Oct 05 2008

What in the World: Reading Rory Gallagher’s Blues

Published by at 10:30 am under articles

But in advance of these objectives, I want to pay some attention to recent commentaries that examine the role and place of popular music in academic scholarship. I take this path out of uncertainty — as someone who teaches writing and literature, I am better able to speak of popular music as a fan than as an expert, enthusiasm representing but one part of what the scholar brings to his or her material. At the same time, given what I do, it is vital that I understand something of a music that is such an important part of contemporary Irish life and literature — the songs, lyrics, and names being frequently referenced by many of our best known writers form Patrick McCabe to Paul Muldoon to Paula Meehan to Roddy Doyle. Muldoon’s poem “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” is a particularly good example of the interaction that exists between poets and songwriters or between what might be called “high” and “low” culture:

When I turn up the rickety old gramophone
the wow and flutter from the scratched LP
summons up white walls, the table, the single bed

Where Lydia Languish will meet her Le Fanu:

his songs have meant far more to me
than most of the so-called poems I’ve read. (46)

Recently, a form of music that was once demonized has, for cultural and economic reasons, been afforded the status once exclusively reserved for what might once have been referred to as high culture. Speaking at a meeting of the Irish Music Rights Organization in 1998, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern claimed:

Music and writing have always played a central role in the social and cultural life of Ireland. Not alone as a source of entertainment, but also as an effective way of recording Irish history and communicating its stories widely throughout the country and the world. In addition to the historical function of music and song, they also play an important role in defining the identity of a nation and its people. They help to tell us who we are, to express our hopes and aspirations, our trials and tribulations, in a way that makes us uniquely Irish. Internationally, the Irish nation is perceived very much through the medium of its music. (Smyth 2)

To Ahern what has once seemed disparate and untidy has now become an organic voice and, if one were to take a cynical view, the cultural cog in the Irish success story and a solid component of the Irish brand. Ahern’s embrace of a music that has been imported exists in sharp contrast to Douglas Hyde’s complaint of “being menaced by the German band and the barrel organ” in his call for the de-Anglicizing of Irish music (2). In Ahern’s view, the Irish cultural project should be seen as level, democratic, and populist, depending on one’s perspective, and this has been translated into official government policy through the medium of the Arts Council. In this brave new world, determined by voice rather than be genre or individual artistic calling, value is spread in a level, interdisciplinary manner — “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” beds down with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Anna Liffey” with “going to My Home Town,” and “Guests of the Nation” with The Crying Game. Of course, there is a danger in such an approach — arguably so many that it might take a lifetime to enumerate them all — perhaps the most notable being that it might lead to a situation where nothing will be examined on its own terms, or according to the rules or topoi that underline its particular aesthetic structures. In Irish poetry, this mixing and matching has been seen by some to have diluted craft and led, as a backlash, to the revival of a harsh, formalist poetics.

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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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