What Makes A Great Song? The Folk Bloke's Deadly 60 Revealed!

My daughter Sofia absolutely loves a show on TV called "The Deadly 60" in which the presenter gets to roam the planet searching for deadly animals and rating them out of 10 in different categories to establish if they are in the world's top 60 deadly animals. It's a pretty loose rating system and as far as I can tell there are at least 100 in the top 60 so far but that's cool. It's a fun idea and he gets to go all over the world prodding these creatures with sticks so why stop at 60?
I thought I'd do the same with songs except instead of roaming the world I'm doing it in Melbourne with the heater on and a nice hot cup of tea on my desk....
So what does make a great song? 
Well, to be honest I have absolutely no idea, and neither (I suspect) does anybody else....
But last Sunday as I was performing at the Bay Hotel in Mornington it occurred to me that we know a great song when we come across one.
We launched into "Fields of Athenry" (written by Pete St. John in the 1970's), a must for any band purporting to have any right to perform in an Irish bar, and I realized that this song really is a great song. The boys lined up at the bar turned as one and launched into the song with gusto and determination (and a fair bit of tunefulness if the truth be told) and they knew it word for word and note for note. I remember thinking "man, if I could ever write a song like this my work here would be done...".
I learnt this song by osmosis. As far as I know I don't have a recording of it anywhere and I absorbed the words from the singing of Eamon Regan when I played with him in Pure Genius and The Wrenboys. I still sing his version ("for you robbed Trevalyan's corn" and "I rebelled, they ran me down" ) to this day. This is the folk tradition at work. I've learnt other songs this way but mostly traditional songs that, to quote my old mentor Pat Doole, "have stood the test of time". But, fundamentally I learnt this song because I had to if I wanted to get a gig around Melbourne in the 90's.
So what's so great about this song? Why does everybody know it, but have no idea who wrote it and probably little idea of who recorded it (although it's been top 10 in Ireland four times or so)? Why has it become a favourite of football fans around the world to sing at matches? Actually, there's a good study for someone. What makes a singable football anthem??
I think the key is in the first  line of the chorus. "Low lie the fields...." It's sing along magic. An instant hook that rises from the verse like a towering wave behind a set of average breakers. The notes last a whole bar and the vowel sounds are perfect to sing. The notes are somewhere near the the top average singer's range but in reach enough to belt out. So that's the start....
Then there's the three verses with killer opening lines "By a lonely prison wall". Once heard never forgotten. And the verses themselves. The first two lines are from the narrator "By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling". followed by four lines from the girl which tell the whole story, and it's all matter of fact. You've stolen the tyrant's corn and now you're bound for Botany Bay. In the second verse the young man gets his turn. Freedom is everything, I did what I had to do and now you must make sure our child grows up with dignity and pride. The third verse all belongs to the narrator, kind of hopeless but with a glimmer of hope, "Sure, she'll wait and hope and pray" because miracles can and do happen and there is always hope for the future.
In my view this song doesn't preach. I'm pretty sure the lads at the bar would give it short shrift if it did. It's sad but it has elements of hope, and it's a ripper to sing.
There is probably one last element to this that I've neglected, probably because I've never left my homeland for any significant amount of time. This is a song for the homesick, for those thinking of loved ones left behind. Pete St. John himself spent a long period away from Ireland and I have a suspicion "Fields of Athenry" might have been written away from Ireland (I don't know that for sure though). 
So there you go. That's the "Fields of Athenry" for you. The last thing to discuss it what key to play it in? Well, for blokes it has to be 'G' although I've often done it if 'F' if I'm feeling bit hoarse. Oh, and one more thing. Don't be tempted to mess with it too much and "make it your own". The lads at the bar will simply run right over the top of you like a herd of buffalo if you get too artsy with it. Just keep it real....
And here are The Dubliners to show you how it's done

Fields of Athenry - The Dubliners

Fields of Athenry – Pete St. John

By a lonely prison wall, 
I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan's corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the fields of Athenry

By a lonely prison wall, 
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters, Mary, when you're free
Against the famine and the Crown,
I rebelled, they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

By a lonely harbor wall, 
she watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray, 
for her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the fields of Athenry.


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