Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ancestral Music, Stereotypes, and Prejudice

Called, alternately, "Last Winter was a Hard One," "When McGuiness Gets a Job," and "Mrs. Reilly," the Irish song of the immigrants who often were greeted with "No Irish Need Apply" as their answer when job seeking clearly communicates the plight of the Irish wife, whose children needed food and clothing. As she prayed for her husband to find a job, any job, she could find solace in the friendship she had with others in the same situation. The singer of this song, talking to Mrs. Reilly, about her own husband, McGuiness, whose job-seeking was made positive only by the hope that spring and better times would bring work in construction, extoles his virtues as well as his shortcomings.

McGuiness's ability to "handle the old three-corner box" (the hod in which he would haul bricks and mortar up into the building project) would be enough to land him employment (once the winter was past and construction jobs were available). But their constant concern was the competition for the few jobs available and this particular song brings out prejudices that existed between the subcultures in the big cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. We can see from this song how stereotypes would arise from the perceptions of one culture (in this case, the Irish) about another (in this case, the Italians). As the singer bemoans the competition for jobs, she remarks that the primary group vying for the same positions - the Italians - had "one thing in their favor . . . [they] never get lushed." She is of a belief that they "take no dinner wine," something that was definitely not the case with her husband and that of her friend, Mrs. Reilly (whose husbands, apparently, spent more than a few hours at the local pub).

What makes this song of interest to genealogists, in my opinion, is that the perceptions of other cultures most likely created animosities among neighbors, not unlike some areas in big cities today. While we may like to think that all immigrants arrived in America with a desire to live together in harmony with shared values of freedom and opportunity, it is more likely that the differences (in language, value systems, religion, skills, etc.) resulted in more divisions than unions.

I first heard this song by folklorist Joe Hickerson and it is available on his CD set, "Drive Dull Cares Away." I have also recorded it on my "Songs of Irish Immigrants" CD (available on my website under "CDs"). To listen to the song, there is an MP3 of it on that same website: and to read a version of the lyrics, check out Mudcat Cafe (a great source for lyrics and discussions of folk music):

We can learn a lot about the social structures, as well as entertainment, of our ancestors by studying the songs of the time periods and cultures in which they lived. This one is a perfect example of a lot of information squeezed into a short song that is actually fun to sing at the same time. Enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment