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Jimmy Crowley - Songs From The Beautiful City

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In the preface to Jimmy Crowley’s new book, Songs From The Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads, Mick Moloney describes him thus: “Jimmy hails from the most distinctive city of Cork on the banks of the fabled River Lee. I don’t think Jimmy would mind being called ‘The Bard of Cork’. Certainly no other Cork singer would or could possibly object to that title. His commitment to the rich song tradition of his native city has been unwavering over the past four decades.

His voice is absolutely unmistakable – a kind of wild call from the days of urban markets and street fairs where the hawkers of ballad sheets roared out their songs.”

Having recently released this book, containing over 140 songs and ballads from and about the city of Cork, which may well be considered to be his life’s work, and before he embarks on a tour of the UK in 2016, we thought it was time we caught up with Jimmy Crowley to find out more about the man, the city and the great wealth of songs that he has made such a passionate and personal commitment to over the years.

“I couldn’t ever imagine doing anything else but singing,” said Jimmy when we met him in a busy café on South Mall in the heart of his beloved city. “I tried to be a cabinet maker. It was a family tradition; my dad was a great woodworker so I was pushed into that trade and I liked it up to a point. But from very early on, I was collecting songs and versions of songs, wonderful songs, versions of old ballads. The boys in the workshop in Cork City were singing these ballads in the 60s and I was there at the right time. I’m afraid, despite the good apprenticeship my parents placed me in, my attentions from the first gravitated more to the ballads my workmates sang than what they told me about veneer-presses, spindles and rub-joints.”

“I always loved singing. I get emotional about it. My dad took me to see the Clancy Brothers when I was about 15 or even younger and I couldn’t believe it. I heard the story of Ireland from the stage that night, delivered in a wonderful way, and it was an amazing experience. Then, a whole cultural revolution happened, and there was the whole folk movement to get involved in, and folk clubs. It became very cool, and we got to know some of the lads who were playing the music - The Chieftains and The Bothy Band.”

In the 70s, Jimmy formed Stokers Lodge, with whom he released two seminal albums, The Boys Of Fairhill and Camphouse Ballads – both of which are now regarded as folk classics. It was one of his colleagues in the band, Chris Twomey, who first told Jimmy about the Cork song, The Armoured Car, and who encouraged him to look at the local songs. “He told me years ago, when I was trying to ‘take off’ Ronnie Drew, that Cork had a powerful cache of urban ballads and that the best way to sing ‘em was with a Cork accent!”

“So we started doing the indigenous songs. We said to ourselves: ‘Why can’t we do what the Dubliners are doing?’ We wanted to have our own kind of sound and sing in our own accent and research these old street ballads. We were young and rakish and enjoying it - talking to old ladies in pubs and getting the songs. We got the guts of the two albums out of it, and then people like Con ‘Fada’ Ó Drisceoil appeared, and they were writing songs about things like pool tables, and mediating Irish life through the ballad. It was a wonderful time.”

“Mícheál Ó Dómhnaill of The Bothy Band produced the albums. He was great craic and we became very close friends. He was like a brother to me; he was an extraordinary influence. I will never forget his first meeting with Stokers Lodge in a hotel in Limerick. Mulligan Records, the label we were recording with at that time, rented a hotel for a week for us to stay in and rehearse. Mícheál was flown down – it was very exotic stuff for the 70s! Mícheál asked us to give it a blast with a few songs, and later he called me aside and said, ‘I have to tell you, this is mouldy, really uncool, untight, the worst I ever heard. I can hear the songs are good, but they need rakes of work – will you work with me?’ So I had a chat to the lads and said, ‘He’s not exactly over the moon about us, but he’s prepared to work with us.’ Mícheál knew his stuff. He knew studios and he knew about arrangements; after two days he had all the stops and key changes and arrangements sorted out. After that he became a very close ally, and he thought we were great!”

“In Stokers Lodge we purposely went out of our way never to copy anything. We were influenced by Sweeney’s Men and maybe had touches of them in the mix with the pairing of the mandolin and bouzouki (Jimmy plays the bouzouki and a variety of other double stringed instruments), but we didn’t want to sound like anybody else. Also, we had an expert in American oldtime music in the band in Chris Twomey, and that gave us an added dimension. We played many gigs and were well looked after. I think it was because we were different.”

As well as researching and collecting the songs of Cork, Jimmy began adding to them by writing some of his own. “I had tried writing with a friend early on and we were influenced by the Beatles and good pop music, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the whole folk thing and the joy of being able to sing in your own accent. When I went back to writing songs again, I firstly wrote a few comical and political songs, brought them out as broadsides and sold them on the streets. My sister still laughs about it - we would go up to Barrack Street and sell them, and I would have to sing a verse of them to people. We made nice pocket money - you would never be stuck. About 10 years or so later, I became a bit more of a serious songwriter.

