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Whiskey in the Jar (July 23, 1987)

hey, here's how to tell a story

On a hot, muggy night of the sort recalling one's first year of sex, I sat alone and unable to sleep, which also recalled my first year of sex. Torn between the joys of the typewriter and a Late Night Movie, I switched on the networks. And there I sat, transfixed by a story in which nothing happened very slowly over a period of three hours.

It was an old film; made today, the same plot and narration would have been drawn out over sixteen episodes of flaring nostrils and heaving chests in a mini-series of the sort that lacerates the screen at regular intervals. I wanted my guitar back. Alas, my instruments are no more. On such evenings I used to play for hours, unhampered by talent, doodling into the night.

In my days devoted to performing and music, I was an unrepentant folkie. I liked three part harmony and the messy resonance of the Martin D-28 with new medium gauge, bronze wound strings. But I also liked the material. It had substance. It told a story. I've often thought that all writers should study the tight pacing and story line of certain folk songs. Many could be fluffed out into impressive and taut stories and novels. Compare the content of this old song with the next movie you see or television drama you watch. Note that a most fascinating tale emerges, both through denotative facts given and implication. Sung, this song takes less than two minutes, including the chorus after each verse. The chorus, which takes almost half the song, goes:

Musha ringum durum die.
Wack fall the Daddy Oh!
Wack fall the Daddy-O!
There's whiskey in the jar!

Said mystic incantation comes after each verse.

I have been a rover;
I have been a bold deceiver.
Now I earn my livin' with me pistol and me rapier.
I don't know what I've stolen but would make a pretty penny.
But I almost lost it all to me darlin' sportin' Jenny.

I robbed Colonel Farrell up on Gilgarry Mountain.
Took it to me Jenny for to help me with the countin'
Jenny called the guards, Lord, I've never seen so many.
Damn near lost me freedom with me darlin' sportin' Jenny

I'd like to find me brother, he's the one who's in the army.
Don't know where he's stationed, be it Cork or in Killarney.
Together we'd go rovin' o'er the mountains of Kilkennie.
Swear he'll treat me fairer than me darlin' sportin' Jenny

T'was early in the morning at the barracks of Killarney,
Me brother took his leave, but he didn't tell the army.
Our horses they were speedy, was all over but the shoutin'
Now we wait in peril up on Gilgarry Mountain

Perhaps 160 words, exclusive of the chorus. Look what we know of the singer. He is Irish, familiar with and likely native to the southeastern coast and environs. He has several brothers, one likely impressed into the military. Neither can read nor write or they'd know where the other was. Their family probably lost their land to the new British and Protestant landlords, forcing them to lives of crime. Such lives do not lend themselves to romantic relationships, and the singer took up with a whore. This woman knowing upon which side her bread is buttered, turns him in to the occupation army, but he escapes.

The brothers are neither bright nor expectant of a happy future. Desertion and then flight to the very place where younger brother robbed a noble with an honorary military rank seems suicidal. In fact, they seem to fully expect their death at song's end.

This song has many variations and many titles, but in virtually every case it remains a tale of fraternal union: us against them. 'Them' clearly includes women, for there is a strong misogynist strain here. Much of the story, you will note, is clear but unsaid. It is marvelous use of language; sung, it has an ironic nihilism absent from mere, oh, words.

And I love words.