The "Big Music" of the Waterboys: Song, Revelry, and Celebration
The Waterboys resist easy categorization by reviewers and fans alike. A musical anomaly, they are alternately a rock band and an Irish folk band (with a Scottish lead singer); their music revives British Isle folklore and poetry as well as exemplifies the "Big Music" of the 1980s. Founder Mike Scott, born in Edinburgh, has been joined at various points by Welsh, English, American, and Irish musicians, and the group has been based in Dublin, London, and New York--giving them a wealth of poetic, folkloric, musical, and historical material to develop. Their influences range from Bob Dylan and the Clash to Robert Burns and W. B. Yeats. They have released sixteen albums, live recordings, and EPs, and performed all over the world.
Initially, critics compared the Waterboys to Van Morrison and U2, until, upon moving to Dublin, Scott became interested in exploring a quieter sound and a new, more contemplative, lyrical territory. Influenced by the Celtic music he heard in his new surroundings, the Waterboys released Fisherman’s Blues, which contains their most famous poetic rendition, a recording of Yeats’s "The Stolen Child." While some critics say this change cost the Waterboys pop stardom, Scott has insisted that he’s not interested in easy success.
The Waterboys draw on diverse poetic sources for their lyrics, performing and occasionally recording poems by Robert Burns including "A Man’s a Man, for a' that," "Ever to be Near Ye," "Green Grow the Rashes-O," and "Auld Lang Syne," and poems by W.B. Yeats, including "A Song of the Rosy-Cross," "Love and Death," "The Four Ages of Man," and "Love Song." When they sing the Robert Burns poem "Green Grow the Rashes-O," their listeners might raise a pint of Guinness to rowdy lyrics that sound like a Scottish drinking song:
Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O;
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses, O.
The Waterboys’s gift lies in locating Burns and Yeats within a poetic tradition of song, revelry, and celebration, re-invigorating their verses with the energy of contemporary music. They are best known among poetry lovers for their recording of "The Stolen Child," bringing the well-known traditional Gaelic singer Tomas McKeown to the project. The unearthly, rich Celtic music invites us, along with Yeats’s lines to:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can
Critics have wryly remarked that "W. B." could easily stand for Waterboys, but the band has more in common with Yeats than just initials. Scott has redefined the term "Big Music" as "a metaphor for seeing God's signature in the world," and claims that his inspiration is spiritual, or comes from an otherworldly source. Yeats himself dabbled in the occult throughout his life, composing A Vision and parts of The Wilde Swans at Coole from his wife’s automatic writing. "I just stuck my hand up in the air," Scott once said, "and everything came into colour like jazz manna."
Interested listeners will have a difficult time finding recordings of the Waterboys singing Robert Burns, but their album Fisherman’s Blues is widely available, as is Dream Harder, which includes the Yeats poem, "Love and Death." Now & In Time to Be (The Works of Yeats) is a musical compilation album of various artists performing the poems of Yeats, and includes the Waterboys version of "The Stolen Child."