I am an inveterate haunter of old places. I grew up among them, and I have never desired to see them obliterated, even when people no longer put them to use. There was an old wooden schoolhouse a few hundred yards away from my house when I was a small boy. My mother attended there. One of my earliest memories is of the fire that burned it to ashes one night, as I can still see in my mind’s eye, though I was no more than three years old.
When I was a little older, I went wandering about the woodland paths the miners took, and I liked to scramble up a sort of mountain of coal—the worst that could happen to you was that you would slide down it and cut your arm or leg—searching for fossils, which were everywhere. Older still, and I picked my way across the planks of an abandoned trestle set high above the river, with my collie who somehow managed never to set a foot on the wide empty spaces between. I loved these things, because they spoke to me of a time past, and their implicit promise was that anything truly human never quite passes away.
I am an anti-progressive, I suppose, if to be progressive means a worship of moving on, abandoning the past, and in our time, abandoning so much of what ordinary people used to do and believe and honor. So when I happened upon a short video of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers on the Mike Douglas Show, probably around 1969, I had to shake my head and consider how much of American decency was thriving as late as all that, and what genuine folk traditions still breathed the air of patriotism and faith, and how a patriot can understand another patriot even when they do not share the same country, and can be gratified by the other’s patriotism, just as you are cheered to see another man’s son honor him as his father.
The song that Makem and the Clancys sang was the Irish ballad, “The Gypsy Rover.” There was no flash, no sneering, no mugging. Makem, a baritone, sang the lead, while the three others accompanied him in harmony or unison, one of them picking a beautiful melody of strings on the guitar, and another whistling as well as anyone I have ever heard. That was just right for a song whose refrain includes these words:
He whistled and he sang
Till the green woods rang,
And he won the heart of a lady.
The young lady has left her father to marry the Gypsy Rover, who gives her all that he has, for he is no wild man of the woods, she tells her father, “but lord of these lands all over,” and she will be with him till her dying day
You hear it, and you say, “Where has that music gone?” But it is not really the music that is gone, or not exactly. I suppose you can go hear a band somewhere that specializes in Irish folk songs, and you may hear Gypsy Rover. But it is rather the feeling, the mystery of love, that prompted the song in the first place—the wonder, the beauty of love between man and woman—that is what you will not find. That refrain I have cited—no one in our time would compose such a thing, because the feelings that prompted it have been obliterated
But there is more. When the Clancys have finished the song—and, by the way, they have asked the audience to join them in each refrain—Douglas comes on stage to applaud them and to ask them their names, one by one, and with him comes another of his guests that day, Ricardo “O’Montalbán,” as he jests. They have a good laugh, when still another guest comes up to introduce himself as “Meyer Clancy”—the Jewish comedian, George Jessel. Before Jessel gets back to his seat, the boys regale him with a chorus of Shalom, and he returns to thank them
What happens at this point is remarkable. “I’ve been to Ireland many times,” says Jessel, noting that he’s stayed with his honor the mayor of Dublin, and then he draws a connection between Ireland and the Jews. He recounts a legend that says that 600 years “before the blessings of Christianity,” a Jewish maiden wept upon a mountain near Dublin, and that that is why it is called Mount Kippur, the Mount of Atonement. And in fact, when Israel was just beginning to set down roots in Palestine as a new nation, the first boys who flew over to help us, he says, were the Irish
Then Montalbán asks them if they have ever been to Mexico, his homeland, and if they know anything about the Batallon de San Patrizio, the Saint Patrick’s Brigade, as they called themselves, that fought on the Mexican side in the Mexican American war. Indeed the boys do know about it. As one of the Clancy brothers says, a group of Irishmen took a good look at whom they were fighting for and whom they were fighting against, and they shifted sides, because they saw in the Mexicans the same kind of people they themselves were, with the same Catholic faith, and similar family traditions
All of this, again, is spoken in good cheer. Ricardo Montalbán did love his adopted homeland the United States, not despite his love for Mexico, but because of it, and Makem and the Clancys understood that love too, because they loved Ireland, just as George Jessel loved both his own United States and the nation of Israel. No murmurs from the audience, either, and not a shade of embarrassment from Mike Douglas; only applause and understanding and gratitude
To watch those six minutes, my reader, is like wandering in the woods and happening upon a place that used to be a village, with the ruins of homes and farms, schoolhouse and church, town hall and mill, and to find in those ruins the traces of objects of real beauty, bespeaking not just a technology that is gone because our tools are improved or because we no longer care to make the things that those people made, but also a way of being human that is gone, something good and sane that has not been superseded. No, not superseded; you can love more devotedly, you can choose a worthier object of your love, but you cannot improve upon the thing itself. You cannot go from love to something greater. You can only fall from love into lust or selfishness or political calculation or indifference or scorn
Where is the American love song now? The old schoolhouse stood four-square for freedom. What does it really stand for now, but a garish self-realization, which means, practically, submission to whatever foolish fad is in the air? The schoolhouse stood next to the church in more ways than one, and in both places the rich stood shoulder to shoulder with the poor, because their lives were not all that different, and because they breathed the same cultural air and sang the same songs and loved the same things
To live in America in 2022 is to know that you could watch a thousand hours of television shows and never once see anything like what Mike Douglas and his audience took as an ordinary occurrence, back around 1968, that year of turmoil when the world was falling to pieces. What we do about it is another matter. But we must do something. I like to visit graveyards. I do not want to live there.