The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #24/250: The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers

A dear friend of mine who is a Teacher-Librarian at a nearby school to where I live recently wrote an impassioned blog post about the importance of reading aloud to children. She spoke about some of her favourite chapter books and how they were brought to life for her as a young girl because of the way her teachers read to her and her classmates. Her post *(which you can read here) seems like an obvious thing for a teacher to preach, but as she said, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the increased use of facial masks, along with a younger generation of teachers who, themselves, have grown up using technology to read their words, rather than books, she had noted a marked decrease in the number of classrooms in her school where being read to aloud was a regular part of a student’s day.

Her post struck a chord with me because when I was teaching, reading aloud to my students was my absolute favourite part of my day! I am an introverted person most of the time so reading great literature aloud gave me permission to tap into my theatrical side. I loved the cadence of wonderfully written language. I enjoyed reading “in character” by altering my voice and adopting accents and so on. But, most of all, I found great pleasure in inviting children into the magical world of stories. Helping to ignite a passion for reading is one of the most satisfying aspects of my job as a teacher. Not only is reading a crucial life skill but the ability to use your imagination, to be a problem-solver and to develop an appreciation for characters and cultures different from your own all play out in stories…especially, in stories read aloud by someone you trust.

The front cover of the book, "Where The Sidewalk Ends" by poet Shel Silverstein.

In June of 2018, as the date of my retirement approached, I tasked myself with the job of clearing out my classroom so that the incoming teacher wouldn’t have to deal with piles of resources that he or she may not have wanted. Among the resources to be cleared out were almost 2000 books. Over the course of my thirty year career, I had accumulated a vast in-class library of fiction and non-fiction books. I had them organized by subject in bins on shelves all around our classroom where they could be accessed by my students. As the end of that final school year approached, I was lucky to have another teacher come along and ask about what I intended to do with my classroom library. I ended up giving it all to her. The day she came to take them away, we discovered that I had seventy-two bins of books. Somehow she managed to get them all into a truck. I hope that some or all of those books turned out to be useful to her and that she is sharing them with her students even as I type these words. However, before this lady came to take my books away, I went through my own collection and pulled out thirty books that were important to me for various reasons….one book for each year that I was a classroom teacher. Those books I took home. Each time I look at them I am reminded of what it felt like to be involved in the journey that each child took when they walked through our classroom door and what a privilege it was to be their teacher. One of those thirty special books was a book of poetry for children called Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

A photograph of a copy of the page from "Where The Sidewalk Ends" that contains his poem, "The Unicorn".
At once a children’s poem and also a hit song for The Irish Rovers.

The poetry of Shel Silverstein was silly and subversive at the same time. It dealt with topics that young children could relate to such as fear of the dark, the perils of laziness, dealing with parents and/or siblings and much, much more. The language used by Silverstein was sometimes simple and many times lyrical. I used this book (and several of his other books of poetry) with every group of students I ever taught from the very first year I bought this book (Year #3 of my career), all the way to that very last class in 2018. By the time I took that book home with me in the summer sunshine, it was threadbare and falling apart from overuse…as all loved books should be. But something magical lay buried within the pages of this book. It was there in all those classrooms over the years. It was there before I ever bought the book. It lies there now for you to discover should you ever care to look for yourselves. The treasure buried within the pages of this great book is a hit song! It is true! On pages 76 and 77 of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is a poem called The Unicorn. This poem was written by Shel Silverstein as a commentary on religion and inclusion and silliness. It concerns the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and how he created a floating zoo and how the unicorns were invited in but were too busy playing games to see the danger all around them from the rising flood waters (which explains why children can never see a real unicorn in the wild anymore says Silverstein). This poem would have remained strictly a moralistic tale for children if not for the fact that a group of Irish immigrants to Canada chose it as a song for their debut album. That group became the Irish Rovers and their version of “The Unicorn” went all the way to #1 in Canada, selling over 8 million records in all, making it the biggest hit song in their whole career.

Four members of the Irish Rovers in a row holding an accordion, an acoustic guitar, nothing and an acoustic guitar.
The Irish Rovers in the early days.

