Sunday, January 27, 2013



The coffee shop sent a double order by mistake. 
Wouldn't take it back, said to throw it away.
Since it was Sunday, we fed the homeless 
sleeping in Market Street doorways.
We gave them an abundance of bagels & coffee.
May I have some cream and sugar?
Perhaps a napkin, and a knife for the schmear? 
Those on the street kept asking us why.
Because we're poets! we said. That's why. 
That's when they said Bless the poets.
And truly we were blessed.


St. Peet’s and the homeless in Market St doorways

This morning we fed the homeless on Market St. extra doses of Noah's Bagels & Peet's coffee—they sent us an extra order for our poetry workshop by mistake. We were an early gathering of poets for Poetry in translation training workshop for PIO—Poetry Inside Out. Those living on the street kept asking why. Because we're poets! That's why, we said. They said Bless the poets. I was a coffee wench until we ran out of cups. We found a shopping cart chef— he had an entire kitchen on wheels— and gave a gallon of hot coffee, bagels and schmear to him to distribute. It was a near religious experience all round. We traded names.  Michael, who had severe palsy, nearly wept with joy. I spread cream cheese on his bagel and wrapped it for him as he couldn't do it himself. Poet-angels, they called us. But they were the ones shedding light. Was a time when my own mother was one of the fallen ones sleeping in Market Street doorways. When I recounted the story, my friend Lin Marie de Vincent said, Bess the poets. and those who share when they have extra. There’s enough to go around. Once again "Noah" made room on the ark. And St Peet(er) warmed the souls of the poor. Shalom.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

RIP Chris Caswell, Bard

Chris Caswell's Facebook album, At the Gypsy Glen
Tuesday morning, I had a nagging feeling that someone I knew, a friend had died. I had a purple ribbon, a lost streamer from someone's funeral wreath I found blowing across a lawn, in my car for ages. I'm partial to purple. I had tossed it into the recycle box weeks ago, but it kept finding its way back out onto the floor.

So I picked the ribbon up off the floor and washed the mud off of it, trying not to think of graveyards, and hung it to dry on my Celtic music CD rack. it's just a ribbon, I said. Maybe I can reuse it. I felt a shock. Death wants it back. Stupid. Don't be superstitious, I said to myself. Someone walking on a grave, my inner voice said. It's just a purple satin ribbon, I said aloud. Nothing more. I will repurpose it, I said.

The day before, while at work, I felt suddenly and inexplicably sad. Body blows. Like a freight train had hit me. I was weak-kneed. I could barely get through my shift. I looked at the clock: 3 PM. 4 PM. I blamed a virus.

I remembered the dead: Boschka Layton came to mind. I told a co-worker how we shared the hospice and right before she died, and how I got so sick, so fast—bronchitis. Death can do that. Something about the past was haunting me. I didn't feel good, I went home early and cancelled my Tuesday morning class.

A restless night. I slept in late—something I never do. I was haunted by dreams I couldn't remember. I didn't get the news until Tuesday that Chris Caswell died at his home on Monday, during the same time I was feeling the weight of death upon me, wondering who had died.

My grandmother always heard knocks at the door when someone died. Not me. Mercifully. Don't let birds come into the house, she said. It invites death in.

Last time I talked to Chris Caswell, Celtic harpmaker and musician, about 2 or 3 years ago, was at the Irish Christmas Revels performance with his mother, Helen. Time telescoped. In 2004, Chris was the resident bardic harper for the Christmas Revels production—a role he had been born into. He wasn't some diamond in the rough, he was a bard of the first water. A flawless gem. He had come into his own.

I have photos of him at the 2004 Christmas Revels performance somewhere, but I can't find them. I lost some work when a hard drive died. I fear my photos of Chris were on that drive, lost to the ephemeral vagaries of cyberspace. I will check my Picasa site to see if I uploaded some there.

We kept in touch fleetingly at various Celtic events and via Facebook—but that was cyberspace. Also, FB severely throttled my newsfeed in July so I didn't notice the silence. I always thought there'd be another time.

