FISHERMAN’S BLUES, ROOTS AND THE CELTIC SOUL
expanded from the album sleevenotes by Mike Scott
‘Fisherman’s Blues’ was made in 1986-88, a period when third generation rock musicians, having learned their trade listening to 1960s and ‘70s pop or rock music, and finding themselves remote from the original roots of rock itself, went in search of a deeper resonance, a deeper grounding.
This impulse runs through the Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ era like a shining, winding path, and the ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ music is an expression of our journey from rock to roots; from ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ to ‘The Stolen Child’, with a hundred songs between.
‘Fisherman’s Blues’ could have been a double or triple album, but as the record’s producer I was overwhelmed by the volume of music we made and lost my perspective. As a result the original 1988 album contained only a small selection of the music. A second album from the sessions, ‘Too Close To Heaven’, was released in 2001. Now, as part of the 2006 re-master package, a third album is issued. Together, these 3 CDs provide something of a map of our journey.
This journey began with a confluence of events in late 1985. At that point I’d taken the broad, symphonic sound of the first three Waterboys albums (released in 1983-5) as far as I could. Frustrated that I couldn’t reproduce the sound on stage, and seeking new musical roads to travel, I’d started to listen to country, folk and old-style gospel music, envying their simplicity and purity.
I was excited by the possibilities of writing and playing these different kinds of music, and by the liberating prospect of departing from the repeat-formula-for-success script that managers, agents, record companies, journalists and even fans were devising for me.
Right on cue, we were joined by Irish fiddler extraordinaire Steve Wickham, an intuitive musician equally at home playing rock, country, blues or folk music. We quickly discovered that with Anthony Thistlethwaite partnering Steve’s fiddle and my guitar with his mandolin, we could play our own open-horizoned style of acoustic roots music.
At the start of 1986 I went to stay with Steve in Dublin for a week, and ended up living in Ireland for years. This land - rich with music, poetry, artistic tradition and an extra quality I can only describe as a freedom of the imagination - provided the fertile ground for the explorations which followed.
Steve, Anto and I began deeply immersing ourselves in roots music - buying 1920s field recordings of gospel singers on tiny labels; initiating ourselves into the mysteries of Hank Williams; absorbing the sound and soul of Woody Guthrie, Little Walter, and all manner of colourfully named Louisiana Cajun musicians. We made these explorations without thinking much about what we were doing; we were quite simply in love, and followed our fascinations. We poured our music into the forms we learned from these and other musical figures, and sculpted them into something of our own, which we then played on stage, in studios, in bars, homes, hotel rooms, and on trains, busses and planes.
Not only was this fun and fulfilling, but we experienced the powerful creative resonance of being connected to a battery of inspirational sources that went back beyond the birth of rock and roll in the mid 1950s. These sources - and the contexts from which they originally sprang - seemed refreshingly free of the superficiality, pressure and cynicism that distorted the mainstream pop world.
Our ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ recording sessions therefore, which began in January 1986 and continued sporadically throughout that year, produced a free-flowing, largely improvised music with elements of everything we’d been absorbing, performed with a high quotient of delight and a sense of discovery; of the boat being firmly pushed outwards.
We went through definite sub-periods; country, gospel and blues phases, when each genre would be for a short time our main mode of expression. And we had guides; individuals who’d travelled some of these byways before and could add fuel to our flame. One such was Bob Johnston, the veteran Nashville record producer, the man who’d made ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ with Bob Dylan, recorded ‘Johnny Cash At San Quentin’, among many, many other significant records. We worked and hung out with Bob at various times through 1986 and he transmitted something of the soul of country and American folk music by simply being with us; by allowing us to pick up the history and spirit of the music from him. We recorded with him, stayed at his house, talked music and went to concerts with him. In the realm of country music in particular, Johnston mentored us.
Another guide was Dublin drummer Noel Bridgeman. When we first hired him for a day’s recording in mid 1986, Noel turned up with a small kit, tiny cymbals and, not drumsticks, but a pair of jazzer’s brushes. When he played he didn’t hit the drums hard and he didn’t play any big fills. At first, still attuned to the crash-bang school of rock drumming, I couldn’t get my head round how Noel played, but by the end of the day, and several laid-back takes of Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’ later, his subtle and mature style had touched something in me, and had changed the way I felt about playing music. From that moment on, I understood that real power always retains the option of being gentle. If it loses that option, it becomes only brute force. And from Noel, more than from any other musician, I learned the quintessential country music lesson: how to say more by playing less.
