Inside the Masterpiece: “Last Letter Home” by The Dropkick Murphys

This series of “Inside the Masterpiece” essays has dealt primarily with works of fine art from the art historical pantheon.  But pieces of popular music sometimes qualify as well, if we can apply the same matrix of qualifications to them that we would do an Old Master painting, and if they stand up.  The questions, as put by Aristotle in On Poetics, are these: is the work of art in question good (as in well, done, successfully achieving what the artist set out to achieve), is it beautiful (a subjective question of course, but we can each answer it ourselves), and is it interesting (does it make us think, is it provocative, does the work stand out in contrast to other comparable works)?  We have already discussed another great piece of popular music, “Hero of War” by Rise Against, which certainly fits the bill.  So too does the oeuvre of The Dropkick Murphys, the Boston punk band that has been my personal favorite for over a decade.  While they probably would not consider themselves a fit subject for an essay by a professor of art history, they certainly are.  Today we discuss their song “Last Letter Home,” which is as moving an elegy as any classical poem, and as powerful a statement as any painting.

The Dropkick Murphys represent a number of important American traditions.  They are very much a band of a place, Boston, and speak for an ethnic group, the descendants of hard-working Irish immigrants.  Their brand of tuneful and passionate punk music is based on the chord progressions and traditional melodies of Irish folk music, and they include in their oeuvre selected Irish songs, either treated simply (“Wild Rover”) or adapted into punk renditions (“Fields of Athenry”).  Their subject matter is the plight of hard-scrabble working-class immigrant families, trying to survive in a new land that is on the surface open and welcoming, but in the details a story of the wealthy and established taking advantage of the newcomers.  They are band that firmly inherits the tradition of Woody Guthrie and early Bruce Springsteen, particularly his precious whispered jewel of an album, Nebraska.  More than anything, this is the American story: we are a country of immigrants, whether we arrived in the 18th century or the 21st.  It has largely fallen to folk musicians like Woody Guthrie to represent the working class, with songs of unions and of men struggling against their more primitive instincts, in order to be “good” family men.  The Dropkick Murphys are the clear inheritors of this tradition, with songs castigating wayward men and praising loyalty above all.

But today’s essay is about a different type of song at which The Dropkick Murphys excel: the elegy.

Elegies were traditionally poems read aloud at funerals, works in memory of the beloved departed.  This might be an individual or it could be collective, as in the war poems of the likes of Rupert Brooke, which elegize a group or even a generation of the fallen.

Dropkick Murphys feature many such songs, from anthems of individuals (“Curse of a Fallen Soul”), new arrangements of traditional elegies (“Fields of Athenry,” which elegizes not death but banishment from Ireland to Van Dieman’s Land, modern Tasmania, a former penal colony), to group elegies, in which a category of people are praised in death, but the theme of which is largely the wastefulness of war (the heart-wrenching simplicity of “Green Fields of France,” about the lost generation killed in the First World War).

The subject of this essay, “Last Letter Home,” is not per se the best Dropkick Murphys song—melodically it does not stand up to the rest of their oeuvre, and it is not exemplary because its story is derived from a contemporary event, not woven into Irish immigrant lore, as are most of their songs.  Rather, it is a particularly powerful piece that is exemplary of the marvelous effect that Dropkick Murphys songs can have—a capsule of why they are truly great.

Let us first consider the lyrics:

Hello there my dearest love
Today I write to you about our sons
The boys start school today
They’re the spitting image of you in every way

Hey son it’s Dad
I hope this letter finds you well out of harm’s way
We saw the news today it frightened your Mom
Now all she does is pray

[Chorus:]
If I lead will you follow?
Will you follow if I lead?

Hey Melissa it’s me don’t be afraid
I’m in good hands I’m gonna be home soon
It’s time to watch the children grow up
I wanna be more than a voice on the phone

Thanks Ma I got your package today
I love “The Fields Of Athenry”
I swear I want ‘em to play that song on the pipes
At my funeral when I die

[Chorus]

I stand alone in the distance
And the foreground slowly moves

[Chorus]

“We regret to inform you that on January 28th Sgt. Andrew
Farrar died while serving his country in the Al-Anbar province
of Iraq words cannot convey our sorrow”

[Chorus]

When there’s nothing on the horizon
You’ve got nothing left to prove

If I lead will you follow?

It tells the story of a real American soldier, a Dropkick fan, who once told his wife that, should anything happen to him while on duty, he would like the Dropkick Murphys’ “Fields of Athenry” performed at his funeral.  It was the sort of comment that one might make off-hand, without giving any weight to it.  But when the soldier did die while serving in Iraq, his comment suddenly took on a hugely dark, and yet somehow comforting, meaning.  The soldier’s family could, in fact, honor the wish of their lost loved one.  The heart-shredding tragedy might be alleviated, even if just for the duration of one song, knowing that a departed soul in Heaven was listening to a piece of music that he so loved during life, that he wished to have speak for him in death.

“Fields of Athenry” is a traditional Irish folk song about an Irish family suffering of famine.  The husband is impelled to steal corn from a local wealthy landowner in order to feed his wife and children, and he is caught in the process.  His punishment is to be banished from Ireland and shipped away to the penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania).  One might recall an Everly Brothers song, sung by U2 on the Rattle and Hum album entitled “Van Dieman’s Land” which provides another haunting reflection on this fate.  Both this and “Fields of Athenry” recall the painful hours before husbands would be shipped away from their loved ones, with the probability that they would never see one another again.  This was an equivalent of death, something that we must pause to recall in this current era of digitization, when someone in Tasmania does not feel any farther away than someone two towns over.  The most emotionally-charged moment in this story is the waiting, the conversation through the prison wall in “Fields of Athenry” when the husband tries to comfort his wife, knowing they will never hold one another again.  Artistically, this is the key moment to depict, as Baroque artists from Caravaggio to Bernini likewise chose the moment in any narrative of highest tension and emotion.  The lyrics are as follows:

By a lonely prison wall,
I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely ’round the fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall,
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free
Against the famine and the Crown,
I rebelled, they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely ’round the fields of Athenry.

By a lonely harbor wall,
she watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray,
for her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely ’round the fields of Athenry.

It’s so lonely ’round the fields of Athenry.

Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely ’round the fields of Athenry.

Traditional renditions of this song are quiet and heartfelt.  But the “punkification” of the song, a long-standing tradition in which punk bands orchestrate faster, more passionate, simpler and more direct interpretations of otherwise slow songs, is far more effective.  This is not a situation that calls for soft reflection, but rather targeted screams of anguish.  That is what the Dropkick Murphys bring, with muscular distorted guitars and flailing bar chords, with voices in song that sound like sand-blasts cleaning the grime off a marble-clad cathedral wall.  Precise and yet ripping into the material, but for an overall cleansing effect.  One feels pity and fear, but the overall effect is cathartic.  We feel better during and after a Dropkick Murphys song like “Fields of Athenry.”

“Last Letter Home” then becomes two songs packed into one.  All of the loaded emotion of “Fields of Athenry,” a story of the struggle of an individual, representative of the Irish people, against an unfair group of overlords, is added to the incredibly tragic passing of a modern soldier who wished to have “Fields of Athenry” played at his funeral.

To their credit, The Dropkick Murphys did play at the soldier’s funeral.  That must have been the performance to end all performances, and it is only correct that no recording of it has been published.  But there could be no more fitting time and place for this song, and this band, to play.

Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history.  His latest book is Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.

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