With St. Patrick’s Day last week, many of Irish extraction (and those who just want a good soundtrack for their Guinness) listened to a few tunes by Irish bands along with the wearin’ of the green. Continuing with the Western theme of my last two posts, with a bit of Irish flavor, this post compares a well-known cowboy ballad with a song that popularly accompanies St. Paddy’s celebrations.
When first heard the song “Dirty Old Town,” I was in Massachusetts, a state that The Boston Globe claims as “the most Irish state in America.” (1) As I walked along the cobblestone streets, I passed an Irish pub where a band played a particular tune with a repitition of the words “Dirty Old Town.” It struck me—this song sounds so familiar! But it wasn’t the lyrics that reminded me of another song–rather, the melody.
Remembering the three main words of the chorus, “Dirty Old Town,” I typed the title into Google and the first YouTube hit was The Pogues’ 1985 version. As I listened to its harmonica intro and trotting drumbeat, in spite of its industrial city theme, I thought, “this sounds so Western!”
Unnervingly, it continued to reminded me of the aforementioned other song. I can’t count the number of times I’d heard the tune that “Dirty Old Town” conjured. As a child (and in Oklahoma, where nostalgia for the Old West is huge), I’d heard it on countless cartoons depicting Western scenes. I’d heard it in almost anything to do with cowboys. As I found out after more searching, that other soundalike tune was “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” also known as “The Cowboy’s Lament,” first published in 1910 in John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads. (2)
The Pogues’ 1985 version of “Dirty Old Town,” played in the key of A:
The melody in the key of D that I am most familiar with, that (to my ears), sounds almost like “Dirty Old Town” in a different key:
Sons of the Pioneers’ 1965 version: the melody is a bit different, but the harmonica and lonesome feeling resonates:
Known as “The Cowboy’s Lament” and “The Dying Cowboy,” the cowboy version of the song has even earlier roots on the sea. In fact, “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” derives from “The Ocean Burial” or “O Bury Me Not in the Deep Deep Sea,” written by Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, and philosopher Edwin Hubbel Chapin and set to music by George N. Allen in 1839. (2) The song had a wide distribution in the nineteenth century and made its way westward where cowboys changed the lyrics to the Western version more familiar to audiences today. (3)
“Dirty Old Town” was written in 1940 by Anglo-Scottish playwright, folk songwriter and political activist Ewan MacColl for his play Landscape with Chimneys. (4) Many bands covered it, and it gained particular popularity among Irish bands like The Dubliners (1974) and, most famously, by punk-folk band The Pogues (1985).
The play (and song) takes place in Salford, an industrial town west of Manchester in northwestern England. (5) The landscape the song portrays, of the gasworks and smoky wind, differs greatly from the vast open land and skies of the lone prairie. But both songs reveal intense feelings that the singers have for their surroundings.
The cowboy refuses to be buried on the plains where coyotes roam, far from family and friends. Instead, the singer of Dirty Old Town, who finds romance-and brief moments of lightness-in spite of his harsh, dingy surroundings, still wishes to “chop” his town
down like an old dead tree/
dirty old town/
dirty old town/
in a story not dissimilar from the working class malaise and urgency found in the later (1965) Animals rock song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” When we observe “Dirty Old Town,” as well as “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” they not only have similar melodies, but they also share an overall feeling of remorse and a wish for better circumstances in which to live (and die).
They both portray longing: an elemental part of music from folk to country to blues. With all of such commonalities, plus traditional cowboy instruments like the harmonica, banjo, and mandolin, I just want to hear “Dirty Old Town” on the soundtrack of a new Western movie. Maybe one about the Irish in the West. After all, one of the most famous cowboy outlaws, Billy the Kid, was of Irish ancestry himself. (6)
Have a lucky day,
(1) Slane, Kevin. “Massachusetts is officially the most Irish state in America,” March 17, 2017. The Boston Globe. Accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2017/03/17/massachusetts-is-officially-the-most-irish-state-in-america
(2) Author unknown, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” Publication date unknown. Chimesfreedom. Accessed March 27, 2021. http://www.chimesfreedom.com/
(4) Author unknown, “Dirty Old Town-Ewan MacColl Masterpiece,” Publication date unknown. Irish Music Daily. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.irishmusicdaily.com/dirty-old-town
(6) Mulraney, Frances. “Who Knew? Billy the Kid Spoke Irish,” July 21, 2016. IrishCentral. Accessed March 27, 2021. https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/who-knew-outlaw-billy-the-kid-spoke-irish