He was Ireland's answer to Bob Dylan

On the release of a double CD retrospective of his forty years as a performer-songwriter, Johnny McEvoy talks to Jackie Hayden about his early days as Ireland’s answer to Bob Dylan, meeting the great man himself, supporting and introducing The Rolling Stones, defending The Wolfe Tones, not apologising for the troubles in the North, U2 and the key albums that have inspired him.

In ’60s Ireland, Johnny McEvoy was our Bob Dylan, Beatles and George Best all in one.

He had the voice, guitar, harmonica, hairstyle, hip clothes, and, most importantly, the attitude. And he still has that attitude, four decades later, expressed in his forthright view that the Irish government allowed planes to stopover at Shannon en route to Iraq because the Americans told them that if we wanted to keep all those jobs, we had to be supportive. But it was actually that interest in the political, combined with the narrative aspect of songs that first drew the Offaly man into music originally.

“I sang all the time as a kid, as a solitary child, even in bed or in the garden shed, just for the sheer pleasure of it. I wouldn’t have dared sing in front of others. I’d listen to Radio Luxembourg, even the more obscure programmes, but it was the songs of people like Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Steve Benbow and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott that really got me. They sang songs and did talkin’ blues that told a story, leftish songs about racism, oppression, union problems, poverty, miners, storms at sea and so on, and they often suffered violence because of their songs.

“By the time I’d got a job I was aware of The Clancy Brothers and used to listen to A Job Of Journeywork, presented by Ciaran Mac Mathuna on Radio Eireann. But while on holidays in Blackpool, England one day I heard The Beatles’ ‘Twist And Shout’ and I thought it was fabulous, so exciting. I still love it. So I became a fan of The Beatles, Buddy Holly, The Stones, The Everly Brothers too. I had a foot in both camps, the rock and roll and the folk, but there was Dylan to bridge the two.”

McEvoy became such a fan that when Dylan arrived here for a gig here in’66, he went to the airport and shook his hero’s hand. “I’ve never done that before or since. He came in with his arms in a huddle, hunched over, very shy. I was bowled over by his gig at the Adelphi. He sang ‘Desolation Row’, this could never be done by anybody else. I used to sing it in The Embankment, but his version was in another place. The second half was the embryonic version of The Band, and they were booed. I didn’t. I’ve never booed anybody.

“But I thought he was a very courageous man, singing his protest songs, risking jail for songs like ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’, risking ridicule. He stuck to his guns with no apology and I responded to that too. Songs like ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ summed up that era when the youth revolution was happening. We had the commemoration of the 1916 Rising in ’66 and it was a great time to be young. We were shooting men into space.

“But it was also a scary time, with assassinations, the erecting of the Berlin Wall and so on. When I went to New York in ’67 they were building nuclear shelters under the new buildings and hotels. And the Civil Rights Movement in America led to the same movement in Ireland.”

Although he wasn’t an activist, McEvoy’s response, after a spell with the Ramblers in tandem with Mick Crotty and the abandonment of a career in advertising around the end of 1965, had been to go solo and take the songs of Guthrie, Dylan and others and expose them to an Irish audience like no one before him. Sure, we’d had prettified anaemic versions of the folk canon before, but McEvoy could capture a song’s inner core. “There were limited places you could sing those songs, like the Old Triangle in Harcourt Street, the International Bar in Wicklow Street. You couldn’t do a Dylan song in The Abbey Tavern in Howth or in most places in rural Ireland. The comedian Maureen Potter was told it was ‘dangerous’ opening at the Gaiety with a song like ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

McEvoy applied the same edge to interpretations of Irish songs like ‘Mursheen Durkin’, ‘Boston Burglar‘ and ‘Nora’, smuggling those songs across the musical borderline into rock and the mainstream and soaring to the top of the charts. His one-man performances set him well apart from the showbands, beat groups and ballad groups of the era. He proved that intrinsically Irish material could transcend musical snobbery and appeal to those with ears to hear, helping to lead many to discover new magic in a dusty world of stiff ceili bands and moribund versions of dead songs. He generated the kind of crazed audience reaction usually reserved for the likes of The Beatles or Stones.

His burgeoning success meant gigs in the North too, and he recalls making appointments with the border guards so they’d know what time he’d be coming back at. “I was stopped by the B-specials and sat in the car with a Lee-Enfield rifle pointing at my head by a guy with a very angry look on his face. That was scary.” Such experiences, and his love of history, reinforced his interest in Irish folk songs as he left his Dylan era behind.

In 1969 he was interviewed on radio in Toronto.

“The interviewer talked about an incident the previous night when a Protestant women was burned out of her home in the North and put me on the spot for a reply. I could have said I was just a musician and so on, but I jumped in and told it like I saw it. I was never asked back, but I’ve never apologised for speaking my mind.

