Above: A collage of some of music covers by and about the Irish.
Searching For The Irish In Irish American Music.
It's another March and it has been a while since our we've done an issue on the Irish so it's time to revisit the contribution of Irish Americans to modern popular music.
One of the musical dilemmas of the ParlorSongs era is determining the ethnic/racial/gender origin of songs and songwriters (from this point on I will frequently use the term songwriter to refer to both the composer and lyricist.) The reality is that musicians and songwriters of all backgrounds limit themselves to few social boundaries. A Russian composer may write gentle humorous little ditties, a German might write Hawaiian Love songs, African Americans might write songs in the classical European tradition, while some white preacher might write Negro Spirituals, of course there is the dilemma of Jews writing the best Christmas songs, how does that work? And then there are the love songs of Cole Porter; well perhaps I shouldn't even go there. So it should come as no surprise that many of the best Irish songs were not written by Irishman and that Irish descended songwriters have been a powerful force in just about every other style and type of music.
Complicating factors in identifying Irish songwriters are their names. We often use names to determine national or ethnic origin of a person. Von Schmidt seems pretty German, the most common name in England is Smith and MacGowan (not to be confused with the Scottish macGoun) is Irish. This would seem pretty straightforward but Herr Von Schmidt might deem it prudent to use the name Smith if he wanted to sell a song in 1918 while Mr. MacGowan might have used the English translation of his name - Smith, to avoid persecution in his own homeland prior to being shipped to America in a coffin ship. On the other hand Ruben Kusnit might like writing Irish lullabies and figure his songs might sell better if he called himself Jack Mahoney. The use of pseudonyms is always a major problem in tracing popular songs. Women composers and lyricists used men's names to obtain access to a male dominated field and for some reason some men wrote under a woman’s name.
Adding to this during the mass immigrations of the Irish and other national and ethnic groups through New York, mistakes were made. When faced with the task of documenting a ship load of folks named O'LeeFermanagh or MacLee, O Laidhigh, O Laoighigh, MacLaoidhigh, Leix, Lea etc. it is hard enough trying to say most ethnic Irish/Gaelic/Celtic names without coughing up a piece of lung let alone trying to spell them so who can blame the poor clerk if he just wrote down the name Lee those names are pretty much all are related to the family name of Lee anyway.
The upshot is that with a few exceptions like the venerable
Chauncey Olcott, Victor Herbert, James Lynam Molloy, or Stanley Murphy it is difficult to determine for certain if a songwriter is of Irish decent.
Here is a partial list of songwriters and performers from the ParlorSongs era with Irish names or who have written Irish songs. This list includes many extremely important and influential composers, lyricists and performers of popular American music. Most of these songwriters can be found on our Composers Biography page. I have added notes to some of the entries and readers are welcome to email me to add to the list or to confirm or deny any of the entries.
- Ernest R. Ball
- Charlotte Blake
- James Blake
- J. Kiern Brennan
- Alfred Bryan
- Vincent Bryan
- J.Will Callahan
- Harry Carroll
- Grant Clarke
- George M. Cohan
- Joseph M. Daly
- Benny Davis
- Arthur Deagon (singer actor)
- Jack Drislane
- Raymond B. Egan
- A.W. French
- W.P. French
- Henry E. Geehl
- Jesse Greer
- James F. Hanley
- Victor Herbert
- Joseph. E. Howard
- Amanda Kennedy
- Charles B. Lawlor
- Marvin Lee
- Ballard MacDonald
- Edward Madden
- Jack Mahoney (Ruben Kusnit)
- James Lynam Molloy
- James McCaffrey
- Joe McCarthy
- Jack McGowan (English translation - John Smith)
- Joe McKiernan
- C. Austin Miles
- Luella Lockwood Moore
- Stanley Murphy
- Maude Nugent
- James O'Dea
- Charlie O'Donnell
- Kathleen O'Neil. (Singer)
- P.J. O'Reilly
- Chauncey Olcott
- Cole Porter (Nice Irish name but he was a Presbyterian, most early Irish immigrants were Catholic so he might not belong on this list)
- Caro Roma (Carrie Northly wrote numerous Irish Song Lyrics in close association w/Ernest R. Ball)
- Geo. H. Ryan
- J. R. Shannon (James Royce)
- Ren Shields
- John Stafford Smith (1750 - 1836) Smith is the English version of the Irish surname MacGowan and the timeframe of his birth coincides well with the start of the mass Irish immigration into the U.S. in 1846...)
