Two of the great pillars of folk music of the last century, were remembered this week for the integrity and steadfastness of their politics and for their ability to inhabit a song in a very special way, a gift that is only given to the few. Pete Seeger, the great folk activist died on Monday and Thursday was the 30th anniversary of Luke Kelly’s demise.
Watching some the pallid fare at the Grammy’s, earlier this week, I thought how sad it was that Luke Kelly hadn’t a chance to even be nominated for one. The Dubliners just didn’t happen in America and so all those musical peacocks were deprived of the privilege of hearing one of the greatest folk voices in the world and seeing his individual style, a dynamic presence which reeked of authenticity. He would have rocked them back on their heels.
Pete Seeger was in at the start of the folk revival in America, along with artists such as Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and Peter Paul and Mary, Seeger’s politics didn’t sit well with the American authorities, but he was still singing at the age of ninety one. He was blacklisted during the vicious right wing McCarthy era in America, when anyone with socialist or communist leanings were hounded, as Hollywood stars ratted on each other like the Stasi in East Germany. Some were even chased into exile, but Seeger survived by singing in schools and colleges.
Tall and scrawny, Seeger was troubadour to the the American civil rights movement, singing We Shall Overcome. Small and scrawny, Luke our cantor of hope in the Sixties and 70’s sang that same song with his own special fervour. He had sat at the feet of Ewan McColl, who was the pre-eminent folk writer of his day. Luke leanrt well and had s travails.
I heard one of The Dubliners’ archivists telling the story of how he was sitting at the bar of the Royal Hotel in Howth, “when a fella pointed his finger and said to me ‘dy see yer man?’ I followed his finger and down at the far end of the bar Luke was sitting alone having a pint. ‘That fella could take the froth off yer pint at twenty paces.’ It was a very apt description of Luke’s voice. It used to shoot out from his mouth like a laser beam, a very subtle laser beam. Luke was able to pitch it as strongly or as sweetly as the song demanded. Contrast the tenderness he brought to ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ with the raucous, smiling vivacity of ‘Take Me Up To Monto.’
I knew Luke well, but I wasn’t a bosom buddy. Paddy Reilly, who along with John Sheahan, was one of Luke’s best friends, says it is a bit like putting up with all the fellas who claimed to have been in the GPO, in 1916.
“You could fill Croke Park with fellas who said they were friends with Luke,” says Paddy.
One of the regrets of my life s that I never pitched a song to Luke. Instead, I found a solution of sorts to ease my regret, by writing a song about him for his 30th anniversary.
Paddy Reilly has retired from performing and recording, but I nibbled away at him for months and months and finally one day we set off for Roundstone and there the song came alive through Paddy’s singing and Bill Whelan’s piano playing. The first time you hear your song coming out of a great singer’s mouth is a pleasure unparalleled in my experience. To hear Paddy’s strong, clear voice telling Luke’s story, was a great thrill. While I was writing the song, I was wondering what would Luke be like if he were alive today. I venture he would be incensed to a point of spontaneous combustion. Having been a two-time emigrant himself, his unruly mop of red hair would surely blaze furiously, as he railed at the plague of emigration, which continues to put a blight on so many families’ lives.
And where are Luke’s old friends the “working class? They got lost in the dazzle of the boom, flying high and flying blind and when they got to close to the sun, their wings melted and they fell down only to find themselves up to their oxters in crippling debt or on welfare.
Luke used to sing a song revived by his mentor, Ewan McColl, from a Rabbie Burns poem. Its called A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation. I substituted “European” for “English” is this last verse and even though the Scot may never have set foot in Ireland, he has captured our boys rather splendidly.
O would, ere I had seen the day
That treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll make this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for Europe’s goldof
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.Article Written by Shay Healy First Published in The Irish Daily Mail, Saturday 1st February 2014 Shay Healy’s latest eBook ‘The Danny Boy Triangle’ is Out Now on Kindle 2.99 Free Kindle Reader – download app