Notes for Songmakers

By Mick Furey

You must pay attention to this, because you will have some work to do after I have finished. You surely don’t think that I’m going to do all the work, do you?)

You have it in mind to make a song for the entertainment of all and sundry. You’re sure that you have the talent with the words, but you’re not sure about the musical side of things. Good for you; you have the first requirement of a songmaker, confidence in yourself. Some will call it vanity, but that’s just envy on their part.

So which comes first, the air or the words? This is not as hard as the usual “chicken or egg” question because, in almost every case, a phrase of music will suggest a phrase of words that fits. From that first phrase will come others which will gradually develop into verses. Exceptionally, somebody will make verses without an air in mind, then one will be found to fit. Sometimes an air is used that doesn’t really suit the words, and the song becomes neglected. Then a singer will put the words on to a different air, and the song gets a new lease of life. This is not to say that singers should always be trying to use different airs; I’ve heard this done with disastrous results.

Most of the best songs, especially ballads, are largely truthful. But nobody with any creativity would let the truth stand in the way of a good story, so you’re allowed poetic licence to alter some things.

So, you have a set of words but you’ve no air in mind. At the moment you have a poem. It tells a fine story, it rhymes, it scans, but you don’t have an air to fit; so it’s not a song. Why not make an air to fit the words? Just try it, and see how difficult it is. I’ve the greatest of admiration for anybody who can do this, because I’ve only managed to do it once. And that wasn’t the best in the world.

The easiest way out of this dilemma is to let somebody else have the problem of finding an air to suit your words. You don’t have to put your potential song out to tender, just to let people have the words. If you tell them that you can’t put an air on it, they will be flattered that you think they’ll be able for it. Give them permission to alter the words slightly if they think fit. Most singers will do this anyway,. but you show maturity if you give them leave from the outset. Don’t tell them that you’re giving the words to anybody else, though; let them think that you’ve made the song solely with themselves in mind. If they succeed, you’ll get the credit; if they fail, they’ll get the blame. So you can’t lose.

I’ve long nurtured an ambition to be a seanchaí. I’ve qualified for the “sean” part, whatever about the rest. There are many stories in my head from different sources; some of my own are completed, some still steeping. The following incident is basically true, it’s only the aftermath that has been altered in the cause of entertainment. I’ve tried to fit the words to a few airs, without being fully satisfied as yet. So your task is to find an air to fit the words and the style of the incident. One tip: “the Boys of Kilmichael” will fit the words but doesn’t suit the mood at all.

As one of our greatest living poets (myself) says:

If you stretch it here, or compress it there, Or use a wee bit of elusion, You might find a tune that fits it, Without using too much revision.

So, off you go; do your best with it. The prize will be your own satisfaction at having more musical ability than I have; although that’s nothing much to boast about.

An Táinrith na Gamhna

You’ll have heard of An Táin Bó Cuilgne,
That caused such terrible strife;
It laid waste to Connacht and Ulster,
And cost great Cuachu lain his life,
Well, I’ll tell you now of a skirmish
Where devil a sinner was kilt;
No one was seriously injured;
And only porter was spilt.

A gang of young bucks up in Sligo,
When I wasn’t much more than a boy,
Were hanging about on a Saturday night
And thought up an ingenious ploy.
We found six young calves in a lorry,
And hooshed them in through the back
Of MacManus’s bar in a stampede
That left the place covered in cac.

From the calves there came terrible bellows,
From the drinkers came curses go leor;
Inside in the bar there were ructions,
With men in their best suits on the floor.
MacManus vowed terrible vengeance
That would make us wish we’d not been born;
So we figured we’d best make an exit,
An we left without even a “Slán!”

We went in to Mass the next morning,
Through a gauntlet of glowers and threats
From men who we thought were good neighbours
But promised us untimely deaths.
For many a man went to chapel
That Sunday in his old working clothes,
For the smell on the suits that they usually wore
Would have taken the hairs from your nose.

But the priest stood up in the pulpit
And excused our exuberant youth;
For one of our gang was on holliers
From the seminary beyond at Maynooth.
And he has become a Prince of the Church,
Guiltless of sin or of shame;
So you could tear the tongue from my mouth
Before I would tell you his name.

Now whenever I see My Lord Bishop
He tips me a wink and a grin;
And he sends me a bottle for Christmas,
To show he’s forgiven our sin.
And just lately I have been thinking,
That if only we’d had the scope
To use cows instead of just calves that night,
By this time he might have been Pope.