A while ago I wrote that I was going to periodically write about bands covers of standard songs. I am finally writing up a follow to Come Out Ye Black and Tans. So, for my sequel, I bring to you Dirty Old Town. This past weekend, I have been listening heavily to Dirty Old Town. This song will always remind me of my oldest boy. I had a Pogues CD in the car and would listen to it, which contained the song, never realizing it was imprinting on him. One day, while in the car with his mom, he started singing a song, when asked what it was, he says in his tiny voice “I’m singing Dirty Old Town”. Today thinking about his little voice saying that makes me grin!
While one may think the song is Irish, given the popularity the Dubliners have given it, it is in fact an English song written by Ewan MacColl in 1949 about Salford, England. My first introduction to the song was through the Pogues and hearing it live by Eddie Delahunt, two different versions – rock vs. traditional. In the interest of brevity, I am focusing on the rock covers of the song, by bands in the Folk Punk and Folk Rock genre (sorry Rod Stewart fans, I just can’t bring myself to even try listening to his version.)
The bands I picked for my comparisons are:
- Off Kilter
- Cutthroat Shamrock
- Hoist the Colors
- The Dirges
- The Tossers
- American Wake
Each of these bands puts their own spin and touches on a song that has had a lasting impression. None of them play it in the style in the Pogues. Some are a bit more trad and others are much more rocked up. Off Kilters version is more jazzy than the others, starting out with piano, it has a faster tempo, but little emotional impact to me – the song is more fun than soulful. To me, surprisingly enough, The Tossers give it more of the traditional treatment, keeping with the slower pacing. The American Wake bring the tempo up more from The Tossers, starting slower till they explode with some energy. The speed is fun but the mournfulness and soul are lost in the joyful playing of the song.
The Mudmen and The Dirges rock the song up the most, though The Mudmen make you wait for it, the bagpipes are the most unique feature of The Mudmen’s version and the vocals evoke more anger than mourning, but considering anger is a reactive emotion to pain, mourning, injustice and hurt, it works well. The Dirges don’t tease you with their hard rocking version, straight from th e gates, it is hard and fast, the music and lyrics much more raw.
This brings me to my two favorite versions – Hoist the Colors and Cutthroat Shamrock. Hoist the Colors is the more traditional of the two, easily capturing the evocative emotions of the song, not rushing through, the longing in the vocals. Cutthroat Shamrock’s version clearly belongs to them, with their Appalachian touch to the song that speeds up the tempo, but not too much. The vocals still capturing the emotion of the song while you are tapping your feet on the ground.
There is not a bad version in the bunch, but if I had to choose only one version to listen to, I would have to give it to the mountain men Cutthroat Shamrock, and that would even be over the Pogues version (some may consider that blasphemy, but just my humble ole opinion.)