Way back around 1983 or so, my friend Kevin invited me to join him and our friend Bob on a jaunt to hear this band he’d found out about. It seemed Kevin liked to listen to a late-night program on public radio that played a lot of eclectic and obscure music, and one night they played a song by a band called Train to Sligo, and then the host mentioned that the band plays at a pub in Pasadena on Friday nights.
So we all piled in a car and made the drive to the Loch Ness Monster Pub in Old Town. It was a long, narrow, dark place with the flags of the British Isles hanging from the ceiling, many beers on tap, and a tiny little stage tucked into one corner. Somehow, six musicians all piled into that space and played, and it was terrific. I was instantly a fan. The music was ostensibly Irish-Traditional, but they included a lot of original songs, as well as a couple of other choices — Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” showed up from time to time.
Over the next year or so, we got to know the members of the band: Thom Moore, singer, songwriter, guitarist; Janie Cribbs, singer and bodhran; Gerry O’Beirne, six- and twelve-string guitars; Paulette Gershen, penny whistle, Jerry McMillan, fiddle, and Judy Gameral, hammered dulcimer.
Thom was a character, a raconteur, a mystic, and occasionally a crank. He was opinionated and not shy about it. Born on Catalina in 1943, he’d had an interesting upbringing; his father was an engineer working for an oil company, so the family spent several years living in places like Africa and Lebanon, places that would later influence his music and lyrics. He majored in Slavic languages at UCLA and served as a journalist in the US Navy during the Vietnam War period.
In the early ’70s, Thom found himself in Ireland, writing songs and performing with his band, Pumpkinhead, comprised of himself, his wife Kathy, and another couple, Rick and Sandi Epping. They won the singing group competition at the Fifth Letterkenny International Folk Festival in Donegal (1973). They had a hit with the song “Crackbone Tune.”
Here’s the story: When Thom was about 10 years old living in Ethiopia, at night he would hear the hyenas yipping and barking in the distance. He imagined that they were calling to him, trying to lure him outside so they could make a tasty snack of him. The sound of the hyenas and their plaintive entreaties stayed with him, and so he wrote a song about it.
Yes, “Crackbone Tune” is a happy little tune about wild hyenas wanting to eat you. For a while the song was the theme for a music program on Irish radio. Many years later, it was a favorite lullaby for my kids.
Eventually both the band and marriage broke up. Thom assembled another band, this time including Gerry O’Beirne along with Janie Cribbs and Mairtin O’Connor, called Midnight Well. They had a hit with Thom’s winning entry in the 1979 Cavan International Song contest, “Cavan Girl.”
So let me tell you about Cavan Girl, because I think it’s illustrative of who Thom was.
The song tells the story of a young man of little means who lives in the town of Killeshandra, on the shores of Lake Oughter. He has fallen hopelessly in love with a young woman who lives in Cavan, a town on the opposite shore of the lake, twelve miles away. Having no other options, the man rises early every Sunday morning to walk halfway around the lake, arriving as the girl is leaving church, spending the afternoon with her and then walking back home. He repeats this every Sunday, hoping that someday she will agree to marry him. The man knows that love is stupid, a trap for fools. He knows that only a fool would fall in love. And he knows he’s a fool. He has accepted his fate and soldiers on, for he can do no other. He’s in love, and, as Thom said, “a man’s duty, once he knows the identity of the woman of his heart, must be to pursue her no matter what the cost.” Surprisingly, it’s not a sappy song, and it’s also not creepy or stalkerish. It’s sweet and gentle and a little sardonic.
There two things you should know about this song. First, it’s based on real people. In 1964, Michael Woods, a 17-year-old from Killeshandra, traveled to New York to stay with an aunt for a time. While there, he met 19-year-old Rita Munday of Belturbet, who likewise was living in New York. The two began dating, returned to Ireland, and married in 1968. They opened a pub, the Knockabout Bar in Cavan. A few years later, Thom Moore came calling, hoping to book a gig for his band. In 1979, while sitting at the bar, he decided to write a song about the couple. He mistakenly believed Rita was from Cavan rather than Belturbet, and took artistic and poetic license with the details, and the result was this song. Michael and Rita lived a long and happy life together, until Rita succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s and passed away in 2016 at age 70. They always regarded “Cavan Girl” as “their song.”
The second thing is that for my bride and I, it’s also “our song.” You see, sometime after I began spending Friday evenings at the Loch Ness Monster, and after I’d bought all of Train to Sligo’s cassette tapes, I started dating this girl named Terri. At the time, I was working nights. Terri lived in Sherman Oaks, and I lived in Glendora, some 40 miles east. So every morning, after I got off work, I would drive to Sherman Oaks, arriving in time to spend a half-hour with her before she left for work, then turn around, drive home, and sleep. I then got up, drove back to Sherman Oaks to spend a couple hours with her before turning around and driving back to Glendora for work. The office was a half-mile from my home, but I turned it into an 80-mile commute, and I was happy to do it, “Cavan Girl” playing in the car, pursuing the woman of my heart like a fool in love. 33 years later, “Cavan Girl” is the ringtone that plays when Terri calls me.
Since it was first recorded, the song has been covered by so many Irish singers and bands (and at least one french one; Renaud Sechen recorded “La Fille de Cavan“) that many people believe it to be a traditional folk song hundreds of years old.
Many of Thom’s songs were about real people. He did a series of them telling the stories of his friends’ grandfathers, including “Nicky’s Song,” “The Mighty Turk,” and one about his own grandfather, “Soldier On,” which tells how his namesake disappeared in Mexico in 1913 while smuggling Chinese immigrants over the border.
The band Train to Sligo takes its name from the opening line of Thom’s song about his daughter, “The Scholar.”
“The Scholar” is about loneliness, wistful longing, and relativity. A young girl is away at boarding school in Dublin, some distance from her home in Sligo. Every few weeks, she takes the long train ride home to her family. The trip home takes far too long, the train seeming to crawl toward the eagerly-awaited destination, while the journey back to school is too short, the train flying away from home and family, whisking her back to her lonely scholar’s life too quickly. It’s another song I used to sing badly to my children.
Here’s Maura O’Connell singing it.
Among other successes, Train to Sligo recorded the soundtrack for the ’80s Catholic school comedy Heaven Help Us, which featured the first film appearances of Patrick Dempsey and Kevin Dillon.
Eventually, marriage and parenthood took their toll (they told us to stop bringing our baby to the pub), and we weren’t able to see Thom and the band very often. Train to Sligo broke up in 1987 and the band members went their separate ways. Gerry O’Beirne returned to Ireland, produced a lot of records for other artists, joined the Waterboys and Patrick Street, toured with the late Andy M. Stewart (Silly Wizard), and has recently been playing around the world with fiddler Rosie Shipley. Janie Cribbs moved to the Pacific Northwest and made a successful career singing rock, blues, and soul. Paulette Gershen went back to school, earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology, and played on the first Cherish the Ladies album, along with many other recordings. Jerry McMillan toured with Al Stewart and Robin Williamson & His Merry Men, and today plays with the band Celtic Heart. Judy Gameral also played with Robin Williamson & His Merry Men, and has played on a great many albums for other artists.
After Train to Sligo ended, Thom spent several years in Russia working as a translator and teacher. While there, he met and fell in love with a woman named Lyubov, whose portrait appears on his Gorgeous & Bright album cover. The name Lyubov means “love” in Russian. It’s no surprise that several of Thom’s songs from this time have “love” in the title (“Prayer for Love,” “Queen Love,” “Love on Her Own”), and all of them are in some way about Lyubov. Splitting his time between Russia and Ireland, Thom recorded two albums, Dreamer in Russia and the aforementioned Gorgeous & Bright. Finally the couple married, and in 1995 Thom, Lyubov and her son moved to Sligo permanently, where Thom re-established himself in Irish music circles. His songs have been recorded by a Who’s Who of Irish musicians, the most successful of which is Mary Black, who had hits in Europe with “Carolina Rua,” “Saw You Running,” and “Still Believing.”
When I saw Mary Black in concert a few years ago, she told the story behind Still Believing, and it is so perfectly Thom….
Knocknarea, the flat-topped hill to the west of Sligo is an ancient site, atop which is found “Queen Maeve’s cairn,” supposedly the burial place of the archetypal warrior queen of legend. Such a place must be a hotspot of supernatural energy, so on one evening of a full moon, Thom and his trusty dog undertook to climb up and commune with the universe for a night. They made the ascent easily enough. Thom began to make camp under the bright moon, and as he bent over to arrange his gear, he suddenly felt an icy chill on the back of his neck. Surely he was in the presence of awesome mystical forces. As he looked around, he realized that the cork had come out of the bottle of wine in his backpack and was pouring on his neck.
The story is silly, but a great poet like Thom could see beyond the ridiculousness to something better beneath. He took the feeling of a cold chill up the back under a full moon in a sacred place, and turned it into one of the most positive and hopeful songs I know. I think it’s the perfect way to conclude a tribute to such a talented singer and poet. Here’s Mary Black.
Godspeed, my friend.