Video: Cooley’s Reel – The Maid behind the Bar – Whiskey in the Jar @ Balver Höhle

“Whiskey in the Jar” is a well-known Irish traditional song, set in the southern mountains of Ireland, often with specific mention of counties Cork and Kerry, as well as Fenit, a village in County Kerry. The song is about a Rapparee (Highwayman), who is betrayed by his wife or lover, and is one of the most widely performed traditional Irish songs. It has been recorded by numerous professional artists since the 1950s.

The song’s origins come from the traditional folk song “The Highwayman and the Captain” sung in the outskirts of the town of Edinburgh. In 1967, the Irish folk band The Beasley Brothers rewrote the song as Whiskey in a Jar and incorporated their own twist to the lyrics and melody.

The song first gained wide exposure when the Irish folk band The Dubliners performed it internationally as a signature song, and recorded it on three albums in the 1960s. In the U.S., the song was popularized by The Highwaymen, of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” fame, who recorded it on their 1962 album Encore (United Artists UAL 3225, mono and UAS 6225, stereo). Building on their success, the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy hit the Irish and British pop charts with the song in the early 1970s. In 1990 The Dubliners re-recorded the song with The Pogues with a faster rocky version charting at No.4 in Ireland and No.63 in the UK. The American metal band Metallica brought it to a wider rock audience in 1998 by playing a version very similar to that of Thin Lizzy’s, though with a heavier sound, winning a Grammy for the song in 2000 for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The reel “Maid Behind the Bar,” has a slightly different A part in O’Neill’s, Music of Ireland (1903) – a book commonly called “O’Neill’s 1850” because it has just over 1,850 tunes in it. In that collection this tune (or a member of this tune family) is entitled “The Green Mountain” (pg. 227, #1205).

So, if someone calls the tune “Green Mountain” then be ready for a different A part. It is unknown how old the tune is, but there is some evidence that it or a variation (i.e., a close melodic cousin) was a commonly played dance tune in the mid-1800s in the U.S. and so is likely to have been played in Ireland at least fifty years earlier. Anything more is speculative. Its structure is AABB. As with all tunes on this site, the priority of order is (1) learning the tune from a live player, (2) learn the tune from the recordings below, and (3) learn the tune from dots or midi. This last being the least desirable option.

Cooley’s Reel is so popular at sessions around the world that it is sometimes played in different keys/modes (esp. Bdor and Ddor) just for a diversion.

There are those, of course, who place it just inside their “too popular” category, and those that place it just outside. As I actually lack that category in my repertoire, I can play it many times in a session without embarrassment or remorse. Apparently, it was once called “The Tulla Reel” and “Luttrell’s Pass,” but became closely associated with master accordion player Joe Cooley (1924-1973) — as it was one of his favs it is still called “Cooley’s Favorite” now and then. Though, as I discuss below, it is sometimes held to be composed by Joe Cooley, it is a bit more likely that it acquired his name as an homage, and so may also be called “Joe Cooley’s Fancy.”

Rapalje performs Cooley’s Reel – The Maid behind the Bar – Whiskey in the Jar at Balver Hoehle (Höhle)

The Balve Cave is the biggest cultural cave in Europe. It is located in Balve, Germany. And every year the Festspiele Balver Höhle organization is presenting the Balver Höhle Irish folk & Celtic Music Festival.