Forget all your preconceptions about rap, it originated in the Irish song style "come-all-ye", an immeasurable gift of language and wit the Irish bestowed on the world.
In 1951, I was a very popular guy in the Upper Westside bars of New York City. I was smothered with kisses from all the ladies and grand compliments from all the gentlemen.
But then, so did all the other two-year-olds.
My Dad was a severely disabled WWII hero turned saloon singer. Had he not joined the 10th Mountain Division and lost the use of his right arm, he would have been a promising young quarterback with the New York Sergeants football team. But endowed with the soul and determination of the Mountain Trooper he was, he took his strong tenor voice - and me in my carriage – to the center of our tightly-knit Irish community; the neighborhood bars and beer gardens around 98th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Entertainment was in transition. The player-piano nickelodeons were being replaced by jukeboxes. Saloon singers who had sung along with the piano tunes for years were now competing with Wurlitzer and Seeburg jukes that spun vinyl 45-rpm records of popular vocal artists and big bands. By 1960, nickelodeons were gathering dust in second-hand stores.
But as the musical tide turned, my Dad decided to make his move; he’d create a family singing group. I was now 11 and my brothers, Paddy and Danny, were 10 and 9. Dressed in Aran cable-knit sweaters and our hair trained into upswept pompadours we were The Higgins Kids, available for parties or wakes. Of course, we never got paid money, but Dad was had his eye on building a reputation that would lead us all on to radio, television and film glory.
In addition to traditional Irish standards and ballads, we learned novelty tunes, vaudeville patter and spicy recitations that, when spoken by three innocent urchins, were at once charming and disarming. Which brings me to my premise: the roots of rap music can be found in the Irish “come all ye.”
The “come-all-ye” style was well established in Irish songs by the end of the 18th century and soon spread through the English-speaking world. It usually consists of four-line stanzas with seven stresses to each line, but the form is flexible enough to accommodate the will and wiles of the singer. Often the chorus is left out and the performance resembles more of an epic poem in the tradition of Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee or Hugh Antoine D’Arcy’s The Face on the Barroom Floor.
Older compositions often start “Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,” or “Come all you jolly shanty boys wherever you may be” but 20th century works such as Back to Donegal and Paddy McGinty’s Goat forgo the beckoning and get right down to the reckoning.
One of the best of the Irish Rap Pack was Patrick (Pat) Harrington Sr. (1901 – 1965) a vaudeville song and dance man who also performed on Broadway and 50’s television shows. His warm and gleaming renditions of delightfully comic “Come All Ye” songs became a mainstay of our act. Harrington’s album, Pat, contains twelve of these gems; simple rhymed-couplet stories of the Irish as only an Irishman can tell them. That Epic LP, scratched and full of pops and steam-like hisses, was played so frequently on my family’s RCA Stereo Hi-Fi Console that eventually we could hear both sides of the record at the same time. Well, almost.
These classic, ethnic stories-set-to-music stirred a powerful sense of heritage and innate comedy in my young soul. Years later, as I performed stand-up comedy, I again experienced the same sense of zeal and love of laughter. It’s been said that God gave the Irish whiskey to keep them from having to rule the world. I believe He also gave us mastery of the language and the ability to use it to effectively seduce the world.
One track from our “Pat” album was especially well-worn; Charles Lawlor’s Irish Jubilee A 1939 version tracks close to Lawlor’s original verbosity:
“A short time ago by, an Irishman named Doherty,
Was elected to the Senate by a very large majority.
He felt so elated, that he went to Dennis Cassidy,
Who owned a barroom of a very large capacity.
He says to Cassidy, go over to the brewery,
For a thousand kegs of lager beer and give it to the poority,
Go over to the butcher shop and order up a ton of meat,
Be sure to see the boys and girls will have enough to drink and eat.
Send out invitations in several different languages,
And don’t forget and tell them all to bring their own sandwiches.
They’ve made me their Senator and so, to show my gratitude
They’ll have the finest supper ever given in this latitude
Tell them the music will be furnished by O’Rafferty
Assisted on the bagpipes by Mickey McCafferty
Whatever the expenses are remember I’ll put up the tin
Anyone who doesn’t come be sure and do not let them in
Cassidy at once sent out the invitations
And all those that came were a credit to their nations.
Some came on bicycles because they had no fares to pay
Those who couldn’t come at all made up their mind to stay away
Two-by-three they marched in the Dining Hall
Old men and young men and girls that were not men at all
Blind men and deaf men, and men who had their teeth in pawn
Single men and double man and men who had their glasses on
Before many minutes nearly every seat was taken,
`Til the front rooms and mushrooms were packed to suffocation,
When everyone was seated they started eating left and right
And before half an hour was through, they’d eaten everything in sight
And Cassidy, as manager, said he would try to fill a chair,
They all sat down and started looking at the bill `o fare.
There was pigs heads and goldfish and mockingbirds and ostriches
Ice cream and cold cream and Vaseline and sandwiches,
They sang, “Chip-chip a little horse? Chip-chip again, Sir?
How many miles to Dublin town? Three score and ten, Sir!
Oh, Paddy dear, had you been here to sing a “come-all-ye,”
It would have made my life complete at the Irish Jubilee.[i]
Pat’s trimmed and souped-up, `60’s version, chugs along like a locomotive. Harrington relegates his orchestra’s string section to merely providing a rhythmic tacit. This droning backbeat provides the ground upon he builds his tales with wit and Irish Bulls.
Had this braggadocio story been related in an even, measured tone, it wouldn’t have had the same impact on me and my brothers. Harrington’s freight-train tempo and matter-of-fact delivery force a listener to struggle to keep up with the imagery and wordplay. For “The Higgins Kids” – all three of us in the full blush of preteen, wise-ass brattiness – such a fevered performance was immensely satisfying. We firmly believed we could annoy people with impunity but, sadly, applause and treats followed every performance.
By the time we were in our middle teens, entertainment was in transition again and Dad gave up on our act. The Beatles had arrived and the jukeboxes were everywhere. Music had moved on. We boys became part of the audience and only sang our come-all-ye’s at the occasional party where “that stream whiskey flowed like buttermilk and filled our hearts with joy.”
So now when I hear rhymed couplet poetry set to thumping backbeat blaring out of a Honda Accord in traffic, I don’t think of gritty urban poverty and violent gangsta’ brags. I think of the immeasurable gift of language and wit that Irish people have bestowed on the world.
And Dad’s dream.
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