Nancy Spain

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.

In 1969, Christy Moore played a gig at a club in St Helier on the island of Jersey. The resident singer at the club was a man… called Barney Rushe, and that night he played some songs that he had written, two of which in particular caught Christy’s attention – The Crack Was Ninety and Nancy Spain…”We hooked up after the gig and we swapped songs late into the night,” Christy recalls. “When I heard him sing Nancy Spain, I was instantly smitten by this beautiful song. People are not aware that Nancy Spain was the name of a real woman, of a very different kind to the one that we might have in mind when we hear the ballad.”

“Barney explained it to me,” Christy recalls. “When he was writing this love song, he needed a name to tie it all together. Nancy Spain was a famous English journalist back in the 1960s, and Barney really liked the sound of her name. That was the name he chose for the subject of his song.”

Nancy Spain was no ordinary journalist, but one promoted as a free-roaming controversialist by the Daily Express which declared proudly, if somewhat feverishly: “They call her vulgar. . . they call her the worst dressed woman in Britain. . .”And the reason “they” found her badly dressed may have had more to do with the repressions of the 1950s than with Nancy Spain’s own sense of style. In her public appearances on TV shows such as What’s My Line? she tended to favour “natty gents sportswear” and what they called “mannish” clothes. Nancy Spain was, in fact, a lesbian. 

And it is said that she had many affairs with other women, including Marlene Dietrich. All of which was apparently accepted in good spirit by her soulmate Laurie. The two women even died together when the light aircraft in which they were travelling to the 1964 Grand National crashed into a cabbage field near Aintree racecourse. Noel Coward wrote that “it is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out, when so many bores and horrors are left living.”

Barney Rushe, who loved that name, had an interesting life too. His friend Mick Curry, himself a fine musician whose song Lawless has also been covered by Christy Moore, describes Barney as essentially a troubadour. Born in 1946, he played in bands – mainly blues bands – in the early 1960s. On a holiday in Jersey he found that he could make a living there, playing at the Royal Hotel, a period during which he had that crucial encounter with Christy Moore.

From Jersey he had moved to Ibiza, then Germany, where he ran a pub near Nuremburg… He moved to Spain, where he played in bars in Malaga…On a recent visit back to Dun Laoghaire, Barney Rush suffered an aneurysm, and died. At his funeral Christy Moore sang Nancy Spain – whoever she may be. (abridged from an article by Declan Lynch writing in The Irish Independent, October 4, 2014) 

Read the whole article for a fuller account and, of course, her Wikipedia entry, which goes into detail about a marvellously talented woman who lived life to the full. I think she would have been mightily amused to think that her name is used as the title of this love song.

Another lockdown special: we’ve never performed this in public; however, we were planning to- the singer yet to be determined. I’ll throw my hat in the ring with this: although, with acoustic-electric guitar, bodhran, mandolin and fiddle only as backing,  it won’t be very much like this version which has Nashville drums, electric bass, acoustic fingerpicked guitar, acoustic strummed guitar, electric guitar and organ/harmonica filling out the choruses. The vocal is just a straight-through solo.

Nancy Spain


  1. Graham Hewitt says:

    Do you know who the female vocalist is on the version of Nancy Spain on Christy Moore’s The Collection 1981-91?
    Email me, if you prefer.

    1. Quentin Bega says:

      Sorry Graham, I don’t know who that singer is.

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