I knew that Chris had colon cancer about 15 years ago. He was supposed to be cancer-free—I guess there's no such thing. I suspect that it metastasized—like my aunt's colon cancer. Traveled to her liver. It did.

I suspect he'd been fighting cancer (again) for a couple of years. I just didn't see the signs. He always looked gaunt. There was a farewell concert in December in Occidental. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, knowing that I couldn't go, but again, I didn't pay attention. I didn't get it. And now he's gone. I can't believe it.

I've sort of known Chris for most of my life. I heard him play music at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire with Robin Williamson and his Merry Band, and as a solo piper. We both volunteered for the Bread & Roses benefit concerts at The Greek during the late 70s. I did the backstage calligraphy and signage. I still have all the teeshirts.

Chris was one of the first musicians I met in Sonoma County. Even then, it was always fleeting and ephemeral. Spheres orbiting but never quite making contact. Yet our outside lives connected early and often. I taught his kids poetry at Monte Rio School a very long time ago.

I also wrote an article on Caswell harps for Jim Tarbell's Mendocino Ridge Review (anyone have a copy of it?) so I got to spend quality time with Chris and Theresa (Terry Hallowes) in Monte Rio.

I was never sure of the odd (dis)connection we seemed to have. I loved seeing Terry and him together—an incredible couple. I didn't trust myself with my heart on my sleeve like that so I kept my distance. I think it puzzled him. But so many people were in his life. I was merely someone on the periphery.

See A Harp Maker's Photo Journal
Historic Caswell Harps

His brother Dwight used to let me use his darkroom at his parents' Sebastopol ranch near Green Hill Road. I also remember going to a party there—was that the the original Seb. Celtic Festival on the hillside overlooking the vineyards? I remember the warmth of the sun, the music floating over the vineyards.

Caswell Carnahan 1980-83

Whenever Danny Carnahan and Chris Caswell played music—I was transported in time. I attended every show they played in Sonoma County. I was am enthusiastic groupie. Chris gave me a copy of Borderlands. I think they both signed the audio cassette sleeve. Of course, now when I want to play it, I can't find it.

Album design & illustration by Danny Carnahan
I used to see Chris regularly when he worked at Copperfield's Music in Sebastopol. I suppose I was always making excuses to stop in, and say hi. He'd sell me music, guitar stings, invite me to his gigs.

I moved away. He moved away. He remarried, lived down the road from me in Oakland. Odd. We were still in each other's periphery, but not quite touching. Our friendship was a liminal borderlands affair.
The young man sat above the town
In the glow of the setting sun
With his head held cradled in his hand,
His back against a stone
Sayin, ‘Why have I so little time
In this wretched place to stand
When I can’t take the girl I love
Back home to the borderland-o’ 

© 1982 Danny Carnahan/Post-Trad Music
Remember the first Sebastopol Celtic Festival? Few know that Chris was the original producer of the Sebastopol Music Festival as well as the Kate Wolf Music Festival. I remember all of us crowded in the Main Street Saloon getting well-watered and rocking the rafters until closing.

Chris and I did a few Irish poetry and music gigs together—the most memorable event was at the old Petaluma Library. Eola Bates produced it. I was honored to read Irish poetry to his harp music. I've a photo of us performing together in the film archives. Will look for it too.

We also performed at the Blue Heron Cafe open mike and community dinner in Duncan's Mills with Chris, and that's how I met Sonoma County's other harpist, Patrick Ball. Incredible halcyon days.

Someone said Chris Caswell made a thousand Celtic harps during his lifetime. He was always trying to get me to buy one on installment plan. It was always a little too much money, and I knew that I was a mediocre musician, at best. Always just out of my reach.

I toyed with the idea for decades, always thinking that one day, maybe. A harp of mine own. But now it's too late. To say goodbye to Chris, is something I never expected to do—not at 60. Not like this. So much life in him, so much joy. His passion and talent affected the lives of so many folks. A darkness descending on the horizon of my heartsleeve.

