Chuck Durfur with Connie McKenna: John Riley
John Riley is a song with a very big lie. Riley has sailed for seven years, and now he is home at last. Does he run to his wife, and press her into his arms? No! He tests her first, by pretending to be another man and trying to woo her. Only when she proves true to him does he reveal his identity. Question: at this point, why should she believe him?
I first heard the song in a version by Joan Baez. This one follows her melody and lyrics, but shows the influence of Bert Jansch. It’s an unlikely mixture, but it works beautifully. Chuck Durfur is an obscure figure. His John Riley comes from one of only two albums he ever made. Durfur is a guitar player, and most of his music is instrumental. The singer here is somewhat better known. Connie McKenna was the lead singer for the group Ceoltoiri, and I believe she has also done some solo work since.
Of course, you may recognize the story in this song from Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus does the same thing to his wife Penelope when he returns from the Trojan War. But you may not know that the story is older than that. If so, there is a good reason; the remainder of this paragraph was my second whopper. In the earliest versions we have of the myth of Persephone, she is not abducted to Hades’ realm; rather, Hades woos her, and she goes willingly. Six months later, her mother Demeter finds Persephone, and persuades her to return to our world. But, again in this early version, Hades appears in disguise to Persephone six months after that. He woos her all over again, but in the guise of another person. As in the song, Persephone stays true to Hades, he reveals himself, and they go back to his realm. From there, the story follows the myth as we know it today. A beautiful retelling of this version of the tale can be found in Ancient Myth and Modern Magic by Moonbeam Truehart, (Llewellyn, 1986). Sadly, this book is long out of print.