I went to the dentist on Tuesday and when I checked in to the receptionist, she asked me how to pronounce my name. When I told her, she asked if the name was Irish which was a fair assumption although I would have thought the first thought would have been Scottish. I replied that my sister had traced the name back to the early 1800s and the family was still in London. However, the Irish connection is from my Mum’s side of the family. In 1965, we had a family holiday in Ireland. We sailed from Southampton to Cork, drove up the East Coast of Ireland and ended up flying back from Belfast – my first time in a plane. I remember one or two things from the holiday, mainly because of the eight photos that we took but my clearest memory is hearing “Help!” by The Beatles for the first time on the car radio. We had hired a white mini and it had a radio. Incredible. You can’t stand in the way of progress.
Another thing I remember from this holiday was going into a phone box in Armagh and my Mum looking through a phone book to see if she could see anyone whose surname was Knipe. Her paternal grandfather had emigrated (or was transported?) from Armagh to Australia, probably some time around 1870, and she wanted to see if any Knipes still lived there. Disappointingly, I can’t remember what the outcome was and I’m not sure what she was hoping for. Nevertheless, I can still vividly remember sitting in the back of the Mini looking at my Mum inside an Irish phone box.
Roo and I have had three holidays in Ireland; Rob has organised two great weekends in Cork; Martin had his 40th I had birthday in Dublin; Janet, John and I enjoyed excellent hospitality in Dublin; Pete and I travelled around Southern Ireland a couple of years ago. Each of these holidays has featured a) lots of rain b) fantastic scenery c) great Guinness d) a ridiculously friendly welcome from the people of Southern Ireland when they should be hating the English. In fact, the least friendly people I have met from Ireland were from (London) Derry in Norther Ireland – part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Irish music. I’ve got the remarkable Richard to thank for introducing me to Lankum. I’ve already written about “The Livelong Day” from 2019 and on the basis of loving that album, I bought 2017’s “Between The Earth And Sky” which is equally enjoyable. They have made two albums as Lankum but released two prior albums as Lynched (two brothers in the group are Daragh and Ian Lynch) until a tour of the USA persuaded them that this wasn’t a great name.
“What Will We Do When We Have No Money” has been recorded by many people but the original version was by Mary Delaney who is a blind Irish Traveller. This song was recorded from Mary while she was living in a caravan underneath the Hammersmith flyover and was included as part of an album called “From Puck To Appleby” a collection of recordings of Irish Travellers in England recorded by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie.
The version by Lankum is astonishing. I absolutely love Radie Peat’s voice; she has a unique voice and she evokes sadness and despair but also pride and strength. The first song on an album is normally a catchy upbeat tune which encourages people to keep listening on a streaming service. This song is neither catchy nor upbeat but it does inform the serious music lover that the album that follows is going to be a significant listening experience. Comparing the two versions shows another example of how to take a raw folk song and sanitise it with lovely harmonies and a droning harmonium. The live version on YouTube segues into “The Townie Polka” which is the fourth track on this album. This song has a tradition of being handed from one person to another: a travelling musician called Jimmy Irwin taught it to Eddie O’Gara who taught it to Mick Brown who taught it to Cormac MacDiarmada of Lankum. Youths from rural Ireland have claimed to hear the ghost of Jimmy Irwin playing this song late at night as they stumble home from the pub.
Some Irish folk music irritates me and I dismiss it as diddlee-dee music and the first time I heard “Sergeant William Bailey” I thought I wasn’t going to like it. There’s a lot of “too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra-loo” in it but it’s actually grown on me a lot and now I think it’s terrific. The song was originally written by Peadar Kearney who wrote “Amhran na bhFiann”, the Irish National Anthem. The song concerns the titular character attempting to drum up support to fight for the British King whereas the burgeoning Republican movement is ensuring that young Irish boys are unwilling to sign up. An Irish rebel band called The Wolfe Tones recorded the song in 1987. However, Lankum learned the song from a traditional Irish singer called Tommy Cheevers.
The words to “Peat Bog Soldiers” were written inside a German concentration camp in 1933 by Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff. Prisoners were forbidden to sing existing protest songs they wrote their own. The music was composed by Rudi Goguel who wrote about the first performance of the song which was in 1933. “The sixteen singers marched in holding spades over the shoulders of their prison uniforms. I led the march, with the handle of a broken spade for a conductor’s baton. We sang and by the end of the second verse nearly all of the thousands of prisoners present gave voice to the chorus. With each verse, the chorus became more powerful and, by the end, the SS – who had turned up with their officers – were also singing, apparently because they too thought themselves “peat bog soldiers”. When they got to “No more the peat bog soldiers will march with our spades to the moor”, the singers rammed their spades into the ground and marched out of the arena; leaving behind their spades which now had become crosses.” Wolfgang Langhoff had been arrested because he was a member of The German Communist Party. He was released in 1934 as part of an amnesty, later fleeing to Switzerland and became an actor, performing in two Bertolt Brecht plays; he later had a successful film career. “Peat Bog Soldiers” was originally written in German and the English translation has been recoded on numerous occasions by artists as varied as Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and The Dubliners. It’s an amazing song with a fascinating history. The song became a Republican anthem during The Spanish Civil War. Its appeal is universal and it seems that any oppressed minority can identify with it.
Tracks 5-7 on this great album are all written by Lankum and feature great singing, authentic Irish instrumentation, excellent harmonies and somehow the overall impact is more earthy and urgent than a traditional Irish band that you might see performing in a O’Neill’s pub on a Saturday night. “The Granite Gaze”, in particular, featuring Radie Peat’s vocals, is unbearably mournful and surprisingly uplifting. The words to this song describe the women and children of Ireland who are oppressed by the Catholic Church or abandoned by their menfolk. The official video is rather unsettling.
The sleevenotes to the album state that they first heard the song “The Turkish Reveille” from their good friend Andy the Doorbum. I’d have changed my surname, personally. It was originally one of the Child Ballads called “The Sweet Trinity”, first heard in 1635. A captain of a ship laments the danger it is in from another ship. A cabin boy offers to solve the problem and swims to the ship, bores holes in its hull, and sinks it. The song has been recorded by Steeleye Span, Martin Simpson, Loudon Wainwright III and The Carter Family amongst others. At nearly twelve minutes long, it is the longest song on the album but the drone and harmonies mean that it never drags and is infinitely interesting. It will be interesting forever (although forever changes).
The last track on the album is “Willow Garden”. The song is sung by Radie Peat with great harmonies from the rest of the band and a haunting fiddle accompaniment. It’s another song with a fascinating history. It concerns a man who poisoned his wife (Rose Connolly – after whom the song is commonly named), stabbed her and threw her in a river. The song is sung from the perspective of this charming man as he faces the gallows – he is about to be stretched up Between The Earth And Sky. It appears that the song was originally Irish but surfaced in The Appalachian region of the USA. Here’s a full account of the history of the song.
I think that Lankum are an acquired taste. Some people (e.g. Roo) equate the sound of Radie Peat’s voice and the fiddle playing of Cormac MacDiarmada to a dentist’s drill but I am endlessly fascinated by the sound that they make.