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The long and winding road of “Whiskey In The Jar,” Irish music’s most beloved song

Thin Lizzy: Brian Downey, Phil Lynott, and Eric Bell
Thin Lizzy: Brian Downey, Phil Lynott, and Eric Bell

“Whiskey In The Jar” has had one of the longest, most colorful histories of any Irish song. The thousands of versions of the tune include not only the rock ’n’ roll ones everyone knows—mainly by Thin Lizzy and Metallica—but they also include The Dubliners’ revered folk take, The Grateful Dead’s rehearsal version, bedroom covers, raucous bar-band versions, spritely Irish-punk covers, and live acoustic renditions. The song’s wide-ranging surface appeal is obvious: It’s a rollicking tune that’s fun to sing, especially while hoisting a pint or two. But that “Whiskey In The Jar” has become so revered is also somewhat mystifying: How did a centuries-old folk tale about an Irish criminal who plunders and robs people he encounters—and then gets shipped off to jail after his woman betrays him—endure and become a cover staple?

Certainly its simple foundation and nod to tradition has something to do with it. The song was particularly popular in American folk circles in the ’50s and ’60s, when Burl Ives, The Brothers Four, and The Limeliters covered it as “Kilgary Mountain,” and Peter, Paul, And Mary recorded it as “Gilgarra Mountain.” Yet “Whiskey In The Jar” is also quite malleable, which has allowed it to transcend genres and eras. The Pogues teamed up with The Dubliners for a slightly disheveled, folky version that hit No. 4 in Ireland in 1990, while bluegrass icon David Grisman and Jerry Garcia collaborated on a light-footed take in the mid-’90s, around the same time Pulp did a predictably droll version of the song. A mid-’00s cover by Belle And Sebastian was sighing and slightly desperate, while ’80s new-wavers Simple Minds amped up the urgency for a U2-esque, spacey version in 2009. Even Kings Of Leon’s 2003 single “Molly’s Chambers” has ties to the song; the title is a reference to a phrase from Thin Lizzy’s version, and zeroes in on the temptation aspect of the tune.

Naturally, the evolution of “Whiskey In The Jar” itself is also complicated. Folklorists point out that the rough outline of the “Whiskey In The Jar” story dates back to 1650 and the exploits of a vile criminal named Patrick Flemming, an Irish highwayman who maimed and killed civilians galore before being executed—caught only because his weapon was intentionally dampened so it would malfunction. A tune called “Patrick Flemmen He Was A Valiant Souldier” appears in the early 1680s in conjunction with an English broadside ballad, “The Downfal Of The Whiggs, Or, Their Lamentation For Fear Of A Loyal Parliament”—but the actual text of the “Patrick Flemming” tune surfaced in a later collection of ballads kept by noted curator Sir Frederick Madden, and adds the detail of the betrayal by a woman. This woman had a name (Molly) by a circa-1850s broadside ballad called “Sporting Hero, Or Whiskey In The Bar”; in other variations, she came to be known as “sportin’ Jenny” or just “Jenny.” The author of the 1960 book Irish Street Ballads includes the tune “There’s Whiskey In The Jar,” and notes his Limerick-based mother learned the song in 1870 from a native of Cork. Over time, the villainous plundering became a simpler, man-on-man crime—and the person being robbed generally tended to be English, frequently a higher-up in the army (e.g., “Captain Farrell,” “Colonel Pepper”).

But because “Whiskey In The Jar” is considered to be a traditional, there’s no definitive version of the song or its lyrics. In truth, chronicling the variations of the song in popular music just during the last half-century or so is mind-boggling. Sometimes when the protagonist’s lady rats him out for his plundering, his weapon does work, and he kills the person who confronts him. In some cases, he languishes in prison for his crimes; in other cases, he manages to escape with his AWOL-from-the-army brother and they both hide in the mountains. And depending on the version of the song, either the main character would rather be dabbling in sex and drinking above all, or else he’s just a hooligan who’s unruly on whiskey.

