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Subaltern Songs

Fintan Vallely

Songs from the Beautiful City: the Cork Urban Ballads, collected, edited and annotated by Jimmy Crowley, Freestate Press, €40

Máire Comerford, an early women’s correspondent with the Irish Press, once described to me how while in Kilmainham jail as a Republican prisoner she and her colleagues gave the de rigueur bibles a utilitarian purpose by wedging them into the hinge side of their steel cell-doors, which they then gave a mighty shove. This slightly buckled the apparatus so it couldn’t be closed, and was slow to be repaired, so granting the prisoners free association on their block. The practical application of religious dogma.

Jimmy Crowley in the 1970s got access to Dublin urbanites by achieving airplay on national radio stations for clever Cork songs delivered in his profoundly non-Jackeen accent. That was a metaphoric wedge – of vinyl – in the door of the cultural locker of “Éire Nua”, its access facilitated by the formidable chunk of artistic self-confidence accreting there over the previous two decades as a result of the impact of another Corkophile, Seán Ó Riada, with his imaginative reinterpretation of indigenous instrumental music. Crowley’s recordings enjoyed modest popularity over the ensuing years in and among the interfaces between, “traditional”, “popular”, “ballads” and “country” musics, and saw him touring, recording and broadcasting in Ireland, Britain and America in a variety of styles. The singer also published some of these songs himself on “broadsheets” (single-song strips of paper) which he sold in the manner of the seventeenth to twentieth century “patterer” – singing the song on the street and then offering it for sale.

In all of that his subject matter has been the spoken word set to melody, largely, as he says himself, “the subaltern voice”. In Songs from the Beautiful City, his latest venture, he returns lyrics from the streets where they persisted aurally, back into the print form in which many of them started life as ballad-sheets. The collection of 144 songs is partly culled from the 450-plus items of the archive of Crowley’s ballad column “Song of Cork”, which he began contributing to the Cork Evening Echo in 2002, and in which he saw himself as following in the footsteps of Ulster pension officer Sam Henry’s 1923-39 “Songs of the People” column with the Northern Constitution newspaper in Co Derry. Like the latter, Crowley published songs sent in by readers and gave various associated tales and history, essays which are developed in this new volume. In the manner too of the publication and categorisation done later on Sam Henry’s songs by Gale Huntington and Lani Herrmann in their 1990 Songs of the People, Crowley here also breaks his songs into categories. Henry’s 690 items have twenty-five such units; Crowley’s 144 have ten, the difference reflecting perhaps the greater diversity of experience in Henry’s extensive rural source, as well as his period’s and his informants’ closeness to the dependence of all social classes on aural entertainment. There are issues of quality as well, for all “general” song collections (such as Henry’s) draw on the collective artistic legacy which, though it includes the industrial and the military, also taps contemporaneous poetic artistry and is predominantly rural, a calmer view which can afford to be more introspective and attentive to aesthetic nuance and tradition.

Unlike Henry, since Crowley has the luxury of publishing for what is merely a predominantly class-divided society (as opposed to the religious and colonial divisions north of the border), he can include material on the twentieth-century revolutionary issues. As editor, he makes no bones about any such matters, for his objective is only to be representative. And so he presents his material with a certain measure of sentimentality, yes, but with respect for the intentions of the lyrics and for their audiences, according the writers a status as social commentators on their times. Each song is explored by Crowley, beefing out facts, allegories and crypticism with essays on the “what”, “why”, “when” and “where”. This genesis may appear to paint a mostly cosy picture of life in another age, but it accords the songwriters considerable merit in how they can so neatly, and casually, convey the wit, emotion, spirit of endurance and practicality that make survival possible in the toughest of circumstances.

The greater number of the songs are handed-down, traditional lyrics, many of these with new music or music arrangements done by Crowley and the various bands he has been part of. This is clearly notated for the music-literate, but also supported by a code-card with on-line access to the sung melodies for those dependent on the ear, the latter an imaginative use of the newest form of transmission technology to access the oldest. Crowley’s personal stamp is, of course, everywhere, not only in his quaint turn of phrase, quirky observations and strong opinion, but twenty of the songs are his own compositions. These are a mix of documentary nostalgia (such as “Bona’s Night” and “Snap Apple Night”, about calendar feasts; “Turkey, Ham and Poppies”; and “In and Out”), ballads proper (“The Ballad of Parnell Bridge”; “The Queen of the Whitestar Line”; “The Ballad of Katty Barry”), and social commentary mediated by wit (“The Breathalyzer” and “You Can”t Get Petrol”). Each of these becomes a platform for serial presentation of Crowley’s world view, the narrative songs’ packed-in data decoded and illuminated by supplementary anecdotes. Politics as such concern the national and the environmental, the former more explicitly focused in Tony Canniffe’s “Summer Soldiers”, which celebrates such diversity as the Sheares brothers and Cork’s role in 1798, and in the allegorical “Songbirds of Dear Dublin Hill”, on the period of the burning of Cork in 1920:

On a grim night of terror which will long be remembered
Furtive, relentless, they closed for the kill;
And there in the darkness on the twelfth of December,
Were slaughtered the songbirds of dear Dublin Hill.

