There’s Nowt So Weird As Folk: John Francis Flynn interviewed

John Francis Flynn is just about to release one of the year's finest albums, Look Over The Wall, See The Sky. Here he talks to John Doran about the violence and otherworldliness of traditional music and the radical symbol of the mole. Scroll down feature for the premiere of the Willie Crotty video

All portraits by Rachel Lipsitz. Thanks to <a href=""

target="out">Spiritland Kings Cross

If you’re an unusually tall person and you meet someone taller than you, you are impelled to comment upon it. The laws of the universe command it. “Gosh, you’re tall!” I tell 6’7” Irish folk musician, John Francis Flynn, when I meet him at the Spiritland bar in Kings Cross, London. He now joins the select club of Thurston Moore, Mark Stewart and Christopher Lee, with whom I have also used this scintillating ice-breaker.

“It’s all that people say to me”, he says, before admitting: “But the second I meet someone taller than me I tell them, ‘God you’re tall!’ I can’t stop myself…” He is drinking an IPA out of a dinky, half-sized dimpled glass mug and it has the very brief but mind-warping effect of making him look like an actual giant. In mythology the Fomóraiġ were a race of towering violent beings defeated by the original ancient settler tribe Tuatha Dé Danann, who went on to lay the foundations of all Irish culture, so given what Flynn does, not to mention his geniality, perhaps it’s good this impression is only fleeting. John Francis Flynn, in simple terms, is an Irish folk musician and singer – somebody who has emerged slowly over a long period from the centre of his country’s traditional music scene – who now sounds remarkably different to what most of us would imagine an Irish folk musician and singer to sound like.

His vision – not just of Irish music, but one that treads a global path connecting the high peaks of the Appalachian Mountains and the grimy back streets of Salford – may yet summon feelings of discord within his field, especially when you consider his use of electronics, tape experimentation, dub, post punk and industrial noise; but what I feel on listening to his music is actually harmony – an unusual but sincere form of respect for source material and tradition.

If you first came to his music this year off the back of recent single ‘Mole In The Ground’ you could initially be forgiven for not realising he was a traditional musician at all. Certainly, with its anhedonic staccato chanting and rock in opposition meets post punk guitars it bears more relation, in form and delivery, to This Heat, Horse Lords and Skee-Lo, than it does to the American folk standard recorded for the first time nearly a century ago. He casually sketches out where his boundaries lie, and the first is one that most folk musicians respect: “I don’t change the words to songs.” (Although later he adds that he will take a phrase from a different version of a song and substitute it into the one he is singing, if it makes the meaning clearer.)

But clearly he doesn’t have any issues with changing the instrumentation, the arrangement and occasionally even the melody. Does this, and the use of relatively unusual production techniques, allow for a radically different interpretation of the lyrics? “Yeah, it does. When I connect to a song, I develop a personal idea of what it’s about and this in turn makes me feel a certain way. And the arrangement then comes out of how I can best represent those feelings. I feel that it’s respectful of the source material; if it gets those feelings right – if I’m being honest on that score and not just taking some whacky, random melody and putting it with the lyrics – it makes sense.”

He says that the original lyrics can sometimes guide the vocal melody, the arrangement and the production techniques but with ‘Mole In The Ground’ he thought, “‘Oh God, the lyrics are so good!’ The melody was almost distracting me from how I felt about the lyrics. I ended up seeing the words to the song like… bullets.”

I think it’s necessary from the start to recognise that the idea that John Francis Flynn is not an iconoclast rock musician, smashing together his country’s folk music with punk or electronics or psych or dub in order to excite jaded palates but is a copper-bottomed traditional musician whose clarity and uniqueness of vision is allowing him to draw the weirdness out from the core of folk music itself – something that is intrinsic to this culture. (He tells me it wasn’t his intention or motivation to present this music with The Shock Of The New, so people can hear it as if it were a brand new genre – he plays music this way because he enjoys it – but the benefits are ours to reap nonetheless.)

