The Ultimate Irish Ballad & The Kingdom of Kerry for St Patrick’s Day!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

La Fheile Padraig Sona Daoibh!

‘Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow.

In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility.’  (John B Keane)

‘And sleeping time or waking time ’tis there I long to be

To walk again that kindly street, the place I grew a man

With the boys of Barr na Sraide who hunted for the wran’  (Sigerson Clifford)

 

 

There are 32 Counties on the Island of Ireland.

Each fiercely proud of their own distinctive landscape and culture.

There are 4 ancient provinces : Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster each with a storied history.

But, there is only one Kingdom.

Only one Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Kerry.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Mountains and Lakes and the Sea.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Poets and Playwrights.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Soldiers, mystic Monks and Polar Explorers.

 

Kerry is a Kingdom of Horsemen and the greatest Gaelic Footballers who have ever laced a boot.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Brosnans, McElligotts, O’Sullivans, Kellihers, Foleys and Fitzgeralds.

Kerry is a Kingdom of breathtaking beauty which nurtures dreaming souls.

Dreaming souls like the poet Sigerson Clifford who wrote one of the most heart-piercing ballads in the canon of Irish song, ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’.

A song which reminds us of those halycon days, now cherished in the memory, when our lives had no print or plan.

Days, long passed now, spent with the Anam Cara of youth.

Now, like chaff in the wind, The Boys of Barr na Sride, have scattered to the streets of London or Boston or Sydney with the Home Place of Cahirciveen visited in their sleeping time or in waking time reverie.

And, as they dream, they will harmonise with the wonderful Kerry tones of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh as along with her companions in Danu she takes us, once again to the top of the street where the boys gather to set the world to rights before they set off to hunt for the Wran on St Stephen’s Day.

For the Home Place of Kerry now may lie miles and miles and years and years away from where you stand today but its landscapes, the richness of its language, the romance of its history and the lilt of its song will always, always, lie deep in the heart as long as there are spheres spinning in the heavens.

Our Painting today is by Paul Henry (1876 to 1958). His engagement with the Irish landscape, its seas and its coast have left an indelible mark on the Irish imagination.

 

 

This post dedicated to all the living O’Sullivans, Foleys, Fitzgeralds, Kellihers, Brosnans and McElligotts and to all of those sleeping in Kerry’s green fields.

In memory of Joan O’Sullivan Hickey, proud native of Killorglin in Kerry, who I will meet again when the wheel of life runs down and peace comes over me.

 

 

Photos in descending order:

Carrantuohill Mountain at 3,046 Feet the highest in Ireland.

One of my proudest accomplishments is to have climbed it early one morning after a night of intensive training with my cousin Michael in Falvey’s Bar in Killorglin.

Killarney lakes at sunrise as seen from ‘Ladies View’

Slea Head, Dingle.

Brendan Kennelly (born 1936). Poet and Professor Emeritus at Trinity College. His collection, ‘The Man Made of Rain’ is never far from my reach.

John B Keane (1928 to 2002) Playwright, Publican, Storyteller of genius.

Monastic Settlement Skellig Michael – The home of a monastery for a dozen monks from the 6th to the 12th Century. A World Heritage Site and a liminal place between worlds.

Tom Crean (1877 to 1938) Polar Explorer with Scott and Shackleton and a Homeric Hero.

Bryan Cooper (born 1992) A Jockey I have sometimes entrusted my shirt to. His 3 winners at Cheltenham in 2013 allowed me to lay in a grand store of fine shirts for many a year.

Mick O’Connell (born 1937) in Valentia. A natural aristocrat in his bearing. Legendary Gaelic Footballer for Kerry. Selected for the GAA’s All Ireland Team of The Century. My uncle Joe (RIP) said he was the greatest player who ever lived and I never argued with my Uncle Joe.

Sigerson Clifford (1913 to 1985) Poet and Playwright. Reared in Cahirciveen. His, ‘Ballads of a Bogman’ has added many treasures to the Kerry Word Hoard.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (born 1978) is a superlative singer in her native Irish and in English. All her recordings with Danu and solo come unreservedly recommended.

 

Christy Moore, Jack B Yeats – Posts for St Patrick 2

 

The Home Place.

Never more real and vivid than when recollected in the imagination.

We are our memories.

And, our memories, particularly those which carry the most emotional charge, are constantly being selected, edited and recast.