As a keen sailor himself, Jimmy has a particular affection for songs of the sea, and one of his best known songs, My Love Is A Tall Ship, about the sailing ship The Asgard, has been somewhat adopted as a sailors’ anthem and was used in RTE’s documentary film on the Tall Ships’ Race.

“I am very proud of that song (if that’s not the wrong word to use),” says Jimmy. “It has endured and it represents a lovely sentiment and feeling for a ship that I actually sailed and that I will never forget. And the fact that the ship is under the sea, unceremoniously, never raised, makes me sing it all the more. The song kind of wrote itself, about a sailor falling for a ship. Sailing is a big thing for me. I have a little boat and I sail around the West Cork coast and in Cork Harbour; it is about the only thing I do besides music.”

After the demise of Stokers Lodge in the mid 80s, Jimmy continued to write and record his own songs along with his beloved Cork anthems. He released several albums, with each often being quite different from the other. There was an electric album with The Electric Band, with whom he recorded a reggae version of The Boys Of Fairhill that ended up in the pop charts; there was an album of Irish parlour songs from the likes of Percy French, Delia Murphy and the Flanagan Brothers, all given a swing-jazz style of treatment and which Jimmy says are “part of the legitimate legacy of Irish song”; and there was an album in Irish containing songs learned in the Irish speaking part of Munster. Jimmy acknowledges that some of these moves, especially the likes of the electric album, were quite controversial. “People were saying, ‘What is he doing?’, but I didn’t want to just repeat the same thing over again.”

Jimmy also spent several years living in America, in Dunedin in Florida, after he parted ways with his wife. “I didn’t exactly prosper there, but it was OK, I didn’t starve either. It was a lovely place, but I had to go to New York or San Francisco to get decent gigs. What made me come back to Cork? Familiar things, I suppose, like talking to the old boys about boats down in Cobh. I was just missing the chat and the connection with home. I was very lonesome in America. I had a romantic notion about buying a house somewhere in Cork Harbour, or somewhere not too far from Cork. I had tried living in Kerry but that was a bit far away, although it was lovely.”

The pull of his homeplace is obviously very strong for Jimmy, and it has been good to him - given him a purpose and identity, as well as a means of making a living. But being associated so strongly with a place must have its downsides. “The Cork thing is wonderful, it has been my livelihood, but it does pigeonhole you a bit as well. That’s the sad thing about it. If you write a song about a broader theme, people don’t always want to hear it. It is lovely to be associated with a very definite identity and a distinctive cultural landscape such as that of Cork, and we fought very hard in Stokers Lodge to get that recognition for the accent and the identity, so I am very proud of it, but I don’t like it when it puts restrictions on me ‘…he’s the urban singer, that’s what he does…’”

But although Jimmy’s talents go far beyond being “the voice of Cork”, his life has become inextricably linked with its rich history of song. His new book, Songs From The Beautiful City, is far more than a mere songbook; it is also an ethnography and an autobiography, and is the story of Jimmy Crowley’s longstanding romance with the Cork ballads. It embraces the belief of his friend, Frank Harte, that history books are written by the “victors” while the ballads are written by the people. For Jimmy, these songs proclaim the true history of the people of Cork.

The origins of the book lie in Jimmy’s long-running weekly ballad column in the Cork Evening Echo, after the fashion of Sam Henry’s ballad column in The Northern Nationalist, in which he highlights a different Cork song or ballad and shares his musings about it each week. His editor thought that there would only be a few dozen weeks in it, but about 670 songs later, Jimmy is still going strong. This new book is a distillation and elaboration of that work, and features full musical notation, a balladcard giving the reader online access to soundclips from each song, as well as associated photographs from the archives of the newspaper and notes on each song in Jimmy’s distinctive and engaging style.

“Work on the book has been ongoing for a long time, parallel to all the other things I have been doing,” explains Jimmy. “It includes the earlier songs I collected, some of those I wrote and some that friends of mine wrote. The book has only been out for a couple of months and already it is going very well. It is selling well at gigs, is available at some bookshops around Cork, and people can get it from my website.”

So, which type of song best epitomises Cork and its people? According to Jimmy there are two answers to that.

“There are loads of different types of songs, but the authentic songs of the people would look at the world in a wry, ironic way. The best examples of that cover how the outside world impacts on Cork – a song like Salonika, where the women are talking about “the bobbies with their arse against the wall”, the politicians, the cuts and authority, that song is very special because women were categorically silenced until well into the 20th century. But it is worth its weight in gold because it is a true folk song. It mentions characters like Dicky Glue, a Jewish money lender who was very much loved, and is about things that are gone now but which would never have made it into any conventional history; it is a real history of the people.”

