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The making of an Irish folk standard

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Johnny Duhan

Johnny Duhan

Christy Moore

Christy Moore

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Johnny Duhan

It's hard to believe that I sat down to write The Voyage over a quarter of a century ago. I was motivated to compose it partly as a gesture of gratitude to my father (a merchant sailor) for having held a steady hand on the helm of our family's fortunes during the turbulent time of my upbringing.

Life is an ocean, love is a boat,
In troubled waters it keeps us afloat;
When we started the voyage there was just me and you,
Now look around us, we have our own crew.

from The Voyage

When I mutinied at 16 and set off as a professional singer, he didn't speak to me for over a year. After that, whenever I visited home, he invariably greeted me with a curt "Are you making any money from that mug's game yet?" I realise now that the carp disguised a deep concern for my wellbeing. So, I was delighted that my father lived long enough to witness the first wave of success of The Voyage.

The idea to write on the family theme grew organically out of my earlier excavations of family history in my album Just Another Town.

Though my parents' marriage had been a rocky affair at times, they showed a deep respect for one another and managed to create an atmosphere of overarching security and affection in our home. Measuring the inevitable early struggles of my own marriage against my parents' sometimes strained relationship, I wrote a song called Trying to get the Balance Right (Mary Black recorded a version), and this led on to reflections on the whole institution of marriage and child rearing.

Over a six or seven year period my thoughts on the subject crystallised into a series of songs that eventually became The Voyage album.

The title song was one of the last songs of the collection to come to me. After exposing some of the raw nerves of the marriage struggle in many of the other lyrics – and maybe because I was open enough to give full expression to these familial difficulties – I felt empowered to write and sing of the sweeter side of the marriage adventure with conviction and sincerity.

One of the greatest rewards for having written The Voyage has been witnessing the pleasure and solace the song has brought to others. Soon after it was released it became part of the cannon of ceremonial songs for marriage and anniversary celebration. Then it began to be taken up by families for funerals.

From the countless letters, emails and phone calls I've had over the years from people thanking me for the use of the song, one stands out. It came from a doctor from the Isle of Skye asking for copyright clearance to include a Scottish version of The Voyage as the title track on a CD he was putting together of his wife's favourite songs for her fortieth birthday.

Some months after I gave approval, he contacted me again with the news that the CD would soon be manufactured, not as a birthday gift but as a memorial album for his wife, after her sudden death from cancer.

The families of many deceased sailors – some who died tragically at sea – have naturally been drawn to the song. In a newspaper account of the funeral of three tragic fishermen who lost their lives off the Waterford coast last year, The Voyage was coupled with the hymn Hail Queen of Heaven as the most poignant musical pieces played during the service for the men.

Learning of this was a poignant moment for me as Hail Queen of Heaven had been a favourite hymn of mine as a boy while my own father was away at sea.

2014 marks the 25th Anniversary of the release of the first of many covers of The Voyage, by Christy Moore, who was the first to predict that the song would become widely popular.

In the Irish folk section of iTunes dowload charts, Christy's version has had an almost permanent place in the top twenty since the chart was established many years ago (it's registering at number 4 as I write).

Politicians, clergymen, writers, journalists and teachers have eulogised the lyric of The Voyage. Choirs sing it. Comedians gag on it. Marriage counsellors swear by it.

Most popular songs have a short life span. The Voyage grows more popular with age. Many standard ballads are restricted by national boundaries. The Voyage is sung all over the world in a variety of languages.

Niall Stokes of Hot Press has predicted that The Voyage will be around long after most popular rock songs are long forgotten. This echoes Christy Moore's assessment that the song is destined for a high place in the cannon of folk "standards".

If The Voyage is on its way to becoming a modern classic, its intrinsic appeal lies in the affection that most of us feel for our families. This and the fact that we are all on this mysterious life-journey and our common aim seems to be more than just a safe haven.

johnnyduhan.com

Sunday Independent