No one gets “into the mystic” like Van Morrison, as in this collaboration with The Chieftains.
I never have to tell anyone I’m not Irish. It seems pretty obvious that complicated blessing has not fallen on me. But this is the time of year when I get to thinking just what it means to be Irish and if there’s any chance I might somehow switch.
I’m not hankering to be an Irish cop or politician. But I do perk up to reports of after dinner songs sung by people possessed by the spirit — or spirits. Maybe both. I really believe, and I imagine many Irish folks do too, that we have fallen from grace. We once spoke a higher language, one that was both melodious and soulful. Lilting, you might call it, and traces of it can be heard in any native’s brogue.
The Irish take their music seriously and are happy to share it with the rest of the world. One of the all time greats, Van Morrison, hardly sounds Irish at all, at least when he sings. He really did his homework studying American blues, soul and gospel — apparently he was never told he wasn’t black. He made a grand debut on these shores with his group Them singing the Bert Berns classic, Here Comes The Night, one of the catchiest numbers heard during the first British (in their case, Irish) invasion.
Van the Man immediately announced himself as an artist of the first stripe — cantankerous, moody, but somehow always right. His own songs, like Gloria, Wild Knight and Domino dominated the hit parade for one simple reason — they were fantastic. He sang like there were flames tickling his feet. The fire passed through him and came out a little hotter; you’d never call him a crooner. Even when you got a little lost in his lyrics — and they certainly shaded towards the cryptic on occasion — you always believed. I usually picture him with his eyes rolled back in his head, accessing something ancient and mystical and somehow Irish.
There were plenty of references to his home, Belfast, but he never played music that actually sounded Irish until he teamed up with The Chieftains. Irish Heartbeat, the album they made, sits at the top of the heap of great music released in the ‘80s. Something in this record captured a rare kind of lightning. It sounds fresh every time I play it and feels like a homecoming for a Van.
Van met them at a festival and struck up a friendship with Paddy Maloney. They made plans to record, meeting somewhere in the middle of their two very distinct styles. But it’s obvious Van gave more ground. It’s hard to imagine the reportedly stubborn and pugnacious Morrison compromising, but Maloney says it was a time when he was seeking his roots. In any case, they decided do all traditional tunes with two Van had written and recorded before, the title tune and one called Celtic Ray.
There are electric and eerie moments on this record when Van truly does sail “into the mystic,” as one of his more well know songs goes. You feel the presence of a completely spontaneous spirit, as he scats and howls, invoking something only he might have access to.
On Carrickfergus, he dials it back a notch, but still stays deep in character. This well-known song goes way back and is said to have at least a couple sources. Some say it’s the tale of a cuckolded lover. I don’t really hear that, nor do I see it in the lyrics. Instead, you sense a soul who has wandered too far to return to the one he loves. You could easily see this song as an Irish American’s lament for the land left behind. The overall sense of hurt and resignation in this song makes the details, if not unimportant, amenable to many interpretations.
I wished I had you in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygrand
I would swim over the deepest ocean
The deepest ocean to be by your side
But the sea is wide and I can’t swim over
And neither have I wings to fly
I wish I could find me a handy boatman
To ferry me over to my love and die
My childhood days bring back sad reflections
To happy times spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on like the melting snow
But I’ll spend my days in endless roving
Soft is the grass and my bed is free
Oh, to be home now in Carrickfergus
On the long road down to the salty sea
And in Kilkenny it is reported
On marble stone there as black as ink
‘With gold and silver I did support her
But I’ll sing no more now till I get a drink’
I’m drunk today and I’m rarely sober
A handsome rover from town to town
Oh, but I am sick now and my days are numbered
So come all ye young men and lay me down
FRANGLEN, SIMON / JENKINS, KATHERINE / TRADITIONAL,
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
There’s no mistaking the elegiac tone. It is sung by an old man, lost in reverie and drink. Whatever it is he has lost — true love, youth, “boyhood friends and relations” — he needn’t worry about too much, as he’s close to the finish line. It’s a sad, sad story, masterfully sung by a man I like to refer to as the world’s greatest living white man, and it gives shivers that are most pleasant, even upon examination. The beauty of both the blues and Irish music is the way they spin gold from life’s hurts, big and little. Van the Man can conjure such alchemy as well as it’s ever been done.