Everybody carries a tune in their head, but some more than others.
As I enjoy a bit of folk music and even try and play a couple of instruments for fun, I have more tunes bouncing around my grey matter than most. I’ve had an eclectic array of folk influences from my dad to Tom Paxton and Robbie Burns to Liam Clancy.
Folk music. Not classical musical or even pop. But Verdi’s Nabucco (The Rising of the Slaves) has a special significance for me. So here’s a list of my top ten tunes that have some significance in my life at certain moments… but there are many, many more tunes I like to listen to.
1. ‘Danny Boy.‘ This enduring, classic song of love and death touches the hearts of many. When I was a wee lad, my dad used to sit me on his knee with my younger brother and sing this song. It was his favourite. He was a great fan of Bing Crosby so probably learned it from him off a 78. My dad was a fairly good singer was always asked to sing a song or two at get-togethers. ‘Danny Boy’ climbs up one and a half octaves and is charged with intrinsic emotion. It was certainly a big hit when Barry McGuigan’s father sang it as his championship bouts. Little did my dad know then I’d eventually marry a colleen from County Down.
2. Verdi’s Nabucco (Rising of the Slaves.) This section of Verdi’s opera is well known. It is about the slaves leaving Egypt in Exodus in the bible and travelling to the Promised Land. This is an inspirational piece of music. It was adapted as a revolutionary anthem during the Risorgimento, the rising of the states that finally unified Italy under Garibaldi in the 19th century. Since then it has been adapted by revolutionary groups around the world, and even the Wolfe Tones have a version of it.
I first heard it one Saturday when I went over to my grandparents to do their shopping (as one did in those days.) My grandad, a very autodidactic individual, quite politically radical to the left, put on a 78 on the gramophone and said: ‘Listen to this!”. I did. It stuck with me ever since. He said nothing. He just smiled. He knew I had got the meaning of it! I can still hear the gramophone’s needle scratching in my mind’s ear.
Relax and listen to the track! It is about hope, faith, and a sense of destination. A very inspirational piece.
3. Dear Little Shamrock. Dad was a bit of a crooner. He worked as a stone mason in his early years. One day at a get together with family he sang ‘Dear Little Shamrock’ (probably another Crosby influence). I remember him saying to me that he was dressing stones in the granite yard with another mason who was 82 years old one summer’s day. And the old man enjoyed a song. My dad sang it to him and he loved it and before long they were harmonising their way through it in a great duet in the granite yard amidst the dust, sweat and heat. (see below).
4. My Love is Like a Red Red Rose. I’ve always been a great fan of Robert Burns. I love his poetry and music. But the link below tells another story, one of an early crush I had. When I went to the Aberdeen Folk Club in the mid-sixties, Isla St Clair used to sing there. She was a pupil at the Academy Grammar. I always remember she used to wear dark coloured round necked knitted geansais (jumpers). Her speciality was Scottish Gaelic ballads which she’d sing unaccompanied… the voice of an angel! She appeared in the Downpatrick Folk Club in the 90’s… and I missed her! Shattered!
5. It was ‘The Last Thing On My Mind‘. Tom Paxton, a leading American folk singer, lived in London for a couple of years and toured the UK. He had cut his teeth in Greenwich Village in New York in the 60’s, the hub for folk singers and artists in America. He rubbed shoulders with Bob Dylan, Athro Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and many others. He was the guest one evening in 1966 at the Aberdeen Folk Club. Just over 200 people packed into the function room in the Royal Hotel and I was sitting six feet right in front of him on the front row! I was captivated. When he played his anthem tune, ‘Last Thing on My Mind’, it just blew me away.
I bought his book of songs, and later got ‘Rambling Boy’, his LP, and tried to teach myself to finger pick – and I’ve been trying since then off and on. In 2017, Paxton came to play in the Ulster Hall, and his press agent sent me some material to help promote the show. I ended up phoning him in the east coast of America and interviewing him. Amazingly, he fired a name at me… “Arthur Argo!” Arthur was the chairman on the folk club in Aberdeen and a journalist! It stunned me as I had not heard his name for 40 years! Anyway, I went to see Paxton in the Ulster Hall and enjoyed his music as always.
But, in an obituary article for Arthur Argo (1935-81), I learned his father too was a stonemason. I wonder if our dad’s had been singing ‘Dear Little Shamrock’ together ? I’ll probably never ever know.
I think I’m making some small progress though after on the guitar. I can play three chords now! … after all these years ! The folk club was great – I heard many class acts such as Archie Fisher, Isla St Clair (who sang in the Downpatrick Folk Club in the 90’s), and the Spinners and many more.
If you believe in ‘synchonicity’ then this would be an example of it when unexpected things in life connect in a mysterious way.
