Valley Entertainment has released the second volume of the Black 47 tribute series. Complied by Pete Walsh of The Gobshites. Contributions are from Finbar Furey, Barleyjuice, Jonee Earthquake Band, Finny McConnell, Bangers and Mash, The PoguestrA and The Muckers.
Let’s go therapy style right back to the beginning. You were born in Wexford town right? (How was your life outlook influenced by being a Townie rather then a Culchie or a Dub? – was it an important distinction to have been from Wexford town?)
Wexford town was a very special place. It was cut off from the rest of the country and looked outward from its harbor. More people had contact with London rather than Dublin. There was huge emigration to the UK but little to Dublin in my formative years. That’s changed quite a bit now. Wexford also had the merchant marine influence – my father was one of those. Most Wexford sailors had been around the world and brought that worldliness home to the narrow, claustrophobic streets and lanes of Wexford. They also brought back their music. My father was into Calypso and Tango music. He was a great dancer.
Wexford was really influenced by teddyboys and early Rock & Roll – Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, pre-Army Elvis, as so many young people emigrated to London and then brought back modern music on their Christmas and Summer holidays. There was a very loud jukebox in Nolan’s Ice Cream Parlor on Wexford’s Main Street. We children could hear the reverbed/echo-plexed sounds of Fender guitars and Rockabilly voices leaking out as we passed by or snuck in for a peek at these brightly plumed teddyboys.
But my grandfather owned two big farms – one just outside the town, the other down by the Atlantic Ocean, so I got a culchie upbringing, of a sort, too. I heard many of the very old songs from the laborers on the farm and in the surrounding areas and was influenced by those also.
We were music mad in Wexford. Music, of all sorts – opera, jazz, folk, rock & roll, was a huge part of our lives. I explain it all in detail in my memoir, Green Suede Shoes.
Were you raised in a musical family? Was traditional Irish music something that you had a lot of exposure to as a child (or was it something to run away from)?
My Grandmother played piano but had given up by the time I was a boy. There were really no family influences though I was related to John Kirwan, a locally famous opera singer. Traditional music – like jigs and reels – wasn’t something that was heard much in Wexford. But the long-song form was very important – something like the Sean-Nós in Gaelic – but in English in our area – tales of battles and heroes. I would later adapt that form in songs like James Connolly, Bobby Sands MP, etc.
Being from the per-MTV generation what was your first exposure to rock’n’roll and at what point did you go this is what I want to do with my life. Was there a plan to escape Wexford to NYC and form a band or was it something you fell into. How was that seen in Wexford?
I was into adventure, rather than making plans. I guess that was the way the 60’s and 70’s influenced you. You just kicked convention and did what you wanted. So, I never really made plans. I just got on a plane one day and landed in NYC – basically to see what would happen. As I’ve just said, the early Rockabilly guys were big influences. I did want to get out of Wexford at a certain point, although I loved it dearly, and still do. I just couldn’t see myself living there all my life. There was also the chance to reinvent yourself in NYC. In Wexford you were always going to be seen as the same person. I saw Midnight Cowboy in the Capitol Cinema in Wexford one night and said, “I want a piece of that.” And that was that. I saved my money, bought a ticket and took to the streets of NYC.
What was your first musical love and who were the bands that made you want to pick up a strat and turn up the volume?
I took up the Strat because Hendrix, Dylan and Buddy Holly played it. That was good enough for me. I still adore Strats. I have a very fancy and beautiful Epiphone – the same one that Lennon used on the roof of Apple for Get Back or Let it Be, but I very rarely play it. I guess I’m a Stratman! Those three guy were big influences as was Lennon, Strummer, but a whole host of others too. I’m not sure I’d go into music right now if I was starting off. Back when I began music was at the cutting edge socially. Now, for the most part, it’s spectacle or entertainment. I also don’t really like “Rock Music.” But I love Rock & Roll – that magic moment when everything comes together and it’s cathartic, like sex. That’s why we change the set every night with Black 47 – to enable us to hit that peak – that electric high. Merely getting out there and performing songs is really nowhere for me. It’s the jolt, the rush that happens when a great band and an audience goes somewhere else, that’s what I’m after every night. The rest of it doesn’t really interest me. I know how to perform and go through your paces, and can with the best of them – but it’s dragging the audience into the electric circle and going somewhere none of us has been before – that’s what music is all about for me. I guess I never really cared too much about success either – though I was lucky, worked hard and achieved a certain amount of it. But it was never the main deal – the high was everything!