- Lee Orean Smith
- Andrew B. Sterling
- Daisy Sullivan (could be a Welsh name also)
- Dan J. Sullivan
- William Tracey
- J. Brandon Walsh
- Charles Albert White
- Walter Wolf
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Robert L. Maine, March, 2007. This article
published March, 2007 and is Copyright © 2007 by Robert L. Maine
and The Parlor Songs Academy Text, images or music may not be reproduced
in part or in total without express written permission of the author
or a company officer.
Music by: G.W. Persley
Words by: A.W. French
The first song this month "Barney A'Leen" is one of the older pieces in our collection, with a copyright date of 1871. It has a wonderful cover, a great melody and the age old story of a love struck young maiden awaiting a visit from her lover who said he has something special to say and she hopes that he is going to ask for her hand in marriage. On the other hand he has yet to show up. Can he have "strayed", "has he wandered with some other maid" is he "coming at all?", "Oh, Barney A'Leen, say what you mean, Tho' I know you are faithful and true, Yet it is long after eight, and still by the gate I am watching, dear Barney, for you." Well as my youngest once said when he was about 5 years old and wandered into the room while I was watching an old film-noir movie, "hmmm, black and white and everybody is just standing around the room talking - this can't end well". The song doesn't actually come to the point, but given that one line of the lyrics is "Barney, I love you far better than life", I don't think this story ends well either.
I love this song, but does it belong in this months category, is it really Irish? Or have I erred in assuming that any name with an apostrophe near the front is Irish. A little research into names tells me that neither Barney nor A'leen are Irish but rather English or at least Aleen without the apostrophe is English. Like wise the composer G.W. Persley has an English name. On the flip side, although I haven't found out much about Mr. Persley, he was a very prolific composer and did a number of songs with definite Irish themes as well as other ethnic compositions. Irish names associated with the piece include the lyricist A.W. French, and all of the regional distributors, Boyle, Cody, Gray, Farris, and Coggan. A.W. French also seems to be a bit of a mystery although a contemporary countryman W.P. French is much better known. In the end I have decided that my original assessment that Barney A'leen is an Irish song is good enough for me. As an aside, in 1871 the year this song was released Mrs. O'Leary's cow burnt down Chicago and a feud in New York between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics during a parade resulted in the deaths of over 100 people.
Hear this lovely old song (Scorch plug-in required)
Listen to MIDI version
That's An Irish Lullaby
Words and Music by: J.R. Shannon (James Royce)
Cover artist: Unknown
From the Charles Kelly Collection.
Irish title, Irish descended composer, Irish dialog in the lyrics, part of the Songs of Ireland Collection, I think we have a winner this time. But wait a minute J.R. Shannon was really James Royce, and Royce isn't an Irish name, it is the old form of the English name Rice. Royce/Shannon is a prime example of the use of pseudonyms to make a song more saleable. Although probably not Irish Mr. Shannon wrote a number of very popular songs both"Irish" mainstream. For a brief biography of Mr. Shannen go to our Composers Biography page. Other songs in our collection by Mr. Shannon include:
I guess the real question is "Does it really matter?" Oh well it sounds Irish to me and it is a fun little song so let's hear it now.
Have fun singing along with this "Irish" lullaby
listen to MIDI version
When The Moon Shines In Ireland
Music by: Bert Peters
Words by: Marvin Lee
Irish names seem to have a more complex background than many other nationalities For instance Lee is a common Irish name, variations of it include O'Lee or MacLee, O Laidhigh, or O Laoighigh, MacLaoidhigh, Leix, Lea and many more. It is also a common English name and during some of the more repressive times of the English influence in Ireland the form Lee may have been taken to keep one "under the radar" so to speak.
