I’ve argued before that all music has a political element to it, whether it is apparent or not. However, one of the hardest things for a songwriter to do is to write a political song that avoids cliches. One of the best political songwriters of the past two decades has been Larry Kirwan of Black 47. Kirwan, having written both books and plays as well, has the detailed eye of a novelist. He also clearly understands the history of both political movements and popular song. Like Springsteen or the Clash, he and his band infuse the songs with a righteous energy that works on a primal emotional level, as well as a intellectual one.
Black 47 is usually called an Irish rock band. This is fair as Kirwan, their guitar player, main singer, and main songwriter throughout their tenure, hails from Ireland even though he has long resided in NYC. Kirwan also often writes melodies that have an Irish folk element. The band as a whole sometimes uses Irish instruments, such as the uilleann pipes. However, this makes them seem more one-dimensional than they are. They aren’t so much the sound of Ireland, as the sound of an Irish neighborhood in NYC. Irish rock music may be the starting point, but reggae, Spanish music, hip-hop, and other various styles get stirred into the pot as well.
Black 47, despite having hung it up as a live band last year after 25 years, have released a compilation of their political songs called Rise Up. This is not only an excellent album of political songwriting, but also a great introduction to the band if you haven’t heard them before.
I love Black 47, but I must admit that their studio albums are slightly inconsistent. I usually feel that their albums could be edited by two or three songs, although their debut and Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes remain exceptions. (The last album is an absolute must in my book. It should also not be confused with an earlier album called Green Suede Shoes.) Home of the Brave, their third album, while it could also use a little bit of trimming, is an excellent record purchase as well. Their other albums have moments to recommend them, but they are not front to back great records. There is some filler on each record. Black 47 albums also often have low production values, which sometimes hinder their songs.
Before I get to the political nature of Rise Up, I think I should mention what else it gets right. First, I think the fact that it is a compilation album that has a theme makes it have a coherence that many compilations lack. It has also been mastered well enough to make songs that were recorded years apart, with wide ranging production values, fit nicely together. The songs are also all really melodic. Kirwan, as great as a lyricist as he is, occasionally writes songs where the melodies and chord progressions distract from his words. This new compilation fires on all cylinders.
As a piece of political work it is a masterpiece. There is a reason that Joe Strummer used to go see the band all the time in its early days. Whether Kirwan is singing about the Troubles in Ireland or the Iraq War, he creates vivid character studies that are as detailed as any short story or scene from a play. (One thing that I didn’t understand about the Troubles in Ireland before reading Kirwan’s excellent autobiography, is that they were as much about economic oppression as having anything to do with religion.) The incredibly powerful song James Connolly has a verse that is spoken/sung by Kirwan in the guise of the title character writing to his wife:
Oh Lily, I don’t want to die
We’ve got so much to live for
And I know we’re goin’ out to get slaughtered
But I just can’t take any more
Just the sight of one more child screamin’ from hunger in a Dublin slum
Or his mother slavin’ 14 hours a day for the scum, who exploit her
And take her youth and throw it on a factory floor?
Oh Lily, I just can’t take any more
They’ve locked us out, they’ve banned our unions
They even treat their animals better than us
Oh no, it’s far better to die like a man on your feet
Than to live forever like some slave, on your knees, Lily
But don’t let them wrap any green flag around me
And for God’s sake, don’t let them bury me
In some field full of harps and shamrocks
And whatever you do, don’t let them make a martyr out of me
Oh no, rather raise the Starry Plough on high, sing a song of freedom
Here’s to you, Lily, the rights of man and international revolution
On the song Downtown Baghdad Blues, Kirwan takes on the persona of a soldier in Iraq:
Mission accomplished, yeah, up on deck
Got no armor for my Humvee, left facin’ this train wreck
Shia don’t like me, want Islamic Revolution
Sunni say civil war is part of the solution
Maybe someday there’ll be peace in Fallujah
McDonald’s on the boulevard, Cadillac cruisin’
I’m tryin’ hard to keep this whole thing straight
But will someone tell me what am I doin’ here in the first place?
Now Downtown Baghdad Blues doesn’t have the poetry that Kirwan is capable of, but it is clear that he took the time to understand the complexity of what was going on in Iraq. This is not someone that is going to just peddle out typical anti-war cliches. Kirwan seems like someone that is passionate and knowledgable in what he chooses to sing about. In fact Kirwan usually writes political songs that are also story songs. Instead of telling you what to believe he creates a character that you end up empathizing with. This way, through character, you end up coming to your own conclusion even if it is one that you have been carefully guided to by Kirwan. Through this empathizing with characters the politics become personal and vice versa.
It is important in the choice of arrangement as well when a song is political. If you do something to somber, although of course there are many exceptions, you run the risk of sounding too serious and of not connecting emotionally. Kirwan and company create music that has an energy that brings you into the moment. These songs want to move your body and soul as much as your mind. You connect physically to this music so that it is that much easier to feel moved by their messages. Do I dare say that this collection of political songs is often fun? Yes. These songs are highly pleasurable rock n roll experiences as well as being highly intelligent pieces of political writing. This isn’t the work of some waif-like singer/songwriter. This is a rock n roll band laying it down in a sweaty crowded club. This is music that can be enjoyed sitting alone, but works just as well at a party. It is music for the masses in the best sense.
Kirwan, as demonstrated in the lyrics to Downtown Baghdad Blues, uses a lot of detailed references. This could be especially troubling when he does much the same in his Irish political songs, which those of us in the U.S. might not get reference wise on first listen. However, because this is such powerfully passionate music, it bridges the gap between the informed and the uniformed. It’s safe to say I knew next to nothing about Irish history until Kirwan. But in not being able to stop listening to his songs, I wanted to learn more. But also again, because he focuses on the human element of his songs, the songs can be understood and enjoyed emotionally before you even understand what every reference is about.
If you are a rock n roll fan, this is a band that you should know about. (Though for pure musical experience and songwriting wit Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes would still be my starter album for this band.) If you are a fan of political music then this particular album is a must buy. If you fall into either category, or both, this is a great primer to the group. This is music for the mind, body, and soul. If you ever feel dispirited, that you can’t push the boulder up the hill one more time only to have it roll back down, put this album on. It will rejuvenate and reenergize, get you ready for the struggle…
I am adding this thought after posting the main article. The one song that doesn’t work for me is the song Bobby Kennedy. Black 47 had a member for awhile named Chris Byrne. Byrne sometimes “rapped” with the group. Although it was noble that the group, in their all inclusive sound, tried to bring rap in, however few and far between, it never worked. Byrne simply cannot rap. I find that his vocals ruin every song that he is on. It is a prime reason why those first three Black 47 albums, which are the band’s greatest work outside of Elvis Murphy’s Green Suede Shoes and possibly Bankers and Gangsters, are not complete in their artistic vision. I always want to skip anything Chris Byrne is on. I also find that the band’s cover For What It’s Worth, although not terrible, is slightly too bar band like. Other than that the album is good to go.
I don’t like to slag something about a band that never got the recognition they deserved in the first place, but I felt the need to add that because, if you are going to be honest in what you think is good in something, you must also be truthful about what is not. One loses their credibility otherwise.