This week I passed St Patricks Day watching Luke Kelly videos whilst trying to batter out jigs and reels on a bodhran. The Luke Kelly songs were as great as my drumming was crap. But, honestly, the Luke Kelly songs were really, really amazing, so much so that Ive decided to dedicate this weeks column to appreciating one of the greatest folk singers of the modern age.
For those unacquainted with Kelly, he was the original front man of The Dubliners. A wild singer with insane pipes, Kelly sounded like he was perpetually ripping his vocal cords raw with emotion, able to switch from the joyous to the angry, the melancholic to the lusty. He had a huge heart, a ginger mane, piercing eyes and a roaring mouth.
Born in 1940s Dublin to a factory workers son, Kelly dropped out of school at 13, and a few years later travelled to England to find work. Whilst there he fell in with the 50s English Folk revival scene, centred around Ewan MacColl. MacColl was an incredible song writer, and Kelly studied his compositions intently, internalising them and making them his own. Folk fans can debate for hours over whether MacColl or Kelly had the greater voice, but listening to Kellys rendition of the MacColl penned Alabama 58 gives a lot of credence to those who would say the Irishman has it.
In his time in England Kelly sharpened his nascent political consciousness, listening to the then voguish Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie, and hanging out with communists and anti-war protestors. He formed strong convictions about justice and the misuse of power, and these along with a love of boozing - informed the rest of his career. This lends Kelly his unique appeal before his political awakening he had already mastered a huge repertoire of crowd pleasing folk, comedy songs, love songs, dance tunes. When Kelly returned to Ireland to form The Dubliners with local balladeer Ronnie Drew, they had their first break with the slapstick hymn to boozing 7 Drunken Nights. The song was a hit in Ireland, then the UK, then America, popularly playing up to stereotypes of Irish drunkenness and buffoonery. This shucking and jiving proved to be a fine Trojan horse. Using the distraction techniques of unkempt beards, bumpkin outfits, and impeccable comic timing, the Dubliners smuggled radical politics into the mainstream, in a way that hadnt been seen before, and rarely- if ever- since. A Dubliners set could, and would, switch from bawdy songs about hammered old men who are crap in bad, to raging screeds against Imperialism, all in the space of a reel sometimes in the space of a song. In many ways this made Kelly a far more radical and far more effective force than men like the great Pete Seeger, or MacColl, who by and large spent their careers preaching to the converted. If you consider an album like Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seegers Kilroy Was Here itself a mini folk masterpiece the songs contained within are such palpable anti-Thatcher propaganda that they remained unheard outside of a small, thoroughly partisan audience of hippys and radical left wingers.
Meanwhile, The Dubliners supposedly made music for everyone. They were the friendly face of Irish good times, all whisky swilling and hi-diddly-aii-ing. They were invited onto Americas Ed Sullivan show to sing quaint songs about the motherland, they appeared on Top of the Pops, and they were generally given the run of the globe. This gave an unprecedented platform for Kelly, a self-educated, highly intelligent performer to deliver messages that would have been entirely unacceptable written in black and white. Take Monto for example on the surface its a cheeky song about Irelands long departed red light district. But buried in the lyrics are barbs flung at the English Army, the Queen, Buckshot Forster the English politician who opposed land reform in Ireland- and a final conclusion that the Invincibles a group of 19th Century Irish assassins who supported the Republican cause- stand up for their principles, day and night. Here Kelly performs it with typical gusto, mocking and gleeful:
Ive been trying to find a decent Luke Kelly documentary online, and Ive sort of succeeded -here are the first two parts of the documentary Luke its very frustrating that the concluding part is missing, because they tell the story so well. But give it a watch to get a feel of a man who died way too young, but left a tremendous body of work behind.