Another of Mr. Lee's compositions on our site is
When I Dream Of Old Erin I'm Dreaming Of You (1912).
And we have a very brief bio of Marvin Lee on our Composers Bio page.
We have found little about Mr. Lee and his songs, and if this one is typical of his work, then there might be a reason.
Listen to this mostly forgetable song.
Listen to MIDI version
Tammany (A Pale Face Pow-Wow)
Music by: Gus Edwards
Words by: Vincent Bryan
This is our second piece featuring Tammany Hall. The first was in our November 2002 issue.
After researching this piece I have decided that it deserves an entire article dedicated just to it. Look for an "In Search of Tammany" article in the near future.
It is easy to just toss this one off as a quick novelty piece thrown together at the last minute. On the surface it seems through cover art, lyrics and tune to insult just about everyone, Irish, Italians, Native Americans, suffragettes, politicians you name it, this tune takes them on. But it is much deeper than that. It is a true minstrel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel tune in that it is an historical narrative on one of Americas most powerful secret societies at the peak of their political power, The Sons of St. Tammany or the Columbian Order.
To trivialize a little known but very important force in the history of our nation
King Tammany, a Delaware chief who befriended William Penn in Colonial times was
sort of a Native American Gandhi, he promoted Peace Love and Understanding between the native peoples and the early settlers. In the process of trying to synthesize the best of European and Native American cultures our early leaders raised King Tammany to a mythic level eventually forming a secret society and actually "canonized" him to the status of sainthood (The Catholic Church wasn't involved in this of course) and Chief or King Tammany became St. Tammany. The Sons of St. Tammany who included such founding fathers as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson and Benjamin Rush used the Tammany society to form our nation and it's democratic ideals. In later years the society would become a driving force behind the Democratic Party particularly in New York, it's influence only waning in the 1950's finally to die out in the 1960's.
I can't even begin to cover the scope and impact of the Tammany Society here however these two sources will give you a good start on the history of The Sons of St. Tammany and Tammany Hall in New York.
AN AMERICAN SYNTHESIS
The Sons of St. Tammany
or Columbian Order
Here is a short exerpt from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia which characterizes Tammany Hall at the time this song was written.
"Tammany is forever linked with the rise of the Irish in American politics. Beginning in 1846, large numbers of Irish Catholics began arriving in New York. Equipped with a knowledge of English, very tight loyalties, a genius for politics, and what critics said was a propensity to use violence to control the polls, the Irish quickly dominated Tammany. In exchange for votes, they provided money and food. From 1872 onward, Tammany had an Irish "boss." They played an increasingly important role in state politics, supporting one candidate and feuding with another. The greatest success came in 1928 when a Tammany hero, New York Governor Al Smith, won the Democratic presidential nomination."
As always at ParlorSongs we try not to get involved in politics, religion, or any other "hot topic" other than to show how they are reflected in popular American music. That said we don't endorse either of the web sites listed here, the links given are just to give a deeper background into the subject of the song.
Now lets listen to this humorous but important song. (Scorch format)
Listen to MIDI version
Well we have covered some Irish or Irish themed songs now let's look at some non-Irish popular songs by Irish songwriters. With a few prominent exceptions such as Chauncey Olcott, Victor Herbert and Ernest R. Ball Irish songwriters tend to be lyricists, Joe McCarthy, J.R. Shannon (James Royce), Ballard MacDonald, Joe McKiernan, Geo. H. Ryan, Caro Roma (Carrie Northly), J. Will Callahan, P.J. O'Reilly, Vincent Bryan, Daisy Sullivan, Marvin Lee, A.W. French, W.P. French and many more. Perhaps it is that gift of spreading the blarney that leads them to write the words.
