Flaherty’s Honeymoon Blues

When Fingers Flaherty got married, his (few) friends sadly shook their heads and whispered that the marriage would never last. As his battered car smoked away into the dusky distance, carrying the slightly happy couple to their new life together, his (few) friends wiped away the tears and prepared themselves for the inevitable catastrophe.

Flaherty wiped the cobwebs off his camera, determined to prove his (few) friends wrong.

He would create a photo album of the honeymoon, capturing the ecstatic promise of his first few days with his new (slightly damaged) wife.

The photo album was recently discovered in an abandoned attic.

 

Flaherty didn’t invite his (few) friends to his second wedding. Or his third wedding.

Out now: Talkin’ Squirrel Blues

Crazy Blues

Fingers Flaherty wasn’t the first disgruntled lover to sing the blues!

People have been battling with the blues – or the “blue devils” as they once were known – ever since they started falling in love with each other back in those dark caves. They discovered that fire could keep away the prehistoric chill. And love could warm the prehistoric heart.

Time and time again, Saturday night’s raucous parties have given way to Sunday morning’s aching regrets. An intoxicating haze burns away in the harsh clarity of bloodshot eyes. And a heart that tingled with the promise of forbidden moonlit love is left battered and alone on the dusty floor as the unforgiving sun rises.

In the corner, a melancholy guitar waits.

Blues songs began to emerge from the dark night during the early years of the twentieth century. The form had been evolving orally for many years, but now damaged souls were being laid bare on sheet music. In 1908, “I Got the Blues” introduced this new genre to a wider audience. And in 1920, one of the first blues songs was recorded when Mamie Smith sang “Crazy Blues”.

Born in 1883, Smith was a dancer and vaudeville actress. In 1920, she recorded her first songs with her Jazz Hounds, going on to record many songs during the 1920s. “Crazy Blues” was the first commercially released blues record, and would sell 75,000 copies within a month. The song clearly struck a dark chord with people at the dawning of the Jazz Age.

 

The song opens with a familiar late-night blues scenario: insomnia and a lovelorn heart. The physical unrest mirrors the mental disturbance:

I can’t sleep at night,
I can’t eat a bite,
‘Cause the man I love
He don’t treat me right.

A common theme in blues music is that sense of overwhelming sadness as the lover tries (and usually fails) to come to terms with heartache. Left alone, the singer feels almost paralysed by despair:

He makes me feel so blue,
I don’t know what to do.
Sometime I sit and sigh
And then begin to cry.

Lost in her sadness, the singer feels the world outside merrily pass her by, indifferent to her plight. Everything else moves on, leaving her behind with her memories.

There’s a change in the ocean,
Change in the deep blue sea, my baby.
I’ll tell you, folks, there ain’t no change in me.
My love for that man will always be.

Although not the most uplifting of genres, the blues often does have a hint of gallows humour and comic surrealism. In this song, the singer’s sad plight arouses concern in others, but she dismisses their help. She believes she beyond all healing.

Now the doctor’s gonna do all that he can
But what you’re gonna need is an undertaker man.

Although “Crazy Blues” doesn’t follow the familiar AAB structure of most blues songs, its themes of lovesick despair and loneliness would be picked up and elaborated on (sometimes to gleeful extremes) by countless blues singers over the following decades. Like Mamie Smith, these singers would report “nothin’ but bad news”.

Out now: Talkin’ Squirrel Blues

Wintry watery blues

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Life is an ocean, so the philosophers think.
Life’s an ocean, them dusty philosophers think.
Well, the storm’s a-brewin’, my boat’s startin’ to sink.
Fingers Flaherty

There’s a light, a certain kind of light, that pours over the landscape on a winter afternoon, enveloping the mountains in a languid melancholy, making the sea contemplate the ebbs and flows of its transient life. The birds have long since flown away, leaving behind their silent sad song. Summer seems but a distant memory. Spring is some vague promise from a casual friend. A promise you certainly wouldn’t bet your farm on. Anyway your farm has already been repossessed. By her new husband.

It’s Fingers Flaherty’s favourite time of the day…

Blue skies, blue eyes

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There ain’t nothing new to see under God’s blue skies.
I tell ya, nothing new to see under them blue and shiverin’ skies,
‘Specially when ya look at them through bloodshot alcoholic eyes.
Fingers Flaherty

This photo was taken earlier this month in Omeath, County Louth, overlooking the sublime serenity of Carlingford Lough towards the stern majesty of the Mourne mountains. On a crisp autumn day here, you can feel the eternal spirit of nature vibrate in the depths of your soul. You feel insignificant and blessed in the same timeless instant.

What would Fingers Flaherty think if he were standing here? What would he see when he looked at this view?

