O'Malley's band votes for nun of above in hit

Mayor and Irish group playfully rap knuckles of religious teachers they respected, if didn't always like.

Baltimore ... Or Less

March 24, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

Half a century ago, Hank Williams Sr. may have said it best. "If yer playin' more than three chords, boys," drawled the honky-tonk bard, "you're just showin' off."

Classics like "Hey Good Lookin' " or "Lovesick Blues" are no Irish ballads, but they have a similar goal: to say the most with the least fuss. And what could be simpler to a bunch of guitar-strumming Irish-Americans than recalling their days at the hands of the nuns who ruled their lives in Catholic school?

O'Malley's March, the Irish-rock band fronted by Mayor Martin O'Malley, has just released its third CD, The Boys at Dawn, not coincidentally the week of St. Patrick's Day. And to judge by its airplay so far, the album's hit single might be its simple, novelty three-chorder, "Yes, Sister" -- a paean to the ladies in black who made all their lives miserable in the short run to safeguard them in the long.

"It's a reverential tribute to the unsung heroes of modern American history -- the Irish-Catholic nuns," O'Malley told WBAL Radio.

The mayor didn't write this number; he just heartily endorses it in his playing and his Irish-tinged singing. Danny Costello, O'Malley's old JV football coach at Gonzaga High in Washington and longtime friend, wrote the song and shares lead vocals.

"I like to write about things I really care about," said Costello, who now is director of development at Gonzaga and plays tin whistle, harmonica and guitar in a D.C.-based band, Johnny Jump-Up. He wrote "Yes, Sister" five years ago but never recorded it because it didn't quite fit the style of his then-current band.

"After several years of shameless begging," said O'Malley, "he let us record it on this CD. Now, when people want to buy one of our albums, all they ask is, 'Which one has the nun song on it?' "

Telling a story

"Yes, Sister" is what O'Malley calls a "talking piece," one that tells a clear and simple story. It looks at life in Catholic school through the eyes of a boy fleeing a fearsome nun. "I could hear you comin' by the rattle of your rosary beads," says the refrain.

O'Malley and Costello freely admit the song plays with stereotypes of nuns-as-disciplinarians, but insist it does so in a fond, tongue-in-cheek way. Neither will say whether they were ever on the wrong end of such real or imagined terror.

"That's a little too personal," said O'Malley who, after all, now holds an august position in one of America's largest cities. "I can tell you, though, I was never struck and I never saw anybody get struck."

Perhaps that's just a sign of the times. Sister Michael Kathleen Doane, who taught O'Malley at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Bethesda, remembers the old days when rulers were fair game. She rapped a knuckle or two herself. But she says she has discovered a more effective, no-contact method. She now uses what she calls "the look."

"It freezes them in their tracks," she said.

For his part, the mayor was so ambitious and so apt a student that he was voted student body president at Our Lady of Lourdes.

"He was very astute, an excellent student," said Sister Michael Kathleen, who now serves as principal at St. Clement School in Rosedale. But "He did have a bit of 'the nick' in him" -- an ever-present mischievous side. She never flogged him for it; far from it. She saw it as a sign of his irrepressible spirit. That, along with his innate decisiveness -- his current coyness on whether he'll run for governor notwithstanding -- will take him far in politics, she believes.

"He'll restore Baltimore to what he believes it is: the greatest city in America," she said. "And one day, a long way down the road, he'll be president."

Pondering his fate

But for now, the nameless boy in "the nun song" is running only for his life as he ponders his wretched fate:

Readin', writin' and arithmetic

you made me do it till it made me sick

I'll never forget it if I live to a hundred and three.

From the second chorus on, the words are backed by what sounds like a Preservation Hall Jazz Band trombone -- hardly an instrument associated with Irish folk -- underscoring the Keystone Cops nature of the chase. And by song's end, the boy never does get caught -- except, perhaps, by his own self-awareness.

"Where that line reads, 'I was 6 years old and she said she'd make a man of me,' " said Costello, "that doesn't mean through beatings and intimidation. It means through the high standards they held us to, the values they taught, the love they were showing us."

O'Malley jokes that you'll have to ask his wife if the nuns made a man out of him.

"She sees my playing in this band as part of a Peter Pan syndrome."

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