New York Show Tunes
Stop for a moment and look around. How much of your environment would be recognizable to someone from 1870? The telephone, the phonograph, and the light bulb were not invented, nor was New York City even electrified yet. Obviously one’s entertainment needs were different, but what exactly passed for amusement back in the post-Civil War era? Musician and professor Mick Moloney has dug back into the archives and rediscovered the works of actor/writer Ed Harrigan and musician David Braham. During the 1870s, Harrigan and Braham penned popular songs and sketches that depicted the immigrant experiences of Gotham City’s Irish population in a fun and exuberant way. These men were contemporaries of Stephen Foster. Their compositions predate vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway shows, and helped give birth to those traditions.
Moloney cherry picked 14 selections from over 200 published songs for McNally’s Row of Flats (Irish American Songs of Old New York, by Harrigan and Braham). Most of these tunes have never been recorded before. As an academic (Moloney has a Ph.D. in folklore and teaches at New York University), he chose songs that celebrated the everyday life of the Irish experience in the metropolis. The good doctor opted for songs about tenement life (“McNally’s Row of Flats”), Irish American policemen (“Are You There Moriarity”), the military draft (“The Regular Army O”), holiday rituals (“Patrick’s Day Parade”), politics (“Old Boss Barry”) and alcohol (“I Never Drink Behind the Bar”). If these smack of stereotypes, that’s the inherent function of popular song. These tunes are meant to caricature people as a way of presenting recognizable types to the audience. The lyrics are not mean spirited but poke fun at pretensions. For example, the song about the Irish cop has him sing “My uniform is navy blue and it fits me like a duck.” He delivers the line straight so that the silliness of the language suggests both his pride and unawareness. It’s refreshing, but not surprising to know that there is a long tradition of songs that criticize law enforcement officials in the poorer urban areas of America.
As a musician, Moloney opted for catchy tunes with humorous lyrics. While presumably Harrigan and Braham had melancholic and/or cloying tunes about the old country or troubles in the New World, none of them can be found here. The most serious song concerns the troubles of a sailor when he runs out of money, the hornpipe “Get Up Jack John Sit Down”, is performed folk style with a button accordion lead (Billy McComiskey) and fiddle (Dana Lyn) accompaniment.
Moloney arranged all of the material on the collection with the help of other musicians as the original orchestrations have been lost over the years. Moloney himself sings lead vocals and plays guitar and tenor banjo, and he is joined by John Doyle on guitar and bouzouki, Ivan Goff on pipes and whistle, and Robbie O’Connell on harmony vocals. The instrumentation gives the songs an energetic feel that functions especially well on the title track and other tunes with boisterous lyrics. One can hear the ghosts of audiences past responding aloud on the choruses. Moloney also employs a brass orchestra (Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks) on some tunes, such as “Never Take the Horseshoe From the Door”, that helps recreate the hoopla of the nineteenth century contexts.
Included in McNally’s Row of Flats are authoritative liner notes penned by Moloney that helps situate Harrigan and Braham’s work in its social and historical milieus. But one doesn’t need to read them to appreciate the general merriment of the disc anymore than one would have to understand the street gangs of New York in the fifties to appreciate West Side Story. The local details of the lyrics operate to universalize the stories, and the general quality of the music itself holds up on its own merits. One’s appreciation of the disc would be based on how much one likes Celtic-based folk music and show tunes in general. The album is heartily recommended for fans of those genres.