As our recordings progressed, and as my personal experience of living in Ireland deepened, these phases of country, gospel and blues gave way onto the broad shores of the ocean of traditional celtic music, the indigenous music of my and Steve’s own culture. The impulse-to-roots led us home.
This happened naturally as a consequence of our being in Ireland, of being surrounded by traditional music. But it was nurtured by Steve’s penchant for playing seductive jigs and reels in rehearsals, and by our friendship with the Waterboys Irish soundman John Dunford.
John had mixed the top Irish folk bands Moving Hearts and De Dannan, and supplied me with sound desk tapes of their gigs which I gratefully devoured. I still remember the revelatory moment when my musical understanding of Celtic jigs and reels awoke and I was able to hear and decipher the tunes - and later the nuances and ornamentations - played by Irish and Scottish traditional players: this was a thrilling expansion of my musical consciousness, truly an experience of learning to hear a new language.
Around the same time, somewhere in the wilds of 1987, I saw the great Irish traditional musician Donal Lunny playing with his big band. He was merging Irish fiddle jigs with African conga rhythms. This sounded so natural that I wondered if, at a deep level, all the indigenous musics of the world dovetail; if perhaps all are expressions of the same world soul, only with their different flavours and accents. Whether they are or not (and someone somewhere has surely written a book on exactly this question - and if they haven’t perhaps they should) Lunny’s experiment was a brilliant success and inspired me to merge the Irish and Scottish tunes we were listening to with our rock, country and blues rhythms, without hesitation, self-consciousness or a misplaced preciousness about any un-tamperable-with sanctity of the folk tradition.
It is worth noting that no Irish folk musician with whom we came into contact during the making of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ ever resisted the cross-fertilisation of ‘their’ music with our rock and roll. Donal Lunny, Steve Cooney and all the other top players who crossed our path were absolutely up for merging all music in a non-precious, non-classified, genre-ignoring way. I saw this then, and still do, as a mark of greatness.
Another guide was Steve’s friend, the whistle and pipe player Vinnie Kilduff, a serious traditional musician who also loved playing rock music. Vinnie was a significant contributor to our unfolding adventure and was my personal guide in traditional music sessions. He taught me the rhythms of the Celtic tunes, how to play the Irish drum, the bodhran, and how different locales in the Celtic landscape have different musical accents; that the music of each area, even of each townland or village, is a unique expression of its character and soul.
In Autumn 1987 I first visited the Gaeltachts, or gaelic-speaking areas, of Ireland, and found the culture ‘lost’ by my grandmother’s family, when they moved from the Hebrides to English-speaking Glasgow in the early twentieth century, still alive and well.
Geographically this discovery centred upon County Galway, on the wild western coast. Being in the Gaeltacht there was for me an experience of being in the presence of another kind of consciousness, beyond and outwith English-speaking thought, containing music, lore and poetry within itself, and revealing these and other secrets not in response to upfront enquiry or brashness, but to patience and respect.
In Spring 1988 we finished the ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ album with a series of recording sessions in a big old house in the Gaeltacht village of Spiddal. The first time we drove to Spiddal, along the north coast of Galway Bay, with the open Atlantic before us, I thought to myself: ‘This is the land of my soul’ - and it was.
When I’d arrived in Ireland in 1986, I experienced most Irish rock bands - as then constituted - as being focused on following trends in America or Britain, as if what Irish rock musicians were made of inside themselves wasn’t good enough. This self-denial was at the core of the 1970s and ‘80s Scottish rock experience too, and I felt it was perpetuated by contemporary British rock journalism; the idea that it was cool to draw on or to have a feel for American roots, but that to display or express British folk roots - basically anything pre-skiffle - was not OK.
In contrast to this, while we were completing ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ in Galway, I felt it was an act of power to stand in one’s own heritage; not with a fundamentalist my-culture’s-the-only-way attitude, but by being open to the shared global culture, with all its interactive creative possibilities, while being centred in one’s own. And that it was perfectly cool - in fact it is very excellent - to inhabit my Celtic genes. For the Celt is a warrior, a mystic, a trickster, a shaman, a dreamer, a mischief- and magic-maker.
So if ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ has a message to impart other than the pure expression of the music itself, it is this:
In this spirit, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and all the Waterboys music that has followed it admits of no barrier or categorisation, and is built on the mighty foundation rock of the Celtic soul.