‘Fairytale of New York’ a Christmas song that works all year round

Shane McGowan

Shane McGowan
So here’s something you don’t do every day -- I was interviewed by BBC Radio as part of a retrospective on the Pogues tune “Fairytale of New York” that will include musings from band
members, producers and industry types like myself.

To add street cred to the interview piece, we did the interview in front of the Roseland Ballroom on
Broadway. The producer waved her hand to the skyline and asked me what significance the song had for the city.

“Can you identify with the song?”

“No,” says I.  “I never found myself in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, but the season is young!”

Yet there is a significance on the song and it resonates today. Our sister website Irish Central reported recently that British music body PPL officially named “Fairytale” the most played Christmas song of the 21st century.

Its calculations include plays on the radio, TV, and as background music in shops, bars, gyms and restaurants. They began their calculations in 2000.

For me the song is a mere jukebox novelty, but for the majority of folks it’s a significant cultural touchstone, especially to forty-something Irish immigrants who took shelter in the Manhattan skyline during an Irish economic downturn three decades ago.

I would imagine if you found yourself working on a scaffold in the city and you’re longing for Christmas with the folks from home, the imagery of the fictitious NYPD choir singing “Galway Bay” and snippets of the old Irish drinking ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” added salt to the wound of an aching immigrant heart.  I’ve seen many a hardened middle-aged man cry when the tune plays in a bar.

Joe Cleary, a lecturer in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, said that the song told the story of the reality of Irish emigration and what lay behind the American Dream.

He wrote, “With the exception of Joyce's The Dead or Patrick Kavanagh's Advent, no work of the 20th-century Irish imagination has managed to illuminate a particular sense of Christmas so well as that song has done … It is at once a twisted love song, an emigrant ballad, and an anthem to the capital city of the 20th century. And it is perhaps for that reason that it is the only ‘Christmas classic’ that one can hear without wincing in July."

He hit the nail on the head. The lyrics are brilliant, drunken, and angry poetry, not the stuff of Christmas tunes. When Shane sings “yer an auld slut on junk,” it doesn’t make sugar plum fairies dance in your head!

This holiday season, a few Irish musicians will take a stab at the rock classic. Barleyjuice's Kyf Brewer and his wife Kay had been joking for years about what a kick it would be to record their own version of “Fairytale,” and this year seemed to be the perfect time.

It became a Brewer joint after daughter Scotlyn joined in on bass. The "beautiful" factor was covered nicely by the Juice's Shelley Weiss on violins and violas, and Mary Bryson from the Divine Hand Ensemble on harp.

Brewer's version is not presently available anywhere until it appears on iTunes after the holidays. Fans can get a free mp3 of it this holiday season by going to http://corporatemohawk.net/holiday-sale and buying some holiday Barley gear.

Lilting Irish soprano Emma Kate Tobia joins with the soulful traditional Irish vocalist George Murphy for a version that is on iTunes already.  Tobia is a classically trained soprano whose debut solo release, Aisling na nGael (An Irish Dream) received critical acclaim here.

Murphy is known initially for being a runner up in the Irish TV show You’re a Star, where he sang traditional Irish songs in his very large and gritty style at only age 17.  His first solo CD was produced by Phil Coulter, and his debut, The Ballads of Archie Thompson, was on our “best of” list this year!

Give these new versions a spin and have yourself a Merry Christmas!