Whiskey in the Jar (redux)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

“Whiskey in a Jar,” one of the best known traditional Irish vocal ballads, probably originated in the mid-17th century, according to folklorist Alan Lomax, and it has been found in dozens of forms on both sides of the Atlantic. It tells the story of a highwayman (robber) who robs a military officer and who is subsequently betrayed by his woman. “Whiskey in a Jar” has been recorded by dozens upon dozens of traditional artists, but has also been taken in a rock and roll direction, first by Thin Lizzy (who recorded a version learned from Irish trad sources), and then by the Grateful Dead (who recorded a version learned from American trad sources), and then most successfully by Metallica, who won a 2000 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance for their version, which was likely learned directly from Thin Lizzy, rather than a traditional source. The song is, as one might guess from the title, a favourite drinking and pub song among fans of Irish music all over the world. “Whiskey in a Jar,” like “Danny Boy,” is a favourite on St. Patrick’s Day. (source Megan Romer, liveabout.com)

The song’s exact origins are unknown. Several of its lines and the general plot resemble those of a contemporary broadside ballad “Patrick Fleming” (also called “Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Soldier”) about Irish highwayman Patrick Fleming, who was executed in 1650.

In the book The Folk Songs of North America, folk music historian Alan Lomax suggests that the song originated in the 17th century, and (based on plot similarities) that John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera was inspired by Gay hearing an Irish ballad-monger singing “Whiskey in the Jar”. In regard to the history of the song, Lomax states, “The folk of seventeenth century Britain liked and admired their local highwaymen; and in Ireland (or Scotland) where the gentlemen of the roads robbed English landlords, they were regarded as national patriots. Such feelings inspired this rollicking ballad.”

At some point, the song came to the United States and was a favourite in Colonial America because of its irreverent attitude toward British officials. The American versions are sometimes set in America and deal with American characters. One such version, from Massachusetts, is about Alan McCollister, an Irish-American soldier who is sentenced to death by hanging for robbing British officials.

The song appeared in a form close to its modern version in a precursor called “The Sporting Hero, or, Whiskey in the Bar” in a mid-1850s broadsheet.

The song collector Colm Ó Lochlainn, in his book Irish Street Ballads, described how his mother learnt “Whiskey in the Jar” in Limerick in 1870 from a man called Buckley who came from Cork. When Ó Lochlainn included the song in Irish Street Ballads, he wrote down the lyrics from memory as he had learnt them from his mother. He called the song “There’s Whiskey in the Jar”, and the lyrics are virtually identical to the version that was used by Irish bands in the 1960s such as the Dubliners. The O Lochlainn version refers to the “far fam’d Kerry mountain” rather than the Cork and Kerry mountains, as appears in some versions.

The song also appears under the title “There’s Whiskey in the Jar” in the Joyce collection, but that only includes the melody line without any lyrics. Versions of the song were collected in the 1920s in Northern Ireland by song collector Sam Henry. (Source above, the excellent Wikipedia- do donate)

I learned the song early in 1972 from one of the booklets from the series, Irish Folk Songs. With Seannachie in Wollongong, Tony Fitzgerald sang it and later, with Banter in Sydney in the 1990s, Sam the Man sang it. However, down the years, when I was singing on my own in pubs or clubs or as a duo with my wife, I would regularly wheel out the old warhorse. The virus allows this virtual version.

The version here is a Band-in-a-Box/Real Band folk-rock rendition featuring bass guitar, drums, organ, finger-picked 12-string guitar and strummed guitar. Bluegrass fiddle and bluegrass mandolin share alternating verse accompaniment roles until the final chorus when everything is firing. I like to think that this arrangement celebrates the transatlantic aspects of the song.

Whiskey in the Jar (redux)

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