Emigrants, Exiles, and Electric Guitars

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a music person. This is the sort of statement that raises eyebrows of confusion among my peers. No, I don’t really need a pandora and a blip and a last.fm account. I appreciate the ambiance created by live music, but don’t really see the need to seek out full-blown concerts of either the popular of classical variety. For me, music is best when it’s being used to present or prop up something else: a story, a dance, a mood. Music is powerful, but rarely does a musician or band grab me all on its own.

But there’s one band that rises above all others and gives me everything I could want in music and more, a band that produces songs with narrative, songs that make you want to get out on a scuffed wood floor and dance (and I’m talking real swing-your-partner-until-she’s-dizzy, breathless, stylized partner dancing that fell out of popularity somewhere in the 1950s, not the bump-and-grind of the modern club), song that combine acoustic and electric and old and new seamlessly. And best of all, if you know what to listen for, their lyrics are really, really nerdy.

I’m talking about Flogging Molly.

For the non-folk music (and/or non-punk music) nerds among us, Flogging Molly is an American Celtic punk band founded in Los Angeles, California by Dave King, Ted Hutt, Jeff Peters, and Bridget Regan, who first began fusing traditional Irish music and contemporary punk sounds in the early ’90s playing in a Los Angeles pub, Molly Molone’s. They eventually signed onto a record deal with SideOneDummy Records. To quote the all-knowing source known as Wikipedia, “Flogging Molly has released an independent (26f Records) live album titled Alive Behind the Green Door, as well as four studio albums: Swagger, Drunken Lullabies, Within a Mile of Home, and Float; and an acoustic/live DVD/cd combo Whiskey on a Sunday. They have toured with the Warped Tour, Larry Kirwan’s American Fléadh Festival and contributed to the Rock Against Bush project. They have sold in excess of a million and a half copies of recorded output as of December 6, 2006.”

Best of all, even within the history-heavy Irish music genre, Flogging Molly this ability to invoke historical images and historical narrative better than any other band or musical group I have ever heard. More than the Dropkick Murpheys, or the Pogues (yes, even more than the Pogues), or even more traditional-sounding bands like Great Big Sea and Gaelic Storm, they are attuned not only to the celtic folk musical tradition they are following in, but to the complicated, muddy history of Ireland itself.

And let’s face it, guys. That’s my kind of nerdy.

One of my favorite songs, for its style as well as its content, is the underrated “Tobacco Island,” which appears buried in the middle of their third CD, Within a Mile of Home. With their usual punk-folk flair, they sing:

‘Twas 1659, forgotten now for sure
They dragged us from our homeland
With the musket and their gun
Cromwell and his roundheads
Battered all we know
Shackled hopes of freedom
We’re now but stolen goods
Darken the horizon
Blackened from the sun
This rotten cage of Bridgetown
Is where I now belong

There, smack in the middle of contemporary pop song, is a short, emotional history lesson of that dreaded Irish side of the English Civil War. To fill things out a bit, here are the sordid historical details: Once Oliver Cromwell had taken control of Parliament, executed Charles I, and named himself Lord Protector, he set to conquering Ireland. After three years of some of the bloodiest fighting of the English Civil War, Cromwell’s army defeated the sometimes equally violent and largely Catholic Irish insurgents, stripped Irish-Catholic nobles of their land, and sent Irish prisoners of war and their families into forced indentured servitude in the West Indies – and thus effectively set the stage for the history of Ireland for the next three hundred years.* The song is chock full of historical vocabulary: it refers to “roundheads” (Cromwell’s political supporters in Parliament), “the Butcher”** (a Cromwellian nickname), and “redlegs” (nickname for the Barbadian descendants of those Irish indentured servants and other poor whites). Though the song’s lyrics do not make the direct link, it is about an event that came to define the worst of Irish politics and turmoil until very recently.

