Ah, synchronicity! Yesterday, Terence Winch posted this excellent piece about the connection between the Irish and the Jews in song writing. Today, I want to write a bit about poetry and Irish folk music.
Ireland's relationship to language is rich and complex. There is the long history of Gaelic, complicated by its entanglement with politics. There is the wonderful and deep well that is Irish English - metaphorical, playful, and full of music. Many Irish speakers move seamlessly between Gaelic and English, and everyday Irish speech is gorgeous with idiom and imagery. Not surprisingly, poetry has flourished in this culture that values and encourages facility and grace with language. In fact, I think it could be argued that, in Ireland, the line of demarcation between poetry and everyday speech is virtually non-existent.
We see this also in Irish folk music. There is wordplay and punning and nonsense syllabication just for the sonic joy of it. There is the sometimes surprising eloquence of the ordinary, the soaring grace of exquisite metaphor, the most satisfactory "pop" of unexpected (and often hilarious) endings - all of the things we crave in good poetry. There is also the sense of inclusion - you are invited, encouraged, expected to join in the singing. You may not know the verses, but the chorus is always easy to learn, frequently simple syllables that are just plain fun to sing.
Last month, Liam Clancy died, the man Bob Dylan called "the best ballad singer I've ever heard." He was the last of the iconic Irish folk group of the 1960s, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. I've been listening to their music almost non-stop since hearing of his death. The Clancy's and Makem recognized the connection between Irish poetry and music, and often included recitations of poetry (mostly Irish of course, but not always) in their concerts. They were all also actors, so their recitations were always stellar. And of course, there is the music - the wonderful, infectious, lovely music. I've got a lot of clips to share, but I'm pretty sure you'll agree they are all worth the time taken to watch them.
This first clip is from Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest television show of the very early 1960s. The guitarist is Liam Clancy; the man standing (and step-dancing) is Tommy Makem; the other singer is Paddy Clancy (Tom, the third Clancy brother, is MIA for some reason). This song, "The Little Beggarman," rollicks along on a bubbling stream of nonsense words and double-entendre.
This next clip is a montage of Irish nationalist songs (any Orangemen out there will just have to suck it up). It includes an excellent reading of Yeats' poem, "Easter 1916," by Tom Clancy.
This is a later clip of a Tommy Makem performance of "Gentle Annie," which includes a reading of Patrick Cavanaugh's "On Raglan Road." Makem talks about the connection between Irish poetry and music.
This clip is from a 1977 concert with Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. In it, Liam recites Baudelaire.
Finally, I'm including this clip because it's just a delight. It comes from a 1973 Irish TV broadcast, and it features Tommy Makem performing his signature piece, "The Cobbler." This song includes the nonsense lyrics and a bit of rhyming slang. I'll leave it to you to decipher that.