Friday, 11 July 2008

Immortality through song

I was just browsing The Complete Newgate Calendar at the Tarlton Law Library's online Law in Popular Culture collection, a 1926 reprint of the venerable Newgate Calendar, a periodical/book series dating from around 1760 that was designed to edify the reader by reporting the lives and downfall of notorious criminals.

Volume I contains the account of Patrick Flemming, an Irish highwayman hanged in 1650 (his history of murder and mutilation hardly makes him a romantic figure). However, he became the subject of a contemporary "goodnight ballad" (a broadsheet format taking the form of a last confession, or sometimes statement of bravado) called Patrick Fleming and beginning "Patrick Flemming was a Vallient Soldier". A number of the lines - see the lyrics here at the Folklore Home Page, California State University, Fresno - give a clue...

As I was going over Ruberry mountain,
Gold and silver there was counting
He thought it little I thought it better,
I took the Gold from Colonel Pepper.

... that this is a precursor to the popular folksong, Whiskey in the Jar, an identity that crystallises in a mid-1800s version called The Sporting Hero (see the Bodleian library catalogue - Firth c.17(314), Bentley, J. (Bradford) - and scan).

From that point, the song flourished, its anti-establishment flavour giving similar appeal in the USA where there's a Vermont variant about "Lovel the Robber" and a Massachusetts one about an Irish-American robber "McCollister" hanged by the British. Over a century later it was freshened by the classic early 1970s rock version by Thin Lizzy, which in turn was covered as a Metallica version. Quite apart from the many other mainstream English pop and folk versions, it has since gone into Danish (thx for correction!) as the Lars Lilholt Band's Gi' mig whiskey in the jar, the Norwegian Svikefulle Mari popularised by Lillebjørn Nilsen - and even got into the Finnish humppa genre, a semi-comic ultra-fast foxtrot style based on German oompa bands, as Eläkeläiset's Humppamaratooni (which I confess I find has a bizarre Pogues-like charm). Further afield, you can find Roast Pork, a Japanese punk band playing it for St Patrick's Day in Nagoya.

It's a nice example of how a successful meme can propagate through history, and I'm sure the lineage will continue.