Fall Flashback Folk Fridays: Sweeney’s Men

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Sweeney’s Men were an Irish folk group that got their start as a trio in the mid-1960’s playing a mix of traditional Irish, American and Scottish folk songs. The group throughout its various line-up changes included Andy Irvine (later of Planxty and Mozaik), Terry Woods (later of Steeleye Span and The Pogues), Johhny Moynihan (also later of Planxty and a backing musician for Anne Briggs) and Henry McCullough (later of Paul McCartney’s Wings and Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). Apart from a few singles, the band only released two full-length records; the largely traditional Sweeney’s Men and the expansive and psychedelic-tinged follow up, The Tracks of Sweeney. There is a staggering amount of artistic growth and flourishing creativity between these two vastly different albums and the influence from each endures well into today (especially in the world of Celtic music).

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Their first album, 1968’s Sweeney’s Men, sounds more like what catching the group at a folk club in their early days would have been like. The song choices range from what would have been popular in Irish folk music at the time, like sea shanties, murder ballads and jigs, to Scottish and American folk standards, like “Willy O’Winsbury” and “Tom Dooley.”

The album’s instrumentation reflected this diverse melting pot of influences, with the trio playing mandolin, bouzouki and harmonica along with banjo, concertina and guitars with an occasional tin whistle accompaniment. While this mix wasn’t as eclectic as what groups like The Incredible String Band were dueling out at the time, it’s still a unique combination for an Irish record for its era. In fact, Sweeney’s Men are credited for starting the trend in Irish folk music to feature the bouzouki, which is originally a Greek instrument.

The music here is quite strong, glowing with youthful optimism and confidence, especially on songs like “Sullivan’s John” and “The House Carpenter.” Without a single low point, this is definitely an essential record for anyone interested in Irish folk music.

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While the album feels more traditional today, the band sounds like it’s only starting to open its wings creatively and just starting to release their pent up potential. Luckily, Sweeney’s Men were given another chance the following year to fully let their creativity bloom.

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1969’s The Tracks of Sweeney found the group (now shrunk down as a duo of Woods and Moynihan) fully exploring more progressive and ethereal directions with their music. The traditional sound of their first record was allowed to grow and become filtered through a wide variety of other influences and styles, producing an entirely unique sound. For instance, the shadowy track, “Afterthoughts,” is a Jackson C. Frank-like ballad that focuses on syncopation and the natural reverberation of the fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Featuring only the guitar and some softly jangling chimes, the song is hauntingly stark, which only enhances its surreally poetic lyrics. Some have compared this track to Nick Drake, which is fair, but again, I feel that it’s closer to something by Jackson C. Frank or even one of the more stripped down moments from David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name.

Other highlights on this record include the gorgeously melancholic “Dreams for Me,” a tearfully serene interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Go By Brooks” and the echo-drenched, rural psychedelia of “Hall of Mirrors.”

The group attempted a new line-up a year after the release of The Tracks of Sweeney, but this didn’t pan out, so the band promptly split up. Based on the amount of growth and progression the group had between their debut and follow up album, I often wonder how much further they could have gone together on a third or fourth Sweeney’s album (especially if the proposed new line-up, which included ex-Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Albion Band member, Ashley Hitchings, would have gotten off the ground).

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The original two records seem to be out of print at the moment, but there are a few different CD releases that compile them together. I’d personally recommend The Legend of Sweeney’s Men, which is a double disc set that has both records along with their various singles and other recordings that are related to the group.

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