Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.
FEB. 12, 2019 (SPRINGFIELD, Ill.) - OK, Here’s the deal. It’s my birthday so I am jettisoning a few parameters and just writing about my favorite Switchback song: “The Galway Shawl.”
Did Switchback write that song? Well, no, but I am celebrating a full year of writing these monthly missives. And did I mention it’s my birthday? For the record, so to speak, this traditional song was collected by Irish folklorist Sam Henry in the 1930s and has been recorded by many including the Dubliners. Switchback offers the tune on both their Bolinree CD as well as their four-disc Twentieth Anniversary Collection.
Sometimes what sears a song into your insides is some single image. Here it’s that Galway shawl and the beautiful woman it frames. Somewhere else it may be two cats in the yard or Mr. Bojangles dancing a lick, but here near Orenmore in County Galway it is “a colleen, she was fair and handsome.”
This is not a song about romance, though romantic it is. It’s a song about paths crossing by chance, what few moments live in that crossing and the inevitable going separate ways. At the end the smitten Martin McCormack opines, “All I can think of now is that Galway shawl.”
In the famous film about Charles Foster Cane, Citizen Kane, his elderly friend Mr. Bernstein recalls a day: “I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since then that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
Are these men voicing regret? Perhaps, but the larger sense is that a modicum of regret was a price worth paying for the memory. Most of us have our share of those, right?
In the song about the shawl, Brian FitzGerald’s simply strummed guitar offers prominent accompaniment soon joined by Liz Carroll’s fiddle and later a larger band. They all flow under a story of natural beauty where the chorus reminds us, “She wore no jewels, no costly diamonds, no paint nor powder, no none at all.” And to highlight and border that visage, “. . . ’round her shoulders hung a Galway shawl.”
Also, in the end it is the unnamed woman who, even through a few tears, exercises power. As the man is heading out to Donegal, he tell us “she cried and kissed me, and then she left me.” Hence all he can think of is that Galway shawl.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
American Roots & Celtic Soul