Monday, March 17, 2014

"Bound For South Australia"

The general and often foolish gaiety that accompanies most St. Patrick's Day celebrations here in the U.S. serves two purposes. First and more obviously, the hats and parades and buttons and green-dyed rivers and all afford those of us of Irish descent a moment or two per year where we are able to assert a degree of kinship with a mythic and far-off land that many of us have never seen but from which our ancestors emigrated, usually many generations prior. In this respect, St. Patrick's Day in America differs little from the ways in which New York City's Italian-American population for decades observed October's Columbus Day, or the great Southwest's Mexican-Americans continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a relatively minor holiday in Old Mexico that has been inflated into a major commercial event hiding behind a fiesta here in El Norte. But second and less obviously, the public demonstrations of pride and joy in one's Hibernian roots, especially in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and other eastern and midwestern metropolises, acts as a counter-balance to an inherent and often oppressive melancholy that seems to be part of the Irish character, however much it may be mitigated by residence in countries like the U.S. and Canada and Australia that are far more congenial to people's hopes and aspirations than the mother country ever was for most of its long and troubled history. As quintessentially-Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats remarked about one of his characters, "He had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." Amen.

In Ireland, traditional St. Patrick's Day celebrations were much different than the "sure an' begorrah" fakery prevalent in  the U.S. Families would attend an early morning mass - it is, after all, a saint's day - and would assemble for a mid-afternoon dinner. Soda bread, yes - but corned beef and cabbage is an American invention, largely because beef brisket was the absolute cheapest cut available to the immigrants in 19th century, and beef of any kind was a luxury item unaffordable to the vast majority of the residents of the old country. Most of the Irish were lucky to get fish into their diets on occasion; for a real feast, mutton was the likelier main course for the relatively affluent and chicken or maybe mackerel for the majority. The St. Patrick's Day parades, which may have originated in the U.S., sprouted up in Ireland as dangerous and revolutionary acts of defiance against British rule. They were fraught with the risks of violence or arrest - in British-occupied Ulster well into the 1970s - and served as a rallying point for Irish nationalism, as surely as was "the wearin' of the green," equally suppressed by our English friends, who never quite seemed to understand why those troublesome Celts refused to embrace the high honor of being annexed into the British Empire along with Africans and Indians and other unlettered primitives around the world.

The political repression and the countless failed revolutions were at least as influential as the Great Hunger of the 1840s in impelling millions of the Irish to seek sunnier shores in the middle and late 19th century. To America and Canada they came in droves, of course, to labor in factories and build railroads and homestead land on the Great Plains ten times richer than they ever could have imagined existed. But they also went in significant numbers to Australia, both as convicts from the country's very beginnings at Botany Bay in the 1790s and as emigrants through the next hundred years. In fact, it could be argued that whatever the "national character" of Australia may be today, it is far more shaded by the influence of its Irish transplants than either of those of the U.S. or Canada. To Australia, the Irish brought their abiding love for horses and sheep and strong drink along with their undiminished abhorrence of British tyranny. They also brought their ballads  - and thus helped to shape the musical aspects of the emergent Australian folk culture.

"Bound For South Australia" is with "The Wild Colonial Boy" among the absolute best examples of the Irish-Australian ballads. Its rollicking tempo, its idealization of "Miss Nancy Blair" (who may well be a lady of the evening profession), and its chest-thumping pride in surviving the brutal gantlet of a sea passage around Cape Horn - these elements connect the tune most clearly and emphatically to similar Irish songs and sea shanties like "The Holy Ground" and "Haul Away, Joe." Scholar and folksinger A.L. Lloyd (an Englishman, for what that's worth) identifies "South Australia" as a capstan shanty, with its repeated "Heave away, haul away" fulfilling the same function of providing a rhythm for the backbreaking work of raising anchor or hoisting sails that "Way, haul away/We'll haul away, Joe" does in the aforementioned tune. "South Australia" first appears in print in the 1880s, and though it is likely somewhat older than that, it cannot be by much - anyone who was born in South Australia as in the lyric could hardly have been so prior to perhaps 1830 or thereabouts - there just weren't many women among the transported convicts who formed the bulk of the country's earliest population.

Lloyd recorded the song in 1958, and there do not seem to be many waxings earlier than that, though the song enjoyed a robust popularity Down Under through the normal folkways of oral transmission and school sing-alongs and the like. "South Australia" became a high-profile part of the English-language ballad repertoire, however, through this 1962 recording by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were riding the crest of a phenomenal popularity first in America and then in their native Ireland:

The group took especial care with this track and most of the others on The Boys Won't Leave The Girls Alone on Columbia Records, the band's first real, professionally-produced studio album. In concert, the Clancys' only instrumental accompaniment at the time was brother Liam's effective but very simple guitar work, with occasional additional backing by Tommy Makem on pennywhistle or banjo, which Makem was still learning to play. For "South Australia," however, producer and band bass player Robert Morgan recruited an all-star line-up, with top-flight jazz musician Bill Lee (father of filmmaker Spike) on bass, studio pro and classically-trained John Stauber on guitar with the irrepressible Bruce Langhorne (both names should be familiar to all fans of early '60s folk recordings), and banjo by Eric Weissberg, member of The Tarriers and a decade later the player on "Dueling Banjos" in the film Deliverance. Weissberg also just happens to be one of the two or three best, most versatile, and most influential of all the musicians to come out of the folk revival in America. Harmonica support comes from eldest Clancy brother Paddy.

Most subsequent versions of "South Australia" can be traced in melody and lyric to the Clancys - but predictably, not that of Ireland's other great ballad group, The Dubliners, who have their own arrangement:

This is one of the last performances of the almost-original group, including founding member Ronnie Drew, now departed, and lead sung by the late, great Barney McKenna, who died just two years ago. Though McKenna is singing here to a simple fiddle accompaniment, he was probably the greatest tenor banjo player of the whole revival period, in Ireland or anywhere else.

While I have never been a big fan of The Pogues' approach to Irish folk music, they have always brought an undeniable energy to their style, and I rather like what they do with the tune here:

Lead singer Shane McGowan's throaty bellowing seems more appropriate here than it does on many of the band's other cuts. IMO, of course.

Oddly enough, it was difficult to find a video of an actual Australian singing the song. The Bushwackers Band is a fine Aussie band, but their version is a bit limp, so we turn instead to Salty Pete:

Pete's pronunciation of all the "aways" in the tune are a dead giveaway as to his country of origin.

Now, no Aussie musician today is more revered - and justifiably so - than master guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. Here, complete with flubs and outtakes, is Emmanuel's instrumental of "South Australia" with "The Sailor's Hornpipe" cut in for good measure:

You almost want to believe that you are seeing CGI here. Human hands just cannot be capable of such speed and dexterity - can they?

"Bound For South Australia" has been one of my favorite Irish-based ballads since I was a boy decades ago. It is simple, direct, energetic, and maybe just a tad naughty to boot - an unbeatable combination, as far as I am concerned. In fact, this being St. Paddy's Day and all - I think I'll post this, pour a glass of Jameson's, take out the trusty old Martin D18 on which I learned the song, and sing me some choruses of "South Australia." I have, as Errol Flynn's character remarks in Captain Blood, "the honor to be Irish," by extension at least, and I can think of no more satisfying ways of celebrating my ethnic heritage today.