It’s a hot, summer night, as the song goes, and I’m playing a bar in Bay Ridge, NewYork, called – improbably – The Jolly Sparrow. It’s what we in Ireland would call an ‘old man’s bar’, but it’s just been taken over by a couple of young guys trying to make it into a live music venue. I like the guys and what they’re trying to do, which is why I’m here. Unfortunately, the best laid plans, and all that …
Despite the new owner’s noble ideas, the rest of the regulars haven’t quite gotten the news. Which is why I’m singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ to three drunken geriatrics who look like they’re wishing I wasn’t.
So, one night, a guy sits in with me on guitar for a few songs. This starts a whole scene going. Before long, I’ve got a Jamaican playing harmonica with me on occasion, as well as a painfully shy girl – whose name I don’t even know – with a voice like Billie Holliday, who gets up every now and then to do a heartbreaking version of ‘My Funny Valentine’, before skulking off into the shadows again.
I’m suddenly starting to realise that this is why I came to New York – this is what I’ve been waiting for.
This is reason I started playing music.
And it becomes clear to me like never before one night in the bar when I play ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.
When I first started playing music and would think about what I wanted to be as a musician, it usually involved standing on stage at Madison Square Garden playing my own music. It certainly wouldn’t have involved standing on stage in a bar playing cover songs. The main reason for this was because all the cover bands I saw around me were usually middle-aged plumbers, who played a bit of music on the side. They were guys who played covers because they’d long ago given up their dream of playing original music. And, at the same time, the reason I wanted to be on stage in the Garden was because I wanted to get the reaction from people that Springsteen or U2 got when they performed. I wanted to move people in the same way that these singers moved me. I never thought I could do that in a bar playing cover songs. I was wrong.
So, this particular night in The Jolly Sparrow, I play ‘Waltzing Matilda’. At the end of my set, I go to the bar to get a drink and the barman nods in the direction of a fifty-something guy who’s another one of the regulars.
“You really got to John tonight,” the barman says.
I say, how come?
“He was in tears when you played that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ song. Something to do with Vietnam.”
Later that night, when I’m finished, I end up sitting beside John.
“You know that song you played,” he says. “‘Waltzing Matilda?’ The last time I heard that, me and a friend of mine were on a plane from Vietnam to Australia.” I can see him welling up again as he tells me. “We were going to Melbourne for two weeks R & R and there was a bunch of Aussie soldiers on their way home after finishing their tours. They were all singing that song and it was the first time I’d ever heard it. I thought it was a beautiful song. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it since … until now.”
With that, he turns back to his beer and doesn’t say another word for the rest of the night. When I get home, I’m lying in bed and I can’t stop thinking about what he said. And I think about the fifteen-year-old boy sitting in his room wanting to make a difference – however small – to someone’s life with music.
‘And the Band played Waltzing Matilda’ is an extremely moving anti-war song, written by Eric Bogle. The lyrics can be found here: http://celtic-lyrics.com/forum/index.php?autocom=tclc&code=lyrics&id=36