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The Legacy and Mystery of The Song Whiskey in the Jar

Spirits and song. Take two of humanity’s most celebrated traditions, mix in generous pours of sex, violence and betrayal and you have the recipe for the melody that’s rang out across tiny pubs to massive stadiums for over four hundred years as the anthem Whiskey In The Jar.

If the title doesn’t immediately ring your bell, you’ve probably heard the song somewhere along the way. It was being belted out farther back than you can easily trace your family’s generations without scientific assistance. Cultural historians agree the tune’s origins date back to 17th-century Ireland.

Play the Thin Lizzy version but don’t flinch as the very first guitar notes sting at you, sharp as the rapier blade referenced in stanza two. The minor key riff that follows unfolds into a promise of tension and drama. The acoustic rhythm chords kick in and the drums power you into movement. You aren’t listening to any boring ballad, you’re now off on an adventure of danger and romance!

The average person’s view of a highway robber in 17th century Britain, Scotland and Ireland was generally a positive one, akin to a Robin Hood archetype that robbed the rich of the wealth they’d acquired by taxation and exploitation. When the melody made its way across the Atlantic to Colonial America it was quickly embraced by another mass audience very happy to mock the British military personnel enforcing the increasingly unpopular policies and regulations that would soon spark the American Revolution.

Fast-forward to the 20th century and the 1960s, when folk music was increasingly popular. In 1962, American folk group The Highwaymen released a version of Whiskey In The Jar on their third album, Encore. Around the same time the Irish folk quintet The Dubliners had established it as a signature song of their live set, eventually producing a studio version on their second album, More Of The Hard Stuff.

Parallel to the way the song moved west from Ireland to America, a profound development occurred when the genre style evolved from folk to rock music courtesy of legendary Irish band Thin Lizzy. For any listeners not fully devoted to folk, the Thin Lizzy stomper is the definitive modern version.

During a lackluster rehearsal above a pub in London’s Kings Cross, band members Phil Lynott (bass and vocals), Eric Bell (guitar) and Brian Downey (drums) were passing time flipping through magazines and feeling uninspired. Little did they realize that lightning was about to strike. Out of the blue, Phil picked up Eric’s backup Telecaster guitar and started strumming basic chords to old Irish standards they knew by heart. Phil began singing along, adding traditional lyrics peppered with improvisation. None of the band took the jam seriously until their manager Ted Carroll walked in and insisted that if they could capture the sounds in a recording studio, they would have a surefire hit.

The band were dismissive of the idea. In the BBC Documentary Thin Lizzy – Bad Reputation, Eric Bell recalled “…we said ‘Don’t be stupid!’ You know, we left Ireland to get away from that type of music and now you want us to record it.” Wisely they relented and followed through on the suggestion, laying down the tracks in September 1972. Released on November 3rd, 1972, the song hit the Top 50 in Australia, Belgium and The Netherlands, cracked the Top Ten in West Germany (#7), the UK (#6), and raced all the way to #1 in Ireland, where it stayed as chart king in its native land for 17 consecutive weeks. It must’ve had a spark of Irish magic in the groove, as Whiskey In The Jar became the breakthrough hit that propelled Thin Lizzy to international stardom.

This was the basis for later covers by diverse artists including The Grateful Dead, Simple Minds, Gary Moore, Belle and Sebastian, Pulp, U2, The Pogues, and most successfully, Metallica. The heavy metal legends were bestowed with the Grammy award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2000 for their cover descended from the Thin Lizzy arrangement.

Why did Molly betray him? Lack of courage? Even worse, lack of love? The bandit could’ve easily hidden the loot in the forest then went on his way. What flawed logic led him to conclude that passing out at his lover’s pad alongside the stolen evidence was a good idea? Does Captain Ferrell survive the double pistol blasts? If not, does the bandit swing for it, or does he eventually escape into the sunset? Was Molly also romantically involved with the Captain? Does she regret her decision? What does an unlimited supply of liquor have anything to do with highway robbery, a broken bond and a shootout?

The tally ends in more questions than answers. There is only one conclusion to bet on, solid as a boulder in the Cork and Kerry mountains. Mush-ah rang dom ah doo ahm ahh dah! There’s whiskey in the jar.

Music Videos

Thin Lizzy – Thin Lizzy – Whiskey In The Jar 1973 Video Sound HQ

The Dubliners – Dubliners: Whiskey in the Jar (best version!!!)

Metallica (Live in Ireland) Metallica: Whiskey in the Jar (Slane Castle – Meath, Ireland – June 8, 2019)

The post The Legacy and Mystery of The Song Whiskey in the Jar appeared first on Chilled Magazine.

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