The Irish Rovers got their name from an old song called The Irish Rover , which chronicles the journey taken by a ship back in the days of exploration and discovery. It is a fantastical tale of adventure and ruin and has been a popular drinking song in Ireland for generations. The Irish Rovers band was formed in the 1960s in Toronto when a man named Will Millar met another man named Jimmy Ferguson and the two spent the evening singing and drinking and singing some more. Millar introduced Ferguson to his brothers George, Joe and Ian who, in turn, were joined by an accordion player named John Reynolds. Together, the boys in the band became one of the driving forces behind making Irish/Celtic music popular in Canada and around the world. The Irish Rovers eventually became Canadian citizens at the behest of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who then proclaimed them to be official Canadian ambassadors of music and sent them off to tour around the world under the banner of the Canadian red maple leaf flag. The Irish Rovers launched their career with “The Unicorn”, but they had plenty of other hits, including “Wasn’t That a Party?!”, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Black Velvet Band”. Not only did the Irish Rovers have a number of hit songs, but they were also television stars in Canada. The Irish Rovers hosted several iterations of the same variety show over the course of two decades. The shows would be set in a pub-like locale and would see the band play several tunes, along with a few celebrity guests who would show up, from time to time. One of my favourite university memories was getting to go to a live taping of an episode of “Party With The Rovers” in 1983.

Lead singer of The Irish Rovers, Will Millar and the band's former manager, Les Weinstein, arm in arm, holding glasses of beer.
A recent photo of Will Millar of The Irish Rovers and Les Weinstein, the band’s former manager and father of my roommate in university, Lisa Weinstein.

During my first year of university I lived in a student apartment complex in Toronto called Neill-Wycik College. My building was twenty-three stories tall and consisted of apartment units that housed four, five or six students at a time. Each unit had a common kitchen/living room area, two shared bathrooms and a bedroom for each student. In my first year, I was part of a six-person unit. There were three guys and three girls living together in what became a sort of family set-up. Being new to such a big city, it was helpful to have a group of people to explore the city with and to learn how to develop consistent cooking, cleaning and studying routines. One of the girls I lived with was a young lady named Lisa Weinstein. Lisa was taking the same Radio and Television Broadcasting course that I was. But, for the sake of this story, what is most important to note about Lisa was that her father was a man named Les Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein was an executive with a fledgling Canadian record label named Nettwerk Records. Nettwerk Records began by signing and promoting bands such as Skinny Puppy and The Grapes of Wrath. They would eventually gain fame by signing and developing a young female singer from Halifax named Sarah McLachlan. One of the other bands that was managed by Mr. Weinstein at Nettwerk Records was The Irish Rovers. So, when they were filming for their new series, Lisa asked us, as her roommates, if we wanted to attend a taping. We readily agreed and off we went. As mentioned, the set was designed to look like an Irish pub. Instead of sitting behind the cameras in bleachers, where many shows place their audience, we were seated at round tables meant to resemble how tables would be set in a real pub. Because of this, the audience was on camera as much as the singers were. One of the rules we were given before taping began was that there could never be an empty beer glass seen on a table. So, between each take, crew members would wander around and refill every glass! My glass was refilled four or five times, at least! I can’t quite remember to be sure. The members of the band drank with us drink for drink. By the time the show ended with a boozy rendition of “The Black Velvet Band” with guest star, Tommy Makem, I can barely remember applauding and stumbling home. But I do remember how personable the Irish Rovers all were and that It was a fun evening. If Lisa had asked, I am sure we would have all gone back again and again to the tapings.

Five mugs of ice cold beer being held aloft.
Here’s to you all!!!

It is funny how life is sometimes. Men from Ireland formed a band in Canada named after an Irish sea shanty. They had a hit song with a children’s poem from a book that I valued more than most in my own classroom library. But, before ever becoming a teacher, I drank beers with the band on the set of their show simply because I had the great good fortune to be roommates with their manager’s daughter. Although it may be a good story, it is one that I never shared with my students because I didn’t feel as though a story about their teacher getting hammered on free beer with the Irish Rovers was a suitable tale to tell. But, let me tell you, every time I opened that book in class and saw that poem I remembered. I remembered every moment of it all. And furthermore, unlike every other Shel Silverstein poem in that book, “The Unicorn” was one I couldn’t just read….it was one I had to sing.

