Miscarriage of Justin: don’t judge Timberlake on ‘Auld Triangle’
People have feelings of ownership over what they see as definitive versions of classic songs
‘You couldn’t listen to a radio programme in recent days without hearing Justin Timberlake accused of murdering The Auld Triangle, Dominic Behan’s classic jail ballad. In the ears of some purists, he might as well have killed Luke Kelly too while he was at it: so inextricably linked is the latter with Behan’s song.’ Photograph: Getty Images/Kevin Winter
The framing of Justin Timberlake for a crime he didn’t commit should be a warning to all about the dangers of ever rushing to judgment.
You couldn’t listen to a radio programme in recent days without hearing the American singer accused of murdering The Auld Triangle, Dominic Behan’s classic jail ballad. In the ears of some purists, he might as well have killed Luke Kelly too while he was at it: so inextricably linked is the latter with Behan’s song.
Not even Timberlake’s own protestations of innocence – to his 28 million Twitter followers – cowed the lynch mob, although of course that’s often the case with persons wrongly accused. His fingerprints were at the scene of the crime. That was enough for some.
Audio: Justin Timberlake's 'Auld Triangle'
Audio: Luke Kelly's 'Auld Triangle'
Audio: Brendan Behan's 'Auld Triangle'
But I for one believed his story that, as featured in a new movie about the folk scene in 1960s New York, the main singing role on The Auld Triangle was performed by a band called the Punch Brothers. In the course of my subsequent inquiries, I found a YouTube video from 2012 of the same band, performing the song in London, with a voice identical to the one I’d heard on radio.
The Punch Brothers are an American group who play “Progressive Bluegrass” (which, by the way, sounds like something Teagasc should be trying to eradicate). And in fairness to the singer, a certain Chris Thile, he apologises in advance to the London audience for his “fake Irish accent” on the song, which he said he’d learned for a forthcoming movie.
His apology was probably unnecessary in the context. The London audience had clearly never heard The Auld Triangle before. They listened in awkward silence at first, before an outbreak of relieved laughter at the last verse – the one where the singer wishes he was in the women’s prison – as if they’ve just worked out what this is: a funny song.
But on behalf of its country of origin, where the ballad is considered anything but funny, I accept Mr Thile’s plea of mitigation on the fake brogue charge. In a spirit of clemency, I hereby apply the Probation Act, with the proviso that he doesn’t attempt anything else in an Irish accent, or otherwise attract the attention of the court again, in the near future.
As for the musical element of his version, it’s not at all bad. In fact, I think the harmonised chorus, which does involve Timberlake, as well as Marcus Mumford, is at least as good as the Dubliners’ version. So shoot me.
People can be very proprietorial about what they see as definitive versions of classic songs. But I was watching that TV documentary on Tuesday night about Danny Boy – the mother and father of all Irish ballads, 100 years old now in the lyrical version – and what struck me most was the astonishing variety of styles to which it lends itself.
Danny Boy has probably been murdered more often than any other song in history. But the murders were usually domestic – and in fact, that’s part of the tradition. If you’re Irish, the right to sing Danny Boy badly is a birthright.
It’s hard to believe that a song ritually slaughtered by countless uncles at innumerable Irish weddings and funerals could have been made his own by the US soul singer Jackie Wilson and turned into a sexy, slinky dance number. Yet there it was, with footage of smooching couples from 1960s Black America to prove it.
Sometimes the accent on the song was changed in more ways than one. Johnny Cash, for example, used to explain that it was about a young man “fighting in the Irish rebellion”. Which would have been news to Fred Weatherly.
In Weatherly’s original, it was so impeccably neutral – or just vague – about where the pipes were calling that it could serve as an anthem for both Falls and Shankill, as it did in the 1980s, when Barry McGuigan fought for Ireland, cheered on by both sides of the sectarian divide.
Getting back to the Auld Triangle, however, and to people having feelings of ownership about it, I gather that the Americans who have covered it include in inevitable Bob Dylan. He performed it during the Basement Tapes sessions of 1967, although it didn’t make the cut when a selection of that much-bootlegged material was officially released in 1975.
Which is perhaps just as well, because he did record a version of another song he picked up from Dominic Behan, The Patriot Game. And even though the air was traditional, and Dylan rewrote the lyrics, Behan still felt very proprietorial. He was convinced that the remodelled ballad was his. And according to Liam Clancy, “he plagued Dylan about it for the rest of his days”.