Recommended: 'The Man From God Knows Where'
Part of a recurring series of relatively brief recommendations of books, movies, music and other media, intended to share my interests and help me blog more frequently.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day — the day in which everyone with the smallest drop of Irish blood dons green garments and shares every speck of Irish culture that comes to mind.
I love the Chieftains, the Pogues and Once as much as the next person, but I wanted to go a little off the beaten trail for a St. Paddy’s Day recommendation.
Tom Russell is an American singer-songwriter. But some of his ancestors came to the United States from Ireland in the 19th Century — and Russell told their story in his 1999 album, The Man From God Knows Where.
The double album is a song cycle, a folk opera, taking listeners through 150 years of Russell’s family history over just under two hours. The songs are largely sung in first person by Russell and a large cast of guests, who take on the roles of Russell’s ancestors. Other singers perform more thematic songs that recur in variations throughout the album, driving home a few key messages about the perseverence and persecution of immigrants.
One branch of Russell’s ancestors come from Ireland, whose stories he tells in songs such as “Mary Clare Malloy” — sung by Irish singer Dolores Keane:
Others of Russell’s forefathers came from Scandinavia, such as “Ambrose Larsen,” though my favorite song in this vein is the hymnlike “The Old Northern Shore”:
The first part of the album focuses on the first generation of immigrants, arriving in America and trying to make a life for themselves on the Midwest. The middle part of the album discusses the second and third generation of immigrants, caught between two worlds and cast adrift. In this vein is the tongue-in-cheek lament “When Irish Girls Grow Up”:
Darling, don’t go to the city, you’ll get lost there in the crowd.
All the boys there in the city, drink and smoke and talk too loud.
The women in the city sneak their whiskey from a cup.
Oh isn’t it a pity when Irish girls grow up?
The album concludes in the present generation, anchored by the surprisingly affecting story of Russell’s father’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story in “Chickasaw County Jail” (sadly not on YouTube).
None of the album’s songs are exactly single-worthy, but for fans of folk music or the American immigrant experience, the complete package of The Man From God Knows Where is a deep and enjoyable experience that rewards repeated listens.