In Ireland politics is often a form of conflict, debate and entertainment. Growing up was your present out look influenced by family views?
Sure, I had a very political upbringing. I was raised by an old Grandfather who had lived the politics of the early 20th Century in Ireland and I ingested it all from him. My parents were actually apolitical. I was a companion to my grandfather – the eldest son in my own family, that’s how it was back then, you went and lived with whatever grandparent had been made a widower. From a very early age he treated me as an equal and would force me to defend any political thought or view that I had. He had seen or known Connolly, Larkin, Michael Collins, DeValera, Sean MacDiarmada and told me all about them. He had left school at 14 and was self-taught but very educated. He had a big house in the old part of Weford and had stocked an actual library of books – he used to buy them at auctions in the old houses of Co. Wexford. So I could study history to my heart’s content. But more importantly, I stored his memories in my brain and can still hear his opinions of say James Connolly – “a little Scottish troublemaker, upsetting the workers.” I loved Connolly though, and still do. I believed in the rights of the working people because I saw the poverty in Wexford and the gulf between rich and poor, educated and un-educated. And those values have stayed with me.
So, emphatically, yes! We’re all a product of our early upbringing – and I probably more so because of the experience of being raised by an old man with a real sense of history.
Larry, you mention two things that have been consistent in Black 47 songs – politics and historical figures.
With politics, you’ve worn your politics proudly on your sleeve and as you say you “suffered a lot for it from a financial point of view”, do you feel that being so vocal about the North or Ireland painted you as a bunch of “Fellow Travelers” in the eyes of those who control the media outlets in Ireland and basically doomed the bands chances in Ireland for success (when normally the Irish media would be falling over the hottest band in NYC)?
That whole aspect was never anything but a minor consideration. We always looked westwards rather than back at Ireland, we always felt that we were living in the city of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Television. If we looked back at Ireland at all it was to Sean O’Riada and the traditional music people. It’s not that there wasn’t good music coming from there, we just didn’t give it a lot of thought. As regards the politics, we were what we were, and to paraphrase Yeats, Was there another Troy for us to burn? We were political, though we never belonged to or followed any party – we were our own party and felt free to comment as we felt fit. We definitely didn’t feel as if the North of Ireland should be run from London. And we felt that we could present some of the viewpoints of the nationalist population of the North of Ireland. We didn’t agree with internment or trial without jury but, never, in any of our songs did we advocate violence. Neither did we think that you should thank the British Army for occupying Irish streets and terrorizing Irish people. But we were also full square against sectarianism. We always felt that these were very important stands and if they cost you commerciality, so what? That’ what we were and still are. But, really, what would Black 47 be without the political stands? A plain looking Corrs with drinking problems?
And with Irish historical characters you’ve written about – James Connolly, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands and Robert Kennedy to name a few – what is your thinking when you choose to write a song about someone (are you interested in the person’s life story, what they stood for, to educate, or political idea)? Who else is out there that you would like to write about (Charles J Haughey)?
The characters have to be inspiring and stand for something. They have to really move me as a writer. I don’t write those songs as any kind of intellectual exercise – and they are not characters that I’ve just discovered. Usually, their memory or example or what they’ve stood for has been burning inside me for a long time. And that’s not just in the songs – but in the plays I’ve written also. I spent years working on Mister Parnell and if you really want to get to the heart of some of the characters in the 1916 insurrection then take a read of Blood. They’re both in a collection of my plays called Mad Angels.
But as regards the songs, Bobby Sands MP took me almost 15 years to write. It would have been a breeze to write some kind of trad song and notate his history, but I found it very hard to capture the times and the ethos of the man. I had to find a way inside his head – how does a person decide to make such an ultimate sacrifice? I found that way when I remembered he had a son. That was the link I needed and the song pretty much poured out then. It was actually maybe twice as long on a first draft and I edited it down to its present form. It may be Black 47’s finest recording. Anytime I hear it, I’m instantly back on those streets of Belfast in 1980-81 during the Hunger Strike. Amazing to think that it’s 30 years ago exactly now. I was touring Ireland back then with Major Thinkers.