The stream of memory is never stilled.

The genesis of a song, a poem, a story or a painting begins in an insistent whisper from the memory.

A whisper which cannot be ignored.

Such a whisper was heard in the 1930s by Jack McAuliffe from Lixnaw in County Kerry as he sat sat in a cottage near Dooneen Point.

In response he wrote a poem that became the ballad, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’.

 

The key duty of an creative artist is to closely attend to those whispers and make them real in words on the page, notes in the air or brush marks on the canvas.

And, the truth of the song or the poem or the painting is the truth of the imagination and cannot be reduced to the mundane metric of exact measurement.

You may not be able to see Kilrush and Kilkee form the Cliffs of Dooneen with the naked eye but I defy anyone alive not to see them, clear as the light of dawn, in the mind’s eye when conjured up with lyrical tenderness by Christy Moore and Planxty (featuring the heart piercing piping of Liam O’Flynn)

So too the trembling hare and the lofty pheasants making homes for their young.

And, whoever you are, wherever you are, however far you have traveled from your own native home far away from the mountains and away over the foam you will have within you memories of all the kind people you have left behind.

In the quiet watches of your dreams you will bathe in the streams and the meadows of your youth.

And, when you hear, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ you will find yourself singing along with a full heart and tears in your eyes.

‘You may travel far far from your own native home

Far away o’er the mountains far away o’er the foam

But of all the fine places that I’ve ever seen,

There’s none to compare with The Cliffs of Dooneen

Take a view o’er the water fine sights you’ll see there

You’ll see the high rocky slopes on the West coast of Clare

The towns of Kilrush and Kilkee can be seen

From the high rocky slopes at The Cliffs of Dooneen

Its a nice place to be on a fine Summer’s day

Watching all the wild flowers that ne’er do decay

The hare and lofty pheasant are plain to be seen

Making homes for their young round The Cliffs of Dooneen

Fare thee well to Dooneen fare thee well for a while

And to all the fine people I’m leaving behind

To the streams and the meadows where late I have been

And the high rocky slopes of The Cliffs of Dooneen’

 

The featured Painter today is Jack B Yeats (1871 to 1957)

We return to the theme of The Horse in Irish culture.

I have seen many thousands of horses in my life yet I have never seen a horse so thrillingly, mystically, alive as the horse in Jack B Yeats painting above.

 

 

Paul Brady, Liam O’Flynn, Basil Blackshaw: Posts for St Patrick 1

Christmas. New Years Day. Spring Solstice. Lent.

Easter. Midsummer Day. First leaf fall. First fall of snow.

Way markers of the passing year.

As the shadows lengthen, as they do for us all, you appreciate all the more the opportunity to celebrate with those dear to you now and remember those vanished like the melting snow so dear in the memory.

Each new feast chiming with all those that have gone before in the quickening parade of our lives.

If you are Irish, or of Irish stock, St Patrick’s Day is a true red letter day.

On my twitter account (@thomhickey55 – sign up now if you’re not signed up already!) I describe myself, among other things, as, ‘Almost Irish’.

That’s because though I was not born in Ireland both my parents and all my forebears were.

So, I unhesitatingly believe that whatever literary or rhetorical gifts I possess are drawn from a deep Celtic well.

My mother told me a million stories and taught me how to tell them too.

My Dad taught me how to listen to the important things that are always said in silences.

So, as I did last year (checkout those posts later) in the run up to St Patrick’s Day on the 17th I’m going to feature some favourite Irish songs, singers and musicians.

As a bonus this time each post will also feature the work of a distinctive Irish Painter/Artist.

The theme for the songs this year is Place. Landscape.

Ireland is a country where there is a deep and abiding attachment to place.

Especially the Home Place.

The Irish, wherever they may travel (and they have traveled all around the globe) never forget the Home Place.

 

The place where their family had its roots.

The landscape they knew so intimately which glows bright in their dreams even if they haven’t seen it with their waking eyes for decades.

Sometimes the Home Place was left to foster ambition.

Sometimes the Home Place was left because of poverty.

No one ever left without a backward glance.

Returning no one spies the coast from the air or from the rail of a ship without a salmon leap of the heart.

Today’s song, ‘The Rocks Of Bawn’ is sung by Paul Brady previously the subject of an extensive profile on The Immortal Jukebox.

