Here we are, a week and a day before Christmas. You have probably heard many seasonal songs already, among them “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl. It was Stuck at 2 here in the UK in 1987, kept off the top spot at Christmas by the Pet Shop Boys version of “Always on my mind”. Now, 32 years later, it sits at #14 in the UK Top 100. It will probably go higher. Last year it reached #4 in the chart dated 28 December.
The first verse of “Fairytale of New York” mentions an old Irish drinking song, “The Rare Old Mountain Dew”: “And then he sang a song / The Rare Old Mountain Dew / I turned my face away / and dreamed about you”. Unless you have a bit of Irish in you, you are probably unfamiliar with the song. I first heard it as a child, and have listened to it, sung it and played it thousands of times since then. I have never heard it on the radio or on TV. It’s worth a listen. There’s a link to the version I grew up with at the end of this piece.
I have been discussing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” over the last month with a number of friends (musicians and non-musicians alike). None of them had heard it, although most of them knew the title from “Fairytale of New York”. I was planning to sing and play it at the monthly Open Mic event organized by friends in a pub in Hammersmith. These monthly events have had a few mentions on these pages, and I have sung and played at every one of them this year. Mostly I have played songs that reached the top of charts (performing as “Number One Guy”) but decided to take a break from it this time round. In the spirit of Advent I was going to do something different: tributes to two people who have died over the last year, and a version of “The Rare Old Mountain Dew”. After 32 years of hearing it mentioned in the Pogues song I figured people should hear it at least once.
Unfortunately, the night was so busy that those of us who went on after 10.30pm were each restricted to a single song. I merged together my tributes to Barry Masters (lead singer in Eddie and the Hot Rods; he died in October) and Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks singer and songwriter; he died in December 2018) as follows: two verses and choruses each of “Do anything you want to do” and “Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with)”. Both songs reached the Top 10 in the UK, the latter in a version by Fine Young Cannibals. The original (Buzzcocks) version reached #12 in 1978. I’ll have to leave it to another time to introduce the audience to my rendition of an Irish drinking song.
My knowledge of old Irish songs is narrow, and comes mainly from a handful of singles and albums that my parents owned. We had plenty of vinyl (soundtracks from musicals, and various formats featuring Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Johnny Cash for instance), but not much by Irish acts. We did, however, have a copy of “Hearty and Hellish” by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. That LP (recorded live in New York City) was how I got to know the dozen or so traditional tunes that I have been singing along with for most of my life. The whole album is available on Spotify if you want to check it out.
Two more points before I direct you to the song itself.
First, as a child I thought that “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” was, literally, about the dew that forms on grass growing on the mountains of Galway. How refreshing a drink would that be? In fact, as you may know, the title refers to poteen (hooch, moonshine, illicit liquor) “distilled from wheat and rye” as the lyrics tell us. I have tasted it once or twice, and do not recommend it.
Secondly, about the lyrics. This is an example of what I affectionately call “diddly-idly” music, and you might not be as familiar with this lyrical style as I am. The words to the chorus are:
Hi dee-diddly-didle-dum diddly-doodle-didle-dum
Hi dee-diddly-didle-dum diddly-doodle-idle-dum
The verses contain proper words, and the first of them mentions the three counties in the Republic of Ireland that I have not visited: Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal.
Give it a listen, here, and next time you hear “Fairytale of New York” you might be able to picture that old man in the drunk tank singing along: “Hi dee-diddly-didle-dum diddly-doodle-didle-dum …”