James Connolly may be our best song because it’s the first of its kind. I had come from a background of writing plays. I wanted to take the Irish Sean-Nos form of traditional singing and bring it into the 20th Century. Not just to recount events as the Sean Nos form did, but to use modern psychology and method acting – where you use Stanislavsky techniques to become the character you’re acting. Instead of merely recounting Connolly’s history, I basically have to become him in the song – an ex-British soldier – and get to the bottom of why he’s about to give up his life for an ideal. I’m often asked what’s the greatest moment in B47 history – people often think it’s playing some prestigious gig or eing on Letterman, Leno, O’Brien; but no, it’s the first time we ever did that song in Paddy Reilly’s in 1990 and the silence that descended on that rowdy crowd, the first time we did it. Everyone in the room knew we had done something different.
The historical songs have to mean something – Red Hugh O’Donnell from Bankers and Gangsters is one of our best songs – and I’m thrilled to say so because it’s one of our latest. He had been a hero of mine as a boy. But he’s also just a bit too removed in time to be able to interpret him from a 20/21st century psychological point of view. I had given up on him until I took an interest in Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in the war against the Taliban. He was assassinated by order of Osama Bin Laden on Sept. 10th, 2001. I couldn’t believe the parallels between him and Red Hugh – both nationalist, religious fundamentalists, fighting a losing war, surrounded by powerful enemies. By tacking into Massoud I felt able to channel another tragic and major figure, Red Hugh O’Donnell. I also wished to examine the paranoia of someone far from home who feels he may be poisoned by his enemies – in this case Queen Elizabeth of England. And he was right.
I won’t be writing about Charlie Haughey from a political/historical point of view. But he might fit into the Black 47 slightly rogue’s gallery. Who knows. You never know where the next song will come from. Right now, I’m trying to finish a new novel and a new play, so songwriting is on the back burner.
Black 47’s Larry Kirwan has written a musical set in Civil War era New York during the Draft Riots. The Federal Government hard pressed for army recruits introduced the draft but gave a exception to anyone who could afford to pay $300 to buy their away out. The poor (often newly arrived Irish immigrants) rioted over 3 days burning draft stations and attacking the wealthy Yankee upper class and African-American who they feared would take their jobs if slavery ended. The rioting only ended when Federal troops were bought into the city to squash the riot.
S’n’O – Larry, I know you are the author of many off Broadway plays over the years. Is Hard Times your first musical?
Larry Kirwan – No, I’ve written a number of them including, Days of Rage, Rockin’ The Bronx and Mister Parnell, so I guess I’m an old hand. It’s a bitch of a genre. Plays are tough enough but you have to be totally daft to do musicals, there’s just so much to pull together. I suppose it’s like anything though, the more you do it, the better you get.
S’n’O – Hard Times is set during the American Civil War and specifically during the New York Draft Riots. Can you give the readers a little back ground on the Riots. What caused the riots? And what happened during the riots.
Larry Kirwan – Hard Times is set during the Draft Riots of 1863 but it’s not really about them, per se. Basically, I feel that the US in general, and NYC in particular was changed on July 13, 1863. Up until then Irish women and African-American men lived together and were often married in the Five Points area of downtown NYC. They were called “amalgamationists.” After the burning of the Colored Children’s Asylum the fluidity that existed between different people in NYC was squashed and the US set out on a path of 100 years of segregation and discrimination. That’s the setting for a moment when Stephen Foster meets someone from his past.
S’n’O – What was the inspiration for the play – the New York Draft Riots were possibly the lowest point in the Irish-American experience (arguably something best forgotten)- one group on the bottom rung of the social order turning on the group not yet on the bottom rung while the elite buy their way out of danger yet still make the decisions – is there a message that resonates in today’s political climate? (Anti-immigrant sentiments, racial politics and the Tea Party or class divisions and the Occupy movement)
Larry Kirwan – With the exception of the Occupy Movement all of those things you mention were present in 1863 and I suppose Abolitionist feeling could double for the Occupy Movement. History is never black & white but a million shades of grey. Awful things happened that day but that’s not what the play is about. It’s about five people trapped inside a saloon and how they react to the events happening outside. Stephen Foster, the composer, happens to be one of them.