To be able to hear the weirdness of the song originally called ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928 – which became part of the American folk-revival canon after being included on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology Of American Folk Music – is to be able to hear the weirdness of all folk music. Like John Francis Flynn and many other folk musicians before him, Lunsford was a collector of songs. He may have travelled through the mountains of North Carolina so extensively he earned the nickname Minstrel of the Appalachians, but he was also well-heeled middle class, qualifying as a teacher, studying law at university and later managing a successful campaign to get a democratic congressman, Zebulon Weaver, elected. The distance between him and the folks he collected songs from can be judged by the fact that in 1939 he went to the Whitehouse to play for King George VI at the request of President Roosevelt. Lunsford made no secret of the fact he bowdlerised songs or straight up omitted verses or lyrics he considered obscene.

I’ve often wondered if he changed ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’, as the lyrics are disjointed, providing little in the way of narrative for the listener to grab onto, as if a key verse has been dropped along the way. It is, claims Greil Marcus, the most “seductively unsolvable” song he has ever heard. The idea of a deeper history for the song was hinted at by Bob Dylan associate and folk singer Bob Neuwirth who, when playing it live, added a bit of sauce into the mix by changing, “I wish I was a lizard in a spring” to “I wish I was a lizard in your spring”. Suits you, sir.

But as it is, ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ is fractured. The hillbilly ‘Wasteland’. Dylan himself understood this and after being initiated into “the brotherhood of the Anthology” at the start of the 1960s at the University of Minnesota, he would borrow from its heap of broken images time and again. He leant directly on the song for ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’: “[Mona] said that all the railroad men/ Just drink up your blood like wine”.

The song was rendered even more strange by the gleefully reckless curation of the Anthology. Harry Smith was a very odd man, who spent long stretches of his life destitute, living in flop houses, as well as collecting tens of thousands of blues and country 78s before compiling the 84-track Anthology, while also making experimental films and dazzling conceptual art. He was also a bohemian occultist who read the tarot. And this is what the Anthology is – a tarot reading for a nation. An occult arrangement of child murders, Satanic preachers, sword-fencing frogs, adulterous field workers, matricidal sons, patricidal daughters; an exaltation of spiritual ecstasy, a lamentation of spiritual dread, all removed from its temporal and spatial and historical context and reassembled in a ritual order that only Smith understood fully, but laying bare a psychic portrait of the real chaos and violence of America still vivid under the official portrait of post war success and luxury.

As above, so below. ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ is like a tarot reading itself, with its thirsty lizards, angry mountain-levelling moles, blood-drinking railroad men, shawl-wearing girlfriends… If you listen to it time and again, you suspect that not only was Bascom Lamar Lunsford too prissy to repeat all of the words he originally heard sung in 1901 by a Burke County schoolboy called Fred Moody, but that John Francis Flynn is 100% right: his jovial vocals and that buoyant banjo rendering of the tune, seem totally disconnected from the song itself. But this speaks again to something else weird about the folk music on the Anthology, which is that it purports to be ancient, with all of those kings, queens and dukes, but is actually very modernist – in as much as it is often excessively violent, blatantly sexual, concerned with war and new forms of technology such as the railroad and has a utopian/ dystopian undertow – while also being, on one level at least, postmodern. There is no author to kill in this folk music, and the listener’s interpretation is completely valid.

Flynn says: “Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s version is the first recorded, and that’s why it’s the version that everyone’s heard but I wonder how many versions of the song there were before that, because the lyrics are at odds with the melody. It’s similar to a lot of traditional Irish music, like ‘Weile Weile Waila’, which is essentially a children’s song about a woman murdering a baby. [He sings] ‘There was an old woman and she lived in the woods…’ That’s the really simple, happy melody. And everyone is singing along to it and you go to yourself, ‘Wait a second… What did he say? Is he actually singing about murdering a baby?!’”

