LIKE Johnny Cash before him, Jimmy Crowley has a thing about trains, particularly the overnight variety.
“They bring out the poetry in you,” says the bard of Cork who is a bit of a long-distance locomotive himself, crooning his way into the hearts of his fellow Corkonians for more than 40 years while gaining a reputation as a spirited and inventive folk singer and songwriter.
Endlessly restless, the last time he took an overnight train was in South Carolina in America where he is as well known as he is here.
As the train trundled along Columbia’s shores, he could feel “the touch of the muse’s hand scratching my shoulder.”
Close beside him on the train was a woman “as broad as Lake Michigan... snoring like Roche’s Point on a foggy night”.
That discordant background music did not deter him. When the muse strikes, nothing does. There was a song coming on and he had better be ready for it.
He was, although he had to drift back in time and distance to extract the song and the story from his boyhood memory.
His mind reclaimed Midsummer nights spent at James Connolly Place, his home in the hills of Castletreasure near Douglas on Cork’s southside.
Like any young Corkonian, Bonfire Night was a time to celebrate and enjoy the pagan spectacle and the magic of the dancing flames as he and his pals scoffed sweets and cakes and drank bottles of ‘Raza’ — a raspberry cordial still beloved by aficionados.
The bona — as Cork people call it — was quickly ablaze under the watchful eye of the master of ceremonies, neighbour Kevin ‘Bunty’ Martin.
Crowley is a devil for the detail but it is such precise memory that transforms something so ordinary into something extraordinary and lends vitality and vividness to both his lyrics and his music.
The result was ‘Bona’s Night’, a salute “to summer nights in Donnybrook before the telly came.”
Long known as the ‘Voice of Cork’, Crowley has been a central figure in the Irish folk scene since the enthusiastic reception of his debut album, The Boys of Fairhill, in 1977.
Imbued with a mission to celebrate the street ballads of Cork city along with the ornate ballads of the county, he and his band Stokers Lodge weren’t satisfied just to defy convention. They didn’t simply revive a dying folk scene, they kicked it up the arse, blending the traditional uileann pipes with mandolin, concertina, bouzouki, guitar — and whatever you’re having yourself.
Decades later, Crowley gave an equally large dose of adrenalin to the kind of Irish songs that drunks sing at weddings. Why?
Maybe for the craic. Maybe for the hell of it or maybe, simply beca use he is probably the only singer-songwriter around who could and still retain his reputation.
The most likely answer, though, is courage. Who else would have the nerve to re-imagine such jaded classics like ‘Danny Boy’, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and ‘The Isle of Innisfree’?
Crowley did just that with his album Irish Eyes. This was no send-up of old chestnuts but a swing-jazz reverential treatment of John Mc Cormack, Bing Crosby and Flanaghan Brothers Irish-American sentimental songs.
It was his 13th album, so maybe he was tempting fate.
Perhaps he is doing the same with his opus magnum Songs From The Beautiful City: the Cork Urban Ballads, an ethnography and autobiography that proclaims the history of the plain people of his native city through the humble ballad.
This unique collection includes music notation to all songs as well as associated photographs with an extended, engaging preamble loosely based on his long-running weekly ballad column in this newspaper’s sister publication, the Evening Echo.
Crowley is more than a singer and songwriter — although he is a superb exponent of both — he is also a song collector and, in that alone, he is nothing short of a national treasure.
He started collecting music at the age of 16 and his recordings have popularised local Cork songs such as ‘Johnny Jump Up’, ‘Salonika’ and ‘The Boys of Fairhill’.
He likes to mix old with new and give half-forgotten songs a bit of CPR. When Stokers Lodge disbanded his new group, The Electric Band, released a reggae version of ‘The Boys of Fairhill’ that went straight into the pop charts.
Although he celebrates tradition in his work, he is not shackled by it. In the book, songs like ‘Marilyn Monroe’ sit happily with Cork’s anthem, ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’.
Written by the late Paddy O’Driscoll from Blackrock and sung to various airs, the Marilyn Monroe song emerged in 1959 when the star’s then husband, the playwright Arthur Miller was in Cork and rumour had it that Marilyn would join him.
Alas, the Hollywood star did not venture to Leeside. (“Eddie Cotter wasn’t sure if she’d play for Ballinure / But he heard she signed a form for Ringmahon”)
Crowley is not just the voice of Cork. There is much more to him than that and there are times when you would swear there must be more than one Jimmy Crowley.In between performing, recording, writing and collecting he discovered a passion for the rich Gaelic hinterland of his native province of Munster, learning his profession as a bard and falling in love with the Irish language.
He allowed his wild imagination run riot by writing a ballad opera, Red Patriots.
Set against the backdrop of Mao Tse Tung’s cultural and social policies, it’s the story of an apprentice musician who falls for a revolutionary girl.
He also wrote a futuristic novel set in a Celtic Utopia. The result, Hy Brazil is a fantasy as well as being both a polemic against the excesses of the Celtic Tiger and a lament for the demise of Celtic traditions.
On top of all that, he found time to set up his own record company, Free State Records and his own publishing house, The Free State Press.
As we say in Cork, he is no ‘daw’.
Songs from the Beautiful City: The Cork Urban Ballads, by Jimmy Crowley, is available now. Crowley plays Kilmallock Theatre, Co Limerick on July 10