My Irish great-grandmother was a warbler. Dorothy Norton played the concertina, smoked a Meerschaum pipe, and was always singing. My mom said the house was like living in a small wooden birdcage with a very vocal canary.
Great-grandma Norton arrived in California right off a boat from Ireland in 1890, at the tender age of seventeen. Her family sent her solo to the land of gold promises. She was to find her brother, who arrived several years earlier to work in the mines, and suss out why he had stopped sending money back to the homeland. Her family owned a bakery in Northern Ireland that ensured they could feed their four sets of twins, but the stipend from California was still helpful.
Dorothy not only found her brother who had started a family of his own, she also acquired a sea captain husband. They built a tiny brown-shingle house in Oakland, and she remained thoroughly Irish until she died at the age of seventy-two. My mother remembers that there was always a lap to sit in, for by the time she was born, three generations were living in that same miniature brown-shingle house near Lake Merritt in Oakland. Her grandmother was always singing ditties, reciting limericks, baking soda bread, and swearing in a brogue so thick no one could understand her profanities.
My mom sang around our house, too. Unfortunately, the talent and urge she inherited from Dorothy Norton did not get passed on to me. For one, I’ve not a drop of Irish blood in me—I’m adopted.
Years of growing up experiencing my family’s musical penchant for song, as well as hearing reports from travelers to the Emerald Isle, made me decide to test my theory that all the Irish can sing on a recent trip to Ireland.
The Wild Writing Women, my writing group and travel companions, waltzed into McDaid’s Pub in Dublin on our first night on the isle of green. I turned to some curly-haired, friendly lads at the stools nearby and asked, “Can you sing?”
Without a blink of an eye, or an incredulous shrug, off they went into a full-blown song. In harmony, even. Disgusting. I can’t carry a tune or even remember more than one verse. This inability to break out into song has turned into a cultural handicap. Go ahead—ask your American friends to sing a song for you. Embarrassed huffs and excuses will ensue, and then finally, after more insistent goading, they might croak out one verse of some inane song like, “Inagodadavida” or “Mary Had a You-Know-What.” Yikes! Pathetic.
Back to the pub…
The lads enthusiastically sang their hearts out and then said, “Now it’s youse turn.”
A memory arose, freezing my vocal chords: The same request only several years ago in Poland where I was invited to participate in a kayak rally. Our team of five Americans, not one of them with a lyric in them, digging about for a tune to sing together to the insistent, drunk Poles—who had already regaled us with half a dozen musical tidbits—until we finally decided on “Joy to the World”—of Three Dog Night fame, not the Christmas carol.
Somehow, now, in a distant pub in Ireland, I did not see that particular song being the godsend for the Wild Writing Women chorus. How long could we hold these gentlemen at bay with wimpy excuses like, “my throat is sore” or “I have to go to the bathroom”?
“Of course ye can chirp!” was their united response of misguided belief in us.
One of the Wild Writing Women finally saved our collective asses by suggesting a patriotic ditty, “The Star Spangled Banner.” We knew at least the first several stanzas. The men at the pub joined in. Of course, they knew all the lyrics.
Several pints later, they pointed out in a jolly manner that our American national anthem was originally a poem set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society (ironically, a men’s social club in London).
Not only could these Irish gents sing on key, they knew our national history in more depth than we did. Well, we had to do better than that to restore respect.
Looking down, I noticed my red leather shoes. A moment of clarity and insight! Humming the theme song to the Wizard of Oz, my gal choir joined in and we soared into inspired homemade lyrics that went something like this:
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Americans can sing…
This was one tune that the blokes at the bar didn’t know the lyrics to…