Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem “I, Too” is pretty famous as far as 1926 poems go. It deals with themes that are familiar to anyone who has read much African-American poetry, most notably the fact that despite scant representation African Americans have contributed significantly to American culture, a culture that, generally, doesn’t want to admit such debts. This is most evident in the poems opening line, “I, too, sing America”, which opens a dialogue with Walt Whitman’s earlier “I hear America Singing”, a poem that would have had a much more canonical status in Hughes’s day. Hughes’s poem essentially says ‘we built this country too, and you should expect to hear more from us soon’.
Hughes’s dilemma is easy to understand. How does one find one’s place in a culture hesitant to admit that place exists, or, to give America the benefit of the doubt and pretend that the intentional exclusion of minorities is less-than-intentional, how does an individual from a minority group express their love of country and contribute culturally to it?
Easy answer: become your country’s first international rock star.
Despite how conventional Ireland’s first major Rock band, Thin Lizzy, may have sounded, there was nothing conventional about their frontman, Phil Lynott. Lynott was a black man (technically of mixed race) raised without a father (and often with his mother away), a none too common quality in 1960s Dublin where he was raised, or in the generally pasty world of Hard Rock.
According to Philip Lynott: Renegade of Thin Lizzy (aka, sadly the best biography of Lynott I could get my hands on), Lynott playfully embraced his idiosyncratic background. In fact, the author, Alan Byrne, seems to go to great lengths to emphasize that Lynott thought nothing of his unusual situation, despite the fact that there is an overt reference to just how strange it was to have a black man who identified specifically as Irish in Lynott’s time on nearly every page of the book’s first two chapters. Byrne states that Lynott’s mother, Philomena, was “unable to cope with the sustained pressure of being an unmarried white mother to a mixed race infant” (14). He even includes an interview with an early band mate of Lynott’s who claims he “had a chip on his shoulder about being black in Ireland” (31), which Byrne quickly goes on to dismiss by citing a time Lynott joked about being Irish with some American policemen, who Lynott says “wouldn’t believe him if he told them” where he is from (31).
I’m not really interested in investigating why Byrne seems so interested in minimizing the importance of Lynott’s race. However, the very fact that he can’t minimize it, that he couldn’t make it more than a few pages without bringing it up (despite clearly wanting to dismiss it) is evidence of just how much of an impact being both Black and Irish had on Lynott.
Thin Lizzy’s song “Black Rose: A Rock Legend” (Don’t you love it when Rock songs remind you they are they are Rock songs) is a good representation of what Lynott’s career and music meant to him (at least in the opinion of your humble narrator). The song is about as Irish as a Hard Rock song can get (nevermind that kickin’ China cymbal at the end), complete with lyrics of Cuchulain and a melody consisting of a smattering of Irish traditional tunes. The song’s title, however, is most telling to me. “Black Rose” is obviously a translation of Róisín Dubh and, so, draws on the aisling poetry tradition, but it sticks out to me that Lynott didn’t decide to go with the more common “dark Rosaleen”. In short, in an imaginative turn, Lynott seems to be positing himself as the “Black Rose” (he was a rock legend wasn’t he?) and so claiming a central place in Irish culture without foregoing his Blackness. And, in case your knowledge of Thin Lizzy is limited to “The Boys are Back in Town” (a song that certainly shows that Lynott spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of fitting into a community) “Black Rose”is far from an isolated incident. The band’s earlier song “Emerald” also plays with some obvious Irish inspired imagery (also the greatest guitar riff of 1976), and, in “Vagabond of the Western World” Lynott claims the title “playboy of the western world” for himself, again claiming a role central to Irish history and identity as he invokes John Synge’s definitive play (to make no mention of the Fruedian field day that is a man who didn’t know his father comparing himself to the pseudo-patricidal Christy Mahon). Finally, despite his claims of Irish authority, Lynott seems quite unsure of his place as a Black man, even singing “I’m a little black boy and I don’t know my place” in the lesser known song “Black Boys on the Corner”, which, notably, occupies the B-Side to the “Whiskey in the Jar” single. This actually makes the single a poignant image of Lynott’s personal struggle, as a song recounting his struggles as a Black man is placed alongside a traditional Irish ballad (though notably relegated to the less significant B-side of the record).
Every Rock star (much like everyone really) is first and foremost an actor. They craft an identity and inhabit it. Sometimes this takes a pretty overt form like the many characters of David Bowie, and sometimes it’s simply the act of making a large amphitheater performance look “real” (I’m looking at you Bruce Springsteen). For Lynott, this role was an opportunity to shirk off the strangeness of being Black in Dublin in the 1960s-70s, and to claim a central role in Irish culture. Lynott’s Hard Rock bravado was about carving out a place for himself, a way to lay an unchallenged claim on Irishness where he would no longer have to worry about convincing American policemen about his nationality. So, simply put, he’d probably be pretty happy about the statue.
Byrne, Alan. Philip Lynot: Renegade of Thin Lizzy. Mentor Books, 2012.
Hughes, Langston.”I, Too”. Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47558. Accessed on 18 January 2017.
Thin Lizzy. “Black Boys on the Corner”. Whiskey in the Jar/Black Boys on the Corner Single. Mercury, 1972.
—. “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend”. Black Rose: A Rock Legend. Mercury, 1979.
—. “The Boys are Back in Town.” Jailbreak. Mercury, 1976.
—. “Emerald.” Jailbreak. Mercury, 1976.
—. “Vagabond of the Western World”. Vagabonds of the Western World. Mercury, 1973.
—. “Whiskey in the Jar”. Whiskey in the Jar/Black Boys on the Corner Single. Mercury, 1972.