In permanent rotation on my playlist is one variant or another of that Celtic classic known as Whiskey in the Jar. This is the song with the highwayman relieving a uniformed officer of a substantial amount of cash and returning, with cash in hand, to a woman who betrays him to his erstwhile victim. The song with the 'wack fo the daddy oh" chorus. The song covered by the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, the Pogues, Tempest and every bar band from here to Buffalo New York.
Now, in the world of folk music, there is no such thing as the ‘correct’ version of a song, but there is certainly such thing as a ‘favorite version’ or ‘the kick-ass version’ or perhaps even ‘the only f*ck*ng goddamn version worth playing.’ And in that category, there is for me only one version of Whiskey in the Jar.
And that would be the song with the nasty sawed-off guitar riff that tears through the lyrics EXACTLY in the way a primer-coated late-model Camaro, filled with empty cans of Bud and a bunch of teenage thugs ditching shop class, tears through a high school parking lot.
The song that CD Universe lists as “heavy metal.” The song ably covered by Metallica. The song with Molly instead of Jenny.
Yes, the song by Thin Lizzy.
It is not just a question of style. Thin Lizzy’s version of Whiskey in the Jar just tells a better story than the one you are likely to hear from the local bar band. Plot, pacing, characterization – line for line Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar delivers a cynical classic of greed and betrayal. All other ‘Whiskeys’ – particularly the ‘Jenny’ labels –are just inferior rotgut blends. It’s Jameson vs Yukon Jack.
But let’s examine in detail…
First, there’s the encounter on the highway, which manages to suggest both premeditation and opportunism – an ambiguity of motives and consequences that persists throughout Thin Lizzy’s version:
As I was goin' over the Cork and Kerry mountainsWith some geographic confusion aside, most versions get immediately to this point. Even the one where Sergeant Pepper has been promoted out of his post as band leader:
I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin'
I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapier
As I was a-walkin' 'roundActually, I always thought one rattled sabers and drew forth pistols, but threatening weapons have been produced and that’s the important thing. As for ‘walking ‘round a mountain’ it just seems like it would take some time.
I met with Captain Pepper
as his money he was countin'
I rattled my pistols and
I drew forth my saber.
Then most versions -- the ‘Jenny’ versions1 -- just get silly:
As I was a going over"For I am your bold deceiver?" What kind of hold-up line is that? What the hell is a "bold deceiver"? Frankly, it sounds like something Amanda Wingfield would buy for her glass figurine-collecting daughter Laura in the first draft of a Tennessee Williams play: "Now, Laura dear, be sure to pin those bold deceivers securely in your bodice, so your gentlemen callers don’t discover our little secret..."
I spied Colonel Farrell and
his money he was countin'.
First I drew me pistol
and then I drew me rapier,
Sayin' stand and deliver
for I am your bold deceiver.
Yeah, maybe when Colonel Mustard is finished giggling he’ll hand over the loot, but for the moment he’s being robbed by Trelane, the childish alien with Liberace’s wardrobe in Star Trek: Original Series. Whereas,
I first produced my pistol and then produced my rapiermakes a far more effective threat.
I said stand and deliver or the devil he may take ya
Then there’s the chorus; the “Musha ring um du rum da” part which I have no complaints with in any version2. But let me point out that Thin Lizzy injects more menace into “Musha ring dum a doo dum a da” than you’d expect. They’ve got your “Whack fol my daddy-o” swinging.
The second verse introduces our third character. In most versions, she’s named Jenny:
He counted out his money and it made a pretty penny,Nice pun there on ‘lie so easy.” Yes, I expect they do, especially when a pile of gold coins is on the table. But this is Jenny, the heroine of the lesser Whiskeys and it’s just an obvious rhyme with penny. There’s another traditional version with a rhyme that introduces us to Molly:
I put it in me pocket to take home to darling' Jenny.
She sighed and swore she loved me and never would deceive me,
But the devil take the women for they always lie so easy.
The shinin' golden coinsAlthough Molly’s shortcomings will soon be undeniable, it’s not worth a sweeping generalization of the failures of womankind. And, besides, the pun on easy is gone, which is a shame. Molly and/or Jenny couldn’t be easier if it was Girls Gone Wild on Bourbon Street and you’re the lucky sod holding the video camera.
did look so bright and jolly
I took 'em with me home and
I gave 'em to my Molly
She promised and she vowed that
she never would deceive me
But the devil's in the women and
they never can be easy
So it’s with a rocker’s sneer at the requirements of rhyme and rhythm that Thin Lizzy gives us another story:
I took all of his money and it was a pretty pennyWhich is a good thing, because the word “jolly” has no business in a rock song, unless it is followed by the word “roger.” And “roger” is a dicey word in any genre, so it’s best to avoid the whole business altogether.
I took all of his money, yeah, I brought it home to Molly
She swore that she'd love me, never would she leave me
But the devil take that woman, for you know she tricked me easy
Thin Lizzy’s Molly is a secret unto herself. She’s warm and loving; she’s full of tricks. And, in the lesser versions, as Jenny she may have cause for complaint:
I went into me chamberNow, there’s just too much Freudian imagery for me to analyze here, especially when we reach the crisis of the story:
all for to take a slumber
To dream of gold and girls
and of course it was no wonder.
