The late 1950s saw a number of world-renown singers record covers of Irish republican folk songs.
These include Paul Robeson’s version of ‘Kevin Barry’ which was first released as single on Topic Records in 1957. Robeson was an acclaimed African-American left-wing activist, actor and singer who visited Dublin a number of times in the 1930s.
Two years later, Odetta recorded a haunting version of ‘Foggy Dew’ for her third album My Eyes Have Seen (Vanguard records, 1959). Often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”, the African-American Civil Rights activist, actress and singer’s debut album ‘Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues‘ was released on Tradition Records whose president and director was Paddy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers.
Adding to this small but impressive number, I’ve just uploaded onto YouTube a late 1950s cover of ‘The Dying Rebel’ by “The King of Skiffle” Lonnie Donegan.
Donegan (1931-2002) was a Glasgow-born singer and songwriter who was a major influence on 1960s British pop music. He was the only son of an Irish mother from Omagh, Co. Tyrone and a Scottish father. The family moved to East Ham, London when Donegan was two years old.
Patrick Humphries in his biography ‘Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock & Roll’ (2012) briefly mentions The Dying Rebel and a cover of Kevin Barry which was released to great acclaim :
Late in 1958 an EP, Relax with Lonnie’, was shipped containing ‘Kevin Barry’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ – familiar songs from the bedrock of Irish republicanism and among Donegan’s most extraordinary performances of the period.
Another song in the same vein – ‘My Only Son Was Killed in Dublin (The Dying Rebel)’ – was recorded around the same time, but remained unreleased until 1993.
‘My Only Son Was Killed in Dublin’, most commonly known as ‘The Dying Rebel,’ was likely to have been written by Seamus Kavanagh. It tells the story of a man standing alone on Dublin’s O’Connell Street who meets a “grey-haired father searching for his only son” then a “fair hair maiden” kneeling by her lovers side and finally a “dying rebel” whose last words are “God bless the cause for which I die.” While the song does not specifically mention the Easter Rising, it is generally assumed that the song is set during its immediate aftermath.
Donegan’s adaption begins “The night was still” while most versions open with “The night was dark”. The other noticeable difference is that the rebel cries “God bless my sweet home in Tipperary” as opposed to the much more common reference to Cork.
As mentioned in the extract above, the song was not commercially released at the time and only became available to the public on an eight CD boxset of Donegan’s work called ‘More Than “Pye in the Sky”‘ in 1993.
Here is the recording of Donegan’s cover of Kevin Barry:
In an undated interview republished in the same book, Donegan told English broadcaster Mike Harding:
I listened to a lot of Irish folk songs because my mother was Irish. I actually did learn Danny Boy on my mother’s knee. Kevin Barry, which I also learned from mum pre-dates the [current] IRA … (it) goes back to the natural aversion people have to being subjugated by somebody else.
Further Irish links include Rory Gallagher appearing on Donegan’s 1978 comeback album Puttin’ on the Style and a live album recorded in Belfast in 2000 with Van Morrison.
After his death in 2002, The Guardian newspaper wrote:
Lonnie Donegan … was the first British pop superstar and the founding father of British pop music, and the musician who provided the original inspiration for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and a host of others. By the time the Beatles shook up the music world in the mid-1960s Donegan’s glory days were over, and he had retreated to comedy and cabaret, but between 1956 and 1962 he notched up an incredible 26 hits.
Donegan was a musical phenomenon. As the leader of the skiffle craze, he inspired the formation of literally thousands of do-it-yourself bands across the country, and was directly responsible for the 1960s pop explosion that – ironically – was to severely damage his own career.
From African-American cultural icons with no Irish links to British pop music luminaries of Irish descent, listening back to these three remarkable covers from the late 1950s is a must for any music fans.