Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Whiskey in the Jar: An Irish noir ballad

Two posts here this summer elicited scores of good crime songs, tunes that pack the punch of a good crime story. Your suggestions (and mine) included "Long Back Veil," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Mack the Knife," Eminem's "Stan," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and many, many more.

My trip to Ireland turned up another classic: "Whiskey in the Jar." This humorous noir story tells of a highwayman who robs a captain, then brings the money to his (the highwayman's) girlfriend or wife. Here's where the noir comes in: This Jenny is in league with the captain. She disarms the protagonist while he sleeps, then calls in the captain "to be ready for the slaughter."

Where's the humor? In the song's rollicking, sing-along beat, in the protagonist's bluff attitude, and in the song's desperately hopeful ending, at least in the versions available today. (In one form or another, the song dates to the middle of the seventeenth century.)

Want to hear "Whiskey in the Jar"? Visit any pub in Ireland. By my reckoning, it's the most popular song in the country. Or listen to The Dubliners sing it here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Declan Burke said...

Thin Lizzy do the best version, Peter ... Also, I hereby stake my claim to the chorus hook - "Whack for the Daddy-O" - for a future book title. Cheers, Dec

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I came across one version by Thin Lizzy on YouTube and was disappointed. That version was not different enough from the acoustic versions I'd been listening to. If performers are going to do something as radical as a rock version of a centuries-old ballad, they should make the effort worthwhile. In that version, at least, I don't think the band knew what to do with the song beyond paying a loving tribute.

I'm probably doing poor Phil Lynott an injustice, or maybe I'm just a conservative old fart at heart.

WIth respect to chorus hooks, "Whack-fol-lol-de-ra" from "Rocky Road to Dublin" is no slouch either.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Three Thin Lizzy tunes I listen to just about every day while writing: "Whiskey in the Jar," "Emerald" and "Cowboy Song" (I love the idea of a black Irishman singing about being a cowboy).

How about Gary Moore's "Over the Hills and Far Away"?

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A black Irishman born in England whose father was Brazilian and who grew up a Manchester United fan, no less.

OK, you gents are going to persuade me to give Thin Lizzy another listen. Where is the best Thin Lizzy version of "Whiskey in the Jar" to be found?

I'm guessing Declan grew up listening to Thin Lizzy. I, on the other hand, knew the band only from "The Boys are Back in Town," so I suppose they could have been up to things I never knew about.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Snail said...

Where is the best Thin Lizzy version of "Whiskey in the Jar" to be found?

It might be over at my place ...

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Where I've just found it, listened to it and posted a comment. Thanks for linking to that clip.

I stand by my initial opinion, but I wonder about Thin Lizzy's version of the last line, with the highwayman languishing in prison. That makes sense in terms of the rest of the song. I wonder if Thin Lizzy originated that line or whether they took it from the song's long folk tradition, with variant versions and such.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

-Phil Lynott was black, love, Mona reminded him.
Phil Lynott had been singing 'Whiskey in the Jar' when Larry and Mona had stopped dancing and kissed for the first time.
-Phil Lynott was Irish! he said -He was from Crumlin!

Roddy Doyle, The Deportees.

The foreward to that book is pretty good, too:

"Maybe it was Riverdance. A bootleg video did the rounds of the rooms and shanties of Lagos and, moved to froth by the sight of that long, straight line of Irish and Irish-American legs thousands of Nigerians packed their bags and came to Ireland. Please. Please teach us how to do THAT.
I suspect it was more complicated..."

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could say Yeats or Beckett, but Roddy Doyle is the first Irish writer I remember reading, or at least the first I remember reading as a sentient adult.

It's good to see from the foreword that he could still be funny. I got the feeling for a while there that he was making a deliberate effort to strip humor from his books. This happened around the time I stopped reading him. It may be time to read him again.

Once again, it appears that Thin Lizzy's version of "Whiskey in the Jar" meant much to people in Ireland at the time.

September 16, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Oh, the memories of the pubs and singalongs! Great fun, the
Dubliners! Thank you for sharing, Peter. It's been a long while!

September 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aren't those pub singalongs wonderful? I could do without "Country Roads," but for the most part, the singalongs are genuine folk music even when the songs are popular, composed music. If not for pub singalongs, I might never have heard "Whiskey in the Jar," "Peggy Gordon," "Black Velvet Band" or "Galway Girl," to name a few. (I think I heard "Rocky Road to Dublin" for the first time when the High Kings performed at halftime of the All-Ireland hurling final.) And I might never have heard of the Dubliners. Two and a half weeks ago, I was ignorant of that group. Now I think Luke Kelly was one of the great singers and performers ever, scary in his intensity and utterly compelling -- and he had a good sense of humor on stage, too.

September 16, 2008  

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