Crowley’s personal entanglements with power emerge from time to time, expressed notably in his lyric “Stone Hearts and Steely Faces”, which laments the sacrificing of communities in order to build a motorway. That event drove him to leave the country for a time, in revulsion against developers who “would run roughshod over dead kings, heroes, patriots and sacred sites in their frenzied dance for money and power”. While his move to Florida in response to the Tara carriageway in Meath may, in the light of today’s US politics, appear as a leap from the griddle into the fire, his words and actions clearly affirm a respect for the plain people whose labour and lives built and nourished Cork city, and, paradoxically, were the backbone of the Ford factory which ultimately precipitated the expansion of road-building: “They surround us with roads / So we can go nowhere faster.”

Critique of urban “development” is a feature too of some of the songs here composed by Pat Daly, his “Loftus’s Ball” not about a dance but about the wrecker’s ball “on a mad, swinging binge around the city” obliterating memories and landmarks. Here indeed Crowley lets rip most colourfully: “the Michael Collins Bridge where only Pádraig Ó Duinnín and his currach at low water could sail under … and whoever allowed a flat, plastic box like Connolly Hall to stand alongside a magnificent cut-stone job should get no pension”. “Ruddlesome, Rancy O” also takes a slash at “yuppie” bogus place-names, “an onamatological eclipse imposed on us by land developers who have never really recovered from colonialism”; Crowley himself believes that place-names should be relevant, and drawn from the local townland repertoire which is part of Ireland’s sixty-four thousand of such, and which are, of themselves, historically vital “veritable archives”.

On to people, and as one might expect in nineteenth century ballads, there is also a modicum of good old-fashioned sexism embedded in popular opinionising. For instance, “She’s My Old Woman” has lines that might demand application of Kellyanne Conway’s catechism of alternative description:

You talk about faces stopping clocks?
She’d nearly stop your breath
We took her down to the slaughterhouse,
To frighten pigs to death.

Or again, in “Connie Balty”: “I dragged me wife home, no more will she roam / But she rocks Connie Balty to sleep.”

Yet such well-past-sell-by-date lyrics are balanced by plenty of egalitarianism and good cheer, not least in “The Banks of My Own lovely Lee” (“The Banks”), the anthemic pastourelle which was first performed in Cork Opera House in 1933 and was requisitioned for another purpose, its “surging, sentimental strains” now expressing power and loyalty at local hurling and GAA matches.

Sport indeed is part of the cultural palette, with a dozen songs celebrating hurling, soccer and dogs. “Cork’s Own Christy Ring” is a boisterous cheer for the legendary player about whom at least eighteen ballads have been made, one of which the hurler himself used perform: “You may have hurlers tall and straight, that can make a camán sing, / But where’s the name that can play the game with Cork’s own Christy Ring?” There is poignancy in accounts of blood-sports, as in Jerry O’Neill’s “Foxhunt”: “On the day after Christmas the first mate was slain / And on St Stephen’s Day they will kill once again.”

Contradictions and dissonances are to be expected in the chronicling of such diverse material over the course of history, where the expansion of a city implies destruction of wild creatures’ habitats, as noted by Crowley: “Paradoxically those who hunt them [foxes] have proved to be their only benefactors against the encroaching metropolis.” Greyhounds and beagles, recreational beasts for, respectively, the masses and the gentry, are the subjects of several songs, but the formalised modern-day expression of elemental hunting lust is now invested in the lithe greyhound, which is elevated out of its original role in coursing to the track, now a heroic working-class emblem, the subject of great emotion, nostalgia and wonder: “For the dog that opened their eyes, / Was Victor from The Walk.” Or, prime among the canine lyrics, “The Armoured Car”: “He had cast-iron claws and steel-padded jaws, / Every nail was like an iron bar.”

Despite the fact that most of the pieces have the stamp of modern time, and are of relatively short duration, there are, still, many “long” songs, the proper stuff of singing for listening on otherwise dreary, poorly lit evenings, or providing engaged mental escape while doing extensive monotonous tasks. No slouch here is a meticulous nineteen-verse account of a road bowling match in 1932, a comprehensive narrative that covers people, politics, action, topography and dialogue:

They arrived at the Cross, and great was the bowling
As they passed the front entrance to Sarsfield’s estate
And soon Torry’s bucks were hoarse from the howling
For he drew up to Finbarr outside Allen’s gate.

Activities like that “score” took place on territory that has “long been subsumed by encroaching suburbanisation … and recalls family names long established in the Togher area”.

