Music for a Friday: A song of emigration

An immigrant family on the dock, Ellis Island, 1925. (Credit: Getty Images)

In January 1988 The Pogues released If I Should Fall from Grace with God, their third studio album and what would end up being their best-selling. The first single off that album, “Fairytale of New York,” may be the best known, and while it has become iconic, to my mind it’s not the best song on the record. That honor goes to the subject of this post.

“Thousands are Sailing” is a beautiful song of loss, longing, bitterness, joy, and hope. In short, in two 16-line verses and three varied choruses, the song captures the experience of emigration like few others.

While the specifics reference the 20th century Irish experience, the sentiments, I suspect, are universal to those who have come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Guitarist Phil Chevron’s lyrics take us from the days of 19th century “coffin ships,” where as many as 30 percent of those set sail from Ireland to America died in transit, to Ellis Island, and then the 1980s when the “open door” policy is replaced with a system of immigration quotas and lotteries which forced many Irish to come illegally and live their lives in the shadows. The first chorus paints a picture of both the perils and the promise of a new world:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance

It’s a brilliant song that will stay with you long after it’s over. You can listen to it here.