As performed by Paul Brady on “Andy Irvine, Paul Brady,” Mulligan Music, 1976 (and CD); similarly on Paul Brady, “The Missing Liberty Tapes,” Compass, 2004. Chosen here for The Day After (November 11, Remembrance Day).
Traditional music persistently reminds us that, too often, war is waged for elitist political economy. The folk are cannon fodder in a cause not their own. Irish traditional music provides especially graphic examples, and this violent, violently sarcastic attack on institutionalized violence might just be the best of the lot. This “Arthur McBride” is a true morality play, fleshing out all the contradictions of tribal bloodlust – its potential to bring human nobility to light in the darkness of reflexive, ethnocentric materialism.
In expressing those tribalist contradictions, folk tradition tends to celebrate ideological violence, as here, where the potential recruits are Irishmen, the recruiters Englishmen seeking fodder for foreign wars. Arthur and his cousin are no pacifists. You might call them conscientious objectors, but their disobedience is altogether uncivil. Where the young woman in “My Love Has Listed” (a.k.a. “The White [Blue, Black…] Cockade”; see November 11) strikes at the recruiter with poisonous words, this superb version of “Arthur” (apparently learned by Brady in the U.S., as compared to the sparer, probably older, more conventional version Irvine et. al. perform on “Planxty,” 1973) is all sticks and stones – or at least shillelagh and fists.
The narrative is beautifully structured to build toward explosion, mined with the bitterest sarcasm and ironies of ethnic conflict. It’s Christmas morning, for God’s sake! Arthur and his cousin are out for a quiet holiday walk on the beach. All is calm, all is bright – until the recruiters happen along and offer them ten guineas, a crown signing-bonus, a chick-magnet wardrobe, and a salary (compare the quick pint and shilling of “Listed”) for the chance that they might be flogged into conformity and sent to France, “where we could get shot without warning.”
The tension simmers to that point, from outrage to argument to fisticuffs, in language altogether suited to the blackening mood. You can hear the shouting and panting and groaning as overtone. The potential recruits answer the offer as in a duel (the retort courteous, as Shakespeare puts it): they have no money, so they “fee’d them up in cracks” – paid the recruiters by thumping them, with a walking-stick and fists. They seize the recruiters’ “rusty rapiers” and, to “temper their edge,” throw them into the sea. They rifle the drummer’s wallet (his “pow” or “pouch”) and use his drum as a football, then make it jetsam, too, and “bid it a tedious returning.” Then there’s that last verse, which is particularly effective if sung quietly, and slightly out of puff, after the clamour of the fracas:
And so to conclude and to finish disputes
We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits.
For we were the lads who would give them hard clouts,
And bid them look sharp in the morning.
Superb interpreter that he is of the Irish (Republican) tradition, Brady keeps things simple here, letting the song do its work, making it about the story, not his performance, his reedy voice simply narrating over his spare guitar accompaniment – only four or five chords, but adapted melodically as befits the thrilling story line.