Sedentary recreation is covered too, somewhat pontifically, in the paean to card-playing, “The game of forty-five”:

So put away those mobile phones, turn off that damned TV,
And let’s assemble once again, card-players like you and me.
The game it has a dialect, and lingo of its own,
The “cut”, the “bulk”, “rengeing pup”, And “You should have went on time”.

Jimmy Crowley’s Cork territory is no less expansionist than that of the city planners, but he claims jurisdiction too over the adjacent harbour, its connection with the Titanic leading to his having been commissioned to write up the famous ship as “The Queen of the Whitestar Line”:

The starlit night was beautiful
And the band played Granuaile,
But it roused the ice-king down below,
White with rage engaged the foe.

Sad to think in this context that the wages of those band members (as John Swift documents in his 2012 book Striking a Chord – a Trade Union History of Musicians in Ireland) who went down with the ship were not paid to their relatives by White Star on account of the fact that that they still “owed” the company for the blazers that they had been provided with. There are songs of more modest-scale boating too: “Kitchen Cove”, “The Gracie Blue” and Fr Prout’s nineteenth century “The Town of Passage” which records transportation in fabulous internal rhyme:

There Saxon gaolers keep brave repailers
Who soon with sailors must anchor weigh;
From th’emerald island, ne’er to see dry land,
Until they spy land in sweet Botany Bay.

That kind of rhythm draws attention to the technical side of this project with regard to popular or “street” song. The melodies indicated include many that are topical, and across the songs (both “traditional” and “known composer”) most will fit any compliant rhythmic form. The greater number overall (40 per cent) are in 4/4 time, with a third in jig time (6/8); waltz-time (3/4) accounts for a fifth of the pieces, and a handful are in 9/8 (slip jig) and 2/4 (polka time). Among the fifty or so of the songs described as “traditional”, however, these figures alter somewhat, with around 40 per cent of those being in 6/8 and a third in 4/4. Most of the pieces permit melodic performance, adding to the value of this book, particularly for casual guitar or piano performers.

By now it must be clear that Beautiful City is a map in song of Jimmy Crowley’s head space, his engagement with all elements of his home place. Strongly expressive on this are, of course, his better-known, classic songs, among them “Johnny Jump Up”, “Boozing” and “Salonika”. All tropes are carefully organised, but even apart from the way in which the book’s classificatory structure aids comprehension, the layout itself contributes by permitting a full two-page opening for each song with notation and lyrics on the left, and essays and occasional images on the right. One is reluctant to criticise anything here, but some (relatively) minor issues do merit mention. Among these, not to be outdone by logic, the dreaded “craic” makes an appearance too, if retrospectively imposed, as does the occupational horror of journalists, the apostrophised plural (“70’s”). For its deserved reprinting, this fabulous collection might benefit from an outside editorial glance for the odd, inevitable typo, for the “de-columnising” of some of the essays, and for occasional oversight. Pedantic this may be, but Crowley’s host newspaper is given three different titles in the editorial and throughout; more glaring perhaps, is the editorial’s reference to Sam Henry as writing for the Northern Nationalist, whereas (as stated later in the book indeed) this was the Northern Constitution – a rather different kettle of fish as regards understanding the currency of “traditional” song in Ulster. References and bibliography too could be updated to more comprehensively represent the powerful variety of resources drawn upon.

What can one say about a songbook? It is at once a repository of the past and an editor’s personal take on the present. But while there are plenty of such to be found in bookshops, too many are of the Wikipedia variety – insubstantial, superficial, with corrupted or misheard lyrics, and generally with no association or contexts indicated. In this collection Jimmy Crowley achieves a model standard in this regard – setting the song in its place, establishing the relevant voices, and according the lyrics their historical period and purpose, adding so much to their value for singer, listener – and even reader – alike. What the 328 large-format pages carry is not just song, but an embedded social history of the state’s second industrial centre. It covers the life as lived and experienced by the working people, their faith, fashion, pastimes, labour and hardship.

It is of course implied by the book’s title that this is a collection that will be of greater interest to a Corkonian, so it does deserve a place on any shelf in that city, if not county. But as a literary manifestation of regional pride, observation and folkloric sensibility, as a unit of Irish history, there are things to be learned here too, particularly from the editor’s comments. In the latter, Crowley decodes and demystifies, gives geography, occasion and personality to what might otherwise remain meaningless. Mainly, however, this is a book to be used – to be leafed through – and favourite or preferred pieces learned, the better to contribute knowledgeably to social gatherings and celebrations. To join in on refrains like “The Banks” at sports events, if not just to appreciate the song intelligently. The vacuousness of today’s digital recreation as implied by the editor screams out for words like these to be in able minds and mouths, and Jimmy Crowley here provides the tool for just that.


Fintan Vallely is a musician, and writer and lecturer on Irish-Traditional music. An adjunct professor with UCD’s School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics, among his numerous publications is the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music.



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