Mike Scott of The Waterboys - "Fisherman's Blues"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Mike Scott.

"Fisherman's Blues"

Artist: The Waterboys
Writers: Mike Scott/Steve Wickham
Album: Fisherman's Blues
Year: 1988
Chart Position: #32 UK, #3 US Alternative
Scottish born Mike Scott, founder and leader and only permanent member of the Celtic folk and rock group, the Waterboys, grew up in a house surrounded by great books, with a particular love of English literature and philosophy. He has brought a fair share of both to his many epic songs and stories. Having just wrapped up a book tour of the Northeast for his autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy, Scott's next project will be a Waterboys album, due in March, 2013, called An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, which sets the poetry of William Butler Yeats to music.

"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."
Mike Scott: The album Fisherman's Blues was recorded over nearly a two year period. We didn't work constantly, but we worked for certain windows of time during those two years. The song "Fisherman's Blues" was recorded on the very first day of the sessions. It was a day where we recorded like 12 songs, actually.

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.

Maybe the next day or a couple of days later, I remember listening to the whole day's work on cassette and realizing that this "Fisherman's Blues" song, wherever it had come from, was kind of different for the Waterboys. It was a new sound. Our whole sound had changed at that point. We had gone from an electric guitar and having keyboards in the band and a big sound all of a sudden to this lean string sound, with mandolin and acoustic guitar. I liked the song, but I didn't realize it was going to become one of our best known songs.

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.
There's also a great version by a Canadian band called Great Aunt Ida, which came out I think in 2005, a beautiful slow version, kind of like if Neil Young covered 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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Comments: 2

  • Fred from Orlando, FlThe 2 cover songs are awesome.
  • Piston Broke from It's Not Where You're From It's Where You're AtThe tv show the Tube was, back in them far off days, hosted by Bob Geldof's wife Paula Yates, Jools Holland, ex of Squeeze, and the lad who went on to front The Dream Academy - who had a hit with Life In A Northern Town.
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