Music in Global America



The five original members of Horslips are regarded as "founding fathers of Celtic rock," a fusion of traditional Irish music and rock. (The band's name is a play on the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.) The band was active from 1970 to 1980. Horslips introduced millions to Irish music through their recordings and tours, and influenced Irish and Irish-American popular music. The group composed songs, and arranged well-known traditional dance tunes like "King of the Fairies" for Irish instruments, electric guitars, and drums. First, listen to a traditional version of this hornpipe, played on fiddle, then compare it to Horslip's arrangement.
In the mid 1970s while touring the United States the band  developed a masterful and daring synthesis of progressive rock with folk, resulting in a trio of high-concept albums. The first album, The Book of Invasions, takes its themes from the myths and legends of the Celts. The second, Aliens, is a reflection on the experience of Irish emigrants. The third, The Man Who Built America, is about experiences of twentieth-century Irish-Americans. The most artistically successful is Aliens

[Aliens] doesn't have the narrative unity of Invasions - there's no single story here, only a sort of montage of images, scenarios and nostalgia...."Come Summer" and "Stowaway"  are haunting, lyrical evocations of the rootlessness and idealism of emigrants bound for the New World. ...Suddenly, in "New York Wakes" we're in the jostling, energetic world of the American Irish immigrants, holding onto the tunes and language of their homeland through the time honoured funeral "wakes" they preserve in their new country. "Ghosts" is the real climax to the album: an elegaic picture-in-images of the life of poverty, regret and fierce hope for a generation cut off from the land, lost in the urban sprawl. [Jonathan Amazon review]


Thin Lizzy was the first Irish hard rock band. The group was formed in Dublin in 1969 and led by  songwriter, vocalist, and bassist Phil Lynott  until their breakup in 1983, shortly before Lynott's death. Lynott drew inspiration from American blues and psychedelic rock as well as traditional Irish music. His early compositions in particular are steeped in Celtic mythology, a major theme in "Celtic rock," and his familiarity with Irish literature is evident in the puns he included on the names of famous Irish writers in his song "Black Rose." Lynott was the first Black musician of Ireland to achieve commercial success. Thin Lizzy's international attention during their first U.S. tour in 1976 with the worldwide hit "The Boys Are Back in Town." 

Lynott's references to Irish music are most evident in "Black Rose: A Rock Legend" from the 1979 album of the same name. The title refers to one of Ireland's oldest and best known political ballads, "Róisin dubh," ("Black Rose" in Irish), sung here in sean-nós style by Róisin Elsafty. Songs that are incorporated into the seven-minute medley include "Wild Mountain Thyme," a ballad originating in Scotland but associated primarily with Ireland (sung here by Irish-American singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran); "Danny Boy," based on a seventeenth-century song (performed here - with different lyrics - by John McCormack); snatches from the Irish pub ballad "Whiskey in the Jar" (discussed below);  and a breakneck, rollicking version of the famous reel "The Mason's Apron" (played here by traditional music group The Dubliners).

The Pogues was an Irish punk rock band formed in Londown by friends Shane MacGowan (vocals) and Spicer Stacy (tin whistle). With the addition of Jem Finer (banjo, mandolin) and James Fearnley (accordion), Cait O'Riordan (bass guitar) and Andrew Ranken (drums), the band gained a local reputation and began touring and recording in 1984.  MacGowan's songs were informed by his punk rock background, which he and Stacy shared. (Punk rock is a loud, aggressive, unvarnished hard rock genre, often with a political edge.) The Pogues recorded two albums (Red Roses for Me, and Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash) and topped UK charts with the perennial holiday favorite "Fairytale of New York" (1987), told from the perspective of two Irish immigrants meeting in Manhattan at Christmas. MacGowan's erratic behavior due to alcohol and drugs led to his being fired and the original band ceased to exist.

"The Waxies' Dargle" is a song about two elderly Dublin ladies discussing how to find money to go to an annual outing (dargle) by Dublin cobblers (waxies) to a nearby city. It originated as a 19th-century children's song and is now a popular pub song in Ireland. ["Waxies' Dargle" on Wikipedia]  The Pogues' record company refused to release the song as a recording, but the video was a smash hit in Ireland and the U.K.

