This spring marks our first St. Patrick's Day without singer and storyteller Tommy Makem... since his birth in 1932. He died last August— and I bet a lot of people are toasting Tommy with more than a few tears this weekend.
Tommy Makem, and the Clancy Brothers, sang the songs I was put to bed with, as a child, my lullabies. Not all of them are sweet, or sad like this one— Tommy is just as famous for his dancing tunes. I remember my mother grabbing me up into the air and starting an Irish jig at the first chord of Finnegan's Wake, or O'Reilly's Daughter.
These Irish folk songs are the first lyrics I learned by heart, the kind of tunes a toddler warbles without having any idea what the words mean!
Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All Dressed in Black, Black, Black
With Silver Buttons, Buttons, Buttons
Going Down Her Back, Back, Back
Now way down Yonder, Yonder, Yonder,
In the Jailbird Town Town Town
Where the Women All Work Work Work
When The Sun Goes Down Down Down
You know, it wasn't until I was 32 years old, and singing my infant to sleep, that I realized that song is the story of a singular streetwalker!
In 1943, when he was in the Army, Mr. Seeger conducted an experiment on his fellow soldiers, asking them to write down the names of the songs whose words and tunes they really knew. In his own memory file he counted about 300, but he was impressed by the competition.
“I was surprised how many the average person knew back then,” he said. He supposed that the number of songs crossing lines of generation, class and sex would be much lower today, outside of “Over the Rainbow” and “Happy Birthday to You.”
Ouch. That's sad but true. I think how many songs I know by heart, and they pale in comparison to my parent's musical memory. My mom not only sang all the songs, she knew all the dances that went with them.
Sometimes I get in a panic, when I realize that the days when I sang my daughter every night are long behind us. At a certain point, she became embarrassed by my singing— Mom! Stop it!— and since the rest of the neighborhood wasn't crooning their own tunes, voices floating out the windows, kids singing harmony in the streets, there's been no peer support for it.
You have to go out of your way to find a singing group now— in my childhood, I can't recall going over to someone's house where people didn't dance and sing as a matter of course.
The other night I went to a dinner party followed by the roll-out of a home karaoke machine. I noticed that anyone who knew the song, would rather turn around to the crowd, and belt it out, without the lyric prompt. The microphone's the fun part, not following the bouncing ball. My friends were shocked that I knew so many old country tunes, like "Your Cheatin' Heart," or "Jackson."
I don't know how I know these songs; I can't remember a time when I didn't know them. I realize they go so far back in my mind, because I learned them from my family's singing, not from a recording. I didn't know who "Patsy" or "The Carter Family" was. It was only when I when I got older, and bought my own 45's and records, that I learned lyrics from the original recording artist.
This song, The Butcher Boy, is the lament of a young girl who's found herself knocked up by the butcher's helper, who's abandoned her. She contemplates her and her baby's fate, and hangs herself, with her last poem tucked in her pocket.
Tommy is singing it on Pete Seeger's wonderful old TV program, Rainbow Quest.
The tragic splendor, if not the narrative, of the tale, is an inspiration to Patrick McCabe's novel, The Butcher Boy, and Neil Jordan's movie of the same name. In the case of the McCabe's tale, it's as if the young girl had birthed her child after all, and named him "Francie Brady." His story makes his mother's look like a walk in the park— one of the most damning stories about religion, poverty, violence— and Ireland— I've ever read.
But back to Tommy. What a passion for life. His poems will be sung for very long time. I hope you don't mind if I change the lyrics to another one of his favorites, this time, a Scottish one:
Now Tommy is a bonny lad, he is a lad of mine,
I've never had a better lad and I've had twenty-nine...
And for you, and for you, and for you, my Tommy lad,
I'd dance the buckles off my shoes wi' you my Tommy lad!