Monday, March 17, 2008

Special St. Patrick's Day PSTSS: "Lily of the West"

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I discovered the Chieftains. No, I'm not Irish (not even a little bit, unless you want to go a long ways back); discovering the music of this acclaimed Irish folk band just seemed to be something a lot of people I knew were doing at the time. Did all the intellectually aspiring, culturally discontented, youthful middle-class white people of America do the same around then? Probably not, but an awful lot did. "World music" wasn't so much a present reality for most of us at that time as it was something that all the hip pop artists we listened to--Paul Simon, Graceland; Sting, Nothing Like the Sun; Peter Gabriel, So--were gesturing towards, and it was probably inevitable that their radio success would allow the actual international folk artists they grooved on to experience a little of my beloved MOR American attention themselves. (Did I own a Ladysmith Black Mambazo album? Darn straight I did, and so did you, or else your locker partner or roommate did.)

Point being, there came a time when the Chieftains crossed my radar screen, and after I dipped into their enormous discography a little, I was hooked. They've never, so far as I know, had any kind of straightforward pop success anywhere...but that doesn't mean that some of the finest rock, country, blues, jazz and folk artists of the world haven't leaped at the chance to go into the studio with them, to try to share in some of their Celtic wizardry and raw musicianship. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I could cite a dozen collaborations that, in a better world, would have been huge international hits, but I'm going to stick with one my earliest favorites from their oeuvre: a recording of the multitalented Mark Knopfler joining the Chieftains in playing and singing an old English (or Irish, or possibly American; there are many versions of the song, which has been recorded by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others) folk tune, "Lily of the West." You can find it on 1995's The Long Black Veil, and a finer rendition of the classic sad story of a young man whose infatuation reaches too high, and who finds himself betrayed as a result, you'll never hear. As for whether there's anything typically Irish about that...well, I'll let you decide.

When first I came to Ireland,
some pleasures for to find.
It's there I spied a damsel fair,
so pleasing to my mind.
Her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes
like arrows pierced my breast;
and they called her "lovely Molly-O,
the lily of the west."

One day as I was walking,
down by the shady grove,
I spied a lord of high degree
conversing with my love.
She sang a song delightfully
while I was sore oppressed--
saying I'll bid adieu to Molly-O,
the lily of the west.

I stepped up with my rapier
and my dagger in my hand.
And I dragged him from my false love
and boldly bid him stand.
But being mad with desperation
I swore I'd pierce his breast.
I was then deceived by Molly-O,
the lily of the west.

I then did stand my trial
and boldly I did plea.
A flaw was in my indictment found
and that soon had my free.
That beauty bright I did adore
the judge did her address:
"Now go you faithless Molly-O,
the lily of the west."

Now that I've gained my liberty
a roving I will go--
I'll ramble through old Ireland,
and travel Scotland o'er.
Though she thought to swear my life away,
she still disturbs my rest--
I still must style her Molly-O,
the lily of the west.


tom brandt said...

I heard the Chieftains at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor some time ago, before Derek Bell died. It was one of the best concerts, of any type, I have ever heard. They are all, of course, superb musicians, masters of their instruments and material. But the joy they took in making music was so infectious, the rapport they had with audience so palpable, that everyone in the hall was completely swept up in their performance.

They also seemed very generous. They had started that particular tour in New York, and somehow happened to see a young Irish dance troupe based in NYC. They liked what they say, so they took the troupe on the rest of the tour with them. I can't imagine many other groups doing something like that.

They have been at it for over 40 years. I wonder how much longer they will be around.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Melissa and I have seen them once; it was perhaps 10 years ago (or more), in Washington D.C. Derek Bell was still with them then too. What a fantastic show. As for how long they can keep long as Paddy Moloney still has a heartbeat, I guess!