Larry Kirwan says "Some songs held us back, others pushed us forward; whatever, they all capture a moment."
Editor's Note: In the coming weeks, Larry Kirwan and IrishCentral will look back album by album on the history of Black 47 and their rise to fame. Below is the eighteenth installment of the series.
The previous installment in the series, "And so it goes…"Last Call" for Black 47," can be read here.
Below is a note from Larry Kirwan, written July 17, 2020:
When Chris Byrne and I decided to form Black 47 in late 1989, our rationale was simple. Bob Marley was dead, The Clash had broken up - there was an opening for a political band. We hadn’t even had a rehearsal nor did we have songs, but we did have gigs since Chris’s band Beyond The Pale broke up that night with a month’s schedule to fill. Each of those gigs required us to play four sets – so survival on Bainbridge Avenue was the first thing on our minds. We figured that we only needed three sets since no one who heard the first would likely be still there when we played the fourth. Still, within six months, we were an all-original band. If you wanted to hear covers of The Pogues, The Waterboys, or Christy Moore – the Big 3 on the Irish Pub scene back then - go somewhere else!
It was a bad time in the North of Ireland – the struggle had been going on for 20 years with no sign of resolution. So our first songs were about Irish politics, current and historical. We were also interested in Irish immigration and the problems of the undocumented (I’d been one) and, of course, Irish America itself. We did many benefits and were involved in various issues, including support for the LGBTQ community through ILGO. Our Danny Boy song about a Gay Irish construction worker caused much concern within the conservative Irish American community but the track got FM airplay and led many young people to question their traditional beliefs.
It seemed to be one controversy after another especially during the Giuliani years; then came the invasion of Iraq which we vehemently opposed. The next three years were a battle as the “patriots” protested our stand but eventually, people began dancing to Downtown Baghdad Blues rather than storming out. Then came the Bankers and Gangster years of the Great Recession, and so on and so forth and so fifth as John Lennon might have said.
As Black 47 headed towards disbandment in 2014, I decided to do a compilation album of political songs. We had about 50, depending on what you call “political.” I didn’t want to do a greatest hits, so many favorites were omitted, whole years, eras and albums untouched; still, what a trip – from Belfast to Baghdad, Wexford to Washington DC, Béal na Bláth to Salt Lake City. Some songs held us back, others pushed us forward; whatever, they all capture a moment. Rise up!
The below was written by Larry Kirwan on September 27, 2014:
With almost 50 songs to chose from it’s been a hell of a job getting the list down to a manageable 15. After re-mastering the songs with producer Stewart Lerman I recorded a few words about each and then transcribed them. So, herewith…
- Patriot Game: Dominic Behan’s masterpiece needed a reinterpretation back in the dismal days of late1989 when the struggle for civil rights in the North of Ireland had descended into sectarian tit-for-tat. We recorded it 2 months after forming. It was, to say the least, an intense calling card.
- Sam Hall: I loved the old traditional song but it often seemed to drown in beery tears. I added new words and a musical bridge - now Sam can raise his black flag of anarchy from the grave.
- James Connolly: You can always tell how Ireland is prospering by the regard in which Connolly is held. He predicted that whole countries would suffer when the bosses went international. How right you were, Jim!
- Change: Inspired by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Dig the horns, the funky rhythm section, and the Reggae beat. So many core B47 elements coalesced in this arrangement. “Change comes slowly like the ocean, but it keeps on coming nonetheless…”
- San Patricio Brigade: The US Army in the 1840’s was led by Know-Nothing, anti-Catholic officers. During the Mexican-American War Irish born soldiers led by Sgt. John Riley from Connemara deserted and joined the Mexican Army. When Mexico was defeated many were executed. Riley though whipped and branded with a “D” - for deserter disappeared and his fate remains a mystery.
- The Big Fellah: I had already set Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire to music for Mary Martello’s exquisite voice. I wrote the body of the song in West Cork after reading the last letters of some Republican prisoners about to be executed during the Irish Civil War. Collins was such a loss. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.
- For What It’s Worth: Great songs are often calcified by reverence. Just the slightest of nudges can set them free. And then Rozz Morehead stepped up to the microphone and knocked the Stephen Still classic into a different ballpark.
- Stars & Stripes: The years 2003-2006 were tumultuous for Black 47. I still believe it’s patriotic to disagree with your government especially when it sends its citizens half way around the world to fight a war of choice. For the many who will never return…
- Bobby Sands MP: It took me forever to find a way into his head. Then I remembered he had a son. Amazing that Bobby is gone so long; but mere seconds into this intro and I’m back on the dark streets of Belfast in 1981.
- The Day They Set Jim Larkin Free: “The great are only great because we are on our knees. Rise up!” Big Jim brought hope to millions. He believed that not only should there be a loaf of bread on every table but a vase with flowers too.
- Bobby Kennedy: What if Bobby Kennedy had lived? Given his charisma, drive, ruthlessness, and sense of destiny, he could have changed America. To what – we’ll never know.
- Downtown Baghdad Blues: With IRAQ I wanted to capture life during wartime. There’s a lot of dissonance, distortion, and little or no reverb on the voices or instruments. The album continues to be a favorite of US troops serving overseas.
- Black 47: My grandfather heard about the catastrophe of An Gorta Mór from his father who witnessed it. He made me promise I would bear witness and “never let our people be forgotten.” Now it’s your turn.
- Joe Hill’s Last Will: Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City on November 19, 1915 on a trumped up murder charge. He wrote his “will” early that morning. It was a great lyric awaiting a decent melody. Here’s to you, Joe!
- US of A 2014: It amazes me how people can be so resistant to fixing a system that will consign their children to second-class citizenship. Profits rise, wages fall, Connolly turns in his grave, and Black 47 is outa here! But one final question remains: Who stole the scent from the American rose?
Present Members: Joseph “Bearclaw” Burcaw, Geoffrey Blythe, Thomas Hamlin, Larry Kirwan, Joseph Mulvanerty, Fred Parcells.
Past Members: Chris Byrne, David Conrad, Andrew Goodsight, Kevin Jenkins
Tracks re-mastered at Righteous Sound, Weekhaven, NJ by Brother Stewart Lerman
Change by Black 47, featured on "Rise Up:"
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