Terry Sullivan often starts with a story, and finishes it with a song — stories of Irish history and revolutionaries laced with humor and sorrow.
Some of the songs are a call to arms, others blatant expressions of culture, or songs written in code.
They are songs that Sullivan has sung for more than 20 years.
After all, the 71-year-old is a rebel at heart, identifying with his forefathers in the motherland, as he is a fifth-generation Irish immigrant himself who landed in Sag Harbor.
This St. Patrick’s Day Weekend, Sullivan will perform two free concerts of satirical Irish tunes, “Laughin’ to Keep From Cryin” — the first on Saturday at Caino’s Books, followed by an encore on Sunday at the Eastville Community Historical Society.
The musician caught up with the Sag Harbor Express as he readied for his performances, and dished on all things Irish, his longtime friendship with the late, great Pete Seeger — whom he worked with hundreds of times — and his deep connection to this music.
The Sag Harbor Express: How did this show come about?
Terry Sullivan: The point I’m making with this concert is not Irish chauvinism, like it’s the best culture ever, but how much it has in common with other colonial cultures — for instance, all of Africa, where it’s been colonialized, India, West Indies, African Americans, Jewish culture.
The thing that the British did — they’ve been in Ireland from 1077 ’til now, so they’ve had a lot of time to practice — and that they tried to do all over the world was they banned local languages, music and religions. That’s the culture. In Ireland, they tried to stop the Irish from speaking Irish, which was their first language, and it was 10 times older at this point. Irish Gaelic is 7,000 years old. At this point, English that we could understand is no more than 700.
That was the first thing. The gist of this whole thing — the title is “Laughin’ to Keep From Cryin” — is a show with humorous songs that show how all of this oppression was reacted to.
What is an example?
Sullivan: The first song is called, “Moses Ri-tooral-i-ay” and it’s written by Tommy Makem, and it’s about the time before 1922 — because that’s when Ireland got its independence — so the law forbidding Irish was still in effect at the time of this song.
A Jewish shopkeeper comes to Dublin and all of the stores have the shopkeeper’s surname as wide as the building, foot-tall letters: Sullivan, Murphy, whatever the family name is. They’re very proud of their Irish surnames, and the Jewish shopkeeper comes and puts up his name, except in Hebrew. This policeman comes along and he thinks it’s in Irish because he’s ignorant. Not only do the British ban the language, but they’re ignorant of it. So he sees what looks like Irish to him. He drags the guy into court and — do you want to hear the song?
(He sings the song, and the court portion goes as such: The prisoner stepped up there as stiff as a crutch/“Are you Irish or English or German or Dutch?”/“I’m a Jew sir, I’m a Jew sir, that came over to stay/And my name it is Moses Ri-tooral-I-ay”/“We’re two of a kind” said the judge to the Jew/You’re a cousin of Briscoe and I am one too/This numbskull has blundered and for it will pay”/“Wisha, that’s righ” says Moses Ri-tooral-I-Ay)
There was a worldwide reaction to these tactics that the British and other colonial groups practiced, spawning civil rights movements all over the world. The international stuff that I get to is a little further into the concert.
How do you feel when you’re singing these songs?
The thing about performing stuff like this is you really have to control the energy. It’s a lot like when you’re singing passionate songs, you have to be careful how passionate you get. It’s called the razor’s edge: you want to go just fast enough around that turn, but not fly off the tracks. Right now, I was singing and talking and singing and talking, but when you’re doing it, it really takes a lot of concentration.
The more I sing them, the more I learn, too. There’s this one song, “Nell Flaherty’s Drake” that is a coded song about Robert Emmet, a revolutionary who was hung by the crown and called “the drake,” like a duck. I’ll sing it for you.
(He sings the song, and the final verse goes: Now the only good news that I have to infuse/Is that old Paddy Hughs and young Anthony Blake,/Also Johnny Dwyer and Corney Maguire,/They each have a grandson of my darling drake./My treasure had dozens of nephews and cousins,/And one I must et or my heart it will break;/To set my mind aisy or else I’ll run crazy -/So ends the whole song of Nell Flaherty’s drake.”
So, sure, you can kill one drake, but because you have dozens of nephews and cousins, what he’s talking about is revolutionaries. You can hunt and hang Robert Emmett, but there’s many, many, many more.
I just got a little choked up just saying that, and it’s hidden — it was hidden from me for years.
Why does that make you emotional?
I have this connection in my chromosomes to all these things. But when I was a kid, I had a lot of empathy for people who were treated unfairly because I was a rebel. I’m talking about when I was 5, 6 years old. I was physically abused because I would not knuckle under to my father’s authoritarian regime.
So, what you get from that is, you recognize unfairness more readily. There’s a negative part to it and you’re crazy for the rest of your life, but it’s a good crazy. So I was really attracted to people like Pete Seeger when I was young. I went to a concert, I was about 15, at Carnegie Hall that was just Pete — and he always has a lot of people on stage with him, he never hogs the spotlight — and it was an amazing concert. And it changed my life.
What would Pete think of the concert you’ve put together?
Oh he’d love it. First of all, it’s tying together all these things, these disparate parts of colonialism. That was his vision: “Don’t focus on one little thing and say, ‘This is your struggle.’” It’s another version of act local and think global. You can see what’s happening right now in our country and yet look at what’s happening in Europe, too. It’s scary! And in the Philippines, that jerk in the Philippines. There’s these really horrible leaders popping up all over the place, and people are scared. So they do desperate things when they’re scared.
Do you think songs like these help through trying times?
Yes. I think what people do is, they try and cope with it. “Laughin’ to Keep From Cryin” is a southern African-American expression, but it describes the Jewish culture — a lot of humor in the Jewish culture — and the Irish culture. We all have that in common because they have been the objects of this colonial attitude that says, “Do away with your religion and your culture. Mine is better.”
You just have to keep your eyes on the prize.
Terry Sullivan will perform his free concert “Laughin’ to Keep From Cryin” on Saturday, March 17, at 5 p.m. at Canio’s Books, located at 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, please call (631) 725-4926.
An encore will be held on Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society, located at 139 Hampton Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, please call (631) 725-4711 or visit eastvillehistorical.org.