That’s not the only historical event to which the band directly refers, either. “Far Away Boys,” takes on the topic of the building of America’s trans-continental railroad, which famously used and abused Irish immigrant labor to create the railway that, for the first time connected the United States from East to West.*** Likewise, the opening verse of “To Youth” speaks of the Great Migration to America after the potato famine ravaged the Irish countryside:

Tell me why are our fields filled with hunger
And fruitless the crop bitter soil
So I say my farewell to a nation
As the leaf waves goodbye to it’s son

It’s not all praise for Ireland’s obsession with its tragic and bloody narrative, either. This ain’t your grandmother’s “Skibereen.” Though “Screaming at the Wailing Wall” directly addresses the madness of religious war in the context of the Middle East conflict, with pennywhistle wailing in the background it’s difficult not to make the connection to Ireland’s own religious conflict (and even the United States’ own often poorly thought out place in it). When a very Irish band says, “With the bombed out cars/ Come the falling stars/ From a heaven we’ll never know,” you have to wonder if they are criticizing a country a little closer to home.

There’s a mood and a tone to Flogging Molly’s lyrics and style that remind me, whether it was meant to or not, of some of the most noted Irish scholarship. The sense of loss and uncertainty in “Black Friday Rule,” is the heartfelt musicians’ answer to Kerby Miller’s seminal Emigrants and Exiles, one of the most detailed pieces of historical scholarship in existence about Irish emigration to America. “Drunken Lullabies” speaks with a cynicism and despair at Ireland’s obsession with its bloody past in a way that reflects the unhappy portentousness of no less a person than Conor Cruise O’Brian, Irish scholar, sage, and doomsday proclaimer, “Those who hear the ancestral voices [of history] only faintly,” he darkly declares, “are in the thrall of those who hear them loud and clear, calling for vengeance.” “Must we starve on crumbs from long ago?” Dave King asks in a similar tone.

Here’s a grand, sweeping statement sure to make any professional scholar of Irish culture or history cringe: Flogging Molly is the modern answer to the intimidatingly grand and deeply rooted tradition of Irish music as Roddy Doyle is to the equally intimidating tradition of Irish literature. Both are rooted in an Irish tradition that has been romanticized on both sides of the Atlantic, both speak to modern cynicism ad wryness, and both inject irreverence where it is most needed. Both are well aware of the complicated water into which they wade. In its own pop culture-laden sort of way, Flogging Molly brings the long tradition of Irish folk music into the new millennium not by watering it down in the awful tradition of greet St. Patrick’s Day beer, but by providing a new perspective, relevant to Irish history and to the world.

Must it take a life
For hateful eyes
to glisten once again?
’cause we find ourselves in the same old mess
Singing drunken lullabies.

Flogging Molly is now in the middle of its North American tour. Check your local venues! Don’t be dumb like me and forget to check until after they’ve gone through your town.

Becca

*In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea where the song gets the date 1659. Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland took place 1649-51.

** If this vocabulary is looking at all familiar to fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, it isn’t a coincidence, by the way. Pratchett’s knowledge of history and satire is just that awesome.

*** “Far Away Boys” only tells half of the story, keep in mind. While the story of the Irish laboring on the railroad is well-known to the history books, the story of the even worse-treated Chinese laborers is less often spoken of. Famously, the photograph taken in 1869 at the “Golden Spike” ceremony when they railroad was finished includes a number of Irish workers, but not a single Chinese worker.

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2 Comments

Filed under history, music, Pop Culture

2 responses to “Emigrants, Exiles, and Electric Guitars

  1. Lex

    I am a music person, through and through. Music for me can exist as a stand-alone entity without movement or lyrics. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue stirs me in ways little else can. And I love that you have found music that works for you.

    I can’t choose a favorite kind of pop music, but two of the kinds I like the best are what I call the TMBG model– humorous information download– and the Paul Simon model– poetry infused with expert musicianship. And Flogging Molly kind of straddles that exactly.

    Did I ever give you any Tossers music?

    • Becca

      I always feel like my relationship with music is really odd. I know I love it, but I rarely get as connected to it as a lot of people around me do, except in certain contexts (usually contexts that involve stories or dancing). But even when we approach music differently, I love the power it has, and I love hearing people talk about music.

      Anyway.

      Mmm, yes. I like those two as categories of music. So often music gets categorized by its sound, which isn’t always the best way to do it. We should think more about what it says and what it does (literally and figuratively), which is what those two categories seems to do.

      I think you did! You should send me more of their stuff. I am always a sucker for more Celtic punk-y stuff.

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