He gently questions late 20th Century interpretations of the song as being nihilistic: “‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ isn’t direct, it is quite metaphorical, but I feel like the words are anti-establishment and that maybe it’s a protest song. The mole might be small but it can undermine things on the surface: ‘If I was a mole I’d tear that mountain down’. So even if he’s feeling wretched he’s also saying, ‘Fuck the system, I’ll tear it all down.’ And the mole hates his boss who is a horrible monster [laughs]. There’s an element of him saying, ‘I just want to relax and have a nice time but I can’t because the system isn’t working for me.’”

Speaking about the move towards a cultural space where modern production techniques, in the context of folk music, refocuses the lyrical content, he says: “I certainly think that a lot of the lyrics in traditional music are quite otherworldly, especially if you look at them from a modern perspective.”

He says he is often attracted to a song and then a modern context for the words may emerge from it organically: “I was drawn to ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ at the time in Dublin when traditional music was centred round this pub The Cobblestone, and it was under threat. This venue was the real hope of our scene. It’s beyond just a pub, it’s a social space where people can learn traditional music or the Irish language or even learn French dancing.” Early on during the RoI’s Covid lockdowns, the building’s owners revealed the much-loved Smithfield venue was to be razed and turned into a new nine-storey, 114-room hotel. For Flynn this attack landed very close to home.

He grew up in the northern Dublin suburb of Marino practising the flute and tin whistle at the behest of his trad-loving Dad who also played him records of “jigs, reels, fiddles, flutes, accordions, uilleann pipes”; and he persevered despite being more into Nirvana and not having much time for the music himself – “I thought it was all naff”. The music clicked for him first by the time he hit his teens, but he struggled with the actual songs and with what he perceived as the “Paddywhackery” of old fellows in waistcoats belting out ‘Whisky In The Jar’, admitting, “I didn’t pay attention to the words.” He needed a gateway into the songs and when he turned 18, he found that gateway via Planxty, via Luke Kelly, via The Watersons. The first thing he learned to sing was ‘Come My Little Son’, Ewan McColl’s song about working on the English motorways, and specifically the version by The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly: “The thing that drew me to it was his amazing voice and the emotion in the song. A lot of the time when I’m singing I think about Luke Kelly, even though I don’t think I really sing like him. But I am thinking about that level of emotion.”

He was 18 when he first played The Cobblestone and when I ask if he was shitting himself he says, “Yeah.” Before adding: “Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But he found what very easily could have been the scene for a baptism of fire to be a nurturing environment, simply because he approached it cautiously and respectfully, minding not to “ruffle any feathers”. At the time the landlord Tom would put on three or four sessions a day and eventually Flynn found himself joining in with some of the best flautists in the country, Sean O’Brion, Catherine McEvoy and Harry Bradley. This led on to him using the venue to practise his guitar technique with the likes of Dermot O’Halloran and Sean O’Garvey. He says: “Getting to the essence of Irish music, in terms of me as a musician, was my goal.”

The threat to the venue during the pandemic galvanised the community he was now part of into organised resistance to gentrification, something he cautiously describes as a battle – rather than a war – being won: “I foresee another fight in the future.” At several points he talks fervently about The Cobblestone as an essential hub of Irish culture – “a breeding ground for many of the most celebrated artists and bands coming out of Ireland right now” – and agrees it should be offered the same level of respect and security as, say, Trinity College.

While learning his craft he helped found the (relatively speaking) traditional band, Skipper’s Alley in 2011. The idea to slowly change the context for the songs he was learning, percolated in the background until 2019 when someone offered him a gig with a certain amount of artistic leeway. He says: “I called up my mates who didn’t really play that much trad, and asked Ultan O’Brien to play fiddle and Ross Chaney to use tape manipulation. We used the gig to experiment, and it just grew from there. Ross would work on synth or tape sounds, as I’d describe the mood to him.” He came to a realisation: “This is what I want to do. I want to get the gritty elements or the wonkiness or the other worldliness that already lives in the songs and I want to represent it.”