No apologies for featuring him again.

Great traditional songs require a singer to bring great gifts of empathy and relaxed concentration to them.

Paul Brady is such a singer.

His style is not to impose himself upon the song but rather to surrender to the soul of the song.

To centre himself in the heart of a song and let its wonders bloom.

Here he is joined by the great Uilleann Piper, Liam O’Flynn, who carries on the tradition of masters like Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis.

I can think of no instrument more haunting than the Uilleann Pipes.

Together they produce a performance which stills the heart and which will linger long in the spirit.

No live is so  charmed that it will be without some thankless ploughing.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing brings the Home Place so vividly to mind as a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing will set tears a flowing more readily than a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing will remind you more of the longing child within you still than a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

 

 

The Artist featured today is the late Basil Blackshaw (1932 to 2016)

Born in Glengormley Antrim and reared in Boardmills County Down.

His paintings both his portraits and his evocations of country life and sports throb with life and colour.

Ireland loves The Horse.

There are few pleasures more sovereign for an Irishman than to cheer home to victory an Irish Horse, schooled by an Irish Trainer and ridden by an Irish Jockey to victory in The Gold Cup or The Grand National.

There are few silences so companionable as those spent watching would be champions exercising on the gallops in the breaking light of a winter morning.

Basil Blackshaw brings such a scene tenderly to life in his, ‘Morning Exercise’

 

 

 

Seth Lakeman: ‘Solomon Browne’ – Cornwall, Lifeboats, Life, Death, Pride & Heroism

‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (Gospel of Saint John)

‘The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.’ (Lt Cdr Russell Smith US Navy Pilot)

‘Now, never had a lifeboat fought in vain
She could have made a dash for port but she tried again
All sixteen perished in that mighty wave
It tossed them overboard into a watery grave.’  (Seth Lakeman)

mousehole-cornwall-uk-memorial-to-the-crew-of-the-penlee-life-boat-cp0jt0

This past week I have been taking time off in the far, far West of England.

Actually, just about as far west as the land extends before it cedes to the dominion of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Cornwall. Kernow.

Kernow a’gas dynergh. Welcome to Cornwall.

A land. A proud Kingdom.

A Kingdom with a language and proud history of its own.

A Kingdom of capes and jagged rocky shores.

A Kingdom of Celtic crosses and Celtic saints.

A land of of standing stones, barrows, carns, quoits, fougos, healing wells and martial forts.

A wild Kingdom where even the all conquering Roman Army feared to tread.

A Kingdom where for centuries men dug deep into the earth and under the sea to mine Tin.

A Kingdom where for centuries men put to sea in all weathers to bring Fish back to Harbour.

A Kingdom where for centuries smugglers under cover of darkness outwitted the Excise Men.

A Kingdom surrounded by and held in the spell of the Ocean.

A spell that can enchant. But, also a spell that can lead to doom.

So, in Cornwall the Ocean is celebrated, feared and respected.

For every time mankind leaves the land to voyage upon the ocean safety is being exchanged for peril.

For the Ocean has ancient power beyond power.

For the Ocean is restless and relentless.

And wholly indifferent to the fate of puny man and all the arts of seamanship.

So, before venturing out on the pitiless Ocean and while voyaging on that Ocean it is wise to be forewarned as to what lies in store by listening to, ‘The Shipping Forecast’.

The Shipping Forecast is a BBC radio programme which every day at 00.48, 05.20, 12.01 and 17.54 hrs broadcasts weather reports and forecasts for the 31 sea areas around the coast of the British Isles.

For many, like me, listening to the Shipping Forecast at 00.48 has become a form of meditation.

First with the lullaby of Ronald Binge’s, ‘Sailing By’ musical theme then with the comforting, familiar litany of:

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties,

Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,

Fisher, German Bight, Humber,

Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth,

Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre, 

Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon,

Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey,

Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.

The clip below lasts for 13 minutes so you may want to dip in for just a few minutes to get the idea (though I’m sure many of you will find yourself in thrall to to its poetic rhythm and listen to the end).

 

For some though, playthings of the wanton Wind and Ocean, the message of the Shipping Forecast foretells peril and doom.

Life in terror and horror giving way to watery death.

