Single Song Sunday: Fairytale Of New York
(15 coverfolk versions of a surprisingly sentimental punk favorite)
It’s hard to remember where I first heard The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but it’s easy to imagine why it stuck in my ears: I was 14 in 1987, jaded by pop music and just starting to find my way to punk, and on the surface, this song turns the typical holiday world on its ear. Indeed, the song is often seen as an antithesis to the many powerful, sweet, and well-covered songs in the new Christmas canon – a schizophrenic, gleefully obscene drunkard’s dream straight out of Tom Waits, with a dash of the jig and a technicolor vision of Irish holidays in the gutter that primes the pump for raucous indie encore coverage such as this week’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performance by Iron & Wine, Calexico, Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards.
But like so many of our Single Song Sunday songs, Fairytale of New York has depth and promise, with much more under its scummy surface than its reputation might suggest. Its continued popularity in the 21st century is no anomaly: this is a sentimental song, in the end, that tells a tale of past and present, hope, hardship and hearth consistent with the season, and made real by its setting in the proletariat classes.
That the song remains so familiar, so frequently covered and caroled, is a testament to its portraiture and its power. And if the rousing duet that rises from the ashes of maudlin balladry to bait our downtrodden, roughshod narrator into a bawdy, joyous exchange of dirty words and dirtier thoughts keeps the song from placement alongside the maudlin modernity of Bing, Elvis, McCartney and Mariah on so many radio playlists in the US this time of year, then it falls to others like us to keep it alive on this side of the pond.
Fairytale of New York needs less support in the British and Emerald Isles, of course. It was a quick success there when released as a single by Celtic Punk band The Pogues for Christmas in 1987, a holiday harbinger from their seminal album If I Should Fall From Grace With God that featured the last-minute addition of English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was label-less at the time, but married to Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite. Anecdotally, Fairytale was written in response to a challenge to find a new Christmas song, and in many ways, the concept fit the band, whose interest in bridging tradition was a driving creative force and a key component of its popularity. The song benefitted greatly from its emergence in the early days of MTV, with a starkly black and white video filmed in NYC, and it rose rapidly on the charts; its canonical presence has since been fueled by rerelease in 1991, and again in 2005, after the song was voted most popular Christmas song by VH1 UK.
But history and context stand alongside song itself in explicating our familiarity. Though originally written to be a duet with Pogues bass player Cait O’Riordan, who left the band before recording, the disparate voices of Shane MacGowan and MacColl are tied closely to the tonality of the original here. So, too, is the sudden tonal shift that leads into the duet, changing the song from haunted, hoarse immigrant’s drunk-tank piano ballad to an Irish pub-rouser populated by alcoholics and addicts, pipes and drum.
Both differences – arrangement and harmonic setting – emphasize the distance of memory as our drunkard dreams, combining with the composition itself to form a strong trifecta of elemental types to explain its success. And because they seem so determinant to the song’s power, many covers, like the aforementioned indie supergroup cover, treat both the duet and its tonal distance as canonical. KT Tunstall and Ed Harcourt, for example, play it relatively straight, though effectively, as do YouTube stars ortoPilot and Kate McGill. So, too, does the heavier rock version released by Jesse Malin in the US version of his covers album On Your Sleeve in 2008, which matches the heavy beats and bells of Springsteen’s Santa Claus Is Coming To Town to the keys of the original, burying sentiment in triumph by the song’s end.
Others transcend these limitations, taking the song one step farther from the oft-heard. Laura Boyle layers her own voice into the song, with echoes and a quiet picked-chord guitar undertone that make for a startling quietude. Alfredo De Pietra and Tom Mitchell’s solo covers, both released on Soundcloud, stick with gentle strummed triplets throughout, flattening the tonal shift to illuminate the sweetness. And several more beautiful solo covers, from the guitar-driven performances of Irish folksinger Christy Moore and snowbound steetcorner busker Ciaran Cooney to a frozen, entirely piano cover from Texas singer-songwriter Bob Schneider that skips the duet section altogether, emphasize the wistful loneliness of MacGowan’s narrator, isolating him further from the promise of Christmas redemption encoded in the original.
There’s diversity in the middle ground, too. The version recorded by Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Billy Bragg in 2009 for a live BBC session, offers a perfect case of just how much room for interpretation is available in this arrangement; neither Harcourt’s mellow tones nor Bragg’s ragged voice are as broken as MacGowan’s, but the contrast remains, and the replacement of Welch’s harp for the piano part lends an even more dreamlike tone to the ballad that opens the song.
The layered beauty, full choir, and early duet harmonies that Canadian indiepop band Stars apply to their cover, released in 2005, trade the clear delineation for a more anticipatory and fluid performance. Well-known video cover artists Walk Off The Earth drop the band altogether, sticking to guitar accompaniment for their duet, drifting back and forth between several gently rolling styles, which gets them there more gradually, and allows them to travel less distance to get there in the first place. And similarly, though in entirely different genres, bands like The Beef Seeds (with tongue in cheek countrygrass) and Matthew and the Atlas (in sublime indiefolk) keep the song’s second half lighter with less rock and more folk instrumentation, flattening the difference between the two pieces of the song, emphasizing the song’s inherent tenderness.
So join us for a very special holiday Single Song Sunday set – a compendium of coverage, from Celtic Punk to gentle singer-songwriter fare, that explores the breadth of possible in tradition transformed through the immigrant’s dream at Christmas. Download the whole set, or check out individual performances individually, to find the breadth of promise in what may well be the most culturally significant late 20th century addition to the Christmas canon. And dream big yourself, no matter what your lot – for it’s Christmas, and the world is full of possibility.
Single Song Sunday: Fairytale of New York, Covered in Folk [zip!]
Iron & Wine and Calexico with Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards: Fairytale of New York 
Looking for a broader selection of seasonal coverfolk? Check out this year’s new Christmas cover collections, our drunkard’s christmas mixtape and 18 more sets of Christmas kidfolk, wintersongs, and holiday carols from the Cover Lay Down archives … and then stay tuned later this week for EP features from a holy host of new artists in the holiday spirit, and a set of singleshot coverage that will fill your stocking and warm your heart as the holiday approaches!
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