Fingers would probably say the rain isn’t far off. He’d complain about the grey chill. And he’d start wondering where the next drink is going to come from…

#talkinsquirrelblues

Christmas lights

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Christmas is comin’, the goose is gettin’ fat,
Christmas is a-comin’, baby, that goose is gettin’ fat!
But Santa won’t come near me, kitten. I’ve been a dirty rat.
Fingers Flaherty

Flaherty lookin’ for salvation

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(c) Padraig Hanratty 2015

 

Jesus, lift me up, I feel like I’ve been cursed!
Help me up, Jesus. I feel low down and cursed!
Jesus said, “Ya gotta stop hangin’ out with the devil first.”
Fingers Flaherty

Talkin’ Squirrel Blues now available in paperback!

Talkin’ Squirrel Blues is now available in paperback from Amazon!

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The story behind a squirrel

My article about the genesis of Talkin’ Squirrel Blues was recently published in Writing & Me. You can find out where the idea for the Floyd the squirrel originated by reading the article here.

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Talkin’ Squirrel Blues ebook is currently available on Amazon.

Paperback available in November 2015!

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Dimestore Avenue Blues

Coming soon: Dimestore Avenue Blues

Jesse believes that the future will be better. One day, he’ll make up for all his past mistakes and achieve perfection.

That belief had sustained him for most of his sixty-five years. It helped him get through the bad times, those days when the brandy failed to drown the sorrow and shame. When sleep unleashed painful memories that refused to fade.

He still has some bad days as he lives out his autumn years in Dublin. But his worst days were in New York in 1976. After that city had nearly crushed him, he’d fled to Dublin, a broken man. But he was determined to rebuild himself, brick by brick, improving day by day.

Back in the 1970s, Jesse was a successful young ad man on Madison Avenue. He’d succeeded because he was willing, indeed eager, to do anything to advance his career. He’d endure countless dinner parties where cloaks and daggers dangled behind the wine and cheese. He’d sleep with anyone who could bring him closer to his goals. And he’d punch those who stood in his way. It all seemed like a good plan, right up until the day he brought a pistol to work.

For years in those offices and meeting rooms, they all thought they were kings, living it up in their high palaces of power. As it all fell apart for Jesse in 1976, he realised they were all just fumbling in the dimestore.

Throughout it all, his wife Clara stood by him. Until he finally pushed her away. She could see he was drowning and tried to reach him, but he just lashed out and ruined the one remaining good thing in his life. And then fled from the wreckage.

As the chaos whirled around him, Jesse found some solace in blues songs. He still listens to those songs now that he’s settled in Dublin. Some days, he hears Bob Dylan singing about a world that’s condemned, a world that needs Blind Willie McTell to sing at its funeral.

Other days, it’s Fingers Flaherty bawling about a life that’s crumbling in his hands. No matter how bad Jesse felt – and he often felt beyond terrible – he knew that at least his life wasn’t as fraught as Flaherty’s. And now that the storms have long passed, Jesse still often thinks that Flaherty is the only person who understands him.

Jesse lives out his autumn days in Dublin

Jesse’s life is less volcanic now. Instead of trying to shoot his work colleagues, he simply tries to avoid the domestic squabbles that clatter around him in the apartment building. He enjoys the company of his young neighbour Moses, a relentlessly unhappy cubicle rat lost in the maze of office politics. He learns to tolerate Bill and Tiffany, the volatile couple across the hall whose love for each other is so strong, it threatens to rip them apart.

Most important of all, he tries to build a meaningful relationship with Lucy, the widow in the next apartment. As they grow closer together and slowly reveal more of their memories to each other, Jesse feels the uncomfortable presence of the New York ghosts getting stronger.

Jesse knows he isn’t perfect. He’s made many mistakes and will probably make more in the future. Now, with the possibility of contentment finally within his grasp, will he be allowed one final chance to be happy? Or will the ghosts from his past once again refuse to lie down in their graves?

Dimestore Avenue Blues, a novella, will soon be available in paperback and ebook formats.

The Titanic Sails at Dawn

According to Pablo Picasso, art is “a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand”.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan discussed his new song about the sinking of the Titanic, “Tempest”. He implied that his song wasn’t too concerned about the historical facts of the disaster. Instead, he wanted to use the tale to reveal deeper truths. Pre-empting possible objections to his version of events, he said:

People are going to say, ‘Well, it’s not very truthful.’ But a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.

When Dylan last referenced the Titanic (in “Desolation Row”), he focused on what could have happened, rather than what actually happened: “The Titanic sails at dawn.” The Titanic never set sail at dawn from any of its ports.

Dylan has at times been accused of being less than truthful in his songs. Songs about Hattie Carroll, George Jackson, Joey Gallo, and Rubin Carter have all come in for criticism in this regard. In the case of Hattie Carroll, Dylan read about her murder in a newspaper. “Nothing has changed,” he famously explained, “except the words.”

Danger can lurk in the calmest water (Image copyright: Padraig Hanratty)

The fate of the Titanic has been commemorated many times in song since her sinking 100 years ago. In these songs, truth and myth become hopelessly entangled in the tragic narrative.

Some early songs focused on anecdotal tales of heroism among the passengers as the ship sank. Many praised the men for staying on board so that the women and children could get on the lifeboats. Captain Smith was often singled out. Hi Henry Brown’s “Titanic Blues” tells us:

Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Children cryin’ “Mama, mama what shall we do?”
Captain Smith says, “Children, I’ll take care of you”.