So it was on 19 December 1981 with 60 foot waves whipped up by hurricane force winds of up to 100 miles per hour that the RNLI Penlee Lifeboat, from Mousehole, launched to attempt a rescue of the crew and passengers of the stricken MV Union Star as it was blown helplessly across Mount’s Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove.

Rescue by helicopter in such treacherous conditions had proved impossible.

So the call went out to the Penlee Lifeboat Station where it was answered by an 8 man volunteer crew of the Solomon Browne.

Answered by experienced seamen who knew in their stout hearts that to launch on such a night was to stare death squarely in the face.

Answered by Lifeboat Men who conscious of the extreme conditions still chose, not for gain or glory, to risk their own lives for those unknown to them who were in peril on the sea.

There were 8 crew and passengers on the MV Union Star and 8 crew aboard the Solomon Browne that fateful night. And, before the sun rose again over Mount’s Bay 16 lives had been lost – swallowed whole in the insatiable maw of the Atlantic Ocean.

Such a tale of tragedy and heroism cries out to be commemorated and honoured in a folk ballad.

Seth Lakeman writing and performing with a steady head, a full heart and all the energy at his command has given us a superb ballad which has the rare combination of narrative drive and emotional empathy. It can be found on his excellent record, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’.

 

The crew of the Solomon Browne, under the command of coxswain Trevelyan Richards, despite the ferocity of the conditions repeatedly went alongside the MV Union Star.

It appears from the last radio contact that they had succeeded in getting 4 people off but that all were lost in the attempt to rescue the other 4 aboard the coaster.

May they all rest in peace.

There are dark days and black nights when all of us may be tempted to despair at the tawdry and selfish nature of much of modern life.

Yet, the life, death and courage of the crew of the Solomon Browne should serve to remind us that the best of us are capable of awesome courage and that there are still those prepared to risk their own lives for others.

Within a day of the loss of the Solomon Browne enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new Lifeboat crew.

Despair is an indulgence.

If we have courage. If we have faith. If we have love we can voyage through the darkest night and the stormiest seas.

‘That lifeboat thundered through an angry sea was called Solomon Brown and her company’.

May their tale be told for ever more.

 

Dedicated to the memory of the crew of the Solomon Browne:

Trevelyan Richards (Coxswain, Trawler skipper)

Stephen Madron (Second Coxswain, Ships Pilot)

Nigel Brockman (Assistant Mechanic, Fisherman, fish Auctioneer)

John Blewett (Emergency Mechanic, Telephone Engineer)

Kevin Smith (Crewman, Merchant Seaman)

Barrie Torrie (Crewman, Fisherman)

Charlie Greenhaugh (Crewman, Landlord of the Ship Inn)

Gary Wallis (Crewman, Fisherman)

and to those who lost their lives on the MV Union Star :

Henry Morton (Captain)

James Whittaker (Mate)

George Sedgwick (Engineer)

Anghostino Verressimo (Crewman)

Manuel Lopes (Crewman)

Dawn Morton 

Sharon Morton

Deanne Morton

Every day and night the crews of RNLI Lifeboats stand ready in all weathers to come to the rescue of those in peril on the Sea.

Please support them with a donation if you can.

With thanks to Gerry and Sue for so generously providing a wonderful home away from home in Cornwall.

 

Rosanne Cash, Eric Bibb, John Phillips and Scott McKenzie sing Hedy West : 500 Miles

‘We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there’  (Pascal Mercier)

‘The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be a point of intersection of all the lines drawn though all the stars, to be the constellation- maker and the center of the world, that center called love.’ (Rebecca Solnit)

‘You can’t go home again.’ (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’ (Hedy West)

Much meaning can be expressed in so few letters of the alphabet

Just four will do.

Good. Evil. Luck. Fate. Time. Fear. Hope. Hate. Womb. Tomb. Life. Love.

And one four letter word might contain them all.

Home. Home.

The home you were born in; the home you grew up in, the home that was your shelter and refuge.

The home you left with tears in your eyes.

The home that lives forever in your heart and your mind’s eye.

The home that was your prison.

The home you left without a backward look.

The home you’ll never go back to now you’ve made a home of your own.

Home, home, home.

Should you write a true song evoking the longing for home when the tides of time have taken you far away you’ll find singers to sing that song for evermore.

Hedy West wrote such a song, ‘500 Miles’

 

Crystal clear. Mountain dew.

Banjo, voice, Presence, centuries of the ballad tradition.

