A Centenary Becomes a Harbinger for Today
By Stephanie Serna, RLn Contributor
It is said that art (as well as national leaders) are an embodiment of the “zeitgeist” of — the social environment of a culture. If that is true, then perhaps it’s time for artists and musicians to offer a mirror that reflects America’s social story. Throughout history, folk and blues kings and queens have sailed us through our struggles with courage, , but now the boat is seemingly adrift in rough seas.
Damien Dempsey is an artist whose voice comes echoing back across those high seas. He’s from Ireland. He offers historical reflection and inspiration. His message is a balance of love and a mighty wake-up call.
This year marked the quintessential Irish story being retold with undying reverence — the story of Ireland’s freedom — The Easter Rising of 1916. And Dempsey, like a true Irish bard, hasn’t missed a beat in telling it. His latest album No Force On Earth was released April 12 — a dozen days before the 100-year anniversary day — April 24, 2016. The tour for the album began earlier this fall in the United Kingdom and will continue through Ireland til the end of the year. But the album’s testament will resound into the future. Those who hear it will be prompted to reflect on the harrowing commitment of freedom.
The album, is a less produced “Damo” (as his fans lovingly call him) than I am accustomed to hearing. It is mainly the artist playing his guitar primarily in Irish folk style. That was what his producer and friend of 16 years, John Reynolds instructed him to do: play the songs “like you would at a singsong in a house or in a pub.” Perhaps that’s what makes the album so raw and naked with passion.
It reminds me of the days of early American folk, when Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were singing about hard times in America, when musicians strived for social reform in the telling of their stories in the form of song. It was a time before “reality” was a term related to “TV.”
I was aware of the significance of the era recounted on Dempsey’s centenary album, but my understanding and appreciation grew deeper after hearing the stories unfold through the music — and especially after visiting Ireland this past summer, where the celebration was in full display. Gratitude, love and respect for all the Irish people endured and survived. It was palpable in the expression of the people, the land and, of course, the music.
During my interview with Dempsey in Tullamore, Ireland, he described his aspirations in making the album.
“I wanted to acknowledge the diversity of people who fought for Ireland’s freedom,” he said. “There were wealthy and poor, rural and urban, Irish travelers and English aristocrats all fighting together for equality and freedom.”
The album includes eight songs. Four are folk standards Dempsey learned from family members and throughout his travels. The songs illustrate the diversity among the ranks of freedom fighters who struggled for their civil rights, some seeing glory and others —as told in King’s Shilling— sorrow and death with Britain’s promise of money and a United Ireland.
In the song, The Death of Cuchulain, Dempsey “collaborates” with the canonized Irish Poet, W.B. Yeats by writing music to the poem of the same name, where Yeats compares the people who fought in 1916 to the ancient mythical warriors of old Ireland.
And then there are the three originals — two of them very personal stories for both Dempsey and Reynolds about their great-grand relatives. Paddy Ward (Reynolds’ great grandfather) was, according to Dempsey, “an Irish Traveler who fought in 1916, the war of independence, the civil war and was then murdered by a landlord near Athlone. The landlord was given a paltry sentence of 6 months — if it had of been the other way around it would have been a hanging offense … he deserved a song.”
It was during his research for this album that he unearthed the story of his great-grand Aunt Jenny and her valiant heroism during the uprising. In the song, he also strongly points out that there were many other women rebel fighters — more than 200 of them — who were sort of white-washed out of history by the Catholic Church. Aunt Jenny is the first song on the album. It is dedicated to her and those women who were members of the Irish Women’s Workers Union and then joined the Irish Citizen Army. Here are a few poignant lines from various verses throughout that song:
Brave Jenny … they never told me …
of the jails … and combat you’d seen
Sean Connely … died in your young … strong arms … in city hall
Aunt Jenny … your gallant bravery …
gives me strength … in this crazy world
Thank you … Oh, thank you … for your example … against the tyrants …
of this world
The last song on the album Wave Hill Walk Off is inserted in Damo’s all-inclusive empathetic style. It doesn’t tie in directly to the historical 1916 rising, but is related in heart and spirit.
“This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the walk off and the start of the aboriginal land rights movement in Australia,” Dempsey said. “I thought I’d add this one for some solidarity with other struggles around the world and because we share a common year of remembrance.”
No Force on Earth, as with many of Dempsey’s other song compilations are an album marker of a particular story — a particular people, place and time — yet they have cross temporal and cultural appeal. They are stories to which we can all relate. They are songs that express what all humans wish to possess — individual freedom, dignity and the need for equality and a sovereign voice. Even today, when the whispers of tyranny still threaten the “free” world with the insatiable greed of the privileged few, people are feeling the need to stand watch, even protest.
Perhaps it is time for a new bard to come forward and sing the song of the world, for a champion to help guide this flailing human ship across the rough seas to a shore where there are no borders.
I nominate Damien Dempsey.
To read the full Damien Dempsey and John Reynolds interview visit tonalityblogg.net/music