Excerpts from Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
From the publisher:
The Bay of Biscay, June 23, 1816 (pp. 15-18)
A man raced into the gundeck and made for the corner where we’d stowed our instruments. His long tan coat fluttered at his back while both of his arms held something large in toward his abdomen. He sank flat to the floor behind Andrew’s drum cases and rolled there for a moment. Then he rose, without his coat and with his hands slipped coolly into his pockets. With meandering footsteps he moved away from the corner, just as an officer and a pair of soldiers lurched through the door. The coatless man perched his chin to the floor and dissolved into the crowds.
“A man’s gone off with the Governor’s rum,” called the officer. “Has he come this way?”
It was silent. The officer looked about the room. He recognized Frank Ryan and asked him again. Ryan stood with his shoulders lifted. The officer prowled for another moment before motioning for the soldiers to follow him away. When sufficient time had passed, the coatless man walked back out from the crowds. He peered through the doorway and then ran into the corner. He tore up his coat and extended up two jugs of rum into the low ceiling. The Medusa swung with the roar of the men on the gundeck. Songs broke loose from Frenchmen and English; even the navvys had a song.
“You must play!” voices rang up. “Play!”
In a moment, Andrew, standing behind his drums, counted off and we began, as fast as we could play, filling the bowels of the ship with sound. Shane pulled a folded page from his jacket, opened it, and shouted its text in time with the music. His voice was deep, commanding, and scattered as he sang of the misdeeds of a soldier. He’d reach a chorus, “And the drums a’going a rat-ta-tat-tat,” and Andrew would pound along at the snare. Spider hauled up a biscuit tray, crashing it against his brow in time with Andrew, creating a great clash. The gundeck crowds clapped along, stomping, some jaunting up into the low, wooden beams of the deck and then collapsing to the floor, clutching at their skulls and laughing. The coatless man fought through the merry melee with one of the jugs. He thrust it before me washing a warm wave of rum onto my sleeve. The man had placid blue eyes and a nose that angled upward like a snail. I ceased with my banjo and lifted the jug of spice to my lips and then passed it along to Philip. Then the man paraded up with the band, stomping and jigging along. Men would reach from the crowd to touch his shoulder and rub his hair. Instantly he was a hero, the first of the Medusa, spiriting the Frenchmen. He’d cast a first strike against the Royalists on the ship: the Governor, the Captain, and their elite entourage. Spider leaned to the man and asked his name. Then he called it out, “Jesse James” and another roar rose. Spider extended out his arms and the music diluted away. He began to play a tiny whistle tune that mounted at each measure until men began to clap and stomp along. We started to play again. I picked quickly at my banjo: a long mountain tune. Spider, in his rusted holler, sang an ode to James, the new hero. The gundeck shuddered with the surge of the crowds. When there were tilts of the ship from the swelling sea outside, the crowds would lose balance and heap onto each other. When they rose to stomp again, the men’s lips were rich with delight. As we played, I watched their faces. Something beyond Jesse James and our music stirred them. They had streams of sweat riding over the brands on their chests: a revolution transformed.
With Spider singing, Shane and Frank Ryan jigged among the band. Ryan hadn’t expected James’s theft and his canonization, but it played into his plan for revolt. And he danced. Together the two men gulped from the jug, embracing amid the music. “Jesse—James,” the crowds called over and over, diluting even the music we played.
The spectacle was damning for James. On the order of the Captain, a Lieutenant came into the gundeck to settle the noise. A collection of soldiers stood behind him. When they came through the crowds they found Jesse James dancing before the band, passing around the Governor’s rum. The Lieutenant thrust his finger at James and the soldiers toggled for a moment, looking to each other. The Lieutenant drew out his pistol and ordered the soldiers again. One soldier moved ahead and a branded man from the crowd charged out and pulled him down. The soldiers put the branded man down with the slap of their rifle butts. The music ended. Shouts came from the crowd. The Lieutenant held out his pistol. Another squad of soldiers came into the gundeck. There were volleys of curses and the threat of a massive brawl. I could see the tendons of hands, rigid and taut, clutching at shirt sleeves, and mists of spit bursting from the mouths of the men. Finally, under the watch of many guns, Jesse James was released from the crowds and seized by the soldiers.