Fiddle tunes and songs called Rueben’s Train, The Railroader’s Lament and 900 Miles all swirl in the imagination of a young woman growing up in a home suffused with tunes and stories and songs.

Great Uncle Gus plays the fiddle, Gradma Lillie plays the Banjo and has a bottomless well of ballads and laments that seem to float on the breezes all around.

Dad, Don West, is a poet (‘Clods of Southern Earth’), a labor organiser, a civil rights activist, an oral historian and inspiration.

west_don_photo

Hedy has a voice. She plays the Banjo in her own style.

She has the austere gravitas of a classical bard.

When she sings the room stills. When she sings she has something to say.

She has a calling.

A calling to tell the stories of the disregarded rural poor.

A calling to tell their stories in songs that express, and more honour, the depth of their struggles and the fullness of their humanity.

In a career of more than five decades taking her from folk contests in her native Georgia to Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall, London and venues all over the globe it’s a calling she fulfills with steadfast hope, faith and love.

In the 1950s folk world a song as true and singable as 500 Miles scorches across the continent like a raging forest fire.

It instantly becomes a folk standard with each group or artist adapting the lyric and instrumentation to suit their own style and the image of home they carry with them.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As far as I can tell the first notable recording of the song is by The Journeymen in 1961.

Now, you’d have to be a scholar of the American Folk Revival to sagely nod once their name is mentioned. Yet, almost all of us came to know the members of the group through their later careers.

journeymen

John Phillips became the leader of prolific hit makers The Mamas & the Papas, Scott McKenzie had a whole generation singing, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) while Dick Weissman achieved eminence as a banjo picking musicologist and folklorist.

 

Listening to this time suspending version in soft sift black and white dreams I drift through the home of my own childhood.

Streetlights glow the palest yellow as they struggle to penetrate the blanket like London Fog of the 1950s.

Spectral trolley buses are boarded by attentively following their clanging sound until they suddenly loom up before you.

Snow surrounds market stalls piled high with cheap goods sold as wondrous bargains you must not be without – ‘Buy now Mrs! When they’re gone they’re gone!’

Cocooned in a two room first floor flat a young boy, certain in his bones that he is the constellation-maker and centre of the world, learns to read, ‘Treasure Island’ and dreaming of wooden ships, wooden legs, parrots, pirates and buried plunder begins to dream stories of his own.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As we have seen from the previous post here on The Jukebox when it comes to recognising an American standard Johnny Cash is your go to man.

Johnny took his curatorial role so seriously that he drew up, ‘The List’ – a compendium of great songs he entrusted to his daughter Rosanne.

Following her father’s death Rosanne returned over and over again to The List and the result was a luminously beautiful record featuring haunting tracks like Dylan’s , ‘Girl from the North Country’, ‘Long Black Veil’, Motherless Children’ and, ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’.

The one I come back to the most though is her devoutly heartfelt take on 500 Miles.

Johnny sure would have been proud.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

Great songs call out across the miles, across genres and cultures and across time.

The veteran Acapella group The Persuasions uncover the longing, the loss, the mourning and the journey to the farther shore that awaits us all.

Their Gospel and Spiritual version of 500 Miles makes a congregation of us all.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

500 Miles is a song that speaks from and to the bonds of familial love.

I’ll conclude with a blessed version by a father and son, Leon and Eric Bibb, which has the quality of a foot sore pilgrimage concluding in longed for peace and reconciliation.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

 

We are all pilgrims.

May we all find peace reconciliation and the home we seek.

Notes:

I love every record made by Hedy West.

Seek out her CDs on the Vanguard, Topic and Bear Family labels for a lifetime of inspirational listening.

The only CD I can find by The Journeymen is, ‘New Directions In Folk Music’ on Collectors Choice from 2010 which is a nice collection of thistledown folk.

Eric and Leon Bibb’s, ‘A Family Affair’ hard to find is a gem well worth the search.

 

Johnny Cash, Debbie Harry & Gene Autry chase Ghost Riders In The Sky!

The ‘Way out West’ Series No 1

Music hath charms. Music hath charms.

And, among those charms is its uncanny ability to forge bonds of fellow feeling and friendship between people born in wildly different times, places and cultures.

Take me and Carl.

Carl came from the spice Island of Grenada in the Caribbean.