He had known Radie Peat of Lankum – themselves now leading avatars of a dynamic repositioning of the traditional Irish sound, but in a way that is quite noticeably different to Flynn – since childhood and she introduced him to the rest of the band in 2019. He talks warmly of the tour where he supported the band across Ireland and the UK, later that year: “It was really really fun. We were playing really cool venues. I guess the gigs were the hardest part because I was quite nervous, and then Geoff and Jeannette from Rough Trade kept on turning up and I was like, ‘Jesus, as if I wasn’t nervous enough…’” The pair run a contemporary folk label along with music writer Tim Chipping, called River Lea. Flynn became the trio’s latest signing alongside Brighde Chaimbeul and Lisa O’Neill, and the new sound he was beginning to develop formed the basis of his debut solo album I Would Not Always Live in 2021. His stage nerves are much better now that he has innovated an ameliorating technique of “just talking shite for two or three minutes until I feel right”.

But it is on Look Over The Wall, See The Sky, released on River Lea next month, that he paddles out much further, into deeper, stranger waters. New single, ‘Willie Crotty’ released today, takes the Bobby Clancy version of the ballad concerning the death of a 19th century outlaw. It is sung from the perspective of his lover who was pregnant with his child when he was betrayed. Much to her distress Crotty is shot in the mouth, arrested and then executed; his severed head placed on a spike over the entrance to Waterford County Jail as a gruesome warning to other outlaws. Flynn explains: “The aggressive, glitchy arrangement is inspired by the thought of lives being torn apart. Her anger at his betrayal, her frustration at his treatment by the judge, and her devastation that her love will never meet their new baby.”

Not all of the production is so abrasively unusual however. He came out of recording his debut with one clear wish for this new album, that it would contain a version of the Ewan McColl-penned standard ‘Dirty Old Town’: “I love that song, the lyrics are amazing. Probably like a lot of people I grew up assuming the song was about Dublin. The Pogues and The Dubliners play it in a very raucous way – which is just brilliant, really brilliant – but I wanted to turn that on its head and take it back to a sense of tenderness.” Flynn, quite cannily, uses colliery brass as a colouring agent, to evoke the partially forgotten spirit of chimney stacks, soot-darkened factory brick and the spider-teaming canal towpaths of the city it actually hymns, Salford.

‘Dirty Old Town’ makes a clear pair on the album with another McColl number, ‘The Lag Song’, from which the album gets its title. Taken out of context, the phrase Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is enrapturing. It has all of the imagination and attention-grabbing immediacy of a situationist slogan; some of the heft of ‘Under the paving stones, the beach!’ Today’s protestors against gentrification may feel the same elation as the Parisian cobble-lobbers of 1967 as they roll these fine words around their tongues. Flynn says: “In the context of the album the line has a huge amount of hope in it: even if you feel that you’re trapped there’s hope in this sentiment, even if there’s maybe not that much hope when you hear it in the context of the song.”

After multiple listens to this singular and brilliant album, a bigger picture starts to form. The shards of broken images might actually be a mosaic. During ‘Mole In The Ground’, the protagonist complains, “I’ve been in The Bend so long”, referring, as Harry Smith (but not Bascom Lamar Lunsford) realised, to the state penitentiary. The macabre warning hanging over the Waterford County Jail. The blue skies spotted by the singer of ‘The Lag Song’. McColl’s idea that Salford is like a prison. Flynn says that there is an “overarching theme of Irish identity, both how it is perceived and how it is lived”. Not all of the songs are a metaphor for feeling trapped and pushing back but they all challenge “a perspective of what Ireland is or is perceived to be”.

He concludes: “There is a struggle going on and people may feel trapped by that but also there’s a sense of hope. I think that’s how a lot of people felt in Dublin during the fight to save The Cobblestone. That was the energy that I really wanted to get across; the triumph of it. So many people came on board, and there was massive vital human energy in the city. I always knew it was there but I hadn’t felt it directly before. And that was really inspiring to me.”

Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is released on 10 November via River Lea

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