“Despite the abuse I got, I never apologised for the Troubles in Northern Ireland or for being Irish, not even when bombs were going off in England. I said to them, ‘It’s because of something you did wrong. It’s your problem and you’ve got to sort it out.’ I even fought in America against the old image of Ireland, the pigs in the parlour stuff and thatched cottages.”

His liking for mavericks, be it Dylan or Luke Kelly, included admiration for the Wolfe Tones. “They’ve been criticised for the rebel songs. But they sang rebel songs before the Troubles started, and those songs were always part of our heritage and were always very popular. I’ve sung rebel songs myself.”

At the height of his popularity McEvoy often did two gigs on the same night, guesting in a ballroom during a showband dance, fitting in another gig on the way there or back, amid crowds pulling his hair and shirts and jackets. “The girls wanted to tear a piece of your hair, the lads were often a bit jealous and wanted to take your whole head!”

So he worked six or seven nights a week, fitting in TV appearances, tours abroad and recording dates in a pressure-cooker existence few of today’s home-based acts can imagine. His few regrets from those days include being away from his family while his kids were growing up and, bizarrely, the car he drove. “It was my manager’s fault. I was driving around in a white Volkswagen when I should have had a Merc or a sports car. I was earning big money. But at heart I wasn’t interested in the glitz of show business, apart from maybe when I wore Beatle-type gear. But it bothers me missing so much with my kids when I could have eased off the gigs. I was lucky to have a woman who kept it all together. My manager used to complain that he couldn’t get hold of a diary in October so he could fill in the dates for the coming year. But it bugged me because I was losing control over my life.”

His musical adventures brought him into contact with some of the top acts of the time, including The Rolling Stones whom himself and Mick Crotty supported on their Irish tour. “In Dublin there was such a racket from the audience screaming like a Nuremberg rally for Mick Jagger. They were even firing ashtrays at us! The emergency services were grabbing them, slapping them in the face, throwing water on them to revive them. So the compere chickened out and I introduced the band on stage. They were brilliant, to see Jagger working the crowd. The show was abandoned when the crowd stormed the stage.”

He had also discovered the pleasures of songwriting. ‘My first song I wrote on the Birmingham-London train. It was called ‘Reflections Take One’. It was very deep, lots of inner meanings and imagery and made no sense! I recorded it on my first album. Later I wrote ‘Long Before Your Time’ which started with that phrase my father used to use. It was my first real song and it went to number one and I discovered a whole new side to myself.”

So, long before most of Ireland’s current generation of songwriting heroes had started throwing their plectrums out of their prams, McEvoy helped pioneer the writing of contemporary material for mainstream audiences with songs like ‘Leaves In The Wind’ and ‘When The Rain Comes’.

His interest in history and love of songs that tell stories also lead him to pen compositions of the durable quality of his Titanic-related ‘John Williams’, ‘The Ballad Of Anne Frank’, ‘Amy Johnson’, ‘Lincoln’s Army’ (about the American Civil War) and ‘Michael’ (about our own Civil War), through which he has shown an instinct for the narrative details that can lodge a song in the brain forever. His song subjects tend to be drawn from history rather than from contemporary events rather than from the rich array of issues that dominate modern Ireland. This is partly because of his love of history but he also believes “it’s up to to-day’s young writers to create their world, because they’re going to have to live in it, not me. U2 are doing it. U2 are great. They’ve sung the protest songs and Bono is actually doing something about it.”

In conversation McEvoy gives off a strong sense of decency and honesty, with no trace of the pat attitudes that showbiz troupers often learn by rote. He expresses deep regret for the forgotten heroes of the showband and cabaret scenes who were adored by thousands then discarded when we had no more use for them.

His ear for political protest is still evident in his obvious pain at recent events in Beslan and Iraq and elsewhere, a pain magnified by his and our helplessness, and in a recent song about the Irish Fusiliers, so many of whom died and were forgotten by us Irish. His fascination with 1930s Ireland leads him to reflect that without those turbulent times “we might not be able to sit here and speak so freely to each other. If we hadn’t won our freedom I would not have the right to sing ‘Mursheen Durkin’ or sing about Michael Collins. It’s that freedom that has given us an economic boom with the country’s population of 4 million for the first time since 1880.”

Still gigging regularly, Johnny McEvoy has remained stubbornly loyal to his original musical instincts, even when his commercial interests suffered from such unbending commitment. His contribution to contemporary Irish music is long due a re-evaluation. Let’s not put off that re-evaluation for much longer.

Johnny McEvoy’s double CD The Essential Collection is out now on Dolphin Records.

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