I love Van Morrison and the Pogues as much as the next music geek, but when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around this is what I most want to hear.
Over the course of 11 minutes, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem string together fragments of songs remembered from childhood or overhead from their own children. As with last week, I’ll quote the liner notes: “Here are the street songs, the sounds of play, the taunts, the rhymes, the jokes and the fantasies of the young.”
It’s all utterly Irish, steeped in place, wren-killing rituals on St. Stephen’s Day and the Troubles always in the background, but also utterly universal. In one song a snail becomes a “shellicky bookey” and in another the ocean the “illi alli oh,” and I’m reminded of John Updike describing his young son’s speech: “Language is to him thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can.” As parents externalize their fears by singing something like “Rock a Bye Baby,” with its breaking boughs and hurtling babies, so here children find a way through song to speak aloud about the adult dangers they sense I think from very early on, war and social exclusion and of course death. “Wallflower, wallflower, growing up so high/He had the measles, he’ll never, never die,” one song says, and this reminds me of the end of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” the young Nick Adams after witnessing a scene of horrible violence “sitting in the stern of a boat with his father rowing…[and feeling] quite sure he would never die.”
The songs capture too a child’s sense of causality. For kids, rules exist, actions have consequences, one thing leads in a straight line to another. We lose that as adults, are forced to account for the random and arbitrary, but kids seem to have an innate drive toward narrative and a magical realist writer’s determination to push that narrative as far as it will go: normal premises domino into the fantastical, but play out logically. In “Children’s Medley,” you can hear this in “Man of Double Deed” and “The Irish Soldiers.”
Finally, what you mostly take away from these songs and chants and lullabies is an appreciation of how much of the adult world kids do see, and how hard they try to understand its mysteries and enticements. (For another take on this theme, see my other blog of stories about my childhood, Tell Me About Your Summer.)
Or, you can just have a Guiness and sing along and not think about any of this stuff.