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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Black 47 and others emigrant songs December 26, 2020

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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A very welcome seasonal guest post from Joe Mooney.

“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you , or did they still make you cry ?”


As the old Irish truism goes – our greatest export is people. We are an emigrant race. From the Great Hunger years of the mid 1800’s an Irish diaspora was born, a global legacy that has shaped what we are as a people. And every decade since, through the 20th century and into the new millennium we Irish have set sail and flew to pastures new, mostly as economic emigrants and sometimes just in search of a different lifestyle or a bit of adventure. And being Irish, we never stop singing about it. 


Christmas is an important season for the emigrant. It is a time when many get to come home (because it’s still always ‘Home’) and see family, friends and neighbours – or else celebrate where you are with ‘the tribe’ , fellow wanderers from home. 2020 has changed all that. The thought of those missing out on this tradition had me considering the whole emigrant experience and the songs we associate with it. These are the ones which first came to mind and are only a personal selection, and reflect my musical preferences. 
I’d love to hear others thoughts and choices. 


Larry Kirwan (of Wexford !) was the lead song writer of Black 47, once described as “the House band of New York City”. Playing to , and being part of that generation of emigrants, helped shape some of their best songs . This one perfectly captures the work hard / play hard lifestyle of the 80’s and 90’s, with the green card Irish and the illegals rubbing shoulders at work and at play. 


When I was in secondary school in the early 1980’s we were taught how to emigrate! We had a class called ‘Civics’, and I think the idea was to tell us how to be good citizens. Part of being a ‘good citizen’ apparently was leaving the country and easing the economic burden. I never went to the United States, but some of my friends did and thankfully ‘made it’. Not everyone was as fortunate or happy with their choices. I always liked this next song, but once I heard Larry talk about its protagonist (a real life Wexford friend whose experience it’s based on) it became much more relevant – “For Kevin , wherever you are tonight”.



And I’ll finish out my Black 47 selection with this on . Featured on the post 9-11 album ‘New York Town’ it’s like a number of those songs above it follows the familiar path of the emigrant to that city, but this one goes right up to that fateful day. 


Not all emigration was across the broad Atlantic. My own family (aunties and uncle) went to Scotland in the 50’s and 60’s. For many Irish it was the streets of Birmingham, London etc where they found a new life. And sure didn’t we rebuild most of England for them after the war.

 

But again, not everybody ‘made it’. The hard work and the hard drinking took its toll, and in fairness, for later generations the drugs too. This is not exactly an emigrant song, but in my mind I always associate it with the Irish, many of whom I witnessed on ‘the streets of London’ in the 80’s to 90’s. A large amount of the homeless, mentally unstable and drunk people populating the parks and shouting in the tube stations I saw were my countrymen, and many were the misfortunate of earlier generations. 

 

I started with “Thousands are sailing”, written by the great Phil Chevron . For me it’s the best of the emigrant songs – it spans the centuries, it captures the highs & the lows, the excitements & disappointments , and makes the ironic point that “ where ‘er we go we celebrate the land that makes us refugees …”.

 
Ireland is now an immigrant nation too. Just as our sons & daughters tried to make new homes all over the globe, the sons & daughters of other nations and continents are here seeking better and different life’s. Giving our history, we should understand them and see how they are a reflection of ourselves. 
And one final song. Is it the ultimate goal of every emigrant to go home? No matter how successful or happy one is does the past still beckon? Do we always yearn for “the land that makes us refugees”? 


Comments»

1. GearóidGaillimh - December 26, 2020

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2. CL - December 26, 2020

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3. 6to5against - December 26, 2020

great post. I really liked Black 47. They were playing a lot around New York when I lived there in the 90s, and they were the only band who – for me- captured the Irish emmigrant experience of that generation: tied to the past but not a slave to it. Funky Ceili, and Maria’s Wedding are great, as well as the ones you mention. Fun – and funny – songs about real emotions, with killer hooks.

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4. sonofstan - December 27, 2020

The contribution of the Irish to American music is a fascinating subject, of which the Bringing it all Back Home story of “Paddy goes to Appalachia and invents country music” is but one part. Here’s a glimpse of another connection from more than a century ago:

I particularly like the line:
‘We’d surely have a kingdom/ there’d be no democracy
If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews

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sonofstan - December 28, 2020

Further to that, there’s a great interview here with Mick Maloney, once of the Johnstons, talking about the construction of American popular music out of various ethnic bits and bobs – including the murky history of blackface minstrelsy, many of whose most ‘celebrated’ practitioners were Irish. He has a particularly interesting observation about the sentimentality of songs of the old country, whether that was Ireland or Russia – it was a way of moving on from thinking about the famine or the pogrom and replacing with a memory that on one level you knew to be false, but that did the essential work of healing the trauma, both of that which drove you away and of the adjustment to a new life.

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5289944

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CL - December 28, 2020

“Through the meeting of Irish and West African people trying to enjoy themselves on a Saturday night—often together, in the same dance halls—the thing we call tap dance emerged, with its special technique and, as it grew alongside jazz, its special rhythmic qualities”
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/30/up-from-the-hold

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yourcousin - December 28, 2020

This podcast might be germane to the conversation.

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/91635-songs-that-cross-borders

But just in case it isn’t.

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5. Bartholomew - December 27, 2020

Joe, following the song about Sheffield sung by John Beag you posted a few days ago, here’s John Beag’s own emigration song, written and sung by himself. I love the echo of Raftery in the chorus (even if that verse isn’t actually by Raftery). And the incorporation of English into Irish – ‘i gClapham Common’

Chorus:
‘Sunday morning on Clapham Common,
I’d love to be drunk again,
Sitting against the wall,
With empty pockets and a sore head’.

(Live version with lyrics:

Plus one of the great songs from the Second World War. ‘The The 51st Highland Regiment’s Farewell to Sicily’ by Hamish Henderson, written as an emigrant lament:

‘We’ll all mind shebeens and bothies,
Where kind signorinas were cheery’.

A beautiful version by Dick Gaughan, the only man who can make ‘Raglan Road’ bearable (for me).

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sonofstan - December 27, 2020

“Joe, following the song about Sheffield sung by John Beag you posted a few days ago,”

Sheffield! it was Leeds, reet?

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Bartholomew - December 27, 2020

Oops – apologies to thee and all in Leeds!

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6. yourcousin - December 27, 2020

As a prescient precursor, I’ll just leave this one here.

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7. CL - December 27, 2020

– Beethoven can give us tools to criticise late capitalism- Irish Times

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8. CL - December 28, 2020

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sonofstan - December 28, 2020

Dolly Parton does a great version of that (really)

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9. Phil - December 28, 2020

My son asked me the other day if I’ve got a go-to song for singarounds. Now, these days I’m mostly singing with people who I know, so there’s a ceratin pressure to keep bringing songs they won’t have heard me sing before, and my answer was something along those lines – “keep moving forward, like a shark, y’know…”. But it struck me afterwards that there are a couple of songs I go back to whenever the opportunity arises, foremost among them this one:

“The landlords and their agents, the bailiffs and their beagles”…!
The horror you can get into a couple of quiet lines.

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