Image Courtesy of Ed Sheeran
A couple of weeks ago Ed Sheeran cemented his status as the biggest male popstar on the planet with the release of his smash hit new album ÷ (pronounced Divide).
The first of these tracks, “Galway Girl” (not the Steve Earle track of the same name), was actually inspired by Beoga’s fiddle player Niamh Dunne and features their tune “Minute 5” over the chorus. The lyrics of “Galway Girl” are peppered with trad references (this may be the first number one track to reference Irish song “Carrickfergus”) and Dunne gushed about Sheeran’s love of “Planxty, The Chiefains and … Irish music” in recent interviews.
The second track on ÷ with a piece of Beoga trad is “Nancy Mulligan”, inspired by the story of Sheeran’s Irish grandparents. The track has more trad feel than “Galway Girl” and even features a bit of an Irish-pub-like-singalong during the lead break.
“Galway Girl” was released as a single on St Patrick’s Day and hit the top 10 in a bunch of countries. In an interview with The Guardian Sheeran said that he had to fight to keep the “folk” songs on the album.
“They were really, really against “Galway Girl”, because apparently folk music isn’t cool,” Ed Sheeran explained. “But there’s 400 million people in the world that say they’re Irish, even if they’re not Irish. You meet them in America all the time: “I’m a quarter Irish and I’m from Donegal.” And those type of people are going to fucking love it. My argument was always: well, the Corrs sold 20 million records. The label would say, “Oh the Corrs, that was years ago,” but who’s tried it since the Corrs? There’s a huge gap in the market, and I promise you that in two years’ time there will be a big folk band that comes up that’s pop, and that will happen as a result of labels being like: “Oh shit, if he can put a fiddle and uilleann pipe on it, then we can try it as well”.”
As Sheeran points out trad music in pop music isn’t new. The Corrs practically owned the folk-pop genre in the late 90s and early 2000s. B*Witched 1998 hit “C’est la Vie” was has an Irish whistle solo played over DJ scratching. Even the oft-criticised-for-not-being-real-folk-music Mumford and Sons kick off their track “Roll Away Your Stone” with the Irish trad fiddle tune “Merrily Kissed the Quaker”.
Trad purists will no doubt look down there nose at Ed Sheeran’s folky offerings on ÷, the same way they have with other pop crossover songs over the years. Some of that will be justified – in reality “Galway Girl” is not a great song despite Beoga’s influence – but much of this will be a knee jerk reaction to a perceived popularisation of the tradition.
In truth having an artist of Ed Sheeran’s stature declare his love for Irish trad music can only have upside for the genre.
Think of Sheeran as a trad gateway drug. For many of his fans “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” will be their first exposure to this kind of music and even if only a small percentage follow the influences of the songs back to Planxty, The Dubliners, The Chieftains and beyond, that’s still a bunch of music fans that may never have discovered this music otherwise.
While trad may have a reputation in the wider community as twee or old fashioned those “in the know” know it’s a vibrant genre with a bunch of really exciting young artists coming up through the ranks. If you’ve ever caught a set from Trouble In The Kitchen, Tolka, Sásta or any of the other amazing local trad bands around the country you’ll know how much their music can capture your attention, can fill you up and most importantly can make you want to dance.
The best case scenario is the local and international trad scene will see a spike in activity and interest thanks to Sheeran’s flirtation with the genre and that can only be positive. Every fan who clicks a “like” button on social media, watches a Youtube video, comes to a gig or session featuring traditional music because they’re new favourite song is “Galway Girl” is a new part of our community.
So when you hear “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” blaring on a pop radio station or out of your kid’s Spotify account take a moment to recognise that this could be the first step on the trad music journey for a new fan. That’s got to make you happy.