Finding an Irish soundtrack for a St. Patrick's Day celebration doesn't take a lot of exhaustive research. Generic "Best of Ireland" compilations abound in outlet stores, on iTunes and even on racks in gas stations, collections that feature anonymous artists playing generic versions of traditional Celtic tunes.
For those who want to invest tomorrow's celebration with some more authenticity, though, we've put together a list of bona fide artists playing authentic traditional songs. From the groundbreaking work of artists like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and the Dubliners in the 1960s to their modern disciples, the list represents songs with a deep history and respectable tradition, songs that stem from a storied tradition of songs and stories from the Emerald Isle.
10. "Jug of Punch"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1962; Pete Seeger, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, 1960.
What better way to kick off a St. Patrick's Day song list than with a song about whiskey? Like the tunes on this list dedicated to Irish moonshine, the song "Jug of Punch" sings the praises of a specific kind of alcoholic beverage. Irish punch is made with honey, cloves and whiskey, a brew that draws a faithful praise from this ballad's narrator. "Even the cripple forgets his hunch when he's snug outside of a jug of punch," the song claims. The tune, which stretches back decades and decades, also has sharp criticism for those who would praise temperance. "And if I'm drunk then my money is me own and them don't like me can leave me alone."
9. "Irish Rover"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1962; The Pogues and Ronnie Drew, 1987; The Blaggards, 2005; Dropkick Murphys, 2011.
Resale Concert Tickets
Attributed to the songwriter and lyricist J.M. Crofts, "The Irish Rover" details the exploits of a fabled (and fictional) Irish ship, a craft that ferried a wealth of goods and employed a colorful crew. The verses detail the crew and the goods on the ship item-by-item and character-by-character. After the ship bounds the seas for years, a case of the measles breaks out, and the crew is reduced to two: the narrator and the captain's dog. It's the best kind of lyrical gymnastics and narrative irony that Irish folk music has to offer, a quality that's made the tune of old masters like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and contemporary artists like the Dropkick Murphys. A dual version of "The Irish Rover" in 1987 between the Pogues and the Dubliners posted above was a compelling marriage of old and new in Irish folk, a partnership that showcased both bands' strongest talents.
8. "Dirty Old Town"
Notable versions: The Dubliners, 1968; The Pogues, 1985; Mountain Goats, 2002.
The Pogues' 1985 sophomore album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, helped turn "Dirty Old Town" into an anthem known across Europe and beyond, but the ballad's roots stretch back to the budding folk movement of the 1950s. British musician, playwright and activist Ewan MacColl penned the tune in 1949 as a musical nod to the town Salford, located in Lancashire, England. Originally composed to accompany a stage play, the song quickly became a standard in the lexicon of countless European folk groups, including the Dubliners. The Dubliners' definitive version of the tune, with Luke Kelly providing the stirring and heartfelt lead vocals, would presage the Pogues' version by decades. Both Irish outfits put their definitive stamps on MacColl's tune, investing the imagery of factory walls and old canals with a degree of lyricism and meaning. Indeed, it's no wonder that more than 60 years after an Englishman wrote the tune, it remains a definitive Irish ballad for many.
7. "All for Me Grog"
Notable Versions: A.L. Lloyd, 1956; The Watersons, 1966; Liam Clancy, 1965.
In the liner notes to A.L. Lloyd's 1956 album English Drinking Songs, the London-born folk singer gave context to the song "All For Me Grog," a tale of excess and abandon. "Here we have a sailor's song from the last bitter days of sail; a hard-scrubbed, threadbare relic of hearty 'Yo-ho-ho' songs of old," Lloyd wrote. "Jack Tar is no longer jolly -- his boots are scuffed, the rags of his shirt-tail flog him in the breeze, the alcoholic horrors are not far off and it's time to look for a ship again." While Lloyd claimed the tune as an English anthem, it was popular in pubs and music halls from Nova Scotia to Australia when Lloyd released his album in '56. The song, which tells of a man whose shirt, boots and mind have fallen away after many nights of drinking and smoking, is another mystery for musicologists. More recently, the song has been speeded up and turned into a pub song by the likes of Liam Clancy and the Irish Rovers.
6. "The Moonshiner"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1959; Bob Dylan, 1991; The Chieftains and Joe Ely, 2003; Uncle Tupelo, 1992.
One of two tributes to Irish moonshine on this list, "The Moonshiner" has a muddy history, with different factions claiming it both as an American and an Irish folk song. With popular Irish versions formalized by artists like Delia Murphy in the '30s and cemented by folk acts like the Clancy Brothers in the '50s and '60s, the song came to bear thematic and structural ties to other well-known Irish standards. Like the lead character in "Whiskey In the Jar," the narrator is an unrepentant lover of alcohol. He'll proudly sell you a sample of the moonshine he makes at his own still, he'll "give you a gallon for a ten-shilling bill."
