NFB Listens To Number Ones: “21 Years” – Dermot Hegarty

International readers look away, because you probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about with this one, which is a natural consequence of doing a series on Irish number ones I suppose. It’s Dermot Hegarty, an Irish chart-topping artist with such little notoriety that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and an Irish prison ballad of such little notoriety that it doesn’t have one either (it’s an old song, originally written in the United States in 1930). Even my Irish readers would be forgiven for having never heard of this, a number one for five weeks in two separate stints back in the summer and autumn of 1970.

Anyway, “The Fields Of Athenry” this is not, lacking the passion, sense of rebellion and sing-along nature of the go-to for similar subject matter. Right from the off things are fundamentally skewed, as its train-track trad beat is far too positive sounding for what the lyrics are actually telling us. That itself is a tale of woe not unfamiliar for anyone who has heard anything from this most Irish of sub-genres, reflective of what fancy people would call post-colonial inferiority complex. Guy gets sent to (a British) prison, longs for his beloved, poor me, etc. What makes this one a little unique, for me anyway, is the lack of info on just why the singer is in prison. Usually there’s a reference to innocence, or at least some injustice from an overly-harsh justice system, but here the guy is just sent to Dartmoor for the titular two decades and change, and feels bad about it. Hard to be too sympathetic when we don’t know if he did something terrible. Was this one after Trevelyan’s Corn too, or did he kill someone?

I’ll admit there are some clever turns of phrase here, not least the move from describing the “prison, with stone for my bed” to inquiring of the far away paramour, “why you never write?”. And, like just about any trad song, it’s hard to not start tapping your foot along with the beat. But there’s something a bit insubstantial about “21 Years” really, a sort of pale imitation of much better prison ballads. No music video this time so nothing to comment on there, but knowing the era and the genre it would probably have just been Hegarty singing in front of a roaring fire, or something. I don’t know why the subject of the song was sent to prison but it wasn’t a crime against music at least: still, this is nothing to write home about, and it’s easy to understand why even something as all encompassing as Wikipedia wasn’t having any of it. If this could reach the summit for that long it’s an indication that 1970 wasn’t a great year for music really: considering that one of the two songs more popular was “All Kinds Of Everything” gives us an indication of what we’re dealing with. Speaking of Eurovision winners, stay tuned…

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