Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Mountains Of Mourne

I was always a bit puzzled by Dave Guard's comment in the Elizabeth Wilson interview (most of which is available at Dave Guard Interview under "Read, Look, and Listen" starting on p.22 of the Popular Folk Music Today DG Memorial Issue and appears in full in Allan, Ben, and Jack's Kingston Trio On Record) that the original Trio began to "run out of ideas" "halfway through Here We Go Again." I say puzzled because in addition to my personal preference for that record, I regard it as critically the best of all Trio albums in design, pacing, song selection, harmony, solos, cover,the kitchen sink, and everything else.

But I am more puzzled because the next two albums, String Along and Sold Out, which Dave apparently regarded with some disdain and which Bob has indicated he disliked several songs included therein ["Don't Cry Katie" comes to mind], include some fabulous songs, one of the most memorable of which is on the short list of the best songs Nick Reynolds ever sang and possibly his finest solo, "The Mountains of Mourne."

Not quite a real folk song, "The Mountains of Mourne" was penned in England in the late 1800s by Percy French (with collaboration from H. Collisson), a music hall composer who realized that he would never make a good living in impoverished Ireland and hence moved to London, where his often comedic songs and stage routines earned him great success for more than 20 years and led to tours of Canada and the U.S.

What might not be immediately apparent to American listeners is the source of the clear satire of the early part of the song. The ethnic jokes that in the U.S. are "Polish" or "dumb blonde" or take-your-pick-of-the-group-you-wish-to-mock have for more than a century been "dumb mic" or "dumb Irish" jokes in England. So in "Mourne" we have a poor, rural, rube of an Irish boy gullible enough to take literally the sardonic comment of sewer workers that they are "digging for gold in the streets" - and who is appalled by the high fashion, high society d├ęcolletage of Victorian ladies, a style that violates his Irish Jansenist and puritanical sense of propriety. In one of the verses that the Trio omits but that Don McClean (below) includes beautifully, our lonely young man sees a hometown friend who is a London traffic cop and ascribes to him "great powers" because the traffic stops "at a wave of his hand."

But unlike several of his expatriate peers (see the "Finnegan's Wake" song for a wickedly funny stereotype of Irish drunkenness), French redeems the humorous portrait with the poignant devotion of the singer to his "wild rose that's waiting for me." Unlike many an Irish song popular in America that are outright mawkish ("Danny Boy," "Galway Bay," "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and the like), French manages to present the emotional framework of the song in such a way that it skirts the edge but never falls over the cliff of pure sentimentality.

We start, of course, with the audio of the best version of the song on record, Nick Reynolds singing the solo but with Bob and Dave both playing and "ooohing" in the background.




A close second to this, IMHO, is Don McClean's version, which adds the verse about the policeman (but not the three others about French's hope that Ireland and England could be friends - some chance of that). Piano adds a nice touch.



Even a good song can be overdone, and Irish singers do have a tendency to drift into overly-florid singing. I thought I'd upload a Frank Patterson version, or Daniel O'Donnell, or some other less-than-reserved Irish tenor - but since Celtic Thunder is the flavor du jour in over-wrought imitation Celtic music, here's how the song would sound if sung on American Idol.

(2/3/11 - CopyVio got Celtic Thunder - so until they return to YT, here's a fine folk version from Irish Mist:)



Despite the satire, the song is beloved in Eire, as well as in much of the rest of the Celtic world - or perhaps because of it. The Irish do have a sense of humor, and the song is just too lovely and too authentic-sounding to ignore. Here's Scots-Canadian tenor Johnny McDermott:



From England, famed British tenor (from the D'Oyle Carte operatta company and a long career in light opera) Webster Booth, around 1940:



And finally, a nice a capella choral version from 1982 by a group called Wall Street Crash (how timely!) that includes the verse about being friends with England.



I always wished that Liam Clancy would sing this - I believe it would have been comparable in excellence to Nick Reynolds' superb version.

3 comments:

darcyfamily said...

"I thought I'd upload a John McCormack version, or Daniel O'Donnell, or some other less-than-reserved Irish tenor"

You would have a devil of a time uploading a John McCormack version of The Mountains of Mourne because he never sang the song. In fact, he declined to sing ANY Percy French songs.

You missed the best version of all, which is the one recorded by Brendan O'Dowda, a fine tenor and respected expert on the works of Percy French.

Thanks for posting the other versions though, some of which are new to me.

darcyfamily said...

"I thought I'd upload a John McCormack version, or Daniel O'Donnell, or some other less-than-reserved Irish tenor"

You'd have a devil of a time uploading a John McCormack version of Mountains of Mourne because he never sang the song. In fact, he declined to sing ANY Percy French songs.

You missed the best recording (IMO) of Mountains of Mourne, which is the one recorded by Brendan O'Dowda, a fine tenor and recognized expert on the life and work of Percy French.

Thanks for posting the other recordings, a couple of which are new to me.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the correction! I'm guessing that McCormack may have disliked either French's frequent satire of Irish mores (often slanted toward his London audiences)or his somewhat conciliatory politics (as the verse sung on my final video and one or two others in the full text of the song) or both.

I'll substitute another Irish tenor's name into the piece for accuracy's sake. My point, of course, is only that some singers have a tendency to overdo the emotional side of songs like this.

Speaking of which and FYI - I have been taken to task for using the term "mawkish" and "Danny Boy" in the same sentence. (I like the song just fine - maybe I should have said sentimental - may change that).

Thanks again!

jkm