleague, a guitarist who plays at open-mike nights and favors country blues, told me he knew one Irish song: "The Fields of Athenry."

September 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just found a rock and roll version of "The Fields of Athenry". As many times as I listen to it, I hear the line as "She waits and hopes and prays for her love in Botley Bay" rather than Botany Bay. What could the singer have been thinking? Or what am I missing?

September 20, 2008  

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