Day 277: On Ballads and the Irish American Memory

One of the nicer things about getting older is that we learn that the things we thought to be empty, in our cynical youth, are actually quite full.

Take cult-chah, as we call it in Plymouth.

At fifteen, I decided that this place has absolutely none. I smirked and kept my arms crossed for seven years, then at 22 took off on an anywhere-is-better-than-here backpacking trip that very quickly landed me penniless in Ireland. I was in good company, penniless in a town of empty pockets and full voices. Hanging around in that dark, grey town for six months, I got my first introduction to balladry, filling my heart with all those Wolfetones, Fureys, Paddy Reilley, Christy Moore, and Dubliners songs that some people in Boston traditional Irish music circles would later implicate were rather "empty," compared to those much older Childs ballads and translated sean nós poetic songs.

Myself included, at times, I suppose. For example, for years, I refused to learn "The Lonesome Boatman," that very favorite Furey Brothers whistle tune, because I felt it was too poppy, and I was trying to learn trad. I thought I might sound a little silly playing it if I couldn't do the "seagulls" part. Likewise for the "Fields of Athenrye," in a certain way. Soul Papa and I will play it heartily at any pub gig, but there are precious few Irish sessions in Boston that we'd feel alright pulling that one out at. Oh, that long list of unspoken session rules: "ok," "not okay," "trad and full," "poppy and empty." If you don't believe me, next time you're at a "serious" trad session, watch the eyes of a few of the fiddle and flute players when someone pulls out a rebel song.

Still, I challenge anyone to tell me that the songs of the ballad bands were empty last Wednesday, when I was asked to play "The Lonesome Boatman" at the graveside of a prominent South Boston woman, for some 200 people who'd gathered to lay her to rest in a Dorchester cemetery at the banks for the Neponset River. As I played, the crowd fell silent and gathered close around the grave of this well-loved, first-generation Irish American, whose married life had kicked off at the Irish dance halls in Roxbury and who later ran a popular restaurant and bar until she developed pancreatic cancer in her late sixties. The priest said the prayers, all said a Hail Mary and an Our Father, then I was signaled to close the interment with the second request, "The Fields of Athenrye." The first verse, played solo on whistle, drifted out over the mourners, then spontaneously, 100 men and women at the graveside joined the whistle's air on the chorus, in full voice:

"Low lie the fields of Athenrye,
where once we watched the small freebirds fly.
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing,
It's so lonely 'round the fields of Athenrye."

So beautiful to hear all those voices. Even the whistle player cried.

That, my friends, is not a crowd empty of culture. That is family and close friends full of memories, not only of their recently lost, but memories of their cultural history, of the Connemara stones their parents left to come to South Boston's pavement. There is nothing empty there: hearts full of memories, ne'er too old to hear new chimes. The grave once empty, now full.