Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Folkobit: Ronnie Drew

As has been pointed out in the comments, we've fallen behind by not providing an obituary for Ronnie Drew sooner.

Born in 1934, Drew fled Ireland as a teenager - or, rather, he fled the prospect of being locked into a dull job for the length of his life. He arrived in Spain, where in-between waiting jobs, he learned to play flamenco guitar and speak some "arsewards" Spanish; on his return home, he tried acting but settled on music as a career in the late 1950s.

Drew is one of those rare creatures in popular music, a singer who dropped his name from the title of his band rather than adding it in. He founded the band which would go on to be known as the Dubliners as The Ronnie Drew Group in 1962; the change of name was inspired by the James Joyce book. Alongside John Sheahan Barney McKenna, Luke Kelly and Ciarán Bourke, Drew would become a member of the definitive Irish folk group and - besides a touring-bored five year hiatus from 1974 - he'd remain in the group until 1996.

Following his final split with the Dubliners, Drew recorded a number of solo and collaborative works, but in recent years his time was taken up more and more by the results of his failing health - he'd become wracked with cancer of the throat. Earlier this year, a supergroup of his admirers recorded a tribute-cum-benefit single The Ballad Of Ronnie Drew. Amongst those taking part were Bono, Joe Elliot, Christy Moore and Sinead O'Connor. It's a measure of the affection for the man in his home country that the single bounded to the top of the Irish chart.

Although anxious in the face of death, he drew comfort from his philosophy of life, as recorded in the Irish Times:

"The way I looked at it was that you can't always wait for the green man to cross the road. Sometimes you have to go when it's red - to get to the other side."

Drew - who died on the 16th - was buried today in Greystones, County Wicklow. 3,000 mourners attended, overfilling not just the small church but also the official overspill area in the village hall.

Here is a YouTube clip of one of the dozens of collaborations Ronnie recorded during his career both with and after his Dubliners years: with Christy Moore on RTE's Late Late Show in 1987, singing Black Velvet Band:

And, from much, much earlier - this is the Ronnie Drew Band before they changed their name to The Dubliners, on a programme called Ballad Sheet. This is The Leaving Of Liverpool: