Black 47 Casts a Cold Eye on Iraq
Larry Kirwan is an Irish-born craftsperson now living in America and happy to be fully employed. Kirwan’s father was a merchant seafarer, forced by economic realities to leave his County Wexford family for long voyages. Celebrating steady work in one song, Kirwan raps in a joyful Manhattan brogue, "Got a job in a band called Black 47, ‘cause I was doin’ nothin’ special after 11." As an immigrant writer-singer (albeit now a naturalized U.S. citizen), Kirwan is gladder still to have a ready market for his songs, plays, novels, and other literary output. He’s happy, too, that Black 47 has gigged steadily and often back and forth across the U.S. since the band formed in a New York pub in 1989. No record label sponsors the band, as Kirwan fiercely guards his artistic control. He has for years now released albums only on independent labels which give Black 47 full freedom in their words and music.
Kirwan and his Black 47 mates have had their victories: rocking their way onto MTV and the cover of Time magazine, winning the honorary title "House Band of New York City" for their ongoing residency at Connolly’s 47th Street Restaurant, performing on all the major TV talk shows, at Yankees games, and in movies where they are acknowledged as the founding elders of the thriving genre of "Irish punk."
Recitative rock songs like "Michael Collins, "The Big Fella," "Bobby Kennedy," and the chilling Irish Famine song "Black 47" always pull audiences to their feet, shouting along with choruses such as:
Hold onto your rifles,
don’t give up the fight
For the republic of the working class and economic liberty
Kirwan’s serious songs praise union-builder James Connolly, armed feminist Constance Markievicz, and actor Paul Robeson. In a lighter mode, he jabs at prudes, racists, and hypocritical politicians. Black 47′s searing Stratocaster, keening pipes, reggae-jazz lope, bold brass-reed section, and thundering drums reinforce their danceable defiance. No other band covers such diverse topics. From their 1990 premier Fire of Freedom through the 2006 anthology Bittersweet Sixteen to their 2008 release Iraq, Black 47′s albums have been one rattling, roaring lesson in history and class awareness. I talked with Larry Kirwan via email about their latest album.
NEVINS: Iraq is very different from your earlier albums. Most of the songs are constructed from email exchanges and bar conversations with troops and veterans from the Iraq war. "Stars and Stripes," "Ramadi," and "The Battle of Fallujah" detail recent and current combat situations, usually from the point of view of the soldiers themselves. What has the response been?
KIRWAN: The critical response has been so far very good. Occasionally there seems to be a bit of puzzlement as to why we would do musical pieces on Iraq. In a small way I used For Whom The Bell Tolls as a template for Iraq. I get questions from young people about the Spanish Civil War because I’ve mentioned it in the past. I always hesitate to send them to history books, as the story is so involved and often not well written. So I send them to Hemingway. I wanted Iraq to be a small window into our times so that if someone were to put on the CD 20 years from now, they would have a sense of the times we’re going through.
You write all the Black 47 songs now. Are all the band members enthusiastically supportive of this CD and its controversial content?
We don’t usually discuss lyrical content. They have enough to do just getting the musical pieces down and adding their own flavor and ideas, as we do little rehearsing. I never ask anyway. There has to be one clear line in lyrics, I believe. It’s no place for democracy. Oddly enough, "Ballad of Cindy Sheehan" is not to some band members’ liking. They don’t particularly care for Cindy. I’m not sure why. I suspect they feel she is opportunistic. For me, it was a no-brainer—the opportunity to portray a woman’s greatest fear, the death of her child. It wasn’t a comfortable song to write. That’s why I couched it in the almost reassuring "Protestant" horns, like a Salvation Army/New Orleans/fundamentalist sound. But Cindy’s pain is real and I know she is just a mom who wishes to prevent other mothers from going through what she has experienced.
Unlike many war protest songs, including some in the Irish and Irish- American traditions, Iraq‘s songs are not pacifist or glibly anti-military, are they?
The songs on Iraq are far from pacifist or anti-military. In fact, "Battle of Fallujah" is very loosely based on the Greek epic poems dedicated to battle. Black 47 never plays to the converted. Our people go into the Army, the Reserves, and the National Guard as a way of paying for college or to get a down payment on a house. While in the service, they learn about loyalty to one another and self-reliance. I would be the last person to denigrate such qualities. These are our people who are fighting the Bush/Cheney battles and Black 47 is going to battle on their behalf. War is ugly, brutal, and rips flesh from the bone. There are no winners. Iraq seeks to get inside the heads of the people who are doing the actual fighting. One of the purposes in making this album is to make people aware of what’s happening over there, so we’re never pushed into another fight by jingoistic, self-serving politicians.
What is your political stance as a songwriter and as a public person in regards to war and military service?
I am against war, but I refuse to be against the soldiers. I think we all let our soldiers down in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Two million people on the streets singing "We Shall Overcome" can’t do one-tenth of what 20,000 activists can do by stopping traffic, hindering financial markets, and clogging the courts in every major city in the U.S. We could have stopped this war, but we weren’t committed enough. It’s time for a new radicalism that fights the good fight before the soldiers are forced to kill and defend themselves in our name.
In so many ways we would have been better off in the North of Ireland if we had continued with the hard-edged but peaceful tactics of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and other radicals of the time, instead of undertaking an armed struggle. For so many reason that wasn’t possible. Life is complicated and we must each find our own path. In my own case, I’m haunted by Yeats’s worry, to paraphrase him, "Did some words of mine send young men out to die?
You seem to be transported into your characters when you perform your songs. Some fans describe you as "channeling" such figures as James Connolly or the dissident Irish rebel who shot Mick Collins. Any comments on these observations?
I’m aware of what I’m doing—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do what it is I do. Channeling? Of course, I do it. It’s just to what degree? It’s why I only do certain songs at certain times. I have to be prepared to go through a particular, but often unnerving, experience. On the other hand, I set out to write "James Connolly," "Black 47," "Bobby Sands," etc. with the idea of moving Irish narrative ballads into the 20th century by getting inside the heads of the narrators rather than describing them and the events of their lives in third person. With the song "Black 47," I’ve had to stop doing it at various times over the years because one can’t do the coda without invoking the fears and experiences of a starving people. It often got overwhelming.
Still, you’ve got to have control, otherwise you can break into tears while performing and that leads to melodrama rather than experiencing and recounting the cold steel of human experience. With James Connolly, you have to go through his experience of getting shot and the reasons why this practical man would rise up against the British Empire, knowing the end result.
It’s like dreaming. You can be in the worst nightmare and in great danger, but you never actually die, do you? So, through experience, I know just when to pull back. You also have to be able to introduce dynamics in the midst of this maelstrom, otherwise the performance becomes one- note and you tend to lose your voice.
What is it like for you to apply this to the Iraq songs? Do you try to feel the pain of a soldier who has lost his or her buddy in battle ("Stars and Stripes"), or a mother who has lost her son ("Cindy Sheehan").
Yes, I’ve got to go through it. There’s no point in writing the song, if you can’t deliver it. "Stars and Stripes" is there to show the loyalty of people in battle combined with tension and stress and also, what happens to people in danger when they are counting down the seconds to being rescued.
Personally, I seem to relate best to the character in "Ramadi." I’ve really been exploring that song lyrically onstage in the last couple of months. As musicians we’ve also come up with a long free-form instrumental at the end that captures the desolation of being far from home, that awful moment of being totally alone and feeling deserted.
But really what I’m trying to do with Iraq is wake people in the U.S. from the sleep they’re in over the war. Bring this disaster home to them so that we’ll get the troops out as soon as possible and then never again send them half way around the world to fight a war that wasn’t necessary.
Bill Nevins is a writer-educator based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.