When we met he was seventy years old and I was a callow twenty two.

I had just emerged, blinking, from the ivory tower of Cambridge University awaiting my inevitable discovery as a great novelist.

Carl had spent decades in the fierce factories of Detroit and the searing cane fields of Florida.

We met in Hospital.

I was working there as a porter dramatically rushing the resuscitation trolley to people on the point of death and more prosaically ferrying patients to the X-Ray department and to the operating theatre for surgery.

Carl, having suffered a heart attack, came into Accident & Emergency by ambulance at 3am when I was on night shift.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination the team of doctors and nurses, with whom moments before I had been sharing idle banter,  urgently bring all their professional skills to the struggle to to save Carl’s life.

Happily they succeeded and before I left that morning I wheeled Carl to the ward where he would recover.

Normally that would have been the last time I saw him but as I was about to leave Carl said, ‘Will you come and see later?’.

A request I could hardly refuse.

So, that night I made the first of many visits to Carl’s bedside in the three weeks he spent in the hospital.

Walking into the ward I wondered what two such disparate individuals might find to talk about.

Almost without thinking I asked him, having learned of the time he had spent in America, what kind of music he had listened to there.

Given his age, and reading on his chart  that he was a Baptist by religion, I anticipated that he might answer Big Band Jazz or Gospel Music.

I was a little taken aback therefore when he answered by singing in a mellow baritone:

‘An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day,

Upon a ridge he rested as he  went along his way,

When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw

Riding through the ragged skies and up a clouded draw …’

Now, my education, at University, might have been airily academic but luckily on those few occasions when I was not bent over some medieval text I could be found, a huge tub of popcorn by my side, obsessively watching every ‘A’, ‘B’ or series Western that ever came to town.

So, without missing a beat, I joined in as we sang:

‘Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel,

 Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel,

 A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky,

For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry ..’

And then, to the incredulity of the rest of the ward, we lifted our voices up and sang together lustily:

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Then we laughed and laughed until we nearly cried.

And, we sang that song, among many other Western favourites, every time we met until Carl died some two years later.

‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ was Carl’s favourite song and the version he preferred, ‘Because he don’t mess about with the song’ was the one by Gene Autry from 1949.

This one’s for you Carl:

 

 

According to the Western Writers of America, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ is the greatest of all Western songs and I whole heartedly agree with that august body.

The song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones and first recorded by him and his marvelously named, ‘Death Valley Rangers’ that same year.

 

stan-jones-2

Stan, then a Park Ranger in Death Valley, is reputed to have written the song on his 34th birthday as he recalled a legend told to him when he was 12 by an old cowboy.

Now, all stories told by Stan Jones need to be taken with a fistful of salt as he was a noted fabulist who often valued the effect of a tale above its veracity (as frequently do I!).

The tale of the spectral herd in the skies and the curse of, ‘Stampede Mesa’ probably traces its origins to mythical cautionary stories told around the cowboy campfire in nineteenth century Texas.

Whatever its cultural lineage Stan crafted a certifiable classic which is shot through with haunting images which never leave the mind once heard.

Burning in the mental firelight of my imagination as the song proceeds I feel the hot breath of those red-eyed cows and shudder with fear as their black and shiny horns and steely hooves thunder by.

In my dreams I’m there with the gaunt faced cowboys their shirts soaked with sweat as they endlessly pursue the cursed herd they never, ever, will catch.

Surely that’s my name I hear them calling in the wind at the dead of night!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan wrote many more fine Western ballads notably those featuring in the films of the greatest of all Western Film Directors – John Ford.

But, neither he, nor anyone else, ever wrote a better one than, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’.

The brilliance and mother lode Americana quality of the song has, for seven decades now, attracted hundreds and hundreds of artists to take a shot of rye, strap on their spurs and saddle up with the Ghost Riders to see if that herd can finally be corralled.

And, if anyone, by force of will and character could carry out that miracle it would surely be none other than Johnny Cash – no mean mythic figure himself.

 

 

Johnny sings the song with the oracular power an old testament prophet issuing a grave warning to his tribe to prevent them from sleepwalking to doom.

You want fire-snorting horses brought to life?

You want those ghostly riders coming hard right at you?

You want to feel those mournful cries in the pit of your stomach and the marrow of your bones?

