Friday, June 12, 2009

From The American Music Hall: "New York Girls"

Daniel Day-Lewis & Finbar Furey in
Gangs of New York

A few months ago I posted a piece on the English music hall as a source for many familiar American folk recordings like "Three Jolly Coachmen" and "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" and "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm". It wouldn't be right to ignore the very real contributions to folk music of the American music hall, precursor of Broadway musical theater and the regional theater and musical companies that have supported amateur performing arts in our country like they exist in no other.

People today find it hard sometimes to imagine our nineteenth century American world, which had star actors, fan magazines, millionaire musical performers - and even successful folk musicians. How was this accomplished without benefit of electronic media? The answer is the same one that John Stewart gave me at the FC Q&A in 2003 when I asked him how the Kingston Trio managed to create and maintain such impeccable timing in their recordings and performances - "We played 200 dates some years - we worked and worked on it."

It was not uncommon for the big stars of that century to play two hundred dates per year - stars like actors Edwin Booth (a far better actor than brother John Wilkes) and James O'Neill (father of playwright Eugene and the most popular star of the era with his adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo) and Sarah Bernhardt from France (who played Hamlet at the age of 70 and was said to be the best in that role of her era) and singers like Lily Langtry and Jennie Lind ("The Swedish Nightingale") and folk groups like The Christy Minstrels, who sang the songs of legendary Songwriters Hall of Fame Members like Stephen Foster, George F. Root, and Henry C. Work.

And they played those 200 dates in every village and town that had an opera house, usually the third building to go up in many a community after the jail and the first church. The town opera house (sometimes just a simple auditorium but frequently an opulent and expensive structure, some of which became the great movie houses of the 19 teens and 20s) could present serious productions, revival meetings, political debates, traveling Chautauqua-type shows when they weren't under tents - and music hall entertainment.

Though Broadway had actual music halls, the term actually refers to a style of theater copied from the English and which featured humorists (like Mark Twain and the forerunners of comedians), pop songs, dancers (later evolving into burlesque), and sometimes scripted shows or sections of shows (George M. Cohan's family were among the biggest stars in this genre).

Out of this milieu came a large number of popular American songs, Foster's first and Cohan's later probably being the best known. But the rough-and-tumble world of the immigrant Irish lent the American songbook a share as well, from sentimental ballads like "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" to raunchy rip-roarers like "New York Girls." The latter (as accurately reflected in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York) had a shadowy birth sometime before the Civil War. It exists in a really impressive number of variants, though the hapless sailor taken in by a lady of the night is the common element. The tune seems to have been based on an earlier Irish reel that is now often performed as a polka (an Easter European dance form not known in Ireland at the time)called "Britches Full Of Stitches" (see Appendix).

Burl Ives sanitized the words a bit, and though he did the more traditional tune (which you can hear in subsequent versions below), it is his lyric that the Kingston Trio credits in their version:

The chorus the boys are singing is of the mysterious "Wayess Annie," meaning of the first word unknown. Most of the other versions hear use the equally obscure "Away, you Santee" - I'm guessing that first is more accurate and that we'll never learn what "wayess" meant.

Much of younger America first heard the song as background in a scene in the Scorsese film, sung by Finbar Furey of the really fine Irish group The Fureys. Here is the full version in all of its glorious naughtiness - note that the Ives version leaves to the imagination what the Fureys' version makes explicit:

The opening fiddle riff is "Britches Full of Stitches" - you can hear how the verse derives from it. (For the song in context of the film, see the appendix.)

Gen Xers may know the tune from the popular neo-Celtic group from the 80s and 90s, Oysterband, here in a rockish version:

I usually have reservations about Springsteen-ized "Seeger Sessions"-type updates for traditional folk songs, but for some reason I like this version by Bellowhead, probably because even with the multiple instruments and drums and all, they preserve the original feeling of the song:

From Later With Jools Holland.

The Dusty Buskers hit YouTube a few years ago. They're based out of Tucson and since their early busking days have become extremely successful on the web, with downloads, and in live performances throughout the Southwest. Here they are busking with the traditional version in Silver City, NM a couple of years ago:

"New York Girls" is also a staple at Trio fantasy camps, delightfully easy to sing and play and just a ton of fun to do with a group.


Irish musicians Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh Sullivan caught in their native habitat - a pub - doing the root song "Britches Full of Stitches":

The scene from Gangs Of New York:

And a fine, more recent version from Bill Dempsey at the 2009 Adams Avenue Roots Festival in San Diego:

And An Addition 12/8/12

An amusing and somewhat bittersweet updating of the song to the Vietnam War era Saigon called "Chu Yen," the Saigon girl, by vets Saul Brody and Robin Thomas from their album Folk Songs of the Vietnam War:


And Yet Another Update, January 23, 2016

....courtesy of Eric Zorn, whose comment appears below. This is a really great version by a really great group, the U.K.'s Steeleye Span, who with Fairport Convention was quite possibly the best progressive folk band of the era on either side of The Pond.


Dusty Buskers said...

Hi, just a brief correction here...The Dusty Buskers are based out of Tucson, AZ, not Phoenix. And the above Youtube video of their performance of "New York Girls" was recorded in Silver City, NM, not Albuquerque. Check out The Dusty Buskers at and

Jim Moran said...

Sorry guys - I'll correct this today.

Just did! Responded also on your YT channel.

greenhawk46 said...

the KT and CW versions nail it-the Hungry i album always has been my fav too-it has the rawest energy of any of the original KT albums-
Jim H.

Eric Zorn said...

Great post. If you're still updating the site, you should include the Steeleye Span version in which the onscreen lyrics, misheard I think, say "my dear honey."

Jim Moran said...

Thanks, Eric! Excellent version with a great music hall feel - adding it right now. Might you be related to the Eric Zorn I knew at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1960s?