Five Contemporary Folk Songs Written by Jimmy MacCarthy
An Irish Songwriter
Jimmy MacCarthy is a leading Irish songwriter whose compositions fall into the contemporary folk song genre. He has written many songs, some of which have become very popular. The lyrics often contain interesting imagery and the melodies are frequently memorable. The meaning of the lyrics is sometimes open to interpretation, which is a deliberate feature on MacCarthy's part.
Jimmy MacCarthy is a singer as well as as a songwriter. His songs have become most popular when sung by other performers, however. This has often led to a situation in which listeners are unaware that a song that they enjoy was actually written by MacCarthy. The composer has said that he is famous for not being famous.
In this article I discuss five of MacCarthy's songs as sung by popular Irish singers. The performers are Tommy Fleming, Mary Black, Christy Moore, and the band known as The Corrs. Jimmy MacCarthy also performs one of the songs. I've chosen the songs not only because they are popular and showcase both the composer and the singers but also because I enjoy the music.
Jimmy MacCarthy was born in 1953 in the town of Macroom in County Cork, Ireland. His compositions are variously described as folk and as folk rock music. Both of these styles are included in the contemporary folk music genre.
Dolmens are ancient megalithic structures consisting of a large capstone supported by two or more upright stones. They were often used as tombs and are thought to have been originally covered with earth. The stones of Irish monuments are remembered in the song below.
"Mystic lipstick" is a moving song about the history and problems of Ireland. The country is referred to as "she" in the lyrics. The fact that the song is about Ireland becomes obvious—or is confirmed—when Eire is mentioned. Eire is the Irish Gaelic name for the country.
The first verse of the song is shown below. Ireland has a rich heritage of myth, legend, and archaeological remains, which is reflected in the first two lines of the song. In some parts of the country the old stories of folklore are still respected, despite the fact that Ireland is a Catholic country today.
She wears Mystic Lipstick; she wears stones and bones,
She tells myth and legend; she sings rock and roll,
She wears chains of bondage; she wears the wings of hope
She wears the gown of plenty, and still it's hard to cope.
Tommy Fleming Sings Mystic Lipstick
Tommy Fleming is an Irish singer who is especially popular for his renditions of traditional songs. Ewan Cowley describes himself as a "contemporary folk artist, composer, and producer".
Bright Blue Rose
"Bright Blue Rose" has some strange but beautiful lyrics as well as an unusual melody. It's often interpreted as a religious song because it contains phrases that honour Christ. The song has provoked much discussion about its meaning. MacCarthy has said that he wants people to make personal interpretations of his lyrics. He sometimes reveals a song's intended theme, but not always.
To me, "Bright Blue Rose" seems to be talking about the challenge of immersing oneself in the mystery of religion and understanding its meaning. The narrator moves over the surface of the water, or mystery, but doesn't dive into it. His female companion "goes down with the ease of a dolphin" and emerges unharmed. The singer says that he is "the geek with the alchemist's stone", which might suggest that he is trying to understand with study instead of with immersion and experience.
Other people may have a different understanding of the song's meaning. One of the joys of some of MacCarthy's songs is to interpret them in a way that makes sense to us individually or that has special meaning for us
The bright blue rose in the title refers to Christ. Several sources say that blue roses traditionally symbolize mystery, which could make sense in the context of the song. I don't know whether this was Jimmy MacCarthy's reason for using the term, though.
I skimmed across black water
Without once submerging
Onto the banks of an urban morning
That hungers the first light
Much, much more than mountains ever do
Mary Black Sings Bright Blue Rose
Mary Black is a singer who is known for her rendition of traditional and contemporary folk songs as well as music in other styles.
As I Leave Behind Neidin
"As I Leave Behind Neidin" is a song sung by a person about to emigrate from Ireland. Neidin is the Irish name for Kenmare. a small town in County Kerry. The Kerry Way shown in the opening photo in this article is a long-distance walking trail in the county.
In the song, the singer describes the connection that he feels to the world that he is about to leave behind. Neidin (personified as "she") sings a farewell song consisting of the sounds of nature and impresses the singer with her beauty. Even when the singer reaches his new home, he still feels Neidin's presence. Unlike the other songs that I describe, the meaning of this one seems clear.
My soul is strangely fed
Through the winding hills ahead
And she plays a melody
On winds and streams for me
Tommy Fleming Sings As I Leave Behind Neidin
The message of "No Frontiers" seems to be that although many of us experience pain and difficulty in life, we will eventually find happiness in heaven, which has no frontiers. There are other ideas running through the song as well, however. One is the love that the singer feels for his or her companion.