S’n’O – The music was co-written with Stephen Foster which is a great achievement given Stephen is nearly 150 years dead. Who was Stephen Foster and why was his music so important? What type of stamp did Larry Kirwan put onto the mega hits of the 1860’s? Will Celtic rocks fans enjoy?
Larry Kirwan – Yeah, I should probably have phrased the “written by Stephen Foster & Larry Kirwan” differently but it’s what actually happened. I wanted to use his songs and was able to find a dozen that fitted well with, and moved along, the story. But most of his songs had been frozen and calcified by their treatment in the Victorian years. I wanted to let them breathe again. One of the ways of doing that was to write contrapuntal intros and bridges – in Foster’s era those devices hadn’t been introduced into popular music yet. I had done that quite a bit when Black 47 updated Irish melodies and added new words to them – I always added original intros and bridges to add flavor to the songs and make them more interesting musically So, I knew how to do it. Amazingly – to me at any rate – most of Foster’s songs veered towards Gospel or Irish when unmoored. I think these new versions will make Foster’s songs more palatable to Celtic Rock fans. But who cares what other people think. I’ve always done what I wanted and luckily there’s always been an audience for the end result.
S’n’O – Who is the audience that will enjoy Hard Times – Irish Americans, New Yorkers or is there a wider audience (and message)?
Larry Kirwan – God, I don’t know. I guess I tend not to think in those terms. Let’s just say that Stephen Foster was gifted with a particular genius. I’m not quite sure what it is but when unleashed it tends to move you in the most soulful manner. It’s like being touched by something from another world so I would imagine anyone with a bit of soul will feel it. I know I do. Foster was a complicated person – our first professional songwriter – he died 6 months after the events in Hard Times at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. I think anyone who has been touched by the music business will identify with the story of this brilliant, tortured man.
S’n’O – Any plans to tour with Hard Times or bring it beyond Manhattan?
Larry Kirwan – Not at this point. It’s an achievement to even get the project up and breathing. I couldn’t have done it at all without the support of the wonderful people at The Cell, including Nancy Manocherian, artistic director and Kira Simring the director.
S’n’O – Cheers Larry! I”m going to try make it down.
Larry Kirwan – A pleasure, John. I think it will be well worth the trip. The six actors are so committed to their roles. I think we’ll create some magic and hopefully re-introduce Foster to a very different world.
Hard Times will be performed at The Cell, 338 W. 23rd St., NYC Sept. 13-30th as part of the First Irish Theatre Festival. For info http://www.thecelltheatre.org
Directed by Kira Simring and produced by Nancy Manocherian of The Cell, performances Sept 13, 14, 15, 19, 21, 22, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30.
Hard Times stars Jed Peterson as Stephen Foster, Erin West as Jane Foster, Almeria Campbell as Nelly Blythe, Phillip Callen as Michael Jenkins, Stephane Duret as Thomas Jefferson and John Charles McLaughlin as Owen Duignan.
I’ve said this before have experience putting together compilation albums – it’s not easy. It isn’t a job of slapping a few ol’ track on a disk and pressing. The music and the tracks have to flow and complement each other, so hats off to Black 47’s Larry Kirwan for a fine job. The idea of this compilation is to showcase various bands that Larry has featured on his Celtic Crush show on Sirius XM radio. The comp has a nice mix of Celtic tinged acts – most more radio friendly then the stuff we do at Shite’n’Onions. We have some big mainstream names like Hothouse Flowers, Runrig and The Waterboys with a phenomenal live version of “Savage Earth”. There is Black 47 themselves with Uncle Jim, Shite’n’Onions fav’s Blaggards (no The) with an almost metal version of “The Irish Rover” and a classic blast from the past in Pat McGuire’s, “You’re So Beautiful”. The rest of the album is given to showcase some fine less established banks like Barleyjuice, Celtic Cross, Peatbog Faeries, Garrahan’s Ghost’s and Shilelagh Law.