6. ‘This Land Is Your Land‘ written by Woodie Guthrie, a hard-bitten folksinger from the years of the American depression and the days of the dustbowl, a legend. He inspired many folk singers such as Dylan and Paxton. His clawhammer, fingerpicking style through the 30’s to the 50’s became the benchmark for many folksingers and afterwards. He wrote his songs as he saw them… quite graphic. And his punchy fingerpicking was his medium of delivery! (Peter Seeger also sang it in Aberdeen in 1967 in the Music Hall see 8 below.) It is a song of hope that there is something beyond the misery that the dustbowl farmers were experiencing when they moved to California.
7. ‘When Yellow’s on the Broom. The McCalman’s recorded this song about the Scottish travellers who were given a rough time by the locals (scaldies).
I remember when I was at primary school I made friends with a James Higgins, a traveller. To me then I could not understand what racism was. Then one day, the summer holidays arrived. We were on holidays and I called down to his basement flat in the tenement building up the street from me… it was empty. His family had moved on. Probably gone berry picking. I always remembered that tinge of sadness at losing a friend. They had gone on the road. When I heard this song by the McCalman’s years later, it brought back my short school friendship with James Higgins, traveller. So here’s to you James wherever you are!
8. ‘Where have all the flowers gone’. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen in 1965. I was getting all starry eyed holding hands with a German Mädchen (young woman) from Hameln (the town of the Pied Piper) – yes, I was being led astray! – when suddenly as we passed outside the music hall I heard her ‘voice’. It was the very real Marlene Dietrich singing live in a show. And she was singing ‘Ver have all ze vlowers gone’. It was only years later that I really appreciated this chance encounter and hearing that gem of a song sung she immortalised in her song. No-one sings it like her.
And later in the 60’s Peter Seeger the legendary folk singer played in the packed Music Hall in Aberdeen and there were shouts all evening for him to play ‘flowers’. He kept it to the end and played it on his 5-string banjo. It was an electric moment I’ll never forget. And he played too earlier another haunting tune that evening, ‘The Peatbog Marchers’ which will also stay with me. It’s about the concentration camp prisoners plodding out to the bogs to cut peat in Poland in the winter.
The Peat Bog Soldiers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIMqZzvIzyg
After my visit last June to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, this song too took on a new and special, sad meaning, about the nature and tragedy of all wars. It has a haunting strange melody. The prisoners used the song to create a sense of moral direction to give them a dignity that had been stripped from them.
9. Ar Éirinn ní nesfainn cé hí (‘For Ireland ‘I’ll Not Tell Her Name‘ ) – again a slow love song – but such a beautiful melody. This is a tune I heard on You Tube last year. It is a beautiful melody. Refreshingly simple. I managed to pick the notes off on my tenor banjo and for some reason the tune came fairly easily.
It was some time later that I remembered why. Years previous, I had tried to play the mandolin and Paddy Gordon of Brier had given me an instrumental CD with the mandolin taking the lead of many well known Irish tunes that I tried to follow. The tune had remained in my head waiting for its moment to make a re-appearance!
10. ‘The Dutchman‘. I was always a great fan of the Clancy Bros and Tommy Makem. The rendition of the Dutchman written by Michael Peter Smith, an American, by Liam Clancy is superb. The song is rich in emotion and imagery, and has a haunting tune that evokes Amsterdam. But below is a version by Steve Goodman, more upbeat.
It’s about enduring love – whether the Dutchman was shell-shocked after the war, had a stroke, or has dementia, we’ll never know. But the sentiments are precious, and poetic. And his wife Margaret’s love for her husband is deep and unchanging. In an age when dementia is on the increase, its lyrics have a special, tender meaning.
This has been a trip down musical memory lane. As a musician I am fourth rate, I dabble. But I enjoy dabbling. I’ve no pretentions of making an apperance on The X Factor! I like the very odd pop tune, I like blues and I’m not a fan of C&W as it sounds very repetitive to me. I like Irish and Scottish traditional music and folk mostly.
And I could listen all day to local musician John Rodgers from Ardglass singing the Blarney Roses with his bodhran.
Interestingly, my first memory of fingerpicking on the guitar was ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘ sung by Burl Ives… a great favourite that was played almost every Saturday on Children’s Favourites on the ‘wireless’. “On a summer’s day, in the month of May…”. I can still hear it bouncing along. It was a nonsense song, but the warmth of his voice stuck with me. And the rhythmic picking and hammering on. Then I’d be off to the Saturday matinee for Donald Duck, The Three Stoogies, and Francis the Speaking Donkey at the Regal cinema.
I enjoy contemporary folk music too such as Antony Toner’s ‘Sailortown’. I’m not entirely stuck in the past.
And yes, I’m a fan of pipe bands, and just one final mention… I grew up indoctrinated with Jimmy Shand and his accordion band, (but for heaven’s sake don’t tell anyone!!).
If you want to go down memory lane and chat about your favourite tunes, give me a call on :
028 44 615690 or 07855545873.
or email: email@example.com