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Boston punk goes Guthrie

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Success can be more fickle than a coin flip. Want proof? Ask Al Barr, lead singer of Boston punks the Dropkick Murphys, about his band's biggest hit (the Woody Guthrie-derived "Shipping Up To Boston" that entered the public's conscious largely through its appearance in the Martin Scorcese film "The Departed") and he starts talking about how the song nearly ended up as a forgotten demo in the band's catalog.

"For a band that's never had hits, because that's never been what the Dropkick Murphys think about, there was no idea that it could ever amount to much," Barr said by phone from a recent tour stop. "It was really nice for Mr. Scorcese to make a cool video for our song. That's a joke."

Barr talks about how it came together.

The archives

"Nora Guthrie, who runs the Woody Guthrie archives, has a son who is a Murphys fan and suggested to her that we could write a song from Woody's lyrics after Bill Bragg and Wilco did it. So they invited us in, and we did the song 'Blackout' from that album (of the same name) in 2002, and Kenny, our bass player, also grabbed these lines off napkin: 'I'm a sailor peg, and I lost my leg. Climbing up the topsails I lost my leg' — and that was it pretty much. The great thing about Woody is he'd write notes at the bottom of these lyrics — and he wrote a dozen or so songs a day — that told you where his head was at when he was writing. I didn't see the one for 'Shipping Up To Boston' but for 'Blackout,' which was about a city going dark, he was singing in Central Park and a woman asked him what he was singing about. He said he was singing about Hitler and how he thought he was the real deal as an evil person. The woman said he needed to sing about Jesus, and how he'd be returning soon. Woody told her he didn't think Jesus was going to come back if that Hitler fellow was still around, so we ought to worry about him first."

Shipping to nowhere

"Kenny liked those lyrics, obviously because we're from Boston, and so we worked on it and it was a little weird for us because there wasn't much to it as far as lyrics. We played it live one time, and it went over like a fart in a spacesuit and so we pretty much forgot about it, said, 'Let's not do that again.' A few years later we were doing our 'Warriors Code' album, and we almost cut it at the very end but decided to leave it on. Six months later we hear Martin Scorcese is making a movie set in Boston and is going to use some Boston music in it and might use something from us. We thought, 'Well that's cool, but it'll probably never happen.' Then it winds up on the soundtrack, then it goes gold, and now I think it's platinum, which is crazy because we're a band that's about albums, not individual songs."

Writing with Woody

"He's the God of all folk music, and he's such a part of everything. 'This Land Is Your Land' was one of the first songs I learned in nursery school, so that sensibility is something that's been in my life forever. So when we were working on a song of his, obviously we wanted to make it good, but from what we know about him he seemed like a cool guy, someone who was pretty out there since he road the railroads all over the place. So it wasn't intimidating to write to something he did, because we felt like he was a part of us and everything we've known."

Dropkick Murphys

With Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls, The Mahones

When: 8 p.m. Wed.

Where:Emo's East, 2015 E. Riverside Drive

Cost: Technically sold out.

Information: www. emosaustin.com