And so I raise the parting glass to the bard and water the stars with useless tears. Adamantine sorrow of the first water. I am grateful to have known him, even if from afar, all these years.

But the Cláirseach music of the spheres is all the brighter for it.

Chris Caswell Farewell Concert Dec 16 at Occidental Hall
Dan Taylor Chris Caswell's obituary from today's Press Democrat. Dan said that his life story would make a good book.

Mudcat thread.

Chris Caswell bio

Chris Caswell's first high school band was The Celtic Trio (later The Celtic Tradition), he was a member of Robin Williamson and His Merry Band,
 along with Danny Carnahan. They formed the duo Caswell Carnahan. Then there was New World Gypsy String Band. I lost count.


Then there was the teaching at Lark Camp, Golden Toad Camp, Dickens Faire—he tried to get me to take over a shift for him, once, to mind the booth. I never got around to it.

There's a benefit performance for Chris, A Night for Chris, at Freight & Salvage Feb 4 at 8 PM to help defray his enormous medical expenses.

Donations can be sent via Paypal to - 100% goes to Roxanne Caswell.

Monday, February 4, 2013, 8:00 pm (doors open at 7:00 pm)
a benefit celebration of the life of Chris Caswell
$24.50 advance / $26.50 at door
Purchase tickets online
Chris CaswellJoin us tonight at the Freight for a benefit celebration to honor Chris Caswell, who recently passed away. A masterful maker and player of the Celtic harp, rapturous performer, charming storyteller, expert musicologist, and extraordinary individual, Chris played a huge role in the Celtic Renaissance as a member of Robin Williamson and his Merry Band in the 1970s and Caswell Carnahan in the 80s, and has built more than 1,000 harps for musicians around the world.
Our host tonight is Danny Carnahan, who partnered with Chris in Caswell Carnahan and currently plays in Wake the Dead, the world’s first Celtic all-star Grateful Dead jam band.  Danny will play solo as well as in tandem with some of his current band mates, covering more than 30 years of musical highlights.
Golden Bough, featuring Margie Butler, Kathy Sierra, and Paul Espinoza, will play from their vast repertoire of haunting ballads, beautiful airs, and lively songs drawn from the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, French Brittany, and Spanish Galicia.
Oak Ash & Thorn, the legendary a capella trio with Doug Olsen, Tom Wagner, and Dave Swan, first shared a bill with Caswell Carnahan 32 years ago.
Kevin Carr of Wake the Dead, Hillbillies from Mars, and several other musical assemblages, performs with his motley band of Galician bagpipers.
Panacea, with Shira Kammen, Nada Lewis, Robin Petrie, Nicole LeCorgne, and Bon Singer, uses traditional instruments from the Balkans and the Middle East to create a wildly playful musical fusion.
San Francisco’s Steve Baughman is a dynamite guitarist inspired by Celtic and Appalachian traditions. Tonight Steve joins forces with his “Farewell to the House” chorale.
Philip Gelb plays shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. He began studying the instrument in 1990 and has recorded more than a dozen albums.
Celia Ramsay, a warm and witty singer with a passion for Scottish ballads, joins harpist and singer Patrice Haan of Leftover Dreams for a musical collaboration sure to tug at the heartstrings.
Marla Fibish, Susan Spurlock, and Peter Heelan, on mandolins and uilleann pipes, play Irish traditional music with imagination and flair.
It’s a chance to be part of an unforgettable evening, with an all star lineup honoring a true Celtic bard.

Note bene: I'm parking info here until I figure out what to do with it

Unfortunately, last Monday the Bay Area and the folk music world lost Chris Caswell to a long illness.  Chris was a masterful maker and player of the Celtic harp, rapturous performer on harp, flute and whistle, singer of songs, charming storyteller, expert musicologist, and extraordinary individual.  Truly a present day bard in the ancient tradition.  Chris Caswell passed away peacefully at his home in Oakland after a hard-fought battle with cancer.
We list many House Concerts in this publication.  Some of you have never been to a house concert, perhaps because they don't know what they are like.  Sit in at a house concert with Chris Caswell, in his prime back in May of 2010, by clicking this link:

Lead Story

Tickets Still Available As Bay Area Folk Music Community Gathers To Remember Bard Chris Caswell
Chris played a huge role in the Celtic Renaissance as a member of Robin Williamson and his Merry Band in the 1970s and Caswell Carnahan the 80s, and has built more than 1,000 harps for musicians around the world.
There will be a memorial benefit concert 8:00pm February 4th, 2013 at the Freight & Salvage Tickets are still available online at and all proceeds will go directly to help defray his medical expenses.  Many of the Bay Area's premier folk musicians will perform, including Danny Carnahan, Wake the Dead, Oak Ash & Thorn, Golden Bough, Steve Baughman & the In Harmony's  Way Chorus, Shira Kammen and Pam Swan, Philip Gelb, Peter Heelan, Susan Spurlock and Marla Fibish, Nada Lewis and Jon Schreiber, Celia Ramsay & Aryeh Franklin, along with a few surprises.
There will also be a Silent Auction of rare folk instruments and other items, including many from Chris' own collection.  This promises to be a unique and memorable event.  Details at
Please make inquiries to: Freight & Salvage Production Manager Bob 510-859-1123 Event Production Manager Pam Swan 510-219-1118 Silent Auction Manager Danese Cooper 415-518-6542.  More on Chris Caswell,

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Old Tunes, New Licks

Because my partner, Neil O'Neill is a Celtic folksinger, my ad-hoc job is to sleuth out the provenance of traditional Scottish and Irish folksongs, collect variants, and to write the liner notes. What I've learned is that new song lyrics are often set to old tunes or melodies, and updated every generation, and that the song is a compilation of melody or tune, and lyrics (words). 

The ballad our family traditionally sings at every funeral, Danny Boy, is a melody from an old Irish air "discovered" by a sister-in-law in the goldmines of Colorado [what was she doing in the mines?], Londonderry Air (AKA "Air from County Derry" or "Derry Air"), with words written by a London barrister and lyricist in 1910—a prime example of melodic borrowing.

Frederic Weatherly gave the ancient Irish tune, updated with his new lyrics to Elsie Griffin, who made it one of the most popular songs in the new century (first record was made in 1915). So we tend to think of him as the author and composer of Danny Boy. But he didn't compose the melody of the song, just the lyrics. 

The story goes that the original air was collected from a blind fiddler by Jane Ross of Limavady in Northern Ireland, and published by musicologist and antiquarian, George Petrie in 1855, The Ancient Music of Ireland, by the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland.

World famous song Danny Boy is taken from a melody composed by O’Cahan bard Rory Dall O’Cahan. The original version concerns the passing of the Chief Cooey-na-Gall whose death brought an end to a long line of O’Cahan chiefs in Northern Ireland. —Wiki

Folksingers have been swapping tunes and lyrics for eons—sometimes, in their travels, the bits get separated from each other—a muffled line becomes a mondegreen, oftentimes new songs arise from the ashes of the old.
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.
So much for laying the poor old dead Earl of Moray down on the green. And what about Lady Mondegreen? She had some melons. A Cuban favorite: José can you see by the dawn's early light? Imagine a rainbow Hendrix: 'S'cuse me while I kiss this guy. Who knew that Kumbaya is really Come by Here—oh Lord.

Our family simply slaughters the lyrics to Háva Nagíla at weddings. Gawd only know what we're boisterously singing while mangling the Grapevine. (Mondegreens in Hebrew are called watermelons.) Malachy McCourt thought The Hail Mary rosary phrase "amongst women" was "a monk swimming", which became the title of his book. Neil, who was an altar boy in Scotland, thought the Latin mea culpea was "Mexican cowboy." OK, so maybe he was stretching it a bit.

Many Irish songs and melodies that traveled to the New World morphed into what we think of as American songs—sometimes with watermelon mondegreens intact.

An Irish song of exile that I like to trot out—my main party piece—Siúil a Rún, morphed into lyrical variants, Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, and Buttermilk Hill when it was popularized on the shores of Americay during the American Revolution—which anchors the American versions of the song to the 18th c.

