When Charley Pride arrived in Belfast in early November 1976, the Northern Irish capital was at war. There were almost daily reports of shootings of civilians and soldiers on both sides of the sectarian divide. An armistice movement, the Peace People, had materialised that summer after three children were fatally struck by an IRA getaway car.
Someone else intent on restoring normality to Belfast during the bloody 70s was Jim Aiken. This enterprising former schoolteacher-turned-concert promoter wanted to turn Northern Ireland into a second home for American country music – and rightfully so, since the Ulster Scots folk tradition was an essential ancestor of the genre. Aiken had invited over artists such as Buck Owens and Tex Ritter. Next, he had his heart set on Pride, the singer who found success as a Black artist in a roots genre that had come to be dominated by white artists.
Country music was ascendant, and Pride was one of its poster children. Born to sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, he hit the US charts with a string of No 1 albums. He became such an institution that he presented an award to President Jimmy Carter in recognition of Carter’s encouragement of the genre. Having vaulted humble origins, Pride, much like his president (a former peanut farmer from south Georgia), was the American dream incarnate. The rest of the world was taking note.
To persuade this famous singer to make his way to Belfast, promoter Aiken trekked to a concert in the US midwest. Mishearing the name “Jim Aiken”, Pride reportedly understood that a Jamaican wished to speak with him after his set. Curiosity led him to summon the promoter backstage. They agreed to one Dublin gig on Pride’s next UK tour, followed by three nights in Belfast. Aiken would drive him up from Dublin, shepherd him across the border and sequester him at the hotel (to appease Pride’s wary lawyer) until showtime.
The residency at Belfast’s Ritz cinema quickly sold out. But there were doubts that Pride would manage to get there. Though Aiken had booked big names throughout the 60s, an unspoken ban on foreign performers had tightened since the emergence of the Provisional IRA in 1969. No-shows became common. Johnny Cash’s cancellation of an Ulster Hall appearance in 1971, was a prominent example. The horrific roadside execution of players from a Dublin show band by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (a loyalist paramilitary group, some of whom were part time soldiers) in 1975, as the group drove home from a gig in Banbridge, north of Newry, seemed, at that point, to squash all hope of a nightlife in the North.
Just days before Pride’s scheduled appearance in 1976, headlines blared: “Singer Tammy Stands Down”, announcing the cancellation of a performance by another country superstar. “I am bitterly disappointed by Miss Wynette’s decision,” Aiken, who had booked her, seethed in Belfast’s biggest newspaper. “I believe she was influenced by the continuing violence here.” Yet who could blame her? Meanwhile, when he was in Dublin, Pride recalled decades later, someone pulled the singer aside and whispered, “You don’t have to do Belfast.”
When the day came, however, Pride delivered. In part, duty compelled him: “Jim flew in puddle jumpers [small aircraft] across four states to catch up with me in Waterloo [Indiana] and persuade me to play Belfast in the dark days,” he later explained. But he stayed, one imagines, for what struck him as a revelatory experience.
By his third night in Belfast, he said he had a better grasp of the politics. Singing the song Crystal Chandeliers, which he popularised, “I got to thinking about the people coming to see me when there was all this trouble going on, and I got very emotional. And I don’t do fake tears.”
The feeling was mutual. A jubilant column in the Belfast Telegraph declared: “Thank you Charley Pride and the Pridesmen … for giving me, and thousands like me two hours of pure enjoyment, and the chance to forget for a while the worries and troubles of sad Belfast. Thanks, Charley & Co for not backing out like so many others.”
Other singers, such as Tom Paxton and Joan Baez followed him north. Journalists credited them with bringing about a cultural thaw. “After seven years of violence, the city seems to be getting back a little of that ‘swing’, much of which was dissipated, understandably, by the continual bombings around the city centre,” wrote the Telegraph in 1977. Cash would make it for a concert in 1979. (When Garth Brooks flew to Belfast for Aiken’s funeral in 2007, he represented a third decade of US country acts whom those first Pride gigs had beckoned back to the territory.)
The impact of Pride’s appearances in Belfast endured long after the artist had flown home. Odes to “My incomparable Charlie Pride [sic]” appeared in the Belfast papers. Radio stations held Pride-themed sweepstakes with his records as prizes. Rumours spread that, while in Belfast, Pride covertly recorded the Ulster dialect. “Doubtless, back home,” one linguist speculated in the Telegraph, these tapes “are now making his friends marvel”.
Out of this Pride-o-mania emerged an anomaly in country music. His version of Crystal Chandeliers, a mid-tempo heartbreak shuffle written (as Crystal Chandelier) by Ted Harris and recorded by Pride in 1967, had never charted back home. Nearly a decade after its original release, it found new life as a Northern Irish unity anthem – echoing how the Northern Ireland civil rights movement of the 1960s borrowed the protest song We Shall Overcome and studied the marches of Martin Luther King.
