Musicians’ favourite emigration songs
Lisa O’Neill, Conor O’Brien, Iarla Ó Lionaird, Mick Flannery, Adrian Crowley and others discuss what songs move them most
Christy Moore: Iarla Ó Lionaird cites his version of I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Bob Dylan; Tony Barrett his cover of Jimmy McCarthy’s Missing You. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Come My Little Son by Ewan MacColl
Come My Little Son or otherwise known as England’s Motorway to me is an insightful song. It was written by Ewan MacColl for the radio ballad Song of A Road, which first aired on November 5th, 1959. The lyrics were inspired by workers he interviewed in England and Scotland in the making of Song Of A Road and was sung with great understanding by Luke Kelly.
The song is sung to the same air as an old Scottish song called Trampers and Hawkers, which was collected from Jimmy MacBeath. The Irish song The Homes of Donegal is also sung to the same air.
Although he sings about a specific period being when the motorway was built in England, this story dates back much further for those known as the Irish navvies and their families. Irish men played a large part in building the dams, canals, railways and roads of Britain.
This song is from the perspective of a wife and mother back home, explaining to her son the reasons for his father’s absence, and what he can and can’t rely on his father for. Sadly, this human tale is as old as the hunter gatherer and worldwide as current as current can be.
IARLA O LIONAIRD
I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Bob Dylan
For me one of the most powerful songs has to be Bob Dylan’s 1967 I Pity the Poor Immigrant. The perfection of the metre and scan of the lyric spread across the melody, each intersecting perfectly as though, like all great folk songs, this song may have existed forever. Dylan sings these dark words with abundant empathy and an easeful grace which makes the lyric all the more powerful. A timely reminder perhaps of the strange space that the immigrant occupies in their own time and existence and also crucially in our imaginations. Christy Moore’s various versions of this song are classic.
The Old Main Drag by The Pogues
If you are looking for mist-shrouded nostalgia…then cover your eyes. I love this song because it is brutal and painful, true and cruel… yet utterly poetic. It’s a heartbreaking account of a young lad (a mere minor) as he narrates his plight from the day he first arrives alone in the big city.
Luke Kelly: Come My Little Son
Christy Moore: Missing You
The Pogues: Thousands Are Sailing
Damien Dempsey: Apple of My Eye
The Dubliners: Spancil Hill
Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad
The Pogues: The Old Main Drag
Christy Moore: I Pity the Poor Immigrant
What starts as a path of wide-eyed wonder and curiosity gives way to a grimy slipway into a sea of misery. He ends up turning tricks to get by. A litany of abuse and brutality follows. You can feel the hurt of every chapter unfolding as the already downtrodden protagonist is spat on and defecated on, stamped on and brutalised even further. This song cleaves right through you, rips out your spleen and then whips you in the face with it.
Lyrically, of course, it’s a song not for the faint of heart. The musical setting on the other hand, is almost jaunty in tone and pace. McGowan’s command of the words he chooses is uncanny. For all the profanity and desperation that the story relates, there is immense poetry in every line. It’s beautifully written. The word beauty seems almost inappropriate, though. No flowers adorn these lines but instead they are wrenched up and spat out.
This is a killer song; a modern-day masterpiece, an interpretation of the old theme of an outsider coming to find a new life. And what follows.
To my mind, for all the cruelty the story relates, it reads as tribute to the displaced, dispossessed, vulnerable and unsheltered everywhere – a call for humanity, even.
Have a look at the opening verse.
“When I first came to London I was only sixteen / With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag / I went down to the ‘dilly to check out the scene / But I soon ended up upon the old main drag”
The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen
“Got a one-way ticket to the promised land, Gotta hole in your belly and a gun in your hand, Families sleeping in the car in the south west, No home, no job, no peace, no rest.”
CONOR O’BRIEN (Villagers)
Spancil Hill by The Dubliners
I like the The Dubliners’ recording of Spancil Hill. I used to listen to it after listening to So Long Marianne by Leonard Cohen because they have a similar spirit and tempo. It initially presents itself as a song about missing the people and the rituals of home but ultimately it’s about remembering your first love.
TONY BARRETT (Brilliant Trees)
Missing You by Jimmy McCarthy
There is nothing quite like a song to hit you full in the face when you’re hundreds of miles from home. Christy Moore singing Jimmy McCarthy’s Missing You did just that to me many moons ago under Piccadilly’s neon.
The song releases a feeling that had somehow buried itself deep in your subconscious. It emerges in an instant and with it, every taste, every smell, every kiss, every tear you ever shed and wishing you could be teleported that very second home and in the company of all you love.
What a honest song, dispelling the image of Piccadilly’s neon replacing it with stark imagery of being wrapped up in old cardboard under Charing Cross Bridge. Thirty years later, I still get that feeling.
NIALL CLANCY (Slow Riot)
Thousands Are Sailing by The Pogues
I can’t think of a song whose lyrics drive my imagination, politically, more so than this one. Phil Chevron’s lyrics really push you to consider the continuities between the experiences of most disenfranchised groups coming to the United States.
DARREN MORRISSEY (Morrissey & Marshall)
The Apple Of My Eye by Damien Dempsey
This would have to be Damien Dempsey’s The Apple Of My Eye. We have had the absolute pleasure of touring with Damo a few times now and spent many late nights chatting about his days in New York and his love for the Big Apple (so much so, that we really want to go there). In the early days, when struggling to get gigs in Dublin, he decided to go over and give it a go, crashing with some friends of friends. He calls New York his home from home and loved the fact that he was never judged for his strong Dublin accent, or what class he was. When he sings this spine-tingling song live and when the crowd roar the words back at him, I can’t help but feel like it takes him back to New York, the place where he wrote it.