But the Irish Siúil a Rún (made famous by Clannad and Celtic Woman) is probably older than that—it may refer to The Battle of Kinsale (England's conquest of Gaelic Ireland—a siege lost by one of Neil O'Neill's ancestors, Aodh Mór Ó Néill, (Hugh) Earl of Tyrone), giving it a provenance date sometime after 1600.
Aodh Mór Uî Néill—Hugh The Great O'Neill (c. 1550 - 1616)
Controversy surrounds the song's age and origin as Siúil a Rún is a bilingual song. Some say that because the song is bilingual, that the Gaelic chorus was forged in later. But many translated Gaelic songs kept their original chorus lyrics intact—in most cases, they became nonsense phrases. That's how we get Irish scat-singing licks. All those diddilum-derry-downs, and rinkle-um-doo-das (or caleno custure mes) are lost language fragments. (derry/doire is oak tree; rince is to dance). The same concept holds true for old melodies.
Cailín Óg a Stór is a traditional Irish melody (publ. 1582) may be the source of Pistol's cryptic line in Henry V, "Calen O custure". It is part of a broadside collection from 1584. The poem "The Croppy Boy" was set to this music, and it was later used for the tune of "Lord Franklin", which was the basis for the Bob Dylan song "Bob Dylan's Dream".
Add to that blatant borrower's list, Dylan's hit: With God on Our Side. Like, dude, so you stole the melody, changed some words, it's still our friggin' song. Ya didn't think we'd notice? 

The melody of Dylan's With God on Our Side is identical to The Patriot Game, with Irish lyrics written by Dominic Behan. The tune was borrowed from a traditional Irish folk song, The Merry Month of May. "Behan called Dylan a plagiarist and a thief, but Dylan never responded to Behan's claims." —Wiki

That would be borstal bhoy, Brendan Behan's babby brother, folks. The first two stanzas of Behan and Dylan's songs are nearly identical. Of course, Behan, himself, was lifting the tune from an earlier tradition.

Sule Agra, a 17th century Irish variant of Siúil a Rún, with its phoenetic Irish chorus, and the related tune, Sweet William (ca. 1688), probably both derive from Siúil a Rúnnot the other way around—because the Gaelic chorus is intact in Siúil a Rún, and not gibberish.

(Reverse engineering is another possibility—the Gaelic could've been cobbled onto the English translation during the Romantic movement during the 18th c. But I think not, because the gibbered Gaelic version has such an ancient date.) However, the spinning wheel reference in all the variants suggests the 19th c. It too could've been added. 

Then we have the American Revolution variants i mentioned earlier: Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, and Buttermilk HillThough lyrics tend to be updated to fit the metadata of every generation, the song, or should I say, the tune, remains the same.

The melody of Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, recorded in December 1975, seems to suggest a similar pattern. What came first, Lightfoot's melody of The Wreck of the Edmund FG, or the Irish melody associated with Bobby Sands' Back Home in Derry?

I think what happened is that the melody itself (not Gordon's fabulous song lyrics) was based on an older Irish dirge—after all the ship had an Irish name, Fitzgerald, so an Irish melody was fitting. Also, many Canadian folksongs are from the Irish and Scottish folksong repetoire.

Don't get me wrong—I adore the music of Gordon Lightfoot and the The Wreck of the Edmund FG was a haunting song. I committed his early songs to memory, though my voice wasn't as good (or as deep) as his. Early Morning Rain and Me and Bobby McGee, were among the first songs I learned on the guitar. I also committed hundreds of Irish rebel songs to memory as well. So, I was well-versed in folk music lyrics. (Which led me circuitously to poetry.)

Lightfoot was no stranger to Irish folk music, as a child performer, his first public tune was Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (An Irish Lullaby). He was influenced by the American songwriter, Stephen Foster. When Lightfoot moved to Hollywood for two years in 1958, he was also influenced by the folk music of Pete Seeger, and The Weavers who had a vast Irish and Scottish music repertoire. 
In late November 1975 Lightfoot had read a Newsweek magazine article about the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank during a severe storm on November 10 with the loss of all 29 crew members. His song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", released in 1976, reached number two on the United States Billboard charts... [his lyrics came from the article]—Wiki
No man is an island and no song comes full-blown out of a musician's head from the void. What came before influences new art.

