The Stolen Child, by The Waterboys

In 1986, after his band The Waterboys met success with a number of hits with a big sound of 80s production, most famously The Whole of the Moon, bandleader Mike Scott wanted out: “I had got bored with rock and I particularly hated the process of making rock music in the 80s. The clicky drums, the snare drum drenched in echo. You could even hear it on a couple of Waterboys songs where I was battling not to be blighted. Even the promo photos that bands would do against mottled backdrops, looking goody-goody. I just fucking hated all of that.”

Scott decided to get back to basics and embarked on a new project that resulted a couple of years later with the release of Fisherman’s Blues, one of my favorite albums of the 80s. He moved to Galway, Ireland and together with the band settled into Spiddal House, an old house that became their recording studio. In a frenzy of song writing and recording, they got over 100 songs on tape, of which 11 of them were selected for the album. Later releases and the final Fisherman’s box released in 2013 consisting of 6 CDs shed light on that creative back to roots period.

The gem on that album is The Stolen Child, a song Scott composed to Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ mysterious poem about a child beguiled by fairies to come with them to their island. The haunting mood of the song is achieved by Scott’s rolling piano accompaniment that he sustains throughout the song, and the narrating voice of Tomás Mac Eoin, a local singer of Sean-nós (Irish for “old style”), the Irish tradition of unaccompanied singing. The recording experience has been a struggle for the singer, who in the first session for the song could not find the right rhythm with Scott’s piano and the beautiful flute melodies played by Colin Blakey. A pint of Guinness on his side did not improve matters. Placed there by Scott, who was unfamiliar with the Irishman’s drinking habits that did not include the velvety dark stout, the glass was left untouched.  The Waterboys’ respect for the traditionalist was not weakened by the difficulties in the studio. Mac Eoin got the largest photo and write up in the album’s booklet:

In a second attempt to conquer the song, Mac Eoin asked Scott to cue him when to start reciting each line. I will let Mike Scott finish this post, as he documents that session in his book Adventures of a Waterboy: “We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the Sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds. I felt like a whippersnapper before this emissary of a venerable tradition, and didn’t relish the job of cueing him. But Tomás was putting himself in my hands and I realized that if I wanted to bridge the gulf and bring back the fruits of the older world, I had to stretch out a metaphorical hand and meet Tomás halfway; we had to be the bridge. So I bit the bullet and when the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside. Verse by verse, line by line, signal by signal, Tomás delivered and soon we had the poem fastened snugly to the music, worlds merged and job well accomplished. After a celebratory cup of tea in the kitchen, Tomás, his blue cap tilted at a rakish angle, was chauffeured back to his cottage in Carraroe, a relieved and happy man.”

Come away, human child

to the water

Come away, human child

to the water and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand

for the world’s more full

of weeping than you can understand

 

Where dips the rocky highland

of Sleuth Wood in the lake

There lies a leafy island

where flapping herons wake

The drowsy water rats;

there we’ve hid our faery vats

Full of berries

and of reddest stolen cherries

 

Come away, human child

to the water…

 

Where the wave of moonlight glosses

the dim gray sands with light

Far off by furthest Rosses

we foot it all the night

Weaving olden dances

mingling hands and mingling glances

Till the moon has taken flight;

to and fro we leap

And chase the frothy bubbles

while the world is full of troubles

And is anxious in its sleep

 

Come away, human child

to the water…

 

Where the wandering water gushes

from the hills above Glen-Car

In pools among the rushes

the scarce could bathe a star

We seek for slumbering trout

and whispering in their ears

We give them unquiet dreams;

leaning softly out

From ferns that drop their tears

over the young streams

 

Away with us he’s going

the solemn-eyed:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

of the calves on the warm hillside;

Or the kettle on the hob

sing peace into his breast

Or see the brown mice bob

around and around the oatmeal-chest

 

For he comes, the human child

to the water

He comes, the human child

to the water and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand

from a world more full

of weeping than he can

understand

Human child

human child

With a faery, hand in hand

from a world more full of

weeping than he can

understand…

than he can understand…

he can understand…

Categories: Songs

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