Call for The Man in Black!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan Jones’ evocative melody has always attracted guitarists and instrumental groups who like to tell an atmospheric story using six resonant strings instead of the vocal chords.

Today I’ve chosen to feature a top 30 Billboard Chart hit from 1961 (and top 10 in the UK) by The Ramrods  – who had clearly listened closely to Duane Eddy.

 

 

The Ramrods were out of Connecticut and had brother and sister Claire and Rich Litke on drums and sax respectively.

Vinny Lee took the lead guitar role with Gene Moore in support.

They were essentially one hit wonders though I greatly enjoyed listening to their follow up, ‘Loch Lomond Rock’ which, probably uniquely, mashes up twangtastic guitar with a bagpipe solo!

And, now as they say, for something completely, completely different.

I have to say that when I started researching this post I never expected to feature a trance version by Debbie Harry!

 

 

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh, Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh’ Indeed!

 Debbie’s version comes from Alex Cox’s 1998 film, ‘Three Businessmen’ and in my view is the best thing about it.

The production is by Dan Wool who had worked frequently with Stan Jones’ son who is a music editor – so legal clearances to use the song were easily arranged.

There’s definitely something sexily hypnotic about Debbie’s vocal adding an unexpected dimension to an established standard.

I’m going to conclude with another version out of left field or should I say the firmament.

And, versions of Ghost Riders don’t get more left field than the hipster version by Scatman Crothers!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

 

Everyone has heard Scatman’s distinctive tones through his voice over work for TV and film. That’s Scatman as Hong Kong Phooey and as the hep Jazz playing feline in, ‘The Aristocats’.

Some may remember his appearances on TV in the show, ‘Chico and the Man’ or on film as Dick Halloran in Kubrick’s, ‘The Shining’ (one of four films he shared billing with Jack Nicholson).

Scatman was always a hep cat as evidenced by his drumming with Slim Gaillard. He brings all his vouty hipster presence to this version of Ghost Riders which has me cheering him on while doubled up with laughter.

There will be many more fine versions of Ghost Riders because we all love a good story.

Especially one that’s so incredible it just has to be true.

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

Notes:

There’s a fine biography of Stan Jones by Michal K Ward published by Rio Neuvo.

The major hit version was by Vaughn Monroe

Basso profundo versions by Lorne Green, Marty Robins, Burl Ives, Frankie Laine

Western versions by Sons of the Pioneers, Riders in the Sky, Chris Ledoux, Jimmy Wakeley, Mary McCaslin

Instrumental versions by The Ventures, The Shadows, The Spotniks, Glen Campbell/Roy Clark, Dick Dale

‘Other’ versions by Spike Jones, Blues Brothers, Brothers Four, Judy Collins, Christopher Lee

 

Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland

‘.. Every night their mouths filled with Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars and exhausted birds. And only when the danger was plain in the music could you know their true measure of rejoicing in finding a voice where they found a vision.’ (Eavan Boland)

‘As long as Dolores Keane is walking around this earth, I won’t call myself a singer. I think she’s the voice of Ireland.’ (Nanci Griffith)

To my mind the besetting malady of modern life is atomisation.

Meagre lives lived in migraine-fraught locked and barred isolation.

When I seek a musical antidote to my despair about this situation I turn most often to a singer, Dolores Keane, whose every breath embodies not atomisation but connection.

Dolores had the immense good fortune to be born, in 1953, into a family who were keepers of the flame of Irish Traditional Music in a time when the deep treasures of the tradition were at risk of being swept aside by the glittering lures of commercial modernity.

From the age of four Dolores lived in Caherlistrane, County Galway, with her aunts Rita and Sarah.

The Keane sisters played accordion and fiddle but their greatest accomplishment was their heart stopping prowess as duet singers of ballads in the Sean-nos or old style.

Literally growing up at their feet Dolores imbibed their mastery through every pore of her being. In the kitchen and in the parlour songs sounding the depths of human experience were sung with full hearted candour and artistic delicacy.

Dolores, as a child, was exposed, initiated, into the, ‘Big Music’. Later, while still a young woman she was able to give life to the Big Music herself.

Knowing, in her heart and bones, where she was from set her free to voyage out into the wider world armed with a sense of inner poise.

The golden lesson Dolores learned from Rita and Sarah was that a singer’s duty was to devote all the emotional and technical resources in their gift in service of the song.

