The Celtic Rocker
Another St. Patrick's Day has come and gone. The green beer hangovers have subsided, the countless renditions of "Danny Boy" have been sung, and many are no doubt asking whether all the swill actually amounted to a real recognition of Irish culture.
According to Larry Kirwan, there's is indeed a lot more to it than that. A native of Wexford, Ireland, he has spend the past two decades fronting the New York group Black 47, whose blend of traditional Irish music with rock, jazz and blues runs under a thoroughly bottom-up lyrical point of view. Here, Alexander Billet talks to him about music, politics, and Black 47's new albumBankers and Gangsters.
There are plenty of US-based groups that pull influence from Irish music and culture, and we've been bombarded with plenty of it this past St. Patrick's Day. What is it that you think sets Black 47 apart?
From a lyrical point of view we're the ones who deal most directly with particular political issues. From a musical side, our instrumentation is a bit different. We use brass and uilleann pipes and that tends to set us apart. Because of our improvisational background and experience we tend to be a little more out there musically. None of us were influenced by the Pogues; they tend to have a huge impact on many Irish-American bands. Not that we don't like them - it's just that they weren't particularly relevant to us when we were forming.
To some, the radical politics in your music might seem to be a bit out of left-field--especially with the watered-down version of Irish music that is presented to us today. But I'm assuming you see things differently?
I came from a political background and have always been interested in politics. That's part of what I am. And being the songwriter that ensures that political thought is important to the band. Besides I've always believed that music is an agent for social change and the band was formed with that idea in mind. Even as regards Irish Republican standards, I came more from the [socialist] James Connolly wing rather than the more nationalistic one. I'm not even sure just how left-wing the band is in standard left-right terms anymore, it's just that the US is so right-wing these days, any thought that is even slightly left of center tends to be seen as extreme.
What are the experiences that influenced you in writing the music on Bankers and Gangsters?
The title is a bit misleading--it would seem to suggest that all the songs are about the current financial crisis, whereas just the title track deals with that issue. On that song, I just use some humor, both lyrically and musically, to point out the human cost of the crisis and how the actions of a few people can have a deep impact on the rest of us. But in many ways, we're using the actual musical arrangement to highlight the situation rather than just the lyrics.
Well I don't normally use straight narratives like "Johnnie's on a hot ledge, just out of college..." I usually internalize and speak from first person. To counter that and make things more human, I decided to go for a real jaunty horn line that would highlight our brass players - you don't get more human than two guys really blowing into a sax and ‘bone.
There are other political and historical songs on the album but they tend, as usual with Black 47, to deal with characters, and tell their story. For instance, “Rosemary” deals with the assassination of Rosemary Nelson, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights lawyer; and “Red Hugh” looks at the life of Red Hugh O'Donnell who fought Queen Elizabeth I back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Oddly enough, I was finally able to understand and delineate O'Donnell's character by studying Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This might be one of our less political albums, probably because IRAQ was just so focused on one issue. C'est la vie...
How was it that Massoud's story helped you understand that of Red Hugh?
They shared much of the same experience--both were religious fundamentalists, living on the border of great empires, with time running out for their way of life; each had great personal courage, they were tenacious fighters and infighters, they had little mercy for traitors, both were deadly afraid of assassination, both were killed by their enemies, and both live on in the hearts of their countrymen.
There are plenty of songs that may not be "political," but have a story-telling aspect that is very populist in nature, which is another tradition very widely associated with Irish music and culture. For example, on "Celtic Rocker," you mention the protagonist's dreams of going to see the lands of her heritage. What do you think the value is in these stories?
Irish society was very communal and retains some of that quality to this day. From the 17th century on the Irish were persecuted, forbidden education and the practice of their religion. Throughout this they managed to pass on their traditions orally. I grew up in Wexford, an area that treasured the "long song," as we called it; that would be a song of many verses that would commemorate a battle or the noble deeds of a hero. I decided early on with Black 47 to take that form and drag it into the then 20th Century by introducing it to some of the trends and practices of our times, psychology, method acting, etc. Thus in, say “James Connolly,” I try to enter into the head and soul of Connolly and see why would a very practical man like him rise up against the might of the British Empire. He knew the consequences and that he'd leave a widow and children without a breadwinner. So, apart from adding a big rock beat to the equation, I was also looking at it all from different, more modern, perspective. But it came from the very old Irish oral tradition.
Finally, what do you think are some of the fundamental changes that need to take place for folks to get a fair shake? What do you think is the role of music in making this change happen?
On the face of it one would have to be very discouraged right now. We came through eight disastrous years that included an unnecessary war in Iraq and a favoritism towards the wealthy that was often astounding. And yet, the country is turning towards conservatism again. We live in a time where a twenty-four hour news-cycle media can muddle and distort what is actually happening. Consequently, people can be led like lemmings. At the same time, progressives lie down at the first hint of bellowing by various right wing clowns. There seems to be little backbone in the left. Still, at times like this, I have no choice but to return to the words of [Irish political prisoner] Bobby Sands for they always they always help me to remain optimistic: "no one can do everything, but everyone has their part to play." If each of us takes care to look out for their particular sphere and turf, then we will turn things around.
Check out more of Black 47, or sign up for their monthly newsletter at their website.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org, the International Socialist Review, CounterPunch, and PopMatters.com.
Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org.