Saturday, March 17, 2012

When Irish Ears Were Smiling

It was quite a sight to see. The anointed had come out for a night of Irish songs, and they were dressed to the nines in their furs and elegant gowns, even a tux or two was spotted among the 1500 patrons of the arts who crowded in to the Ulster Performing Arts Center, in Kingston, New York. It was St.Patrick’s Day, and local radio station WKNY was sponsoring the evening. Ads had been running for weeks prior to the actual event, promoting it as an evening of traditional Irish music, sung by Ireland’s finest singer, Mary Black. The only problem was that it became apparent that maybe no one at the radio station had ever heard Mary Black. Nor had the audience. I first heard Mary Black at a small club called the Pursuit of Happiness, in Liberty, New York. Oh, she wasn’t performing there, but the club was playing a mix tape before the scheduled performer was to go on. A ballad, the likes of which I had never heard before, silenced the chatter and pretty much everyone listened until the song was over, at which time they resumed their chatter. I was so taken with the tune that I inquired of the manager as to who was that incredible singer, and what was that song. I was told that I had just heard Mary Black perform a song called Anachie Gordon, an ancient and sad ballad about a young woman who is forced, by her parents, to marry a sultan, as a means to wealth, when in truth she only has eyes for a sailor named Anachie. And like Romeo and Juliet before them, they suffer the tragic end, together. It was not “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and nothing that Mary Black has ever recorded is either. Apparently, eager to book an Irish singer for St. Paddy’s Day, no one at the radio station ever bothered to listen to any of her music. They just assumed that Irish singers all sound alike and sing the same old songs, which were actually mainly written in the US. The words to "Danny Boy," for instance, were written by English lawyer and lyricist Frederic Weatherly in 1910. The tune was an old Irish aire called the Londonderry Air, but that is as far as it goes where the origins of the song are concerned. The ad promos for the concert all featured the canned Tin Pan Alley versions of “Irish” songs like those mentioned above, and nary a Mary Black song was even played on the radio. So, come the night. Mary Black took the stage to thunderous applause, and began to sing real traditional Irish songs like Anachie Gordon, but also modern classics like Farewell Farewell and Schooldays Over (written by Richard Thompson and Ewan MacColl respectively) and the crowd was confused. I kept hearing murmuring from around me, wondering when she was going to sing Danny Boy. She never did, of course. What she did do was to open up some folks ears to the true beauty of Ireland and its culture, and she put on one hell of a show. Later, the murmuring hordes bought CDs and cassettes by the handful at the concession table in the lobby. T’was a joyous evening spent.

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