“To the hold with him!” ordered the Lieutenant.
Another officer leaned ahead and whispered to him. The Lieutenant slapped his pistol against his side and lifted his shoulders. He looked to the floor and thought for a moment. Then he spoke, “Place a guard at the door and check him when we reach St. Louis.”
The soldiers pulled James away to the hold while the crowds cheered and banged their cups to the walls. Ryan stepped before the crowds. “Remember this,” he shouted and then raised his arms, urging Spider to play again.
Outside, the Medusa led the convoy out of the Bay of Biscay.
Later we’d learn the source of the Lieutenant’s hesitation to lock Jesse James away in the hold: that in the dark, among the stores of flour and wine, there were three barrels of gold, 90,000 francs altogether, property of the King of France.
“I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” (pp. 26-28)
I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to
make time irrelevant to make decades and generations seem
On their first two full-length releases, the Pogues immersed themselves so completely into folk music’s temporal continuum that it’s difficult to determine where traditional songs ended and the Pogues began. This notion was so honed, in fact, that these records seamlessly bound between decades and centuries. On Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, the Pogues demonstrate that as humankind’s struggles change in context, their soul persists; whether it’s in the age of sail, on the cliffs at Gallipoli, in a working man’s pub in Dagenham, or an alley in Piccadilly. In our conversation, Jem spoke to this point: “The common man’s struggle against the system has always permeated folk music . . . by its very nature people are singing about their lot.” DzM, site creator and administrator of the Pogues.com fan website observes, “One aspect I really love about [Rum, Sodomy & the Lash] is that it generally feels to be looking to the previous century for inspiration.” And in the liner notes for the Pogues’ Waiting for Herb LP reissue, Bob Geldof writes, “The Pogues made great records and played great gigs but the glory are the songs. This is what will last. Old ones lovingly restored to their pristine attitudes, correctly interpreted to the now and originals as timeless as if written in some smoky corner 300 years ago or a piss-stinking bus shelter in London last week.”
Amid this sense of retrospect, “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” takes us deeper in time than any other song on the record. The question, for example, of whether the song’s protagonist was real or fictitious will, in all likelihood, never be determined, for even the song’s origins are unclear. “The curve of the tune’s first strain with its leap of a 6th, suggests a general relationship with many [Scottish] highland and Irish melodic models,” write folk historians James Porter and Hershel Gower. “The song has been associated with Scots travelers in recent times but Irish influence is apparent.” The song, more commonly known as “Jock Stewart,” is a sketch of a man who with each verse becomes more confounding. We learn that he’s a rich landowner, a good shot, a traveler, perhaps a war veteran, and a man quick to temper. He gives threatening pretext to his generosity:
So come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine,
Then there’s the issue of Stewart shooting his dog. Some renditions of the song have the dog simply accompanying Stewart on a hunt. While the Pogues weren’t the first to present the former, more brutal version of the lyric, it does add a complexity to the character of Jock Stewart that’s consistent with the other novel and interpreted ones on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, like a drunken, syphilis-chancred, freedom fighter (“The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”), a shattered dreamer (“The Old Main Drag”), a hell-raising family man (“Jesse James”), and a brawling peacekeeper (“Billy’s Bones”). Did Stewart become enraged with the dog? Was it sick? Was Stewart himself sick? Whatever the case, the Pogues’ interpretation demonstrates the vitality of folk music and its proclivity toward revision.
Further abstracting the character of Jock Stewart is that, in its most famous version, the song’s first-person narrative is sung by Jeannie Robertson, a woman. Upon first listening to Rum, Sodomy & the Lash too, it’s unhinging to come upon, “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.” It’s here, four songs into the record, that we discover the haunting sweetness of Cait O’Riordan.
Jeffrey T. Roesgen
Discussion is here.
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