Other American folk songs with similar lyrics and structures may call the Irish purity of the number into dispute, but its also made "The Moonshiner" a favorite of artists of all stripes. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Elliott Smith has offered modern versions of the tune. The Chieftains' 2003 album Further Down the Old Plank Road framed the traditionally energetic number in a more subdued context, featuring a country interpretation by Joe Ely. The above clip of the Chieftains performing the song with Allison Moorer from 2004 boasts a similar, countrified feel.
5. "Big Strong Man"
Notable versions: Wolfe Tones, 1991, The Larkin Brothers and Terry Moran, 2001.
Like many of the other songs on this list, the exact origin of "Big Strong Man" is hotly contested - its roots may lie in the Emerald Isle itself, or with Irish immigrants in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The lyrics themselves give some good clues. There are references to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Jeffries-Johnson boxing match of 1910. There are references to Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. Given the way the tune spread between Allied soldiers in World War II, pegging down its exact beginning is tricky. Still, the back-and-forth structure between the singer and the audience makes it an exemplary pub tune, a jaunty number that includes audience participation as a key part of its structure.
4. "Wild Rover"
Notable versions: The Pogues, 1984; Dropkick Murphys, 2001; The Corries, 2004.
"The Wild Rover" boasts one of the most clappable choruses in the history of Irish folk song, a feature that makes it a perfect tune for crowded pubs and intimate gatherings. The song, which traces its origins back to the mid-19th century, started out as a temperance anthem, with a narration that revolves around a man's struggle to hang on to his sobriety. "I'll go home to me parents, confess what I've done," the narrator explains, "And I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son." Even the chorus, which boldly claims that it's "no, nay, never, no more" that the singer will play the wild rover, can be seen as a desperate call to temperance. In the decades since it first appeared in songbooks in the 1850s, however, the song has become an anthem for alcohol. From folk versions popularized in the 1960s to more modern, punk-informed takes by the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys, the song is a sure way to get the crowd stomping feet, clapping hands and clattering glasses.
3. "Haul Away Joe"
Notable Versions: Leadbelly, 1947; The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1961; The Irish Rovers, 2005.
This short-drag sea shanty is a relic of the Irish seafaring songs of the 19th and 20th centuries, tunes sung by crews as they performed shipboard labor and prepped for long hauls. The modern incarnations of "Haul Away Joe" still speaks of its utilitarian purpose - short-drag shanties were meant for hauling jobs that required short stretches of force, and the tune's single verse and single chorus structure made it an ideal motivator for hauling tack or changing the direction of a sail. Apart from its significance as a shanty, the song makes a good fit for the St. Patrick's Day celebration for its dynamic and witty lyrical stretches. It makes a direct reference to the emerald Isle's patron saint. In the version by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem posted above, we learn that "St. Patrick was a gentleman, he came from decent people ... He built his church in Dublin Town and on it put a steeple."
2. "The Rare Old Mountain Dew"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1959; The Quare Fellas,1970; Carolina Chocolate Drops, 2007.
Perhaps the most raucous musical tribute to homebrewed alcohol, "The Rare Old Mountain Dew" sings the praises of whiskey brewed in the home stills of rural Ireland. Originally penned in 1916 by Edward Harrigan and Dave Braham to accompany the drama "The Blackbird," the song developed into a loving tribute to Irish moonshine, aka poitín. The basic melody would make its way into American folk ballads, and references to the seminal tune would persist decades later, including a nod in the Pogues' 1987 Christmas anthem "Fairytale of New York." With claims that the homemade whiskey of Ireland will cure all ills of "Pagan or Christian or Jew," the song is a universal tribute to the healing power of a skilled bartender and a full glass of whiskey. It's a fitting message for the holiday.
1. "Whiskey in the Jar"
Notable versions: The Dubliners, 1967; Thin Lizzy, 1973; Metallica, 1998.
Popularized by the Dubliners as their signature tune in the 1960s, this ballad made its way into modern pop music consciousness through covers by the Grateful Dead, Thin Lizzy and a Grammy-winning version by Metallica. Denver's own Irish-pirate band Potcheen also includes the song in their live sets. On its surface, this ballad set in the southern mountains of Ireland is a simple tale of a robbery gone wrong.
The narrator, a highwayman stalking the road between the counties Cork and Kerry, waylays a military captain as he's counting his money and carries his spoils back home to his beloved. In the most popular versions of the 17th century tune, the robber falls asleep and wakes to find the Captain waiting outside his chamber, tipped off by a treacherous woman, a wife or girlfriend alternatively named Molly, Jenny or Ginny.
The main narrative aside, the popular drinking song ends with a stirring character study. While some take pleasure in fishing and carriages, the narrator insists, "I take delight in the juice of the barley and courting pretty women in the morning bright and early." It's a simple statement of purpose, a resigned admission without regret or self-pity.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music