Daoirí Farrell, A PINT OF PLAIN (Pat Goode and Flann O’Brien)
My plan for the next Friday Song was to celebrate an intense, passionate and slightly strange love song (of which more later).
Then I thought again. It’s Friday the 13th. The mood today is exceptionally grim. If ever there were a moment when we a need song to lift the spirits, and raise a defiant two fingers to the world, this is it.
Cue this week’s Friday Song, ‘A Pint of Plain (is Your Only Man)’. Or ‘The Workman’s Friend’, as it was originally called.
‘When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.’
In my ignorance, I had never read, or even heard of ‘The Workman’s Friend’, which was a poem included in the first novel of the great comic Irish comic novelist Flann O’Brien At Swim-Two -Birds. Since its original publication in 1939, it has become a firm favourite in Ireland and not so long ago was voted in at 46 in a top 100 of the country’s best-loved poems.
But the song version, with a tune by the Irish songwriter Pat Goode, lifts the poem to another level. In my experience (and I realise that this is a reckless generalisation based largely on ignorance), many good poems adapted to music fail to take wing. The lyrics get in the way. If you listen to, for example, Chaim Tannenbaum’s setting of John Betjeman’s ‘Business Girls’, there’s a slight awkwardness to it, as if the melody is walking in shoes that don’t quite fit.
I find the same problem with – dare I say it? – the Pete Atkin/Clive James partnership. I like Pete Atkin’s music and some of Clive James’s poems work for me but, put together, there’s a self-conscious cleverness which puts me off. Too many words. The lyrics and tune pull against each other.
‘The Workman’s Friend’ is a simple, funny poem , and Pat Goode’ s straightforward folky melody, with a larky little chorus added, suits it well. It’s fine when he plays it – you can hear it at 3:48 on this clip – but it is the extraordinary Daorí Farrell who has produced the perfect version.
Farrell’s clear, unforgettable voice, his musical storytelling, the way he plays his bouzouki are one of the one of the (largely unsung) glories of the contemporary folk scene. He has only released three albums but every song he sings carries an emotional force, a sense of history and untold stories, rarely found in any genre.
This is not one of his great songs. Of his work, ‘The Galway Shawl‘, ‘John O’Dreams’ and ‘Creggan White Hare’ are particular favourites of mine. His version of Liam Weldon’s extraordinary love song ‘Via Extasia’ was the Friday Song I had planned before the need for something a little more cheerful became evident.
But today of all days we need a sing that makes us forget the fretfulness of politics and division, and celebrates music, booze and the glorious human spirit.
I defy you not sing along…