Gordon Lightfoot - The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

During the 1960s and 70s folksingers were raiding traditional music wholesale—Irish music was the hardest hit—most North American singer-songwriters did not credit their sources. At least two of my folk heroes Judy Collins and Joan Baez noted their folksongs as "traditional," but as Behan noted, Bob Dylan was among the most arrogant of songthieves.

Raymond McCartney Mural, Bogside, Derry, Northern Ireland. "This Mural Is Dedicated To The H Block & Armagh Prison Struggle and In Memory of Bobby Sands, Kevin Lynch, Frank Hughes, Kieron Doherty, Raymond McCreesh, Tom McElwee, Patsy O'Hare, Michael Devine, Martin Hurson, Joe McDonnell." —Wiki
When Neil was casting about for new songs to learn, I turned him onto Christy Moore's ballad, Back Home in Derry. At one point, I found a reference to the original poem, The Voyage by Marcella, and though I can't for the life of me—find it now, I remember that it was circa 1976.

Bobby Sands was first imprisoned for five years at Long Kesh; Gordon Lightfoot's song was released in 1976; Sands was then re-imprisoned in 1976. There was a six-month hiatus where Bobby was a free man, so technically he could've heard Lightfoot's song (though access to American music wasn't as readily available in Ireland in those days). But Sands was kept busy with IRA Volunteer activity, as Belfast was in the midst of a civil war.

During his time in prison Bobby was a voracious reader not just of Irish, but of world history, and he emerged from the prison in March 1976 as a radical republican dedicated to an Irish Socialist Republic. In Twinbrook he helped form a tenants association and a youth club whilst still working as a full-time IRA Volunteer.

However, six months later he was arrested on active-service following a bomb attack on a furniture warehouse. There was a gun battle between the IRA unit and the RUC and two of Bobby’s comrades were wounded. One shortarm was caught in the car and the four occupants were all charged with ‘illegal’ possession. —Extracts from 'Prison Poems' by Bobby Sands (1991)
From Christy Moore's homepage:
I was playing in Derry and staying with The Barrett Family. After my gig we were gathered in Chamberlain St having a banter and drinking tea when a bit of singing broke out. A lad, just home from The Blocks, sang these verses and subsequently wrote out the words for me. At the time the name Bobby Sands was not known to the world as it is today. The following night I played in Bellaghy where the same process took place when I stayed with Scullion. Later on he "sang" McIlhatton for me and told me it had been written by Bobby Sands with whom he had shared a cell while "On the Blanket". The name was becoming known to me. He used the air of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald from Gordon Lightfoot, an air which I suspect has earlier origins. My version of Bobby's song is shorter than the original. —Christy Moore
Christy says it himself: "an air which I suspect has earlier origins."

From Gordon Lightfoot's website board thread by podunklander (no link):
Gordon had incorporated the use of or otherwise was influenced by a traditional, Irish "dirge" (as he has referred to it as such) when composing the music for "The Wreck...".
Someone else noted that the ballad was a traditional formula used in songwriting. Another Lightfoot fan, Colm Scullion posted in May of 2009:
I've been reading with interest the comments on Back home in Derry by Bobby Sands  and I thought I might help . I shared a cell in HBlock 3 with Bobby during the no wash protest. I remember Bobby writing the song for all the Derrymen in the wing. He was a fan of Gordon Lightfoot and borrowed the air and sang it out the door as we were not allowed out of the cells.Christy Moore got the song from a Derry man called Ferguson, a couple of nights later I first met Christy and gave him McIlhatton. Thats how it happened, Colm Scullion, BallyScullion.
Is this the same Scullion mentioned in Christy's liner notes (above)? The cellmate who later "gave" Christy Moore Bobby Sands' songs? Pretty amazing story, if true. A fitting tribute on the 28th anniversary of Bobby Sands' death. Colm Scullion concludes with:
That about covers it. I had 3 songs and a poem, the poem he wrote after i'd told him a story of a local united irishman. I offered Christy TWOTEF but he had received it the previous night so I gave him Mcelhatton and sad song for susan. 28 years dead tuesday past,
Bobby was in prison and in solitary confinement for his most of his entire adult life. Not a lot of American radio stations were broadcasting top chart songs in Long Kesh prison. Unless it was during that brief six-month of freedom between consecutive prison sentences that he became familiar with Lightfoot's song. Why would Colm "give" Christy The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald? when the song in question was Back Home in Derry? I suppose another prisoner could've brought the Lightfoot song into prison and taught his cellmates and Back Home in Derry could have been retrofitted into the melody.

