bill bodkin interviews legendary Irish band The Wolfe Tones to kick off pop-break’s Saint Patty’s series … this interview was printed in shorter version in the March edition of Night & Day magazine …
Pop-Break: Your sound has been described as “Irish Rebel Music.” To the uneducated ear, many people would probably say, “Oh, that’s just Irish music.” Can you explain the difference between traditional Irish music and Irish rebel music?
Brian Warfield: “Give me the makers of a people’s ballads, and I care not who makes her laws.”
Ireland has a long tradition of bards, ballads singers and traveling musicians, a tradition spanning over two thousand years. The bards of old Gaelic order held a very special place in the kingdoms. This remained so but was weakened with each invasion until the Gaels were finally beaten by the Williamites ending in 1692 with the treaty of Limerick. Since then, the bards either went abroad, played for the new aristocracy like O’Carolan or faded into the peasant population. On the other hand, England has a long tradition of persecuting Irish bards rymers and ballad makers. There is long list of laws passed by successive governments against them. Poynings’ Law forbade Irish names, dress and bards to those of the English race who were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves.
Once again, the Statutes of Killenny reinforced the same. Henry VIII enacted similar laws. Then, Elizabeth forbade Irish bards roaming the land, yet both she and her father had many Irish musicians in their court. Cromwell sent the Irish to hell or to Connaught but did not allow them take there instruments with them. The final blow was the penal laws implemented by William and Mary and consolidated by Anne, which broke the terms of treaty of Limerick. During the reigns of the Georges, it came to a point that the writer or singers were not even allowed to mention Ireland in a song, so the ballad-maker used allegorical names like Roisin Dubh my dark Roseleen or the Sean Bhan Boct the poor old woman. It was forbidden to praise any other person other than the king. In these troubled times, the ballad singer carried the stories and history of Ireland around the country from town to town, from Market to Market and to all sporting events and gatherings.
Wherever they found an audience, they sang ballads that carried the latest news stories of Irish heroes, political events, revolutions abroad, emigration, etc. Just like The Wolfe Tones do today.
The message in their songs and ballads were feared by the colonial authorities so much,so they outlawed songs of rebellious nature, anything they disapproved of, calling them rebel songs or treasonable ballads. Those caught singing them were subject to transportation or death. Michael Dwyer, the great Irish hero of Wicklow, was given 50 lashes by Captain Blythe of mutiny fame while he was governor for singing a rebel song. They entertained all who would listen and had to be careful of informers, government officials or those calibrating with English rule. Remember, all other means of expression was closed off to the Irish people. Most of the newspapers of the various Irish political movements over the years when seen as a threat were closed down, their printing presses confiscated. So the popularity of the ballad singer was no surprise, they were the only ones carrying the story of Ireland from an Irish prospective. There are many instances of ballad singers been arrested during the war of independence. A man was arrested for treason for having a copy of the song “God Save Ireland” in his house.
PB: You’re one of the most famous Irish bands of all time. You’ve played legendary venues (i.e. Carnegie Hall) and yet every year, you come over to New Jersey and play intimate venues like Harrigan’s Pub in Sea Girt, as well as pubs in New York and Philadelphia. What is it about these venues that make you want to come back and perform every year? What’s the atmosphere like playing a smaller venue as compared to a normal concert hall?
BW: We have played all the major concert halls of the world, and Harrigan’s is probably the smallest venue we have ever played. We have played to 60,000 people on many occasions, and I must say, I enjoyed all the different experiences. People are important, so if the audience consists of 60 or 60,000, they get a 100 percent show from The Wolfe Tones.
PB: Irish music seems to know no generation gap — people from their 90s to their 20s (and younger) can be seen buying records and downloading songs from The Wolfe Tones and bands like yours. What is it about Irish music do you think that appeals to people of all ages?