Despite this bawdy and violent origin, the song tends to end up a lighthearted celebration of debauchery, a communal sing-along that’s like a drunk Grimm’s fairy tale. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club, Thin Lizzy founding member/original guitarist Eric Bell underscored this point by noting the song’s importance to the band’s native Ireland. “There’s lots of Irish folk songs, like drinking songs,” he said. “Everybody has a few drinks and they go down to the pub. It’s just part of the Irish tradition. It’s the same with America—you’ve got your bluegrass music, your country music. It’s part of America.”

Thin Lizzy’s 1972 take on “Whiskey In The Jar”—which hit No. 1 in Ireland and went top 10 in the U.K.—is widely considered to be the definitive rock ’n’ roll version of the song, and for good reason: At the time, its combination of old and new sounds was revolutionary. “For a folk song to become a hit in the ’70s—but played on electrical instruments, not traditional instruments, like bodhráns and Irish pipes and violins and fiddles—our version was extremely modern,” Bell described. “Still, it somehow kept that Irish feel.”

As the guitarist tells it, his band covering “Whiskey In The Jar” happened “purely by accident,” during an otherwise uneventful rehearsal at a London pub. “We used to work original stuff, [but] on this particular day, it just wasn’t happening. We were going to pack up, and Philip [Lynott, vocalist] put down the bass and picked up the other six-string guitar, and he just started messing about with various stupid songs. About 20 minutes later, he started singing ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ as one of those stupid songs. Me and [drummer] Brian Downey, at this point we were extremely bored, and we started playing along with him a little bit.”

In a fateful twist, then-Thin Lizzy manager Ted Carroll happened to be coming up the stairs at the time with a new amplifier for Bell. Overhearing the jam session, he pressed the group on what they were playing, Bell recalls. “We said, ‘Whiskey In The Jar.’ He said, ‘You’ve got your first single to record for Decca in about six weeks. Have you got an A-side?’ and we said, ‘Yeah, ‘Black Boys In The Corner.’ He said, ‘Have you got a B-side?’ We said, ‘Not at the moment.’ He said, ‘Start thinking about rearranging ‘Whiskey In The Jar.’ We couldn’t believe that he wanted us to record that song.”

Six weeks later, when Thin Lizzy went to record “Black Boys In The Corner,” the band still didn’t have a B-side, so “Whiskey In The Jar” it was. Unlike the popular ’60s version by The Dubliners, however—a twee, brisk take on the song that was relatively unconcerned with prison time—the band’s approach was from a much different, moodier place. Lynott’s vocals are soulful and impassioned, and deeply invested in the tragic storyline. His delivery humanizes the narrator and sympathizes with his anguish over being double-crossed by his lady: “And I got drunk on whiskey-oh / And I loved, I loved, I loved, I loved, I loved, I loved my Molly-o.” At the very end, the band throws in a reference to another standard trope well-known in Irish folk circles, the “dirty old town.” The lyric—“And she wheels a wheelbarrow through that old dirty town / Oh, it’s a dirty old town”—can be interpreted as longing for freedom, or a dig on Molly that she too is stuck in a hellhole of her own doing.

Thin Lizzy’s version remains distinctive as well due to the guitar parts Bell added atop the basic melody: a keening, mournful wail as an intro; a lively, rippling guitar line cascading throughout the song; and an on-the-edge-of-a-squall bridge with jammy, bluesy roots. Guitar-wise, Bell called it “one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever worked on in my life, to try and come up with original ideas for.” In fact, in order to hit on the right formula, he had to avoid approaching the song like a guitarist would.

“We were gigging one night, Thin Lizzy in England,” he recalls. “And on the way home, Philip used to play cassettes in the car when we were traveling. He had different people that he was into: Janice Brown, The Rolling Stones, [Jimi] Hendrix, Bob Marley. And he was also into Irish songs, [like] the Chieftains. As we were traveling home that night, he put the Chieftains cassette on. I got this idea to approach the intro as an Uilleann pipe—you know, Irish pipes—rather than thinking as a guitar player.”

In an interview with The A.V. Club, guitarist Richard Fortus, who played with Thin Lizzy in 2011 and currently performs in Guns N’ Roses, noted the significance of these varied influences coming together. “That whole Irish rock band thing—[Thin Lizzy] were the first ones to really do it,” he says. “At that time, artists like Van Morrison—he was trying to sound American. [Thin Lizzy] were the first ones to break through with that Celtic vibe. Their version of it is just so great.”

