Finding an Irish soundtrack for a St. Patrick's Day celebration doesn't take a lot of exhaustive research. Generic "Best of Ireland" compilations abound in outlet stores, on iTunes and even on racks in gas stations, collections that feature anonymous artists playing generic versions of traditional Celtic tunes.
For those who want to invest tomorrow's celebration with some more authenticity, though, we've put together a list of bona fide artists playing authentic traditional songs. From the groundbreaking work of artists like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and the Dubliners in the 1960s to their modern disciples, the list represents songs with a deep history and respectable tradition, songs that stem from a storied tradition of songs and stories from the Emerald Isle.
10. "Jug of Punch"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1962; Pete Seeger, Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, 1960.
What better way to kick off a St. Patrick's Day song list than with a song about whiskey? Like the tunes on this list dedicated to Irish moonshine, the song "Jug of Punch" sings the praises of a specific kind of alcoholic beverage. Irish punch is made with honey, cloves and whiskey, a brew that draws a faithful praise from this ballad's narrator. "Even the cripple forgets his hunch when he's snug outside of a jug of punch, " the song claims. The tune, which stretches back decades and decades, also has sharp criticism for those who would praise temperance. "And if I'm drunk then my money is me own and them don't like me can leave me alone."
9. "Irish Rover"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1962; The Pogues and Ronnie Drew, 1987; The Blaggards, 2005; Dropkick Murphys, 2011.
Attributed to the songwriter and lyricist J.M. Crofts, "The Irish Rover" details the exploits of a fabled (and fictional) Irish ship, a craft that ferried a wealth of goods and employed a colorful crew. The verses detail the crew and the goods on the ship item-by-item and character-by-character. After the ship bounds the seas for years, a case of the measles breaks out, and the crew is reduced to two: the narrator and the captain's dog. It's the best kind of lyrical gymnastics and narrative irony that Irish folk music has to offer, a quality that's made the tune of old masters like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and contemporary artists like the Dropkick Murphys. A dual version of "The Irish Rover" in 1987 between the Pogues and the Dubliners posted above was a compelling marriage of old and new in Irish folk, a partnership that showcased both bands' strongest talents.
8. "Dirty Old Town"
Notable versions: The Dubliners, 1968; The Pogues, 1985; Mountain Goats, 2002.
The Pogues' 1985 sophomore album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, helped turn "Dirty Old Town" into an anthem known across Europe and beyond, but the ballad's roots stretch back to the budding folk movement of the 1950s. British musician, playwright and activist Ewan MacColl penned the tune in 1949 as a musical nod to the town Salford, located in Lancashire, England. Originally composed to accompany a stage play, the song quickly became a standard in the lexicon of countless European folk groups, including the Dubliners. The Dubliners' definitive version of the tune, with Luke Kelly providing the stirring and heartfelt lead vocals, would presage the Pogues' version by decades. Both Irish outfits put their definitive stamps on MacColl's tune, investing the imagery of factory walls and old canals with a degree of lyricism and meaning. Indeed, it's no wonder that more than 60 years after an Englishman wrote the tune, it remains a definitive Irish ballad for many.
7. "All for Me Grog"
Notable versions: A.L. Lloyd, 1956; The Watersons, 1966; Liam Clancy, 1965.
In the liner notes to A.L. Lloyd's 1956 album English Drinking Songs, the London-born folk singer gave context to the song "All For Me Grog, " a tale of excess and abandon. "Here we have a sailor's song from the last bitter days of sail; a hard-scrubbed, threadbare relic of hearty 'Yo-ho-ho' songs of old, " Lloyd wrote. "Jack Tar is no longer jolly - his boots are scuffed, the rags of his shirt-tail flog him in the breeze, the alcoholic horrors are not far off and it's time to look for a ship again." While Lloyd claimed the tune as an English anthem, it was popular in pubs and music halls from Nova Scotia to Australia when Lloyd released his album in '56. The song, which tells of a man whose shirt, boots and mind have fallen away after many nights of drinking and smoking, is another mystery for musicologists. More recently, the song has been speeded up and turned into a pub song by the likes of Liam Clancy and the Irish Rovers.
6. "The Moonshiner"
Notable versions: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, 1959; Bob Dylan, 1991; The Chieftains and Joe Ely, 2003; Uncle Tupelo, 1992.
One of two tributes to Irish moonshine on this list, "The Moonshiner" has a muddy history, with different factions claiming it both as an American and an Irish folk song. With popular Irish versions formalized by artists like Delia Murphy in the '30s and cemented by folk acts like the Clancy Brothers in the '50s and '60s, the song came to bear thematic and structural ties to other well-known Irish standards. Like the lead character in "Whiskey In the Jar, " the narrator is an unrepentant lover of alcohol. He'll proudly sell you a sample of the moonshine he makes at his own still, he'll "give you a gallon for a ten-shilling bill."
Other American folk songs with similar lyrics and structures may call the Irish purity of the number into dispute, but its also made "The Moonshiner" a favorite of artists of all stripes. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Elliott Smith has offered modern versions of the tune. The Chieftains' 2003 album Further Down the Old Plank Road framed the traditionally energetic number in a more subdued context, featuring a country interpretation by Joe Ely. The above clip of the Chieftains performing the song with Allison Moorer from 2004 boasts a similar, countrified feel.