Oct 05 2008

What in the World: Reading Rory Gallagher’s Blues

Published by at 10:30 am under articles

In Ralph Ellison’s opinion, the blues is “an autobiographical chronicle of catastrophe, expressed lyrically,” and this would seem to indicate that it is available to all (Davis 243). In this respect, one is tempted to suppose that Rory Gallagher’s facility with the blues is rooted in his own cultural inheritance as an Irishman as one of the dispossessed, rejected, defeated, evicted, lampooned, and exiled. We might argue that Gallagher’s blues are Ireland’s blues. But this path is reductive. Even though Gallagher enjoyed a normal Irish childhood and was exposed to life, culture, history, tradition, music, and religion in the same manner as others growing up in the decades after “The Emergency,” he remade himself imaginatively to become a bluesman. To draw strident parallels between the experience of the Irish in Ireland and African Americans in the South, while superficially attractive and supported on some levels by fact, is to invite specious generalization and to assume that Irish Studies scholars have the inside track on understanding the African-American experience. In his book, Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick reaches the following conclusion of Johnson’s achievement that we can apply to Rory Gallagher:

Robert Johnson became the personification of the existential blues singer, unencumbered by corporeality or history, a fiercely incandescent spirit who had escaped the bonds of tradition by the sheer thrust of genius. (2)

We can also apply Muddy Waters’ accounting of his own achievement to Gallagher’s–“[I] took the old-time music and brought it up to date:” (Davis 175). Gallagher, an intensely shy man, found in the blues the objective correlative for his talen, skill, imagination, and feeling. He fits a mold described by Frank O’Connor: “writers who come from Catholic Ireland do bring with them something of its anonymity, [ and they] are more impersonal, more identified with their material” (501). Lyrically, there seems little that is of his direct life in Gallagher’s work; rather, the weight of passion and personality is conveyed more subtly, and indirectly. The onstage and offstage Gallaghers can appear to be radically different persons. The final years of Gallagher’s life, when he had passed his peak in popularity and his health had begun to deteriorate, were difficult. It was then that he came to understand what he had forfeited–a private life and a family–to live the life of a touring musician. He was consumed by efforts to win back his back catalog, grew obsessed with astrology and superstition, abandoned his checked shirt for a more sombre black one, was “racked with self-doubt,” most inopportunely, at a time when a blues revival was taking place, and was often over-medicated (Harper 237). At the same time, his later recordings-Defender (1987 and Fresh Evidence (1990)–are considered by many to be among his best. His final years were spent at the Conrad Hotel in London close by a house he owned in Earl’s Court in which he had never lived. He became a Howard Hughes-like figure, dying at forty-seven, the same age as F.Scott Fitzgerald when he died; both great artists who reached the heights of fame while young, were quickly forgotten, and then rehabilitated to the pantheon after their deaths, with the formers rediscovery facilitated by the advent of the CD, the laters by the advent of the paperback.

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “What in the World: Reading Rory Gallagher’s Blues”

  1. kathleenon 01 Apr 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Hmmm. Thank you for this, which I’ve just discovered.

    Your comments are astonishingly astute, intelligent, and very well informed.

    One of the (alleged) quotations from an interview with Rory in his last days is something like: “The checked shirt has become stigmata to me.”

    That, if true, says so much — frankly, for someone like me, who is of Irish descent and Roman Catholic childhood — and says pretty much everything. It’s uncomfortable, but revealing.

    I do wish that someone (and the most likely person is Donal) would write, or at least authorize, the definitive biography of Rory.

    Greetings from The States.


  2. Richard Day Goreon 01 Aug 2012 at 6:38 am


    I’ve been waiting for years for Rory to be examined at an academic level. He’s so much more than a guitarist or songwriter or uniquely lovable bluesman: he’s culturally important in a way that deserves serious, serious consideration.

    I’m sure many fans will read this piece and say “WTF” because of its dry academic-speak, but Rory’s music being part of an academic conference is a huge achievement! Even the intellectuals are waking up to the fact that Rory was, is, and will always be, relevant.

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