Posts Tagged ‘Flogging Molly’

The Flogging Molly Paper

Saturday, November 6th, 2004

[Keep in mind that while I had lots of fun writing this paper, it still has lots of academic windbaggery. Also, I had to integrate texts from other readings we’ve done into the paper, so if you don’t know what No Telephone to Heaven Is, don’t blame yourself.]

Flogging Molly is at the forefront of a new niche in punk rock music: the Irish punk band. In the tradition of the Pogues, Flogging Molly combines traditional Irish music with the more contemporary sounds of rock ‘n roll. The band takes this fusion one step further than the Pogues, however, because their songs typically incorporate the madcap, four-on-the-floor rhythm and energy of punk rock. It is fitting, then, that on their newest album, Within a Mile of Home, there is a song about the Caribbean, called ‘Tobacco Island.’ Like the plantation slaves who melded the music of their homelands with that of their white oppressors (which would eventually become rock ‘n roll), Flogging Molly’s song does something similarly subversive: it combines punk rock, a creation of Ireland’s former oppressors, and its own traditional songs. Through the mixing of genres, the song subverts. ‘Tobacco Island’ similarly undermines this oppression through its lyrics. The song transforms a kidnapped Irish slave into one of the African slaves, throwing into question the notion that skin color makes one the slave and another the master.

Traditionally, songs about the Caribbean have been about the surf, the sun, and the sand. Probably the ultimate example of this trend is ‘Kokomo’ by the Beach Boys: the song is plea from one lover to another to come to the sunny islands of the Caribbean. ‘Tobacco Island’ throws this convention out the window. Instead of treating its island, Barbados, as a tropical paradise, the song addresses the slaughter and destitution of slave life, drawing parallels between the African slaves and the oppressed Irish people. The song’s speaker is an Irishman sold into slavery, and he makes no mistakes about where he is going in the song’s chorus: “All to hell we must sail / For the Shores of sweet Barbados / Where the sugar cane grows taller / Than the god we once believed in.” These initial lines set up the parallels between the Irish people and the African slaves by leaving little room for misinterpretation about where the speaker is going (and his displeasure at the thought) while simultaneously leaving open to interpretation the origin of the speaker. The first four lines give no hint as to who the speaker is; he is merely another passenger on a slave ship and could be of either race. The speaker, if he is an Irishman, has lost his faith in God; if he is an African, then he will eventually lose the religion and culture of his homeland.

The first verse draws parallels between the invasion of an African village by slavers and the massacre at Drogheda, Ireland in 1649. Oliver Cromwell was sent to Ireland to quell Catholic uprisings, and Drogheda stands out as his campaign’s most shameful moment. Although Cromwell had instructed his soldiers to hold their fire, negotiations broke down and they stormed the city. Almost every person in the city was killed, including women and children. There were about thirty survivors who were rounded up and sold into slavery in Barbados. Although this verse specifically mentions Cromwell, if we disregard these lines then we can see the connection already established between the Irish speaker and his fellow slaves on Barbados. He speaks of how he and his brethren were “Blackened from the sun,” becoming similar in appearance to the African slaves who toiled alongside him. Seeing no hope for rescue, the speaker proclaims, “This rotten cage of Bridgetown / Is where I now belong.” The speaker becomes a nomad, a recurring theme in the Caribbean literature we’ve read: Clare from No Telephone to Heaven feels the same way, as does the speaker in ‘Wherever I Hang.’

Another repetition of the chorus follows, creating a transition between the Irish and African people on the island. The second verse of ‘Tobacco Island’ could come from either a slave from Barbados or one of the banished Irishmen. It is filled with imagery of suffering and torture, of blisters and blood and “floggings… aplenty.” The speaker laments the fact that he was ‘”Paid for with ten shillings.” Slavery dehumanizes all by putting a price on each slave’s head, regardless of race. Master and slave alike are dehumanized by this transaction. As in the chorus, it is difficult to tell who this speaker is, and this ambiguity reinforces the idea of combination, of intermixing culture. The final lines provide additional insight into this theme of hybridity. After a day working in the fields, the Irish and African slaves join under the moon, ‘together danc[ing] as one.’ The two peoples may have been different in their home nations, but slavery has united them, both as the merchandise they have become and through their resistance through song and dance. The idea of musical resistance is a theme repeated throughout the texts in our course, from the singing mob at Leopold’s arrest in Sugar Cane Alley to Christophine’s singing to protect Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. Another theme that recurs in the literature we’ve read in our course is hybridity. The Irishmen and Africans in the song become two of one, like Harry/Harriet in No Telephone to Heaven or Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. They belong nowhere, and it is this feeling of homelessness that unites them.

The song’s bridge reduces the suffering of the slaves of both races to its simplest terms. “Agony, will you cleanse this misery?” the speaker asks, lamenting that “it’s never again I’ll breathe the air of home.” The African and Irish slaves have been unified, and this is their final resistance. Skin color was all that separated slavers and slaves, and since white men too are slaves, the question as to why some people are slaves and others are not arises. This hybridity sews the seeds of doubt, and this can be viewed as an act of defiance on the part of the slaves. If there are white slaves as well as black, what is keeping somebody from making the masters into slaves themselves?

Interestingly, at the Flogging Molly concert I attended in Spokane a few weeks ago, the band’s singer, Dave King, dedicated this song to Walter Cromwell himself. This dedication added another ‘layer’ of resistance; by facetiously dedicating his song to the song’s villain, King pointed out the fact that he and his people were still around and free. He was able to both write the song and sarcastically dedicate it to Cromwell, who King was free to denounce. When the crowd around me proceeded to boo Cromwell, King told them not to. “Don’t worry,” he said, “the bastard’s dead!” The ultimate resistance comes from what the slaves created: the hybridity in song and unity of race, despite initial differences in skin color. While the slavers could only tear apart and destroy, the slaves managed to create: they melded and assimilated, despite their masters’ best efforts. The slave songs and musical cross-pollination survive to this day, and the traditions of the slavers do not — there is no such thing as a ‘slaver song.’ As the African slaves prevailed through their music and their open nature, so too did the Irish.

The Flogging Molly Show

Monday, October 18th, 2004

It’s gonna be a good show when your glasses are destroyed. That’s what happened to me about ten minutes into the set. Some fellow concertgoer accidentally knocked ’em from my nogging, and though Carrie, some really nice guy, and I tried parting the sea of bodies and looking for about five seconds, they were gone for good.

Creepily, the glasses managed to get back to me. Toward the end of the set we were standing around the concession stand, where things were less crazy, and Carrie found them on the floor, sans lenses and beat to crap.

I liked the opening acts, especially the Briggs. I wanted to get their CD, but didn’t notice that their merch table was separate from the Flogging Molly / Street Dogs table. So I got Savin Hill by the Street Dogs. It’s okay, but some of the songs sound the same.

On the way back, we got three dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. Sugary Heaven.