The unpredictable trajectory of Irish folk music

The unpredictable trajectory of Irish folk music

From traditional sea shanties in Belfast pubs to the unconventional brilliance of The Pogues, the landscape of Ireland’s musical heritage is a balance between preserving the tradition and embracing the raw authenticity of new voices

I WAS talking to a BBC producer who made programmes on folk music and culture. We were in the canteen in Broadcasting House in Belfast, among some of the distinguished intellectuals who appeared in his programmes and I made a total fool of myself.

These were men, mostly men, who knew the Irish music scene, who understood folk traditions and devoted their energies to honouring and preserving them.

I felt I should make an effort to offer some ideas of my own.

Big mistake.

What I said was, “I think the future of Irish folk music is The Pogues.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

The Pogues were a shambles and a disgrace.

I might as well have said that I expected that one day Ian Paisley would be first minister of Northern Ireland or that Britain, in fulfilment of biblical prophesy, as interpreted by certain American evangelicals at the time, would leave the European Union.

We were going through a transition in popular folk music then, the type that would show up on the Val Doonican show and at St Patrick’s Day specials, away from The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. towards Planxty and De Dannan.

While in the folk pubs of Belfast, Pat’s Bar and Barney’s, down by the docks you would still hear sea shanties.

And those with some expertise in the traditions and musical techniques would marvel at the renditions of reels and jigs by session fiddlers and pipers. And this always seemed odd to me when these were dance tunes and no one was dancing. But if you talked over them someone would hiss at you to shut up and enjoy it.

Folk was traditional so there was more emphasis on preserving it than in experimenting with it.

A singer would introduce a song by saying he or she got it from Paddy or Eamon so and so in Ballywillwill or Glenties, who had heard it at the hearth of the great seanachie, Thingamaigh MacLonggaelicword.

These songs were brought forward as collector’s pieces to be admired. Listening to them could be as boring as looking at someone else’s family album.

Music which had been enjoyed among country people in their homes, among their neighbours, smoking their pipes and drinking whiskey was being treated as if it belonged in a glass case as a memorial to lost rural dignity, or as proof that some strand of it still survived, in some townland in west Donegal or Clare, so far off the track you’d never find it yourself.

Even so, Mary Black, Clannad, Christy Moore and others were making music that was well rooted in Irish experience, though much of it cryptic, apparently suggestive of mystical notions about a Celtic past.

I’m thinking of Bright Blue Rose by Jimmy McCarthy, sung by Christy Moore, apparently a song about Jesus imagined as a dolphin. It’s beautiful. I have no complaint about it.

Christy sang it, and other songs, for a few of us in his sister’s house in Doolin years ago.

And he took to writing songs about street level experience, empathising with republican prisoners, matchmaking, anti-apartheid campaigners.

One of the most interesting political clashes in music at the time was Paul Brady’s song The Island written as a counter to Christy’s of the same name.

Brady doubted that the bomb on main street would bring us all together. Fair point.

I’m not sure that when we listen to Sinead O’Connor or Maura O’Connell or the bright new voices of the 1980s that we are hearing a folk revival but, perhaps indeed something more interesting, more personal.

And if we insisted on a distinction, where would we put Van Morrison’s Cyprus Avenue, surely as raw an evocation of street-life as you could find? It too is part of the shift of interest from the country lane to the backstreet.

New folk songs were written, like Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. But he sang it ornately, in a higher register than his spoken voice, almost as if holding it up to be admired. Shane MacGowan sang it from his guts in a way that would wrench the heart out of you.

Folk, of its nature, was about social experience, poverty or war, the struggle to find work or love, and while these themes are there in other types of music, folk comes up from below, refers back to the past. It is music which claims its authenticity through intimate connection with the actual experience it refers to.

Folk music is music that would not have been written but for the experience. That makes it unlike the music of the professional musician who wakes up in the morning wondering what to write a song about.

John Lennon bemoaned the expectation that the Beatles would produce a new single every three months.

Folk doesn’t come out of the studio but has a long life before it finds its way into it.

And even if it is produced professionally and polished, it is for folk to decide whether to adopt it as speaking for them.

Shane MacGowan and the Pogues struck us as authentic. It was in the rawness of the voice, the groundedness of the themes, the anguish and the exultation. And it was even in the pity Shane evoked for his own dilapidation.

My old friends in the BBC canteen, of course, would say I was talking nonsense.