To bring a song to quickening life required discipline, engagement and above all attention. Attention to lyric, story and melody.

Attention to breath and pace.

Artistic, emotional and spiritual attention. Dolores listened with rapt attention to the artistry of her aunts. The proof of how diligently she attended can be heard through every moment of her sublime performance of, ‘The May Morning Dew’ from her debut solo record, ‘There Was A Maid’.

There can be no such thing as the definitive performance of such a song.

Traditional singers taking on the challenge are in pursuit of a wild hare which will always eludes capture.

There is always, always, more singing in the song.

Yet we can say that it is hard to imagine that anyone has ever engaged in a more thrilling pursuit than Dolores.

She inhabits, ‘The May Morning Dew’ so intensely that we feel connected to a complete world.

Connected to a living hospitable community.

Connected to the trees and the sky, the flowers in the valley, the calling of the small birds and the farmyard dogs.

Connected to the sound of the kettle boiling on the hob as neighbours converse on matters of great local import under the sky blue and clear.

Feeling the tender warmth of such a world we must feel too the chill and the pang of knowing that all things must pass, all things must pass.

So the beloved house will become but a stone on a stone and the lovingly tended garden a a riot of weeds.

And, like the red rose our parents, our friends and relations and, we cannot deny it ourselves, will perish in the May morning dew.

Dolores’ singing arrests time and allows us, each in our own way, according to our history, to contemplate and perhaps come to terms with the timeless truths of the song.

Next a contemporary song, ‘Never Be The Sun’ written by Donagh Long.

Every listener to this song will recall the one, who for them, will always be the light. Always be the light.

I have never listened to this performance without salt tears cascading down my face.

I really have no words to express how magnificent Dolores singing is here except to say that as she sings I leave the dusty Earth behind as she sets the very sun, the deepest ocean, the moon and the stars in sway.

Listening to Dolores singing epic ballads from the treasury of folk music history has convinced me that very few modern songwriters have works to compete with that great writer, ‘Trad’.

Still, we can all allow that Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson have added mighty stones to the cairn of the song hoard.

And, it is certain that the late Guy Clark, supreme craftsman of the narrative ballad, has too.

The pain and the promise of emigration seems to be always present in Ireland’s history and culture. As such it has proved a rich seam for songwriters to mine.

With, ‘Emigrant Eyes’ Guy Clark, with typical skill, yokes the sweep of history with the hope and the blood and the tears of generations to make a song crying out for a singer who can hold all these in balance.

A singer who can span oceans and centuries and set the heart and imagination ablaze.

In Dolores Keane he finds that singer.

I will leave you with a privileged glimpse into the roots of Dolores Keane’s art.

Together with her beloved Aunts Rita and Sarah she sings, ‘Once I Loved’ .

As they sing they evoke for me all time and no time.

History and pre-history.

Fairy forts and ancient barrows.

Passage graves, beehive chapels and high crosses.

Healing wells and hedge school philosophy.

Blind Harpers and hermit Saints.

The flight of the Heron and the Curlew.

The rush of the wind over the reeds.

The mysterious music of the constant moon and the day-blind stars.

Dolores Keane, while gifting us untold riches, has come through well documented struggles with depression, alcohol and cancer.

She is a singer of the stature of Bessie Smith, Umm Kulthum and Aretha Franklin.

She has sung herself, and us as listeners, back to where the singing comes from.

I wish her health and peace and songs to sing whenever she chooses to sing them.

 

Notes: Dolores Keane has an extensive catalogue.

Every record she has ever made is worth of your attention.

My personal favourites are:

‘There Was A Maid’

‘Solid Ground’ ‘

Broken Hearted I’ll Wander’ & ‘Farewell To Eirinn’ (With John Faulkner)

‘De Dannan’ & ‘Ballroom’ (from her time with the group De Dannan)

 

Rita & Sarah Keane’s mesmeric singing can be found on, ‘Once I Loved’ & ‘At The Setting Of  the Sun’.

There is a heart wrenching documentary, ‘A Storm in the Heart’ on Dolores’ life by Liam McGrath.

The best book on Traditional Music I have ever read is Ciaran Carson’s, ‘Last Night’s Fun’.

A fascinating insight into Caherlistrane where Dolores grew up can be found in the history/memoir, ‘Caherlistrane’ by Mary J Murphy – available online from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway.