The Living Tradition
- by Mike Raven Issue 22 July/August '97
weekend revellers are out in force, parading down Broad Street laughing,
lusting and drinking dry the Continental cafes of Gas Street Basin. Six
years ago their company would have included a burly, silver-tongued Irishman
'riding the high stool' as preparation for his concert. Today he is teetotal
and sits quietly alone in his dressing room as 1,500 fans stream into the
pink and cream cavern of Symphony Hall, part of the International Convention
For 15 years now Christy Moore has played entirely solo. Sometimes he has a guest - tonight it is Patsy Matheson, a singer-songwriter from Leeds - who does a half-hour 'opener', but when Christy comes on stage he is alone and stays that way for one-and-a-half hours and twenty songs, non-stop. Sundowners in the bar talk of the days when this singer, built like a bricky's mate, could be seen busking for small change in Brummagem. Well, with a full house and an entry fee of ú15 per head things are a little different now.
He comes on stage to cries of delight from the audience. It is not so much a concert as a reunion, a meeting of old friends. He is dressed in grey and black so that despite the spotlights all one can really see are his face, arms and guitar - just three square feet of flesh and wood, a fiery glow in a sea of darkness.
There is no preamble; he launches straight into his first song. Christy has a rich, instantly-likeable voice, and technically he is a very good singer indeed. His tone varies from silky to coarse, his volume from soft to loud, his rhythms from lilting to staccato, and emotions from tender to tortured. He gives you all he has got and holds back nothing. Whereas most folksingers paint in the pastel shades of an English watercolour, Christy Moore uses the bright, vibrant colours of Picasso.
What is more he is a master of the informal aside, the anecdote and the little joke: "I wrote this song ten years ago; all the people in it are now either dead or playing for Aston Villa." But analyse his performance as much as you like, you will find no secrets to bottle and take away. Christy Moore is quite simply a charismatic charmer, the Erroll Flynn of folk music.
Christy Moore was born in 1945 in Newbridge, County Kildare, an industrial town known for its rope and cutlery manufacturers. The family lived in an ex-British Army officer's house in Moorfield Terrace and in the 1950s his father opened a grocery shop in the town. Christy has vivid memories of working here during out-of-school hours. His father's mother's people, the Dowlings, came from the nearby hamlet of Burnstown where they had lived for many generations. Burnstown stood near the Hill of Arran, but has since been totally demolished.
When he was 11 years old his father died and the young Christy became head of the household with a duty of care to his mother and his sisters and brothers. He has only dim recollections of his father - that he was a big man with black hair, slicked with Brylcream, who whistled a lot and sang a handful of popular songs of the day. His mother was fond of singing and played the piano, but he was never very close to her.
Christy was introduced to the big ballads by John Riley, a traveller, and it was contact with this old singer that led him to champion the cause of the travellers. Hear Christy singing Johnny Connors and you will understand how deeply he felt about the indignities heaped upon these people.
Christy quotes a a host of varied performers as being amongst his early influences - Gigli, John McCormack, Bobby Rogers, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, The latter gives him a cue for a stage anecdote. "Then one night I was coming home from my devotions and riding out in the bog on my bicycle singing Riding Along in My Automobile, and thinking to myself: 'it's all very well for Chuck Berry riding in the back of a limousine with some young one, but here I was still trying to get Donal Lunny's sister up on the back of my bike.'"
Rock and roll was fine, but Christy was looking for something more relevant to him, a young Irishman. Then he heard the Dubliners on the radio; that was his kind of music. In 1961 he discovered Robbie Burns' The Curragh of Kildare, which became one of his most popular songs, and in 1965 he did his first gig, which was at Slattery's, in Cable Street, Dublin.
The next year, 1966, Christy left for England where he met the avuncular Hamish Imlach. Hamish helped him greatly and introduced him to the folk club circuit. Christy lived in England (in Manchester and Halifax) for 5 years and remembers his time here with great affection. It was in the English clubs that he learned his trade and where he was given chances denied him in Ireland.
"In 1969 I sat on a stage in London with Ewan MacColl and the penny dropped. Here was a man singing in the traditional style, but his songs were socially relevant and about today. I was interested to see in your article on Nic Jones in the last issue of The Living Tradition that he now shares this approach. May I say, incidentally, that I'm so pleased that Nic has come through his ordeal so well. He's a lovely man and deserves his happiness."
In 1970 Christy returned to Dublin and shortly after joined Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny et al to form Planxty, from whom most of the modern Irish instrumental-cum-singing bands can trace descent. Planxty brought Christy to the attention of an international audience and in 1973 he left to become a solo performer. He gave his support to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and numerous other causes - too many, he now thinks on reflection. On one occasion he arrived to perform at a protest meeting and found himself quite alone; not even the organiser who had booked him had turned up!
He then formed the Christy Moore Band, and finally joined Moving Hearts in the early 1980s. At one time this quasi rock band played three nights a week for a whole year in a sweaty club at the Baggot Inn in Dublin; what an ordeal that must have been. And there were more protests, this time against the 'H Block' internments and in support of the hunger strikers. Christy was always one to speak out for what he believed in, and in the 1990s he was brave enough to publicly express his condemnation of the wanton bombing of civilian targets by the I.R.A. He left Moving Hearts in 1983 and has performed solo ever since.
As a performer of traditional material and an interpreter of other people's music Christy has few equals. However, his latest recording latest recording, Graffiti Tongue, has had a mixed reception from the critics. This hurts him, particularly as this was his first outing with a programme of almost all entirely self-penned songs. Nevertheless, his compositions bristle with integrity and he performs them 'as live', with just a smidgeon of double tracking on two numbers.
It is a long standing joke that Christy only knows nine chords, and that he carefully rations these to no more than three per song. Nevertheless, his guitar accompaniments are extremely effective. They range from tinkling, fingerstyle arpeggios to crescendos of plectrum-driven thrashings. However, the simplicity of his harmonies are more than compensated for by the subtleties of his rhythms. He uses the standard tuning and his guitar playing really is rather clever.
About the adverse criticism of Graffiti Tongue he is very philosophical. "You do your best, you're happy with the songs yourself, you put them out and then get on with the next thing." He expresses no bitterness or rancour. He is a big man in more ways than one.
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