Words on World Music

An interview with Larry Kerwin of Black 47

Monday, March 31st, 2008


We have it; the smoking gun, the evidence, the potential weapon of mass destruction we have been looking for as our pretext of invading Iraq. There’s just one problem – it’s in North Korea.
Jon Stewart – US comedian

Celt In A Twist: New York’s contemporary Irish experience, Black 47 have long recognized music’s capacity to be more than pap, spoon fed to the masses. It’s a powerful tool accessible to real people and capable of inspiring thought and change. But, honesty is not always the easiest policy. The band has had its nose bloodied in the past and will no doubt again for their latest album, Iraq, which has just been released, proving that rockers don’t grow old gracefully, they do so kicking and scratching like the rest of us. But, the eternally youthful Larry Kirwan, who still has the same mop of red hair and glasses that he did when he sang the Funky Ceili is on line to tell us more. How’s the weather in Santa Monica today, Larry?

Larry Kirwan: It feels pretty good after New York. It was cold in New York this morning.

CIAT: The impetus for an album like Iraq doesn’t just happen overnight. Tell us the thought process that went into this.

LK: Well, we were against the war before there was a war. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to recognize that this was going to be a disaster and our people are the ones who are going to suffer, not the daughters of Bush or the sons on senators. So, we came out against it and we had a couple of tracks that were released over the past five years including Downtown Baghdad Blues and Southside Chicago Waltz which made their way over to Iraq and became favorites with the troops over there. Last July we were just about to go record another album and I thought, “Man, we really have to do something about this war. Everybody has to stand up and be counted on it.” So I wrote a batch of seven or eight other songs, went into the studio and rerecorded the first two, Downtown Baghdad Blues and Southside Chicago Waltz and came up with Iraq.

CIAT: it’s funny that those two tunes keep coming up. They’re both my favorites on the album. And, you leave a lot of familiar cues in them from the Irish tradition like Minstrel Boy for instance. Why did you drop those bread crumbs?

LK: That was done partly ironically because we were getting a lot of hassle from people who might be considered more right wing and people who would be into pipe bands or whatever. Minstrel Boy is the most popular piping song with pipe bands. It was put in to show that when Thomas Moore and people like wrote songs like Minstrel Boy, they were radical in their own way for Irish freedom. As far as I’m concerned, this war was foisted upon us and you can use whatever tools you like with it. So, I thought I’d put in something familiar. Southside Chicago Waltz is the same thing. I always liked that Skye Boat Song … so it was just natural. Some have Irish motifs, some don’t … I like using the Irish motifs sometimes. They place the song in a certain way. I mean if I couldn’t write original melodies I might be less keen to doing it but I know I can write good melodies so, you use whatever palette is at your disposal.

CIAT: So Larry, what’s the reaction to the album been like so far?

LK: The reaction from the critics is great. Rolling Stone just did a big piece on it and quoted a lot of the lyrics from the album. But, for my money, I was only really interested in one reaction and that was the reaction of the troops because what I had set out to do was to tell their story through my words. And, that’s always a pretty dangerous thing even though I was getting a lot of emails from Black 47 fans who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan so I had a fair idea of what was going on apart from being interested in bringing up geopolitics anyway. So, for the troops to really appreciate the songs and really appreciate the album, that’s fine. That’s all I need. The rest, people seem to like it and we’re losing a few jobs over it but that’s Black 47 (laughs). Better to lose a few jobs than lose your soul.

CIAT: You’ve got your Celt In A Twist and we have Larry Kirwan from Black 47 on the horn to talk about Iraq, the group’s latest album on UFO Records. Get more on the story behind the disc and background on New York’s house band at www.black47.com. Larry, congratulations on your interview in the venerable ‘Icon’ segment of my favorite world music publication, Global Rhythm Magazine. How does it feel to be an I con in a world of I can’ts?

LR: (laughs) You know, I take it all with a grain of salt. The big thing about any kind of praise is that there’s always the other side it. And, if you believe the good stuff you have to believe the bad stuff too. So, I don’t put a lot of thought into it. I don’t really read reviews. I sort of scan them just to make sure there’s nothing really desperate in there! But, even if there is, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. If you believe the good you have to believe the bad.

CIAT: Tell us about the amazing video reaction you received to one song from the album, The Ballad of Cindy Sheehan.

LK: That stunned me and it just goes to show how much the world has changed. A friend of mine asked me to send a song to a blog space. I think it’s called Crooks and Liars . So, I did. It’s no big deal sending them an MP3. That was on say a Tuesday afternoon. When I opened my email on Wednesday morning there was a fully formed video on You Tube for the Ballad of Cindy Sheehan and, you know … a really good one! One I would pay somebody to do. But, they had done it in the course of the night. They had gotten all these images of Black 47 and all these images of Cindy Sheehan and there it was on You Tube and it’s getting hammered! It’s getting lots of hits. It just goes to show the interactive power of fans and community. These people want to stop the war and want to bring attention to it and they were able to take our vehicle and use that. It’s just a great testimony to the way people do things nowadays. This interactive feeling … I know it’s an election year and whatever and people are really trying to get empowered again and that’s such a great thing you know.

CIAT: Briefly, do you have any predictions for the election?

LK: Well, you would have to say that unless the Democrats totally shoot themselves in the foot; it’s going to have to be a Democrat. I mean, when Senator McCain is saying he’d stay in Iraq for a hundred years, that’s delusional. I don’t think we want another delusional President. We just had seven years of one!

CIAT: Larry, we’re going out on the Southside Chicago Waltz. Can you set up this story for us?

LK: Yah, it’s an interesting one in that we play on the Southside of Chicago at the big Gaelic Festival every Memorial Day weekend. We’ve done that for the past fourteen years. And, when something like that happens you tend to meet kids when they are seven or eight and you meet them again fourteen years later and they’re 22, 23 or whatever. And, it’s the story of a kid who I met like that who went to Iraq and came back unscathed but disappeared. He used to write to me all the time. Then, he finally wrote to me again just before he was heading back to Iraq. He said, “I’ve re-enlisted. I just don’t feel it over here anymore.” His life was in Iraq and I was just really moved by it and wrote that song for him.

Larry Kirwan was interviewed by Cal Koat on March 4th/08 for broadcast on Celt In A Twist, AM 1470, CJVB

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