I find the lyrics of the second verse quite grim when interpreted in the most obvious way. The verse talks of fear, judgement, and the fact that "we stack all the dead men in self addressed crates" as we wait for our fate. The crate description has been interpreted as meaning that people choose their eternal destiny after death by their behaviour during life. Why we are the ones that stack the crates of dead bodies isn't explained, however. I suspect that there may have been more in the composer's mind than what seems obvious when he wrote this verse and perhaps when he wrote the whole song.
As is often the case for Jimmy MacCarthy's creations, the imagery in the song is open to personal interpretation. There are some features of his songs that aren't negotiable as far as he is concerned, however. These include the words. The four lines below appear near the end of "No Frontiers". MacCarthy considers them critical to the lyrics. He was very upset when one singer omitted the lines during a recording.
And heaven has its way
When all will harmonize
And know what's in our hearts
The dream will realize
The Corrs Sing No Frontiers
The Corrs is a four-member band from Ireland. The group consists of three sisters and their brother.
"Ride On" is one of Jimmy MacCarthey's most popular songs. As the song begins, it appears to be the story of a horse and its rider who are being regretfully encouraged to go on a journey by the singer. As the story progresses, the listener may decide that it describes human loss. In YouTube videos that I've seen, audience members are sometimes tearful during the "Ride on.....See you" refrain. Although the song is about separation, there is hope as well in the form of the "See you" affirmation.
MacCarthy has said that although he thinks about every word in his lyrics very carefully, he wants listeners to interpret the meaning as they see fit. He has revealed that "Ride On" describes a parting of some kind, but hasn't given many hints beyond this.
Symbolism of the Horse
The meaning of the horse symbolism is one element of the song that is left to personal interpretation. One interesting suggestion that I've discovered is that the horse with "eyes wild and green" might represent an agent of the sidhe (pronounced shee). The sidhe were supernatural beings that were part of religious beliefs in Ireland before Christianity arrived. One tradition held that they transported the spirits of the dead to the otherworld. The journey was sometimes said to happen on horseback. Another tradition held that the sidhe were capable of shapeshifting and could transform themselves into animals.
The parting referred to in the song may not involve death, however. The singer says "I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to". This might suggest that although he loves the person who is leaving, there is either something that he doesn't approve of in their behaviour or something in his own beliefs that is stopping him from going with the person.
When you ride into the night without a trace behind
Run the claw along my gut one last time
I turn to face an empty space where once you used to lie....
The Claw Along My Gut
"Ride On" as sung by Christy Moore brought Jimmy MacCarthy to people's attention and kickstarted his career. MacCarthy has said that he loves the way in which Moore performs the song. The only thing that he dislikes is that one line is different from the original lyrics. Moore and others sing "Run your claw along my gut" instead of Run the claw, giving the line a sensual or even a violent connotation. According to MacCarthy, the intent of the line was to symbolize the gut-wrenching pain of parting. The change from "the" claw to "your" claw creates a major difference in meaning.
Christy Moore Sings Ride On
Christy Moore is a popular folk singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Declan Sinnott (the accompanist in the video above) is a musician and record producer who seems to frequently support singers on stage.
A Tribute to Seamus Heaney
Although I enjoy many of the Jimmy MacCarthy songs that I've heard, I generally prefer listening to someone else perform them instead of him. I like his gentle rendition of "Ride On" shown in the video below, however. He sings the song in tribute to Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and playwright who died in 2013. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
The tribute is further evidence that the song could be interpreted as a farewell to someone who has just died. The "claw along my gut" line is changed to something completely different, which seems appropriate in a version that is meant to be a tribute to a respected poet instead of a farewell to a loved one.
Jimmy MacCarthy Sings Ride On
He says that out of the 1,000-odd songs he has written, more than half are too complex, too personal or too biting to become public. "The best of my language will never get out."— Jimmy MacCarthy interview in the Irish Independent News
Language and Music
Language is very important to Jimmy MacCarthy. When I listen to his songs I enjoy exploring both the music and the lyrics, since like him I'm interested in both topics. MacCarthy reportedly has a recording studio in his home. I hope he records more of his songs, even if he does consider them too complex, too personal, or too biting, and that he makes these songs available to the public. I would like to hear them.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Linda Crampton