FROM IRISH FOLK TUNE TO ALT.COUNTRY STALWART: A MOONSHINER'S JOURNEY

After posting my “Black Betty” throwdown a few weeks ago, I got to thinking that a fun reoccurring piece could be posting the history of songs…as best as I can…along with a collection of artists doing their own spin on them. The next obvious song had to be “Moonshiner”.

The first version of the song I’d ever heard was Uncle Tupelo’s, which is a cover of Dylan’s Bootleg Series recording of the track. The exact origin of “Moonshiner” is disputed, but it’s widely believed the song originated as the Irish folk song “The Moonshiner”. In his book American Ballads and Folk Songs, Alan Lomax claims the song is a member of the “Waggoner’s Lad” family and kin to “Old Smokey” and “Rye Whiskey”, among others. Whether it originated in Ireland or not, it is still one of the most popular pub songs there, resulting in grand bar-room chorus sing-a-longs. It has been performed as recorded by many artists and is known under other titles, among them “Moonshiner Blues” and “The Bottle Song”. The Clancy Brother’s version turns it into an upbeat party song, while the Dylan version (the alt.country version) slows it down and turns the song into an unrepentant lament.

Personally, I prefer the slower version of “Moonshiner”. Maybe it’s because that’s how I cam to know the song, I dunno, but, to me the slow version is just beautifully perfect, while the harmonica in American Gun’s version practically pours the drink for you. Below I’ve collected different versions of the song and have tried to group them to show what I feel is the evolution of the song.

Enjoy.

The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem – The Moonshiner
Molly Maguire – The Moonshiner
The Clancy Brothers & Dubliners – The Moonshiner

Joe Ely & The Chieftains – The Moonshiner
Daw Henson – The Moonshiner
Roscoe Holcomb – The Moonshiner
Dave Bromberg – The Moonshiner

Bob Dylan – The Moonshiner
Uncle Tupelo – The Moonshiner
American Gun – The Moonshiner
Rumbleseat – The Moonshiner
Brass Uncle Band – The Moonshiner
Oliver Buck – The Moonshiner
Cat Power – The Moonshiner

One thought on “FROM IRISH FOLK TUNE TO ALT.COUNTRY STALWART: A MOONSHINER'S JOURNEY”

  1. Nice overview, and a nice set of songs — I’m frustrated that my planned “single song sunday” post on this song has been pre-empted, but I’ve got plenty of others for the series, and a surprisingly long pile of remaining versions of “Moonshiner” to save for features on artists closer to the folkworld, such as Redbird, The Turtle Duhks, and many, many others.

    In fact — if you want to try a collaborative effort on, say, Wayfaring Stranger sometime, let me know — bet between us we could come up with something definitive.

    I would argue, though, that the Dylan melody is so different from the Cat Power setting that either the Cat is misfiled, or there are actually four categories (or three, but the last is split into two significant subcategories) — there are a bunch of settings in the same/like tune as Dylans which I’ve heard, and Cat Power’s tune echoes something I’ve heard come up once or twice in my memory, though I can’t place it now.

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