The Pogues (Irish for "the kisses") unleashed a wave of punk bands in Ireland. Kierran Petersen article "Irish punk bands and Irish punks you should be listening to" offers a brief survey of punk rock and alt rock bands that followed The Pogues, including Northern Ireland political rockers Stiff Little Fingers, Dublin pop noise band September Girls, and Irish American punk band 1916.


Black 47 was a New York City band formed by Irish-born Larry Kirwan and Brooklyn policeman Chris Byrne in 1989, and the first of the American-based bands combining Irish music and instruments with influences from rock, jazz, and hip hop. The combination of Kirwan's electric guitar and Byrne's uillean pipes and bodhrán initially received a poor reception in Bronx pubs, but a year later, with the addition of Geoff Blyth (reeds) , Fred Parcells (trombone, whistle) and Thomas Hamlin (percussion), Black 47 was playing regularly at Paddy Reilly's bar on Manhattan's East Side. Their twice-weekly show was the "hottest, hippest ticket in town." Black 47 toured throughout the 1990s. The band produced fourteen albums from 1989 until their breakup in 2014. 

The band's name refers to the traditional term for 1847, the worst year of the Irish Famine. Kirwan stated that the band was "formed to be political," with socialist lyrics attracting one half of the political spectrum, and the songs of the day-to-day life in America appealing to traditionally right-leaning "cops, firemen and construction workers," professions that are associated with Irish Americans ["Black 47" on Wikipedia]. 

Many of Kirwan's works are danceable songs that that tell stories of contemporary Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, recalling the ballads that recount experiences of his nineteenth-century compatriots. In the music video of Funky Ceili, films of early ceílí dancing in the "old country" are interspersed with scenes of Black 47 performing the song on stage with cheering fans bouncing and singing along. The music video was a breakout success when aired on MTV. Livin' in America is a story-telling song that features Mary Courtney, celebrated Irish-American singer and instrumentalist. In a seemingly ironic twist, "Livin' in America" sets new lyrics to  "The Foggy, Foggy Dew," a traditional ballad known for commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising, which was a crucial event in the struggle for Irish independence. (A traditional version of the ballad played on Celtic harp can be heard in this video.)

Perhaps Black 47's most experimental track is the wordless "Johnny Byrne's Reel" which combines the driving force of the Irish reel on pipes, sax, and bodhrán with Kirwan's psychedelic noise guitar and Parcells's jazzy trombone improvisations. This video uses "Johnny Byrne's Reel" to accompany images of participants and bands in the St. Patrick's Day parade and associated festivities in San Francisco. The strong Republican stance of Kirwan's political songs prompted the U.K. to ban their sale and broadcast. "Bobby Sands MP" is a protest ballad about five accused IRA members who went on a hunger strike and were allowed to starve to death as Margaret Thatcher's government refused to act. 

The Dropkick Murphys is an Irish-American rock band from Quincy, Massachusetts (near Boston). The original lineup began playing in 1996, securing a local reputation through frequent live performances and albums released on independent local labels. Various members have played traditional Irish instruments — whistle, pipes, bodhrán — as well as guitar, accordion, banjo, mandolin, and bouzouki. The band's albums are a mix of original songs and traditional Irish songs played in the loud, aggressive style associated with punk rock. For example, compare the folk revival version of "Rocky Road to Dublin" by The Dubliners with the rock cover by The Dropkick Murphys

"I’m Shipping Up To Boston” from The Warrior's Code (2005) is the biggest commercial success from the nine albums the band produced from 1998 through 2017. The song was used in the 2006 movie The Departed, a crime drama set in Boston directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and Leonardo di Caprio. The film won four Oscars and was a huge success, putting The Dropkick Murphys on the national map.

An article/interview recounting how "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" was inspired by a lyric found in the archives of American folk singer Woody Guthrie.

In 1998 the song "Whiskey in the Jar" was recorded by American metal band Metallica and released as a music video. The traditional Irish song has been covered by The Dubliners and Thin Lizzy, among others. Like "The Wild Rover," it has become a well-known sing-along bar song. Two of the band members — Californians James Hetfield and Kirk Hammer — are of Irish/Scottish descent. Two versions of the song are linked below.

"Whiskey in the Jar - The Dubliners (1968)

Metallica, "Whiskey in the Jar" (1998)

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