Our first non-Irish Irish song this month is
Those Olden Golden Days of Long Ago
Music by: Grace LeBoy
Words by: Daisy Sullivan
Ok, Daisy Sullivan might not be Irish, there were some Sullivans in Wales. And Grace LeBoy later to become Grace LeBoy Kahn when she married the great songwriter Gus Kahn, wasn't Irish. (Doris Day played Grace LeBoy Kahn in I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (1951))
but it is interesting to find a song that has both a woman lyricist and composer. This song itself while not memorable does makes me laugh when I hear it. I can't help visualizing an overly ornate B&W cartoon with chubby little cherubs dancing through a garden, or perhaps a more Fleisheresq scene with a fluid limbed cat cavorting with mice while high on catnip. It is fun, it's different and Sullivan sounds Irish to me.
Listen to this classic
Listen to MIDI version
A little Birch Canoe- And You
Music by: Lee S. Roberts
Lyrics by: J. Will Callahan
Canoe themed songs are collectible and this one has both a canoe on the cover and in the title. The lyrics are by Will J. Callahan. Callahan was a singer and songwriter who collaberated with various conposers including Max Kortlander and Lee S. Roberts. The best known of his collaberations is probably "Smiles" which has appeared in at least 25 films. His popular-song compositions include "The Flag We Love", "Gasoline", "God Put a Rose in My Garden", "Patches", "The Story of Old Glory", "Tell Me", "When I Came Home to You", "You Planted a Rose" and of course this tune "A little Birch Canoe".
The tempo is written as "Dreamily" and the melody and lyrics are a little sappy by contemporary standards, But this is makeout music and the melody, lyrics and illustration are perfect. This would be the last song played at a little group get-together, the melody is simple and memorable, easy to hum or whistle while you walk your girl back to her sorority house. The lyrics are innocent and endearing but at the same time subtly provocative. And of course canoes are a strong female sexual metaphor. There is one real mystery about this song however. Where are the ukulel chords? Nearly every song of this era had ukulele chords and this song would be perfect for them.
Listen to this
great old "courting" song
Listen to MIDI version
They GO Wild Simply Wild Over Me
Music by: Fred Fisher
Words by: Joe McCarthy
Another great lyrical powerhouse, Joe McCarthy teamed up with many of the great Tin-Pan-Alley composers of the day, Fred Fisher and James Monaco are just a couple. I chose this song for the simple reason that I don't like the guy on the cover. We have all met people like him, a total jerk that is so full of himself that you instantly hate him. Unlike many songs (and books for that matter) where the cover and the story don't seem to go together at all, it is obvious in this case that the cover artist and the lyricist are right in sync with each other. The melody seems to strike the right tone of pretentiousness as well.
Listen to this
irritating song now.
Listen to MIDI version
Fido Is A Hot Dog Now
(The Original Frankfurter Song)
Music by: Raymond Walker
Words by: Chas. McCarron and Thos. J. Gray
Dog songs have been around a long time and the early teen's of the last century was had several from the 1912 hit," They Gotta Quit Kicking My Dawg Aroun’ by Webb M. Oungst & Cy Perkins to the 1913 piece "What D’You Mean You Lost Your Dog?" by Thos. H. Allen & Joseph M. Daly to this 1914 hit.
What can I say, Fido is one of those fun songs in the vein of "Yes we have no Bananas" that just tickles the funny bone. I can just see some baggy pants performer up on stage wringing this one for every groan he can get.
In fact through the miracle of the Internet just as I was posting this issue I discovered an actual mp3 of an original 1914 recording of the song at
And it is even possible to get a t-shirt with the cover at
I know nothing about either of these sites and don't endorse them so use normal precautions before downloading or purchasing from them.
Listen to this
great novelty song
Listen to MIDI version
This article published March, 2007 and is Copyright ©
2007 by Robert L. Maine and The Parlor Songs Academy Text, images
or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission
of the author or an officer of the corporation. Though the songs published on
this site are often in the Public Domain, MIDI renditions are protected by copyright
as recorded performances.
Thanks for visiting us and be sure to come back again next month to see our
new feature or to read some or all of our over 130 articles about America's
music. See our resources
page for a complete bibliography of our own library resources used to research
this and other articles in our series.
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