The link to the video for the song “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for The Irish Rovers can be found here.

The link to the video for the original Irish song, “The Irish Rover” as performed by The Dubliners and The Pogues can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The studio in which the “Party With The Rovers” show was filmed was in Don Mills, Ontario. The official website for Don Mills, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Reader’s Choice…Song # 3/250: Dirty Old Town by The Pogues.

Ladies and Gentlemen…The Pogues!

The Pogues are one of my very favourite bands. They were formed in the early 1980s and grew out of the emerging Punk Rock scene in the UK. However, despite a penchant for drunkenness and wild behaviour, The Pogues were not the same sort of band as The Sex Pistols were. Their songs often read like poetry and spoke of the travails of real people in small, working class towns like the one I grew up in back in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The Pogues are most well known for their song, “FairyTale of New York” but their catalogue is vast with songs such as “Fiesta”, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “The Turkish Voyage of the Damned” and “Dirty Old Town” all being audience favourites. The Pogues were an eight-to-ten piece band at any given time. They often incorporated instruments such as penny whistles, accordions and banjos into their songs. Their lead singer was the charismatic Shane McGowan. McGowan was known for his great height, his alarming lack of teeth and for the boozy manner in which he sang his lyrics. The Pogues, in general and, McGowan, in particular, were a fun to see live. They always brought a lot of energy to their performances but, as well they always appeared to be teetering on the edge of coming apart at the seams. This sense of perpetual uncertainty eventually took its toll in the early 1990s with Shane McGowan being fired for failing to appear for concerts. In order to fill his role so that the band could carry on, former Clash lead singer, Joe Strummer fronted the band for awhile. Eventually, The Pogues disbanded for good but they will always be remembered with great fondness by their fans, of which I am definitely one.

Ewan MacColl in the 1950s when he wrote, “Dirty Old Town”.

The song, “Dirty Old Town” is one of their more famous songs but, in truth it is actually a cover song. “Dirty Old Town” was originally written back in the 1950s by a famous Irish singer named Ewan MacColl. MacColl was a song writer and social activist who wrote several famous songs such as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, “Dirty Old Town”, as well as revising the centuries old lyrics for a song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel called, “Scarborough Fair”. *(You can read a post about “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” here). In any case, “Dirty Old Town” is a song about a real town in England called Salford, which is near Manchester, to the northwest of London. The song tells of life and love amid the factories that lined a canal that ran by the edge of town. The Pogues came to record this song because of their connection with singer Kirsty MacColl (who was Ewan MacColl’s daughter) and who, you may remember, was the female counterpart to Shane McGowan’s drunken lover in “FairyTale of New York”. *(You can read a post about that song here). While Kirsty MacColl was around the band during the recording of “FairyTale of New York”, she played other traditional songs from her father’s song book. One of the many songs that she played for the boys was, “Dirty Old Town”.

Like most songs favoured by The Pogues, “Dirty Old Town” is replete with imagery.

I met my girl by the gas works wall

Dreamed a dream by the old canal

I kissed my girl by the factory wall

Dirty old town

Dirty old town.”

Songs such as this ring true for me. Growing up in Glace Bay in the 1960s and 70s meant that I shared my town with hardworking fishermen and coal miners. Glace Bay was a blue collar town, for sure. There were plenty of stories to be told from down on the wharf that edged both sides of our harbour and from the lamp houses that stood watch over the coal mines that dotted the land. When people work hard for a living it makes the simple pleasures of a shared drink with friends or a stolen kiss from your heart’s desire seem like treasure. It is that understanding that has always come through for me in the songs by The Pogues.

Not surprisingly, “Dirty Old Town” was nominated as a Reader’s Choice song by someone else from back home….my good friend, Paul Coombs. Paul and I went to high school together and have managed to stay in touch as the decades have rolled by. So, it is with a raised glass of good cheer extended in his direction that I thank Paul for nominating “Dirty Old Town”. It is a great song from a great band and I am pleased to play it for everyone today. So, without further delay, here are The Pogues with their cover of the Ewan MacColl classic tune, “Dirty Old Town”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Dirty Old Town” can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pogues can be found here.

The link to the official website of Ewan MacColl can be found here.

The link to the official website for Kirsty MacColl can be found here.