But if Lightfoot had composed the entire melody (air) from scratch, surely the music industry, would've been all up in arms and brought massive litigation against Christy Moore for stealing the melody. It never happened.

Robert Tannahill (1774 – 1810) was a Scottish poet from Paisley (down the road from where Neil was born). Known as the 'Weaver Poet', his music and poetry was contemporary with that of Robert Burns (1759 – 1796). Wiki 

Musicians have been borrowing and adapting melodies from the folk tradition for eons. Much of Robert Burns work is "adapted." 
Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, revising or adapting them: "Auld Lang Syne"; "Scots Wha Hae"; "A Red, Red Rose"; "A Man's A Man for A' That"; "To a Louse"; "To a Mouse"; "The Battle of Sherramuir"; "Tam o' Shanter"; and "Ae Fond Kiss".—Wiki
Few are familiar with the copyright infringement story of the Ulster the McPeakes who sued Rod Stewart for "stealing" Wild Mountain Thyme, which is a variant of a traditional Scottish song that they claimed to have copyrighted some of the arrangements. Of course, everybody who was a folksinger had already recorded it. 
While there is a copyright asserted by English Folk Dance and Song Society Publications, who published it for Francis McPeake in 1957, there is a continuing controversy about the actual ownership of the song. However, when the McPeake family took Rod Stewart to court in the early 1990’s for their due royalties of his cover of the song, not only did they not receive royalties but the defense’s case alleged that McPeake Senior seemed to have plagiarized Robert Tannahill’s version. —Rod Stewart vrs The Mcpeakes
The McPeakes dropped their claim for breach of copyright (and therefore any claims to ownership) once Stewart’s record company’s brief cited the Robert Tannahill song, ‘The Braes o’ Balquhidder’ whose lyrics can be found here ( —Rod Stewart vrs The Mcpeakes
The plot thickens.
Francis McPeake (the elder, born in 1885, and patriarch of the gifted Belfast musical family) learned the song from his uncle as a boy, and introduced it to the modern Celtic music community on the 1952 recording "The Rights of Man", made for the BBC (archive #18290, Folktrax #176). Before the recording, Francis had an interesting chat with Sean O’Baoill in which he speaks to the song’s origins….
"To tell you the truth it was an uncle of mine… he really came from Dungannon, and he got a good many old songs like that, and I used to hear that very often, only to tell you the truth, I hadn’t the last verse of it. But it was a thing from my boyhoods days I always liked… and started to work it on the pipes and liked to sing it. I don’t know whether it’s a Scotch one or not, it may, you know be a kind of a planter type you see, something in the nature of that." —Rod Stewart vrs The Mcpeakes
Hmm, so Francis McPeake HEARD Wild Mountain Thyme (or Will You Go, Lassie, Go?) from an uncle (circa 1890—public domain) and his heirs claimed it as his own work in 1990—having added some new words and lyric arrangements. That's some Trojan horse of a copyright dispute. Oh my aching head.
McPeake's lyrics are a variant of the song "The Braes of Balquhither" by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), a contemporary of Robert Burns. Tannahill's original song, first published in R. A. Smith's Scottish Minstrel (1821–24), is about the hills (braes) around Balquhidder near Lochearnhead. Like Burns, Tannahill collected and adapted traditional songs, and "The Braes of Balquhither" may have been based on the traditional song "The Braes o' Bowhether". —Wiki
Of course the two Rabbies (Burns and Tannahill) were said to have lifted tunes and lyrics from Habbie Simpson (1550–1620), the piper-weaver-poet from Kilbarchan, the next village down the road. Burns was an inveterate lifter of verse and melody. The famous Burns stanza is known as "the standard Habbie." But I digress.  
I've never found a liner note saying that the Back Home in Derry melody was used by kind permission of Gordon Lightfoot. All the folksingers who've recorded Back Home in Derry, are they paying royalties to the Bobby Sands estate, or to Gordon Lightfoot? Or both? Talk about complicated.