Despite the respectful origins and fresh take on the song, not everyone was thrilled with Thin Lizzy’s version, especially the old guard. “Everybody that’s heard ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’ heard The Dubliners’ version: banjos, tin whistles, and so on and so on,” Bell said. “We came along and completely and totally rearranged that song. A lot of Irish people didn’t really like it, you know?… We were told we bastardized it. An awful lot of Irish people said that to us, actually used that word. [Assumes a stern Irish grizzled accent.] ‘Jesus, lads, you bastardized that song.’”

“Whiskey In The Jar” becoming a hit was also polarizing internally for Thin Lizzy, both a blessing and a curse. Bell said the song helped bolster his reputation as a musician and keep him financially solvent. (“It’s sort of helped me pay the rent the last 20 years. Before ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’ I hadn’t a pot to piss on, really.”) But Thin Lizzy failed to immediately follow up “Whiskey In The Jar” with another huge U.K. hit (although a subsequent pair of singles, including the now-classic “The Rocker,” hit the Top 15 of the Irish charts).

The band was saddled with a one-hit wonder reputation perpetuated by the press, as Lynott noted in a 1976 interview. “I was conscious that the media saw that we didn’t follow up ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’” he said. “And we didn’t in terms of record sales. The only place we seemed to be happening was on the street. But, you know, that’s Thin Lizzy summed up for you. Like an album and three singles after ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’ man, you’d get people mentioning ‘Whiskey Jar’ in interviews—and I’d go ‘Oh Jeezuz.’ That was how far behind the press got on the band. They really lost contact.”

Moving immediately into performing at larger venues also did a number on the band. “There would be about 800 people there to see us, and they didn’t know what to expect,” Bell recalled. “We just walked out and we did our set that we always played in the pubs and clubs: rock music, blues, some original stuff. Nobody took a blind bit of notice of us—maybe 30 people standing watching us playing. Then at some part of the night, I went [sings the start of “Whiskey In The Jar”] and 1,000 people turned up, appeared right in front of us, and stood and went crazy until the song ended. Then we started playing our own blues and stuff again—and they all disappeared again. That’s what it was like. We went through this major change, of being a rock-blues band to a band that had their first hit record. It really, really throws you.”

Still, “Whiskey In The Jar” was perhaps the first chance many had to discover Thin Lizzy. Witnessing the band perform on Top Of The Pops in 1972 became a life-changing experience for Northern Ireland native Ricky Warwick. He is now the frontman of Black Star Riders, the moniker under which the current Thin Lizzy lineup—including guitarist Scott Gorham, who replaced Bell when he left the group in 1973— releases new music and plays shows.

“The first time I saw Thin Lizzy in black and white on TV was playing ‘Whiskey In The Jar,’” Warwick told A.V. Club. “I was just captivated by the sound and also by the way Phil looked, because he was so different-looking to any sort of rock & roller at that time. The whole thing just captured my imagination. That was the first time I heard the song, and I fell in love with it straightaway. It was the sound, it was that guitar hook, it was the whole vibe of it, it was Phil’s voice. Everything was captivating to me.”

Warwick noted that Black Star Riders currently close their set with “Whiskey In The Jar” (which, of course, stays faithful to the Thin Lizzy version). He witnesses the song’s enduring popularity every night—and has his own theory as to why it endures. “It’s that Irish drinking thing, it absolutely is,” Warwick said. “You have the nautical lyrics in the chorus, which is very much Irish folklore—diddly-um, diddly-i [and] musha-ring-dam-a-do-dam-a-die. It’s almost like rhyming with the music, and it really doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a drinking song.

“But also, the verses have a lot of meaning,” he continued. “It’s the Irish villain robbing the English general and getting one over on the English, which the Irish always love to do. It’s a magical story—it’s timeless. That song comes on, no matter where you are, and especially if it’s cranked up loud, people just want to drink and have a good time, and raise their fists in the air.”

