“Moonshiner” is a song whose origins are clouded in mystery and a certain amount of controversy. Although it’s agreed that the song is Irish, some maintain that it was first sung in Ireland whilst others insist that it was a product of migrants to the US. Whatever the truth is, there are at least two distinct versions. The first, recorded by the Clancy Brothers in the late fifties is a bawdy, celebratory drinking song with a rousing singalong chorus. The second has no chorus, has a much more downbeat arrangement, and lacks the carefree attitude of the first – like a hangover following the Clancy’s revelry.
The first verse of both versions is quite similar – until the last line which completely alters the mood:
I’ve been a moonshiner for many a year
and I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer
I’ll go to some hollow and I’ll set up my still
and I’ll make you a gallon for a ten shilling bill
(The Clancys’ version)
I’ve been a moonshiner for seventeen long years
I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer
I go to some hollow and sit at my still
And if whiskey dont kill me then I dont know what will
Dylan included the song in his sets during his Greenwich village days. A live version appears on the Gaslight Tapes bootleg recorded in 1962. It wasn’t until the issue of the first Bootleg Series box set that it got an official release. The lyrics continue:
I go to some bar room and drink with my friends
Where the women can’t follow and see what I spend
God bless them pretty women, I wish they was mine
Their breath is as sweet as the dew on the vine
Let me eat when I am hungry, let me drink when I am dry
A dollar when I am hard up, religion when I die
The whole world’s a bottle and life’s but a dram
When the bottle gets empty it sure aint worth a damn.
It’s a much bleaker vision of the bootlegger’s life than the Clancy’s drunken celebration. The song was revived by Uncle Tupelo on their rootsy, folk and bluegrass influenced March 16-20 1992 album. Jay Farrar doesn’t give out the same air of doom that Dylan manages, but transforms it into something that sounds like an Appalachian mountain ballad. It’s quite a different treatment, but every bit as gloomy in its own way. Chan Marshall recorded a version of “Moonshiner” for her 1998 album Moon Pix, accompanied by Mick Turner and Jim White of the Dirty Three. Hers is a little ramshackle and a little spooky, but somehow she doesn’t quite nail the desperate tone of the lyrics, and it ends up sounding a little contrived. The irony is, of course, that of the three singers, Marshall was the one who actually lived through that battle with the bottle.