Millionaire John Jacob Astor was also celebrated for his apparent self-sacrifice. For example, in “The Titanic Is Doomed and Sinking”, we’re told:

There was John Jacob Astor,
What a brave man was he
When he tried to save all female sex,
The young and all, great and small,
Then got drowned in the sea.

The poignant image of the string quintet playing until the ship’s final minutes recurs in many songs. Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “The Sinking of the Titanic” is a broadside that creates the impression of being factual by including many specific details about the tragedy:

It was on the 10th of April on a sunny afternoon,
The Titanic left Southampton, each one as happy as a bride and groom.
No one thought of danger or what their fate may be
Until a gruesome iceberg caused 1500 to perish in the sea.

His song also includes the string quintet:

The music played as they went down on that dark blue sea,
And you could hear the sound of that familiar hymn, singing “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Brown then seamlessly segues into a rendition of the hymn, altering the lyrics to the occasion:

Though like a wanderer
As the sun goes down,
Darkness be over me.
Just then the Titanic went down

(Did the quintet really play “Nearer My God to Thee”? Some survivors said it was the last song played, and others said it wasn’t. A surviving wireless operator, Harold Bride, said the last song was “Autumn”. None of the quintet survived the sinking, but “Nearer My God to Thee” was believed to be the quintet leader’s favourite hymn. We’ll never know for sure. If anyone wanted to query the factual accuracy of Brown’s version, he would possibly refer them to his “James Alley Blues”: “You know I’ll tell you all the truth, won’t you take my word from me.”)

For some singers, however, the Titanic was a symbol of failure, a promise of opulent luxury that ended up rusting on the floor of the Atlantic. Ma Rainey’s 1925 “Titanic Man Blues” is the first blues song to refer to the ship. Rainey compares her useless lover to the Titanic:

Rig you up like a ship at sea,
But you sunk an’ made a fool of me,
It’s the last time, Titanic, fare thee well.

Many years later, Fingers Flaherty would use the Titanic to allude to his own doomed relationship:

I had my cheap thrill, but now I’m paying the price,
Those cheap thrills were hot, but I’ve gotta pay that price,
She took the ship of love and buried it underneath the ice.

The “unsinkable” Titanic also came to be seen as a symbol of people’s avarice and hubris, in particular white man’s avarice and hubris. It was the most luxurious liner ever built, but class distinctions were strictly enforced on board, with the different classes of accommodation. And there were believed to be no African Americans among the passengers or the crew. (There was one black passenger, a Haitian-born engineer called Joseph Laroche, who travelled second class.)

It was rumoured that Jack Johnson, African American heavyweight boxing champion, tried to buy a ticket for the Titanic, but was refused. Leadbelly’s “Fare Thee Well, Titanic” recounts Johnson’s attempts to board the ship:

Jack Johnson wanted to get on board,
Captain Smith hollered, “I ain’t haulin’ no coal.”

Although the Leadbelly song praises the bravery of the men for “savin’ the women”, Jack Johnson is shown to feel no sadness when he sees the ship founder. Indeed, he dances with joy:

Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock,
Mighta seen the black rascal doin’ the Eagle Rock.

Because African Americans were excluded from the ship, none died in the tragedy. This becomes cause for celebration in this song:

Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy.

String Beans, an African American vaudeville star, claimed to have been on the Titanic. When performing his “Titanic Blues”, his dance moves mimicked the sinking of the ship:

I was on that great Titanic
The night that she went down.
Ev’ybody wondered
Why I didn’t drown –
I had them Elgin movements in my hips.

Another myth that grew up around the Titanic centres of the character of Shine, an African American boiler room worker on the ship. Shine tries to warn Captain Smith that the ship is about to sink, but Smith orders him back to the boilers to shovel on more coal. (It’s interesting how in the African American narrative Captain Smith, the figure of white authority, is often cast as the villain.)

Shine disobeys the orders and jumps overboard before the ship hits the iceberg. In toasts (narrative poems) celebrating Shine’s prowess, he swims past sharks to safety while trapped passengers on the stricken ship beg him to take them with him:

So Shine jumped overboard and begin to swim,
And all the people were standin’ on deck watchin’ him.
Captain’s daughter jumped on the deck with her dress above her head
and her teddies below her knees.
and said, “Shine, Shine”, say, “won’t you save poor me?”

The narrative in the Titanic songs often depends on the themes that the singer wants to convey: bravery, self-sacrifice, faith, pride, greed, racism, justice, and so on. Dylan has said that his Titanic song was inspired in part by the Carter Family’s “The Titanic” and by James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. How historically accurate the song will be remains to be seen. He once declared, in “Outlaw Blues”: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth.” Or at least a form of the truth…

How important is it that song lyrics are historically accurate? Is it acceptable to be cavalier about specific details when trying to illustrate a more universal truth? Can a small lie reveal a bigger truth?