Although “Whiskey In The Jar” was always huge in Ireland, the U.K., and Europe, the song surged worldwide in the late ’90s thanks to Metallica’s slash-and-burn take on Thin Lizzy’s version, from the 1998 B-sides/covers album Garage Inc. “I can’t speak for them, but I know Thin Lizzy’s always been a big band for Metallica,” Bob Rock, who produced the first disc of Garage Inc. with frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. Rock told A.V. Club: “That particular song, they really liked the fact it was Eric Bell [on the track]—kind of an earlier song of [Thin Lizzy’s]. We just tried to do it justice. It was one of the most simple ones on the album, because their heart was in it.

“All the lyrics and the imagery, with the farm and the field, really was what got James [Hetfield] into it as well,” Rock continued. “It was really a live performance of [Metallica] playing it, which you hear, the enthusiasm and the excitement.”

Metallica’s version of the song honors the spirit of Thin Lizzy’s deliberate approach, whether it’s Ulrich’s fat drum splashes or the precision with which the band emulates and amplifies Bell’s original guitar parts. Metallica’s cover has a looser, elastic feel, however—matching the debauched party scenes depicted in the song’s video—and revels in its villainous ways. Even when reaching the song’s denouement, when the narrator is in jail, the band takes a defiant stance. Of course, this again has much to do with the vocals: “Whiskey In The Jar” features peak Hetfield vocal enunciation, from his sharp-cornered delivery of the “musha-ring-dam-a-do-dam-a-die” lyric—a part Rock stressed they “had to make sure James could own that… We wanted to make sure we got that right”—and the syllabic uprising he employs on words such as “jar-uh.”

“We treated it like it was a Metallica song, in a way,” Rock said about the band’s approach. “Sometimes [when bands are covering other] records, maybe [they] do it quickly, because it’s not theirs. We actually made sure that we took time to make sure everything was right, and it was a record everybody could be proud of. That’s the difference. It probably shows in what comes across—we tried to make a great record.”

“Whiskey In The Jar” was the second song from Garage Inc. to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and nabbed Metallica the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. Certainly Metallica’s status as one of the biggest bands in the world helped propel the song to such great heights. But why did this version resonate so widely?

“It’s kind of folky,” Rock described. “And it gets corny, but folk music and that kind of traditional song makes you feel good. It’s very powerful and very happy, what we did, but we didn’t take away from the song. Traditional songs like that resonate through generations. It resonated with the Pogues; they did it with The Dubliners, a different generation. Metallica did theirs. It’s kind of the great thing about music—and particularly traditional music—is to carry it through generations, so other people actually get a chance to hear that stuff.”

But Metallica’s version of the traditional standard offered Bell a bit of a surprise: “Years later, after I left Thin Lizzy, I was doing a tour with my own band in Sweden,” he recalled. “People came to the changing room after the gig to talk and have autographs and so on. Everyone that came into the changing room said, [assumes Swedish accent] ‘Eric, have you heard Metallica’s version of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’? And I said, ‘Who? Metallica?’ I had never heard of Metallica in my life, because I’m not into that type of music. So when I got back to England I thought, ‘Wow, I must check this band out.’”

Once he checked out the album, he was in for another surprise. “Thing was, on the sleeve notes of the album, it said, ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and then in brackets, [Traditional Arrangement, Metallica.]” So I put it on and—gotcha. That’s my riff; I made that up. I phoned up Thin Lizzy’s management and I said, ‘Listen, I was in Sweden and there’s a band called Metallica…’ and they said, ‘Yes, we know, our lawyers are talking to their lawyers at the moment.’” Surpassing any legal issues, Metallica performed the song live in Dublin in 1999 with Bell on guitar.

It’s understandable why Bell and other past and present members of Thin Lizzy are so protective of “Whiskey In The Jar,” and not just for financial reasons. “There’s [been] many, many different versions of it through the years,” Black Star Riders’ Warwick said. “It’s just part of our culture. Music’s so ingrained in our society—in every street, every bar, every house, there’s a musical instrument, or there’s music going on. You just grow up with it—it’s part of who you are, what you are. People think of us as a nation of fighters, [but] we’re a nation of dreamers as well.” “Whiskey In The Jar”’s longstanding value to Irish culture remains immeasurable; it represents what makes the country and its artistic output influential and meaningful, in any rendition.