A Life in Ireland: Mary Black and her Music

Kerry Dexter's picture

Mary Black is a teller of stories, a weaver of idea and emotion who brings listeners along to share in the journeys she takes through music. Black has been inviting people along on those journeys for some thirty years now, at first in clubs and pubs in her home ground of Dublin in Ireland, where she grew up, and as time unfolded, across the world from Australia to Japan to Cape Breton to Amsterdam to Boston to Austin to San Francisco and to Belfast and Cork and Letterkenny and back again to Dublin. At this writing she is in the midst of what she has named The Last Call Tour.


A Life in Ireland: Mary Black and her Music


It's not that Black is going to stop singing; music is far too much part of her life for that. She is, however, calling an end to the recurring world spanning tours. That decision sparked another one, following on an idea the singer had been presented several years back: writing a book about her life. She decided such work could be good way to mark her transition out of international touring.



The result is the book Down the Crooked Road. It shows Black to be as engaging a storyteller through the written word as she is through her music. The book opens, for example, with scene of her taking a quiet moment or two before going on stage before a sold out house at the Royal Albert Hall, a time which leads her to a brief reflection on learning songs with her brother when they were growing up in working class Dublin. It is a story which well introduces the two strands which weave through Black's life and through her stories in Down the Crooked Road: family and music.

Many of the stories are told through memorable images and vignettes, such as the story of Mary holding out her arms to receive her sister Frances as baby Frances was learning to walk, and to another side of family life, her throwing something at older brother Shay (being tired of his teasing her) and after the hit struck home, racing away to hide from her mother's wrath. Black grew up the middle child of five in working class Dublin, in a family with never much money but always a good bit of music and a lot of looking out for each other. It is no sugar coated story, but rather the range and variety of situation and emotion you might expect hear in good conversations across the kitchen table.



The same is true of what she says of her life in music; the two are not really separate, of course, and the life and career of any touring musician does not go by any standard route. There was always music in Black's family, traditional stuff from her dad and show tunes her mother liked to sing, and before long, singer songwriter stuff from her brothers, as well. By age ten, Mary was beginning to know that she could sing, and do it well, and that she loved it. Several years on, her brother Michael took a decision to leave a secure position in business and follow his dream to study education - even though the college which admitted him expressed lack of confidence in his abilities. This got Mary thinking of what her dreams were, and Michael's determination (he has since received several honors degrees and his PhD) inspired her to follow her own path and look for opportunities in music.

There were ups and downs in this path, and in her social and family life, too. All this makes for good storytelling -- stories that ring true, as well, from slightly wild days as a Dublin teenager to busking on the streets (and ferries) of America with her brothers, to getting to know the man she'd eventually marry -- and that course of true love had its challenges as well. As Black married and became a parent, she wondered if it was worth it to continue following music. She recalls her husband Joe saying to her that he thought she might regret it later in life if she put her music away, and reminding her of the the saying about not hiding your light under a bushel. That struck her the right way "and I sat down and had a little chat with myself," she recalls.



The personal and professional continue to interweave in Down the Crooked Road, as Black's life expands upon the public stage. She gives insights into how she goes about choosing songs, the different recording circumstances she has experienced, missing her kids while on tour, and the continuing beat of family and music going on together. She writes with interest and respect of her band members past and present, and her brothers and sisters as adults, and her three children growing up. In autobiographies of public figures, there's a fine line between being too personal and too distant, both in telling one's own story and in writing about others important in one's life: one of the fine things about Down the Crooked Road is that Black walks this line very well.



Another really interesting thing is the way she has chosen song titles and song lines for chapter headings and occasionally chapter breaks, as well. That makes a soundtrack album a natural companion to the book, and indeed, there is one, called Down the Crooked Road: The Soundtrack. The eighteen tracks form a selection of the music referenced in the book and Black's brief liner notes help peg them to sections in the book. The album stands on its own, though: while book and album add resonance to each other each may be enjoyed without the other. Songs on the soundtrack album include a live version of No Frontiers, the song which opened doors beyond Ireland for Black; Carolina Rua, from which the title phrase comes; Colcannon, with her brothers and sisters; Schooldays Over, which Black recalls working with Shay to learn in that opening scene in the book; Faith in Fate, Black's favorite of the songs her son Danny has written; and Who Knows Where the Time Goes. "Looking back at my life with this book has made me realize how quickly the years have flown by and how precious time really is," Black writes of that song.



Black's writing and stories and ideas can be enjoyed if you are not that familiar with her music -- she is that engaging a writer (and she says that her daughter Roisin took down her stories and drew her out to add context to them; well done on Roisin's part). If you are not that acquainted with Mary Black's music, all the more reason for the soundtrack album, and perhaps it is time for you to check out her back catalogue, as well. My favorites include By the Time It Gets Dark, The Best of Mary Black Volume 2, and Stories from the Steeples.


Find her at http://mary-black.net/



Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland,and other places, as well as at her own site Music Road.