Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slainte! To Health In The New Year: "The Jug Of Punch"

Just about the only cultural element as widespread throughout the countries of the world as music has been the fermenting, brewing, or distillation of some local products - grains, berries, fruits, tubers, and in Mongolia, mare's milk - into some mood-altering and intoxicating beverages. So it's no wonder that most every country also has a positive raft of folk songs related to the pleasures and joys - and not infrequently the sorrows - of drinking, and we're not talking about water here. As my long gone cousin Jimmy Conway ("I made it out of Ireland one step ahead of the Black and Tans" - that'd be 1922) used to respond to my mother when she'd offer him a glass of H2O on his visits to our home - "Did ye ever see what that stuff does to the inside of a pipe?"

The fact that alcohol is a frequent guest at celebrations of all kinds - from weddings and funerals and parties to - of course - New Year's festivities - makes a drinking song the exactly right selection for this week's Weekend Videos. And there is no drinking song closer to my own heart or to those of my nine brothers and sisters as "The Jug of Punch."

Since most Xroaders know the Kingston Ttio version, before we get to some interestingly different performances of the song, it might be worthwhile to explain - what exactly is punch, as in the song? I had labored under the misapprehension for many years that it was a sort of Irish boilermaker, a combination of beer and whiskey, called in colonial New England by its British name, flip. [Parenthesis: a true and original boilermaker is a tad different from flip - you're supposed to drop the whole shot glass full of your favorite whiskey into the beer stein; in Ireland, one never does so but (if you've money enough for the pricey whiskey) orders instead a "a shot and a pint" - same effect.]

In fact, Irish whiskey punch is more closely related to the hot rum drinks also popular in New England in colony days. Recipes differ, but the common denominators seem to be, in addition to whiskey, lemons, cloves, hot water, and sugar (brown, preferably). Mix it all up and quaff - it can be consumed at room temperature but the preferred method of serving was following a stir with a hot poker, ashes and all. [Sounding good right at this moment - it's in the mid 30s here in SoCal, unusually cold for us, and it would go nicely with the Christmas tree and the fire.]

"The Jug Of Punch" song comes to us in two clearly related but distinctly different versions, which for want of more apt descriptive terms I'll call tippling and inebriated. The tippling version, which requires some dexterous tongue and vocal work, seems to be the older of the two - very Celtic sounding and all - and one might guess more commonly sung early of an evening. The raucously inebriated version would likely show up after a few bowls of punch - or even more than one "shot and a pint" - a combination sure to be lethal to one's sobriety.

This might well be an Irish song that, like the earlier "Mountains of Mourne," the Kingston Trio did not get directly from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were just getting organized into an act in 1960 at the time of the Make Way album.
The Clancys had included a version on their very first album (Come Fill Your Glass With Us) on the Tradition label that they owned in 1959, but that version is clearly the grandparent of the one posted below and not the only influence on Nick, Bob, and Dave, who are clearly tippling here and not raucous:

Luke Kelly of the Dubliners (on the short list with Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem as the greatest of Irish folk soloists) was known to take a hit or five before going out and performing, and I believe it shows in this version of the song, whose lyrics and musical structure suggest that this is at least a progenitor of the NBD arrangement:

A word of explanation on Kelly's introduction. Everyone but everyone knew of the Clancy's "raucous" version, posted below; Luke is differentiating his older version from the one that the CB used in performance. I'd be more surprised that Paddy and his brothers did the older version at all - but Vanguard brought out a kind of bootleg album that included a rare tape of the Brothers doing Luke's version.

For a truly delightful and rather more musical studio take of this version, here is Altan from the album Celtic Wonder:

A really excellent and complex vocal arrangement of the tipling version was recorded in the 1970s by Scotland's wonderful folk group, The Corries - here the original trio as opposed to the later duo:

And now, the version I first heard in the late 50s - in a live performance from the early 1980s. This is Paddy Clancy's (1924-1998) signature song. I believe it was Mr. Banjo who observed earlier that he liked the way that Paddy just stood up to the mic, fists clenched, chest and jaw out, and belted away.

It was this version that my brothers and sisters and I would bellow at the top of our lungs, as children just for the sheer joy of it, and as adults (occasionally) under the very spell sung of here. One family sing - and these were always spontaneous, never planned nor too wholesome nor cheesy in the least - that stands out in my memory - in summer of 1982, my father in the last month of his life (though we didn't know that for sure at the time), the twelve of us sitting in the grand library that he'd added onto the house - my dad (who had spent his entire life trying NOT to be Irish) suggested that we sing this one before he retired for the night. Perhaps inspired by that, we all shouted it out (in tune of course!) like we were kids again, complete with every bark, whistle and growl on the original recording plus a few dozen more.

I'll never forget it. Auld lang syne, indeed.

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