Pride had not been a stranger to the UK airwaves before his visit. Years before his arrival in Belfast, the Irish singer Mattie Fox had found some quiet success covering Crystal Chandeliers in 1973. The Diamond Accordion Band of County Armagh (whose debut LP bore images of the Union Jack and the loyalist William of Orange) released a version two months before Pride arrived, building on the excitement of his aggressively promoted gig. But Pride’s appearance in Belfast encouraged more covers in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, a wave that then spread across the UK.
Many of these were private-press recordings with little commercial ambition. Some miscredited Pride as the song’s author, he had become so synonymous with the tune. These covers were joined by two jukebox reissues of Pride’s version in the UK and a 1980 BBC poll naming Crystal Chandeliers “Great Britain’s all-time favourite country song”.
Fame like this defied the Darwinian logic of what was in the US a ruthlessly commercial genre. Looking for the source of its fresh success, you might point to the song’s pubby chorus, rendered in Chet Atkins’s 1967 production with a tantalising, a capella lead-in. Or you could look at the plot of the song. Pride’s lover has left him for fancier company:
I never did fit in too well with folks you knew
And it’s plain to see that the likes of me don’t fit with you
So you traded me for the gaiety of the well-to-do
And you turned away from the love I offered you
He addresses his lover, but the words lack a sense of romantic loss. Instead, Pride fixates on a nameless “you” and this person’s new riches: her marble statuettes, the paintings on her wall and the chandeliers that illuminate them. Class and exclusion are the song’s true themes – subjects all too familiar to the Catholics who felt jilted by the Republic, as well as to the Protestants who complained their government had ceded too much to minority Catholics.
By appealing to all sympathies, the song temporarily blurred divisions. In 1985, Malachy Doris, a BBC Home Service entertainer from County Tyrone, included the song on his collection of Irish pub favourites. The fortitude of Doris’s Catholic upbringing might account for the optimism he injected into an altered line: “But the love I offered you will come back some day.”
One cover came from a steward of the Irish country scene, the singer Daniel O’Donnell, a Catholic from nearby County Donegal (who cut Chandeliers as a duet with Pride in 2008). “In the North of Ireland at that time, Charley had an audience of Protestants and Catholics in the theatre,” O’Donnell told me. “It was very difficult to get people to come at that time. And Charley came, and continued to come. And I suppose it gave people great hope.”
Pride became a regular guest in the North and the Republic over the decades. In later years, he grew sentimental: “Every time I step off a plane onto Irish soil I get a sense of belonging. I’m accepted like a native son.”
It’s hard not to believe, as he looked out over his first Belfast crowd in 1976, that Pride also felt the song’s racial history on stage with him. In 1967, Crystal Chandeliers appeared on his album The Country Way, the first of Pride’s many No 1 albums. The success of that album moved the Black Nova Scotian singer Brent Williams, in 1970, to cover the song on his solo debut, asserting in the liner notes: “There is still room for negro singers in country music.”
That same year, America’s household jazz icon included the song on his final album, the inexplicable Louis “Country & Western” Armstrong. The tapes had been farmed out to Nashville players then overdubbed with vocals back in New York – essentially a karaoke disc strangely bereft of trumpet. Although the LP flopped, Armstrong’s performance of Crystal Chandeliers in October 1970, for the Johnny Cash Show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, was nothing short of electrifying.
His set that night was also political. After Chandeliers, he closed on a duet with Cash of Blue Yodel Number 9, a canonical classic by the so-called “father of country music”, Jimmie Rodgers. Forty years earlier, in 1930, a young Armstrong sat in on this song’s inaugural session in a Hollywood recording studio, blowing acrobatics around Rodgers’s verses in a collaboration brokered by the talent scout Ralph Peer. As he wailed with Cash on the song he had once helped bring to life, the elder Armstrong now paired it with Crystal Chandeliers, a new number from the rising Black generation. Country music, Armstrong seemed to say, has always been and will always be Black.
Passing through these pointed renditions (among others) before it made its way to Belfast, what became a Black country anthem renewed Northern Ireland’s special relationship with US civil rights and amplified the fragile promise of the 1976 Peace People. (A London reggae cover from 1982 would suggest North America wasn’t the only Black audience for the song.)
Even as the new peace movement flagged under Margaret Thatcher’s cold Northern policy of the 1980s, Crystal Chandeliers continued to be sung there. The song endured through the franker voicings of Stiff Little Fingers and well after the Good Friday Agreement started, in 1998, the formal end to the Troubles. It was a serendipity of songwriter, interpreter and promoter that brought an outsider into the painful intricacies of sectarian apartheid – the stuff of myth for both country music and civil rights.
Today, one year after his death from Covid-19, Pride is remembered for the usual reasons: a voice that combined butter with honk, an ear for two-stepping hits and a career that signalled the possibility of an integrated country tradition. But it was during that distant week in Belfast that an American icon became a global one.
• Walker Mimms teaches history in the Bennington College Prison Education Initiative in Vermont.