The link to the official website of Salford, England….the subject of “Dirty Old Town” can be found here.

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #347: Fairy Tale of New York by The Pogues (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #347: FairyTale of New York by The Pogues.

One of the stories that has become woven into the fabric of America is that of immigrants sailing to the US in search of a better life. Over the course of several centuries, this has certainly been true of people from Ireland. While those escaping the great “Potato Famine” may be among the most well-known Irish immigrants who came to America; in reality, the Irish have been sailing away from their homeland for generations. When Irish immigrants leave Ireland for America, their arrival point was often Ellis Island, near The Statue of Liberty, in New York City. One can well imagine what a relief it must have been to see the end of their storm-tossed journey across The Atlantic Ocean in the form of a glorious statue beckoning them forth into a new land, where anything is possible and all of their dreams could come true. It is not surprising that such a sight has come to inspire poets, artists, singers and writers to put their emotions into words. Among the many songs that have been written about the Irish coming to America, one of the most famous and beloved is “FairyTale of New York” by The Pogues.

“The Pogues” are a Irish band that some call a Punk band. But, from my point of view, while they may have a reputation for being drunk and disorderly, they have managed to create some of the best written and most heartfelt songs in Modern Music History. Their musical catalogue includes such classics as, “Fiesta”. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, “Dirty Old Town”, “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” and their biggest hit, “Fairy Tale of New York”. One of the characteristics of most songs by “The Pogues” is their ability to tell stories based in human terms. For example, in “Dirty Old Town”, the crux of that song is the boyhood thrill of being able to sneak a kiss from a pretty girl. “Turkish Voyage of the Damned” is actually about the journey, via boat, across the ocean to America. And, “Fairy Tale of New York” is about two people who meet once they have arrived and are starting their new life in NYC.

“FairyTale of New York” is sung by lead singer, Shane McGowan and a woman named Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty MacColl is an interesting figure in the story of this song. She was a singer/songwriter from the UK who had some minor hits of her own, most notably, a song called, “They Don’t Know” which was covered by singer Tracy Ullman and which became a big hit for Ullman in the 1980s. MacColl married a well-known record producer named Steve Lilywhite and, via that association, came to sing on a number of records by bands that he was producing, including, “The Smiths”, “Alison Moyet”, “Talking Heads” and “Abba”. For most of those sessions, MacColl worked as a background singer but, when “The Pogues” came to record “FairyTale of New York”, McGowan needed a female foil for the character he played in the song. MacColl, because she was available, became the woman in the song and has gone on to forever be associated with this hit. However, in reality, when “The Pogues” perform this song live, a revolving cast of female singers (some well known and others, brand new) have filled MacColl’s role. So, when you see a video or live performance, don’t assume it is Kirsty MacColl up there. It really could be almost any female singer.

As for the song, itself, there are many who claim that it is one of the most romantic songs of all-time. The basis for their claim lay in the depth of feeling expressed throughout the lyrics by McGowan’s character for his female companion. The story is that McGowan’s character finds himself in the NYPD drunk tank on Christmas Eve and is taking stock of his life based upon the men he sees around him at the time.

“It’s Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.

An old man said to me, “Won’t see another one.”

And then, he sang a song. A rare old mountain dew.

I turned my face away And dreamed about you.”

MacColl’s character is having none of McGowan’s waxy nostalgia and holds him to account all throughout the song. The back-and-forth dynamic unfolds like a Broadway play, culminating in the closing verse, where each character exchanges the following lines:

McGowan: “I could have been someone.”

MacColl: “Well, so could anyone. You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.”

McGowan: “I kept them with me, babe. I put them with my own. Can’t make it all alone. I’ve built my dreams around you.”

There aren’t many songs in which the storylines between two characters are so richly drawn and so deeply told, as is the case with “Fairy Tale of New York”. “The Pogues” may not be a band filled with pretty boys but, for my money, they have made some of the most memorable music I’ve heard in my adult life. They are one of my Top Ten favourite bands of all-time and, “Fairy Tale of New York” is, definitely, my favourite Christmas song. So, without further delay, here are “The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl” with “FairyTale of New York”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Fairy Tale of New York” by The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Pogues, can be found here.

The link to the website for radio station KEXP, can be found here.