John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Irish Rovers’ Song a Classic Earworm

“The Unicorn” also has some political lessons to teach us.

By - Aug 17th, 2016 02:56 pm
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The Irish Rovers. Photo from the band's website.

The Irish Rovers. Photo from the band’s website.

You might imagine I chose this song to synch up with this week’s Irish Fest. And you might question the choice: any sane person of Irish extraction would probably view this song as lightweight. Yes, there are probably thousands of Irish songs better than The Irish Rovers’ “The Unicorn,” but it got chosen for a reason.

This unlikely earworm took up residence in my head earlier this summer. Pleasant at first, like the approaching sound of an ice cream truck, it didn’t take long before it started to sound like the sing-songy sound track of a horror film. I think an especially creepy one could be made with this on endless tape loop. The experience was so intense and maddening I felt like sawing my own head off and throwing it away. My wife who was been plagued by a much better one, Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” must have passed the virus on to me.

Here’s my new theory on the origins of ear worms. When a song is stuck in your head for days it’s trying to reveal some deep truth stuck your subconscious. With a couple days perspective, I now know that “The Unicorn” is about Bernie Sanders.

If you are nineteen and felt the Bern, I understand your first broken heart is painful. I agreed with the Sanders platform, but my aged soul is somehow stained by a lack of purity in the eyes of his supporters. Yes,  Bernie was good, great, and charming in his curmudgeonly way, but it’s over and there might be a lesson in that.

The outliers at the very edges of both parties have, in four recent elections, split tickets and delivered victories to their ideological foes. Ross Perot did it twice, in 1992 and 1996. He ran as an Independent and as the leader of the Reform Party. He begat Bill Clinton, although probably not single handedly because neither George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole were strong candidates.

Ralph Nader lost his hero status for me when he ran in 2000 and gave us a man many call the call the worst president ever, George W. Bush. Make no mistake, those Nader votes would have given Al Gore the edge. There is a sad alternate history that Nader denied the country — no sane president would have gone into Iraq. I hope we’ve learned. Don’t vote for unicorns.

This year is the choice is between a closet dictator and a confident, but somewhat unlikeable non-unicorn. Hillary Clinton will nominate at least one Supreme Court Justice. This person will be pro-choice and against Citizens United. You don’t have to like her, she’s not your best friend, but you do have to love your country enough to spare us the nightmare that’s playing out on the other side.

So… My subconscious was telling me to live in the real world and get with the program. I still can’t decide if this catchy song is good or bad. No ear worm at all would’ve been nice but The Irish Rovers, with their charming accents took a pretty cute little tune to the top of the charts. They somehow manage to sound like a chorus of Peter Noone sound-alikes, Noone being the singer from Herman’s Hermits. Not everybody should attempt this trick.

This song was a hit in 1969, which was a little beyond it’s sell-by date. It would’ve been ideal a few years earlier, an era Martin Mull once called the “Folk Scare of the 1960’s.” And it turns out the group could have been more accurately dubbed The Canadian Rovers. Yes, they were about as authentic as those Australian sheep farmers I wrote about, The Strangeloves. 

The reason this song is insistent in it’s refusal to go away is Shel Silverstein, a polymath who seemed able to do anything. The lyrics were from his classic children’s book, Where The Sidewalk Ends, which he also illustrated. Silverstein also gave us the lyrics to “A Boy Named Sue,” and “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone.” Not many writer illustrators as accomplished as he was also cranked out hit songs.

So here is the tall tale, written by a Jewish Chicagoan, sung by Canadians and accepted around the world as Irish music.

A long time ago, when the Earth was green,
There was more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen.
And they’d run around free when the Earth was being born,
And the loveliest of ’em all was the unicorn

There was… green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,
The loveliest of all was the unicorn

Well now God seen some sinnin’ and it caused Him pain.
And He said, “Stand back, I’m going to make it rain!”
He said, “Hey, Brother Noah, I’ll tell you what to do,
Build me a floating zoo, ”
“And take some of them”…….

Green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born.
Don’t you forget My unicorns.”

Well Old Noah he was there and he answered the callin’,
And he finished makin’ the ark just as the rain started to fallin’.
Then he marched in all them animals two by two,
And he sung out as they went through,

“Hey Lord, ”
“I got Your green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Some cats and rats and elephants, but Lord, I’m so forlorn,
I just can’t see no unicorns !”

And Noah looked out through the driving rain,
The unicorns were hiding, playing sally games.
They were kickin’ and splashin’ while the rain was pourin’,
Oh, the sally unicorns!

There was green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Noah cried, “Close the door ’cause the rain is just pourin’,
And we just cannot wait for no unicorn!”

The ark started moving, and it drifted with the tide,
And the unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried.
And the waters come down and sort of flooded them away,
That’s why you never seen a unicorn to this very day.

But you’ll see green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees.
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,
You’re never gonna see no unicorn!

© Shel Silverstein

I pray the virus doesn’t infect you, but if it does, let it be a reminder. It’s good to know where you live. I like a country that can cough up the occasional native genius like Shel Silverstein. At the same time, we have way too many people pointing guns at each other, shameful poverty, and problems everywhere that won’t be fixed by deporting people of the wrong color. We have a ridiculously inept governor who lives in the vest pocket of the Koch Brothers. Please, think carefully. If you’re holding out for a unicorn this year, you couldn’t have picked a more dangerous time.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Irish Rovers’ Song a Classic Earworm”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    The Unicorn looks so different when just viewed on the page lyrically! This must be because the catchy melody takes over when we here it otherwise!

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