If Christy Moore had lifted the entire melody from The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, I'm fairly certain that Gordon Lightfoot would've taken some legal action—if this quote is any indication.
In April 1987, Lightfoot filed a lawsuit against composer Michael Masser, claiming that Masser's melody for the song "The Greatest Love of All"—recorded by George Benson (1977) and Whitney Houston (1985)—stole 24 bars from Lightfoot's 1971 hit song "If You Could Read My Mind." Lightfoot later stated that he did not want people thinking that he had stolen his melody from Masser. —Wiki
Someone also noted on Gordon Lightfoot's fanpage that Bobby Sands couldn't have had the musical chops to create a melody like Lightfoot's, but there are photos of a young Bobby Sands playing guitar. And you know the Irish when it comes to song and story. Still, I suspect Gordon's melody derives from an earlier Irish tradition.

The only way to resolve this mystery is for someone to find an antecedent copy of the melody that predates 1976. I may also be completely wrong. Maybe the melody came full-blown out of Gordon's head after all and traveled back to its imagined ancestral homeland by way of H-Block, Long Kesh Prison, in Derry.

There's a rumor of a clan gathering in Montana next July, perhaps my friend Dulcie, who's married to Gordon's 2nd cousin, Zane, can get me the lowdown. Until then, I leave you with two Irish variants of an amazing melody.

Back Home In Derry

Author: Bobby Sands (who published under the pen name Marcella—his sister. The song, which chronicles the forced deportation of Irish rebels to Australia and Tasmania, recorded by Christy in 1984, was banned as a terrorist's song. So it got little airplay. Christy wrote "despite it being banned it has entered the national repertoire and has been recorded by a thousand ballad bands and will long outlive its detractors and severest critics.")

Am Em
In 1803 we sailed out to sea
G D Am
Out from the sweet town of Derry
Am Em
For Australia bound if we didn't all drown
G D Am
And the marks of our fetters we carried
Am Em
In our rusty iron chains we sighed for our weans
Am Em
Our good women we left in sorrow
Am Em
As the mainsails unfurled, our curses we hurled
G D Am
On the English, and thoughts of tomorrow


C G Am G Am
Oh..... I wish I was back home in Derry
C G Am G Am
Oh..... I wish I was back home in Derry

At the mouth of the Foyle, bid farewell to the soil
As down below decks we were lying
O'Doherty screamed, woken out of a dream
By a vision of bold Robert dying
The sun burned cruel as we dished out the gruel
Dan O'Connor was down with a fever
Sixty rebels today bound for Botany Bay
How many will meet their reciever


I cursed them to hell as her bow fought the swell
Our ship danced like a moth in the firelight
White horses rode high as the devil passed by
Taking souls to Hades by twilight
Five weeks out to sea, we were now forty-three
Our comrades we buried each morning
In our own slime we were lost in a time
Of endless night without dawning


Van Diemen's land is a hell for a man
To live out his whole life in slavery
Where the climate is raw and the gun makes the law
Neither wind nor rain care for bravery
Twenty years have gone by, I've ended my bond
My comrades ghosts walk behind me
A rebel I came - I'm still the same
On the cold winters night you will find me

Back Home in Derry - Christy Moore (Live at the Festival Theatre)
Back Home in Derry - Christy Moore