“Then there is another type of song which is slightly more bourgeois, from the well-lettered writers like Father Prout and Dick Miliken. They were just madly in love with Cork and they wrote about it in very florid, slightly classical ways – songs like The Bells Of Shandon - slightly laboured, but beautiful. These songs were written by the well to do clerics. John Fitzgerald was a bit more earthy, he wrote great songs about the exiles’ return and songs like Cork Is An Eden For You Love And Me, the comparison of Cork with the Garden of Eden.”

Jimmy has another CD in the pipeline too, Life, with some new songs based on his observations on life. “It will have songs like The Laughing Laptop, one about Obama, songs about being on the road, one about my son James (that is a bit like Cat’s In The Cradle, about being away from your son for too long), and love songs and things like that – it is kind of contemporary folk I suppose. So that will be the next project on the horizon. I will be bringing out a single before it (the song about James) and we are going to do a video – for the first time in my life! We are using dads and sons, fishing and playing guitars and that kind of thing.”

Jimmy goes on to talk about how the music scene has moved on and how he thinks it will go in the future. “What hasn’t been done before? If you were starting a new band now, and had a good manager and the opportunity to tour, where would you begin? There have been some great bands – The Bothy Band, Ossian in Scotland, Capercaillie, Moving Hearts, Brass Monkey – but where do you go from there? How can you make a more interesting arrangement or accompaniment than what has gone before? Or should it be more about the role of the song? I think that what will happen more in the future will be that ballads will go back to their original role, become street ballads again. For my next album, post Life (if I live that long), I’d like to do a totally political album and talk about the way Ireland has been sold out. Bad people have been in charge for the past while and it has to be addressed. That would be taking the songs back to their original purpose; using songs to make these points is often the only redress we have, their didactic function is important. Some people think folk music should be a nice, safe, museum-type thing, but I think you need to go deeper.”

“These days, people are trying harder and harder to come up with fancy arrangements and to be different – but I say, bring it back to the song, the role it was written for in the first place and what it says, forget the frills. The song is about the song more than about the singer. Frank Harte believed that so thoroughly that he would often stop people from applauding. He said, ‘Are you applauding the song? Don’t applaud me - I am only the medium.’”

“In the music business now, any newcomer is a star straight away. There are people who are stars overnight. They have no history, no apprenticeship, no real analysis of what they are singing, of whether they are being individual or being copies of something else - I get really pissed off about that. Recording an album is so easy for people now. Before, you would have to go to the credit union, get a manager, get an advance, but you can do it all now and that’s what these ‘new kids on the block’ are doing.”

So who is doing it right at the moment? “Well,” says Jimmy without having to think too hard. “There is a Dublin band called Lynched; they did Salonika on their album. I think they are great and they are creating a bit of a fuss. They were asked to do something for RTE but were told that they couldn’t do any of that protest stuff, so they said they weren’t interested. They had the guts to say ‘this is what we do’ and stick to it. Most of the other young bands just want to be famous at all costs, overnight, but the likes of Lynched have considered their position historically, what went before them, the context of the songs, and I just love them for that. I love the fact that they sing in Dublin accents too, that’s my big thing. There are probably others. I am told that there are very exciting things happening; young musicians coming through who are challenging everything, and I look forward to that.”

Jimmy has other exciting things on the go at the moment too. He is currently in the process of re-drafting a novel he wrote a few years back, Hy Brazil. He describes it as a Celtic Utopian novel, and it is also political in nature, but in Jimmy’s words it is “political in an old-fashioned, kind of Celtic way”.

Stokers Lodge is back together and gigging, and the sound is as fresh and unique as it ever was. And Jimmy is busy gigging himself too, with a mixture of larger and smaller concerts. “I’ve done festivals like Whitby, and I did Sidmouth this year. I did Milwaukee festival and, of course, Cork Folk Festival. I am just about to go out to Newfoundland to do the Seamus Creagh Festival, and I am also going to New York soon to do another launch of the book in the University there.

To top all that, Jimmy is in the middle of planning a tour of the UK in October 2016 and would be happy to hear from any organisers who are interested in booking him. “I love playing over there – there are some brilliant clubs and festivals with good singing. In some places I play, they don’t like you doing certain stuff, like the political songs, but I have found that in England and Scotland they take you as you are.”

It is hard to imagine Jimmy Crowley being anything other than himself. It has been said of him that he “sings out from his own ground”, and that is indeed the feeling you get when seeing him perform. As an Evening Press reporter put it, he is “as important to his own city as the Bells of Shandon”. He most certainly is, but he is far more than that. A song collector, balladeer and lyricist like Jimmy is a treasure for us all.

by Fiona Heywood

Published in Issue 110 of The Living Tradition

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