Artist: The Waterboys
Writers: Mike Scott/Steve Wickham
Album: Fisherman's Blues
Chart Position: #32 UK, #3 US Alternative
"Fisherman's Blues," co-written by fiddler Steve Wickham, the group's first US hit single, was partly inspired by the poem "The Night Mail," by W.H. Auden. It was finished in the studio in Ireland on their first day of recording their fourth and still best-selling album, Fisherman's Blues, at Windmill Lane in Dublin. Though it has gained more covers than any other Waterboys tune, Scott still has one request on his bucket list. "If you get to talk with Bob Dylan," he said, "tell him I'd like to have a word with him."
It was the first time we ever recorded at Windmill Lane in Dublin and I'll never forget it. I had all my writing on pieces of paper. I was fixing the papers, and the song needed a third verse. I had had the first two verses for about six or eight weeks, so I wrote the third verse in the studio. The music got written that day in the studio as well. I had the chords, but the tone of the song came from Steve Wickham's fiddle accompaniment. I worked like that a lot in those days. I was very lucky that I had a band that was sufficiently intuitive that we could make stuff up on the spot and it would work. I've never had a band quite as intuitive as that since then: the combination of Steve Wickham on fiddle, Anthony Thistlethwaite on mandolin and sax, and the bass player, Trevor Hutchinson, who was an incredible improviser. When I had those guys, I could make up a song on the spot, and they would be arranging it as they played it for the first time. Some of the songs on that album are actually first takes.
The words might have been from a personal situation where I was under a lot of pressure with the breakup over a relationship. But there was also an influence. I remember reading a poem at school when I was a child about a mail train by one of those great British poets. I think it might have been "The Night Mail" by W.H. Auden. It was about how the mail train would roll through the night and the poem itself replicated the feeling, the rhythm, the speed of the train. So when you read the poem either out loud or in your mind, it conjured the movement of the train. Certainly when I wrote the second verse of "Fisherman's Blues," I was trying to get that effect.
We performed it live a few days later. The first television performance of it was on The Tube about three months later. The Fisherman's Blues album was released in October '88 in both Europe and the States. And it was our bestselling album to that point. I think it's still our bestselling album. It's sold steadily over the years. It certainly lifted us up a few steps, after it was released and the single became a hit. We did a Fisherman's Blues tour in the States which would have been in October and November, 1989. That was our third North American tour and it was really successful. We did 22 shows that were all sold out. I think we had just an opening act at bits and parts of the country. Before the days of email, I would be forming outlines from my hotel room of a few cities and their bands, trying to sort out somebody sympathetic to come and play with us. So in some cities we had folk or traditional acts. In the Northwest we had an American Indian group called Arrows to Freedom - I think that was in Vancouver and Seattle. I wanted to do something different, something interesting everywhere.
"Fisherman's Blues" was usually the first or second song in the set in those days. It's usually the closer now. With "The Whole of the Moon," we got letters that people were playing it at funerals and so on. With "Fisherman's Blues" less so. But interestingly, "Fisherman's Blues" is my most covered song. There are more than 50 recorded cover versions of it. It's been covered in French, Norwegian and Spanish. There are also jam band, country rock, torchsong and hip-hop versions. My favorites are the ones where people make the song their own. My very favorite is a Japanese punk version that came out in the late '90s by a band called Pealout. It's really great, really crunching electric guitar and punky lead singer. I love it.
And then there is the Young Dubliners' version and a few indie versions, like The Wonder Stuff, who are an indie pop band in Britain. Every so often, either I find a new cover version, or someone sends me a YouTube clip of some band doing it, or it's in another TV show, or another movie. Waking Ned Divine was a favorite of mine. I loved the way they used it, the old boat going across the sea like that. That's beautiful. The intro was used in an Apple Mac ad about seven years ago. Recently there's been a TV show in the UK that has something to do with ships or a fisherman, and they used a soundalike of "Fisherman's Blues," in which they cunningly changed the chords so they don't have to pay royalties. I suppose that's a dubious kind of honor. I usually say no to adverts, because I don't want people to associate the song with a commercial and spoil people's image or relationship with the song. It would have to be something very specific that seemed right to me before I would say yes. I do love playing it. It's one of my very favorites of all the songs I've written.
I'm not playing with the Waterboys until March. We're doing a show at New York's Town Hall that will be the only US performance of An Appointment with Mr. Yeats. I just did a series of concerts in the New York area in November, including performances in Philadelphia and Boston. I read from my just published book, Adventures of a Waterboy, for about an hour and then Steve Wickham came out and joined me, and we played an acoustic set for about 40 minutes.
"Fisherman's Blues" is a song that's good with only fiddle and acoustic guitar.
January 3, 2013
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