Here is U2 launching into the song they believed might actually spark violence if it were misunderstood:
And here is a John Wayne movie’s anachronistic but stirring delivery of an actual rebel song:
Back in the heyday of MTV, when I was a budding little pre-teen U2 fan, I heard Bono say something that lodged in my memory: “This song is not a rebel song.” He said it as he introduced “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and it was clear from his phrasing that the words meant something additional that I didn’t understand. Taken at face value, of course, with the lyrics of the song itself, the message was clear: “No more.” I’d say many Americans who did not know what Bloody Sunday was the first time they heard the song had learned that piece of recent history by the second or third time they heard it. (In July 2012 — forty years later — Northern Ireland police have opened a new murder investigation of the event.)
But it wasn’t till this year that I learned what was behind the extra weight Bono gave to the words “rebel song.” And I learned it because of a John Wayne movie, of all things.
Director John Ford of course is known for classic westerns, particularly the “cavalry trilogy” of Wayne films: “Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande.” He was also what you might call a devout American Irishman, a son of Irish immigrants, and made “Rio Grande” purely so that Republic Pictures would let him cart his stock company over to County Mayo to film “The Quiet Man.” Wayne played former Union officer and Shenandoah Valley veteran Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, who is ordered by Gen. Philip Sheridan to lead a cavalry raid from Fort Stark across the river into Mexico.
As in his other films, Ford chose music carefully: sometimes songs true to the historical period shown (“The Girl I Left Behind Me”), sometimes anachronistic songs that nonetheless fit seamlessly (“She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”). In “Rio Grande,” two emotional moments come as the regimental singers perform “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men).”
“Kathleen” was written in 1875, but “Down by the Glenside” fits less well into the chronology, as the film is set in 1879. (Although it was 1873 when Gen. Philip Sheridan ordered former Union officer and Shenandoah Valley veteran Col. Ranald Mackenzie to lead the 4th Cavalry in a raid from Fort Clark across the Rio Grande.)
My dad noted, as we re-watched the movie recently, that the song was a specific reference to Irish history. We set to Googling, and learned it was written in or about 1916 by Peadar Kearney, who fought in the Easter 1916 uprising and had earlier written “The Soldier’s Song” (“Amhrán na bhFiann”), which is now Ireland’s national anthem.
And we also learned Kearney’s ballads were part of the body of Irish music called rebel songs. Though the tradition was familiar to us — centuries of history in which the oppressed Irish used music to transmit culture and calls to arms, up through the modern “Troubles” to the present day — the term was not, to me at least. Finally, then, I knew why those words were so freighted when Bono called them out to the crowd at Red Rocks.
In fact, as I might have learned in 1983 had the Internet been suitably developed, that was how Bono introduced “Sunday” during most of U2’s “War” tour. At the song’s first performance in Northern Ireland, Dec. 20, 1982, the band were so wary of its reception that Bono added a promise that if the crowd didn’t like the song, they’d never play it there again. Happily, they did like it, and another piercing song carried its piece of Irish history out into the world.