In honor of the Irish holiday, the memory of Van Morrison’s great Irish record

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Album cover courtesy irish-music.narod.ru

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Something in the wind from the brooding clouds sent a shiver of melodic memory through me this afternoon. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and the song in the air seemed to nudge me with quiet insistence, as if to say, “How often ’tis, old lad, you’ve let the great Irish holiday slip by with nary a thought nor a hoisted glass of Guinness!”

It seemed to coalesce with the faint memory of this line from the traditional Irish song “Carrickfergus”: “My boyhood friends have all passed on, like the melting snow.” And I sure enough, such thought had finally roused something within when I had dinner a few days ago at the excellent Irish restaurant County Clair with four of my oldest friends, going back to high school and beyond, all of us now graying and slightly fading, compared to our youthful primes.

And further arose within the shadow of perhaps my best friend, an Irishman named Jim Glynn – a paraplegic  Vietnam-era veteran with a great passion for life, women and music – who has indeed passed, and returns only in the spring glisten of thirteen melting snows, since his death in October, 2004.

Kev and Jim wedding

A great friend and a great Irishman, the late Jim Glynn (right) with me on the occasion of him serving as best man at my second wedding.

So, I played the record from whence the song came, Irish Heartbeat by Van “The Man” Morrison and The Chieftains. In 1987, Morrison, our greatest contemporary Irish soul singer-songwriter, was touring through Ireland when he hooked up with Paddy Moloney, the Uillean pipes player of the greatest traditional Irish music band of them all. A chat over beer led to Irish Heartbeat, which gained widespread critical acclaim for its surprising and immensely-affecting twist on record industry norms, coming on the heels of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Morrison’s was a far more natural collaboration, given his affinity of heritage with the fellow Irishmen. But they were two albums of pop artists working with traditional ethnic musicians which helped unlock a great new strain of cultural possibility, and the popular flourishing of so-called “world music.” 

And I was again immersed in Heartbeat‘s winsome beauties, feisty spirit and stunning arc of trans-Atlantic wonders.

The toe-tapping album opener “Star of the County Down” boisterously celebrates the memory of a romantic memory. “There is no maid I’ve seen/ like the brown Colleen/ that I met in the County Down.” The lyrics summoned, for me, the memory of such a lass I’d met and known, a brown-haired Irish lass named Colleen from long ago, and then another, a German blonde Colleen from just a few years bye, and all- too-soon married. Her memory perhaps had been an ancestral response, too, as I’m as German as I’m Irish.

Then, another song fairly ambushed me, “As She Moved Trough the Fair,” which plays usually as a more upbeat song, as a dream of an impending wedding. But what Van and the boys do with it is like a haunting, as Rolling Stone‘s review noted the song, in their hands is “as overcast as an Irish afternoon” and, to me, a bit more like a fog rolling through the stark but sensual Irish hills, like the entourage of a ghost. They make you sense that the story’s really just a dream of love lost, but one that’s too hard to shake.

The Irish Heartbeat song that follows on the YouTube thread is a variation on the lost love theme, “Ragland Road” in a superb live video version with Van singing and playing drums convincingly (he also plays harmonica and saxophone). YouTube follows with the album’s recorded version of the aforementioned “Carrickfegus.”

And so much more, the bruised majesty of “My Lagan Love,” and well…

I could go on, but the Irish sap in me might get lost in mists of memory and melody and end up croaking “Danny Boy,” and the jig would be up for me, and for my poor suffering cat Chloe.

So please, don’t just steal away their artistry by merely listening on YouTube. If you like the music, buy the LP or CD or legal download as it was conceived and created, and give these artists their due.

So I’ll leave further discovery of Irish Heartbeat to you.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and to all, and “may the road rise up to meet  you, may the wind be always at your back, and may the Lord always hold you, in the hollow of His hand.”

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