You cannot, as the old saying goes, make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - unless, of course, you happen to be Irish, in which case the multitude of necessities under which your people have labored over many centuries has become the mother of many wonderful inventions in poetry and song. For all of its scenic beauty, Ireland has always been a very difficult place to live - cold, wet, foul weather, soil too rocky and rough to farm effectively, the watchful and often intrusive eyes of the church on your conduct - and the always intrusive presence in history of that large nation full of Saxons just to the east across the Irish Sea. The Irish genius for survival in the face of such difficulties has a lot to do with the people's ability to make the aforementioned silk purses, or lemonade out of lemons, if you prefer - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the music of the island, which runs the gamut from dark melancholy to light-stepping merriment with plenty of stops at heroic anthem in between.
Take, for example, our song this week, the old folk chestnut "Molly Malone," that seemingly almost humorous and mawkish memorial to a street girl of Dublin. My folk world friend Joe Belogi posted a fine performance of the tune on Facebook a week or two ago (and that was what got me thinking about the song - thanks, Joe!) with the remark that it must have been a pretty tough gig to be a fishmonger and even tougher to avoid becoming one if you came from a long line of fishmongers, as sweet Molly did. Yes - and that is precisely the point, as we shall see.
As with many a song with no known author, "Molly Malone" has created more than its share of arguments as to its origin. There is a persistent myth in Ireland that Molly was a real girl, and the City of Dublin a couple of decades back declared that they had made a positive identification of the inspiration for the song, a Molly M. who died in 1699 and for whom the song was composed. The fact that no copy of the tune exists before 1880 or so casts doubt on such a claim, however, and the chord structure and lilting 3/4 waltz rhythm just aren't right for an 18th or early 19th century Irish street song. They are, on the other hand, perfectly in keeping with the kinds of songs being written in (perish the thought) the English music halls of the day, mocking the Irish and their sentimentality. Nor does it help that the oldest published version of "Molly Malone" actually comes from Scotland, albeit with the same reference to Dublin in the lyric.
Compounding the problem is the statue pictured above, created by prominent Irish sculptor Jeanne Rynhart as part of a millennium celebration in Dublin in 1988. Rynhart has clearly played off of the other part of the Molly myth - that though a fishmonger by day she was a prostitute by night, which would account for the state of partial undress in the depiction. While it is true that in English slang going back to Shakespeare "fishmonger" was synonymous with pimp, such a suggestion in a clearly plaintive and melancholy song imputes a grittier historical reality than the lyrics and music warrant - that a girl selling fish was but a step away from whoring. A Dublin girl hawking seafood was in the exact same position and economic straits as a flower girl in London like Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame - and does anyone want to turn Julie Andrews (the originator of the role on stage - I never bought into cinema's Audrey Hepburn) into a streetwalker?
I think not - and we shouldn't. The English music hall tunesmiths loved mocking the Irish - "Finnegan's Wake" is another great example. In the lyric, day laborer Tim Finnegan dies in a construction accident, and a drunken brawl breaks out at his wake - until the whiskey from a shattered bottle spills all over the corpse, which resurrects him. All the stereotypes are there - the illiterate and vulgar Irishman, the heavy drinking, the fighting, the whiskey as the magical elixir of life. But the song is genuinely clever and very funny, and as they often had before, the Irish adopted it and made it their own and sing it with self-mocking joy to this very day.
One of the earliest copies of the lyrics to "Molly Malone" was discovered in the papers of English Victorian clown Thomas Lawrence, who characterized it as a "comic song," indicating its intended mockery of Irish sentimentality. But the meanness of the original intent goes further, if you think about it. The lovely tune with its gentle lilt, the idealization of "sweet Molly Malone" that the lyric creates when paired with the music - in the class-stratified society of England, no street-dwelling, fishmongering girl could ever be a figure of romantic longing. But in an Ireland where a hardscrabble farmer's daughter like the Mary MacCree of the equally lovely "Mountains of Mourne" can become "the wild rose that's waiting for me" and the personification of all that the poor boy desires, then our Molly can likewise be a romantic ideal for what she is in the singer's eyes, not for what she does or where she comes from.
Even if the song was composed as a satire, it possesses an undeniable loveliness when sung properly - so for our first version we turn to that most Irish of all folk groups, the Dubliners. This is a later incarnation of the group, with Paddy Reilly singing the lead:
The same group in live performance - Reilly again on lead, but with the addition of founding member Ronnie Drew not long before his death, the gray-bearded gent in the pink shirt singing bass:
From a younger generation, controversial Irish star Sinéad O'Connor employs a sort of new age instrumental background:
David Summerford syncopates the song a bit to an interesting effect - but the highlight of this video is at the end, where Summerford has a bit of a surprise for the viewer:
Many Americans would have heard "Molly Malone" first in this somewhat free adaptation from the 1940s by Burl Ives, who changes the tune and some of the lyrics:
At first I didn't much like this version by San Diego's "American Irish folk punk" band Fiffin Market (with Kimberly Davidson on lead) - but it's grown on me, and now I really appreciate its innovative if bubblegum-ish flavor:
At the same time, I was delighted to find a younger lady who really knows how to sing - she goes by the YouTube name of victoriap1981:
I love this - no breathy, note-obscuring fakery here, just a young lady with a fine voice who knows how to use it.
To close, we turn again to the Dubliners, the current configuration with big, bluff Patsy Watchorn on lead. Watch the audience. This was shot just a couple of years ago at the Vicar Street theater in Dublin. Whatever the song's original intent, the people of Ireland's capital have completely embraced the tune as their own and love it with a passion that few other "city songs" can equal:
I can't say for sure where I first heard "Molly Malone," but I would bet that it was in elementary school music classes, where once a week or so all the children in each grade would be herded down to the auditorium for about 45 minutes of enforced singing with Mrs. Bobka. There was no instruction on technique or breathing or pitch - just Mrs. B at the piano and the children with song sheets, the belief being that singing was one of the joys of life and a necessary part of any child's education. I loved the class, and I loved this song, and now I know why. Joe Belogi was right - fishmongering was a tough gig, and Molly's real life counterparts would have been calloused, rough, and dirty girls coarsened by poverty and labor. But not so in my ten year old imagination, where Miss Malone was a figure of wonderful tragedy, nor in the imagination of the singer of the song, whose Molly is as sweet and lovely as a morning in spring. Would that we all had such eyes through which to see our world.