When it comes to musical tastes is it nature or nurture? I have always been drawn to Irish music over any other form of traditional music. I don’t remember my parents ever playing Irish music around the house even though I have a good amount of Irish blood in me. I’d sooner put on a Luke Kelly record than a Hank Williams record or Howlin’ Wolf record. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate those masters. In fact I like them quite a bit. It’s just that Luke Kelly speaks to my soul in a way that the others don’t.
I’ve always loved melody. I’ve grown to love discordant abstract music like Public Image Limited’s Second Edition or The Flowers of Romance. I listen to them a lot. But melody came first. I’ve always felt the Irish excelled at melody. Their songs are full of melodies of great joy and sadness. American country and blues seems monochromatic to me by comparison. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not as good; it’s just different. Even when I listen to more traditional forms of American music, I tend to lean towards Boozoo Chavis or Mississippi John Hurt, two artists that are more melodic than your typical American roots music.
The Irish also excel at the political song. This is probably because of their history. But they have a way of tackling political matters in songs that seem romantic and poetic. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan could do that here, of course. We’ve had our singers and our moments. But Irish music from the earlier folk songs all the way to modern singers, like Damien Dempsey, just seem to excel at that form.
Political songs are a tricky thing. In the hands of someone like Dylan or Luke Kelly they can be powerful pieces of art that call people to action. In someone less talented, they often are cringe inducing. They can be all message and no poetry. The key to a good political song is to make people feel something and not just think something. If you just think something someone can use reason to sway you away from those thoughts. If you feel something deep down in your soul it becomes a conviction that you just can’t shake.
The Irish excel at songs like this. They are good at telling stories that made you feel for the characters involved. They make the political personal. Listen to the song School Days Over. A verse in this song goes as such:
Come on then Dai, it’s almost light,
Time you were off to the anthracite
The morning mist is on the valley,
It’s time you were on your way
Time you were learning the miner’s job
And earning the miner’s pay
What this song does so well is it makes you sympathize with the plight of the miner in a way that a more frontal assault might not. You picture some poor bastard graduating from school and immediately going on to a life of toil and hardship. You feel for them, and therefore there is a little piece of your heart that can never fully side with the bosses.
One of my all time favorite political songs is the song The Town I Loved So Well. It’s so masterfully done. When the song starts it’s not a political song at all. It’s just someone telling you about the town that they grew up in:
In my memory I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gasyard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well
But by the end of the song the narrator is talking about the plight of his town. It’s become a sad shadow of what it once was:
But when I returned how my eyes have burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armored cars and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every tree
Now the army’s installed by that old gasyard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done
to the town I loved so well
The song is about the town Derry in Northern Ireland. Given that context it is obviously dealing with the Troubles. But it also makes you sad for a loss of peace that could happen anywhere, and can be appreciated by those that have never set foot in Ireland. We all know places in America that aren’t what they once were. By telling a story and slowly unveiling things, the narrator makes you feel something that a simple didactic political song would never get across.
As a side note the song also works as a song about a loss of innocence. I once took a religious class and the teacher told us how The Garden of Eden story is a metaphor for us all. Most of us at least grow up in the child’s world of paradise. Eventually we see the world for what it is and we are cast out of that innocent garden. This song takes the listener on a journey from innocence to reality. But it makes you wish that that cold reality could be better. It makes you want for a better world. And that is the genius of its political nature.
I know fans of music like to argue over what is better. It’s a totally valid argument to say that American traditional music has a depth and richness to it that Irish music doesn’t have. I’m just trying to get to why it speaks to me and what is so great about that particular form.
And the truth of the matter is that I don’t know why exactly this form of music means so much to me. I’d say maybe it was a tribal thing. I don’t really identify with any groups, so maybe it’s because of the fact that I’m a good deal Irish, that it appeals to me on a subconscious level that is searching for an identity. But I don’t think that’s the case at least. Music has mystical properties to it. It appeals to our souls in ways that no amount of science will ever explain. Irish music speaks to me and it always will. I’ll leave it at that.