BW: Well, it’s alternative music and it is very expressive and powerful, loved by generations all over the world. We have traveled all over Europe to peoples of no Irish extraction, speaking all languages, and it’s as popular in countries — like Italy, Germany, Holland, France, Denmark, just to name a few — as it is in Ireland. All the young generations in these countries enjoy the Irish song tradition as provided by the Tones. It’s different, it’s new to them, and they love it.
PB: Are you surprised at the amount of love the U.S. has for Irish music? And what areas of the country have you found are the most fervent appreciators of your sound?
BW: Well, the United States received most of our emigrants over the centuries. They are so much part of the land, they played a huge part in the fight for freedom and in the development of democracy in the land. The people in the USA have taken on many of the characteristics of the Irish and have over 44 million of its population claiming Irish heritage. It’s only natural that the Irish story would be popular. I don’t have a favorite place, it’s not an easy choice — every where is different, and I love the people wherever I am there all my favorites.
PB: I see you’ll be playing places like Buenos Aires, France and Italy, areas which don’t immediately come across as bastions for Irish music. How big is your fan base in these areas and are there other countries we wouldn’t expect that are big spots for the band?
BW: As I said, The Wolfe Tones and their music have no boundaries. It has amazed us over the years the many places across the world that have requested The Wolfe Tones to visit and perform. It ranges from China to South Africa from Europe to the Middle East and everywhere in between. It’s great big world out there, and thanks to our music, we have seen a great big slice of it.
PB: The Wolfe Tones have been around for nearly 50 years, an amazing accomplishment. What do you think it is about your band that has kept you going for so long?
BW: Well, that’s not difficult to answer. We all have a love of music, we all love our country and its history, we love performing, we get on reasonably well together, we are still good friends with common interests. So you’re all invited to our hundred anniversary.
PB: For those who’ve never seen a Wolfe Tones show, what can people expect to see?
BW: We present a show lasting roughly two and a half hours, singing songs that tell the history and stories of the Irish. The Wolfe Tones are unique in a way because we are probably one of the few bands left in this field. If you are interested in hearing the songs of the Irish, come along — I guarantee you won’t regret it and I know you will become one of our friends. See our website
PB: In that same vein, if someone who enjoys Irish music but has never bought an album of yours before wants to get a “crash course” in The Wolfe Tones, what album(s) would you recommend they start with?
BW: Well, we have over 36 CDs — not all still available — but we have two box sets The Platinum Collection and Celtic Symphony, both worth a buy. We do have some CDs and DVDs available at the show — they are difficult to get, so don’t miss this opportunity. See you there.
PB: On your website, you mentioned “Having sold out prestigious venues during the past year across Ireland, the U.K., mainland Europe and the U.S., watch out for more high profile shows in top venues during 2011.” What can we expect from The Wolfe Tones in 2011?
BW: Well, apart from touring, which keeps us very busy, we are hoping to find time to work on a new CD. I have lots of new songs written and ideas which just need time, so join our mailing list and get a free newsletter every month, and I will keep you posted.
PB: Being that you’re a native of Ireland, I’d like to clear something up: Is corned beef and cabbage mainly an Irish-American tradition, or is it a universally Irish meal? I know it’s a silly question, but it’s something I’ve heard many different answers to.
BW: Well, it’s Irish to the core, so also is bacon and cabbage. Back in the pre-Holocaust days of the great hunger, the wealthier farmer would have corned beef in his barrel of brine, and if he had plenty, it was tradition that he shared it with his less wealthy neighbors in the middle of lent for St Patrick’s Day. In many cases, it was the only time the poor laborer or his family got to taste meat. It was common for them to have a pig, but this was mostly sold to pay the rent. In times of plenty, he might be able to keep the pig preserve him for the year, and bacon and cabbage was the dish. So corn beef was a dish of the wealthier, and it was shared with the poorer class, and bacon, if they had it, was expectable.
PB: And my final silly question: Guinness, Smithwicks or Harp?
BW: All three, Slainte!