In this excerpt from his memoir The Voyage, Johnny Duhan recalls teasing out a song with a fellow folk singer.
When the coffee arrived Christy gave me a nod.
‘Come on, we’ll drink it upstairs. Get your box there. I have a little cabin at the top of the house where we won’t be disturbed.’
The room we went to was small, with just a long plain wooden desk and a couple of hardback chairs. Above the desk a single wooden shelf held a row of cassette tapes and little else.
On the desk a cheap looking cassette tape recorder stood beside an open copybook with a biro lying on a half-written page.
An acoustic guitar stood against the wall near a curtainless window.
Christy glanced around the bare room and smirked.
‘A home studio for a one-track mind. The only thing that’s important to me is the song. Take a seat.’
A recollection of the only time I’d seen Christy perform live came to me. He was with Planxty, in a support role to Donovan at the National Stadium.
The moment he stepped up to the microphone and started singing ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, the audience was gripped, including myself. I glanced at the copybook.
‘You’re working on something?’
Christy looked at the page.
‘I’ve been sweating over it for more than a week. It’s the first serious song I’ve attempted. Been having nightmares over it.’
‘What’s it about?’
‘The hunger strikers. I’m writing it for the families of the men. Very close to the bone stuff. I find the whole writing thing very difficult anyway; how to know if what you’re putting down on the page has the right to be there, if you know what I mean?’
I sat forward.
Christy looked at me. ‘How do you know when they’re real?’
‘By the way the words flow. Inspired lines have an individuality about them. Often they come almost subconsciously as though something outside yourself is doing the work. But I don’t think that’s the full case.
'Usually I’ll have thought long and hard on a subject — sometimes for years — and often I’ll have written little prose pieces, trying to tap into the flow.
'Eventually these rough fragments germinate and become songs. Melody, for me, is almost always the catalyst.’
Christy’s eyes brightened.
‘You come up with the melodies first?’
I swallowed some coffee.
‘Often I’ll have airs going around in my head for years before they become songs. Often, too, I might write a second set of lyrics for the same melody, if the first don’t work.
'Getting the two separate things to gel is the difficult thing. And the stronger the melody, I find, the harder it can be to come up with words that sound natural with it.
'I read this interesting thing by Tolstoy where he points out that melody and lyrics are two totally different art forms and that quite a few classical composers often make a mess out of bringing them together.
'He maintained that folk song is the most natural expression of art we have, in all cultures.’
‘Fair play to Tolstoy.’
I leaned forward.
‘I read somewhere else that Russian folk music comes directly from Russian Orthodox Church music.
'The peasant musicians down the centuries speeded up the rhythms in the same way that Gospel was jazzed up in the States at the beginning of our century.’
Christy picked up his guitar.
‘Will we sing something?’
I took out my old Yamaha and tuned it to Christy’s Martin. Christy looked at the worn body of my instrument and nodded.
‘Well seasoned. The dents and cracks show it’s been through the wars. What’ll we play?’
Christy started picking. ‘I really like the last song on the tape you sent me; the one you didn’t finish. It breaks off in the middle of a verse after a chorus.’
He started singing:
‘One hundred miles from his home,
Through a lonely city he roams,
Till he finds a bed he doesn’t own,
In a house for rolling stones.
There he can lay his head down;
There he can relax his frown;
There he can dream of his hometown,
In his sleep his troubles drown.’
But when he wakes up and takes his first look
At his tattered surroundings,
When he awakes, when his dream breaks
he asks himself, ‘How can I survive
another day of being alive
till the evening comes.
Christy stopped singing. ‘There’s another couple of lines after that but then it suddenly stops.’
I cleared my throat and started singing the missing verse:
One hundred miles from his home,
He has nothing left to call his own,
just the rags for his bones
and the memory of his home.
And as he gets out of the bed
sadness starts to cloud his head;
His heart fills with dread,
He almost wishes he were dead,
For when he wakes up and takes his first look . . .
Christy joined me in repeating the chorus. When we got to the end of the song he shook his head.
‘That refrain sends shivers down my neck; the melody as well as the words. It nearly had me in tears the first time I heard it and by Jaysus it nearly has me the same way now.
'I keep thinking of an uncle of mine — my only uncle, Jimmy Power, from the banks of the Boyne. He died on a lonely street in Birmingham, God rest him.
'He was a lovely oul’ fella but he had a fatal craving for the gargle. Where did the idea for the song come from?’
I related my experience of staying in a St Vincent de Paul’s night-shelter when I was fifteen.
‘It was a real eye-opener seeing so many tramps and down-and-outs all grouped together in one place.
'The memory stayed with me, probably because deep down I have a fear that I might end up like that myself one day.’
‘Haven’t we all.’
The Voyage is out now. Johnny Duhan will be reading from the book at Waterstones in Cojrk on Thursday, May 16 at 7pm