Me Jenny took me charges
and she filled them up with water,
Next morning early before I rose to travel,Yeah, my friend had that problem too, but Viagra3 cleared it up.
There came a band of footmen and likewise Colonel Farrell.
I goes to draw me pistol for she'd stole away me rapier,
but a prisoner I was taken I couldn't shoot the water.
I’m not sure why Jenny is so quick to betray our narrator, but perhaps an hour invested in taking care of her needs before dreaming of “gold and girls” might have saved his worthless hide.
Now in the Thin Lizzy version, the moment of discovery packs a little more tension and a lot more drama:
Being drunk and weary I went to Molly's chamberNo ‘next’ morning here. And no unnecessary cast of thousands with footmen and such. Drunk and weary, maybe, but also in Molly’s chamber with money. And losing track of time. This is a man who knows a little bit about savoring the spoils of victory, and perhaps even coming back for seconds. And then, ‘in walked Captain Farrell…’ Now, maybe I’m a romantic, but I always see this moment as the bad luck of evil co-incidence and poor scheduling on Molly’s part. I don’t think Captain Farrell, or Molly, or our hapless narrator; expect to see the intersection of their three lives at this very moment. Maybe Molly has been providing the hospitality of her chamber to both highwayman and captain without incident for years, but on this fateful night she’s gotten her Palm Pilot entries mixed up. Though the sense of shock and three way betrayal is strong, not a moment of hesitation (or watered-down pistols) on our hero’s part:
Takin' money with me and I never knew the danger
For about six or maybe seven, yeah, in walked Captain Farrell
I jumped up, fired my pistols and I shot him with both barrelsWell okay! Vaya con Dios, Captain Farrell. And doesn't that teach you not to flash your paycheck while wandering around alone in the countryside of Cork and Kerry? And, sadly, Molly’s active role in the song is pretty much done at this point too. But with the Captain dead and our hero in serious trouble, she’s certainly up one bag of gold with no questions asked. Let's hope she used the swag to book passage for Boston and finance a Day School for Young Ladies of Good Massachusetts Families with herself as headmistress. That’s certainly what I’d do, at any rate.
In the ‘Jenny’ versions, matters go their dreary course:
They put me into jailWell, pal, which locality is it? Cork or Killarney? Where I live, the County Jail gives you only ONE phonecall on the gov’t dime, so you’d better know what you’re about. And why is the brother going to be especially motivated to abandon three hots and a cot to go roving o’r the mountains with his jailbird sibling who’s also expecting him to be a substitute for ‘darling sporting Jenny?’
with a judge all a writin'
For robbing Colonel Farrell
on Gilgarry Mountain.
But they didn't take me fists
so I knocked the jailer down,
And bid a farewell to
this tight fisted town.
I'd like to find me brother
the one that's in the army,
I don't know where he's stationed
in Cork or in Killarney.
Together we'd go roving
o'r the mountains of Killkenney,
And I swear he'd treat me
better than me darling' sporting Jenny.
Trust me, there’s no substitute for what Jenny/Molly can deliver.4
And, besides, introducing the brother at this point just messes with the neat triangle of characterization established so far. Furthermore, knocking down the jailer after arrest is no way as exciting as unloading a double-barreled blast on the Captain himself at the moment of discovery.
So. Far, far better is the dramatic power of the stripped down final verse in the Thin Lizzy version. Savage electric guitars dropping away, the story shifts from past glory to present miseries:
Now some men like the fishin' and some men like the fowlin'And there it is – a tale of gold, love, murder and the vengeance of the law in four neat verses. No post-arrest escapes, no brother. And this is the only version I’ve found that brings Molly back for the finale, and that wistful tone of regret for her chamber strengthens my argument that Molly was guilty of nothing more than loving too much (or too many…) but no grudges are held.
And some men like to hear, to hear the cannon ball a roarin'
Me I like sleepin' especially in my Molly's chamber
But here I am in prison, here I am with a ball and chain yeah
Musha ring dum a doo dum a da
Whack fol my daddy-o
Whack fol my daddy-o
There's whiskey in the jar-o
1It has recently come to my attention that the Dubliners sing the "Jenny" variant of this song, which has probably led other bands down that road.
However, I would submit that the Dubliners could sing "Sunshine and Lollipops" or "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" or “Genie in a Bottle" or any such song with any such lyrics and still be one bad-ass band.
2Just try singing it with boys after three pints. Huh buddy? Where’s your self-respect now?
3[2007 edit] I’ve since learned that Viagra was invented in Cork, Ireland. Yes, it does have a kind of ‘coals to Newcastle’ feeling, doesn’t it? I imagine the lab conversation as follows: “Say, you know what I think? I think this world could use more langers. Big, proud and ready-for-action langers!” “Funny you bring that up. I’ve been working on this pill…” *The two scientists then beta-test the pill.* “BRILLIANT!”
4[2007 edit:] Unless you are ex-Senator Craig [R], Idaho. Nice job supporting those American family values, Senator!