The song originally dates back to the 1650s, and the Dubliners were an Irish folk group that released the first version that became a staple in pubs around the world. Artists such as Jerry Garcia and the Irish Rovers (of course) recorded versions of this song, and every version is different. To be fair, the Dubliners' version is probably the closest to what the song is supposed to be. So why are we talking about Thin Lizzy and Metallica? Because these two groups should be recognized as being responsible for introducing this song to younger generations that have helped this song to keep going.
The song is dripping with traditional Irish references that make no sense unless you understand traditional Irish references, but that is one of the things that makes this song so much fun for me. I love that stuff, and I cannot emphasize enough that you should go look up a live version of the Dubliners doing this song on YouTube if you really want to get your feet stomping.
Here is the Thin Lizzy version as recorded in 1972 that helped to put Lizzy on the rock and roll map:
This is the way Phil Lynott heard the song and interpreted it, and it kind of sounds torn to me. It sounds like Phil is trying to keep the sound traditional, but also rock it out a bit. The heavy guitar solo almost sounds a bit out of place here when placed against the rolling background that the other instruments create. I am also not in love with the way Phil sings this. Lynott had a great voice when he was energetic (see The Boys are Back in Town), but when he used this falling asleep voice, I think it lacked something. Still, this is a nice version of a song that has been around for centuries. If nothing else, Phil sings this song with the conviction of a guy proud of his Irish roots.
And now let's take a listen to Metallica's cover:
By the way, I like this video. This is probably the only Metallica video I actually like. I don't know exactly why I like it; I just do. If you are going to rock Whiskey in the Jar, then this is how you do it. This song was recorded for fun, and it sounds that way. James Hetfield's vocals sound about as far away from authentic as they could be, but they aren't supposed to be authentic. They are supposed to sound like he is fronting Metallica playing an old Irish folk song. I can understand why this version would not be a favorite of people who love the folk version (or even the Thin Lizzy version), but this recording exposed this song to millions of people who would have never heard it, and it probably boosted sales for Lizzy's version as well.
There is no winner in this week's column. These are two very different versions of the same song, and both stand on their own merits. I wish Phil Lynott had put a little more into his vocals, but both of these songs offer interpretations of this song that are enjoyed by large audiences all over the world.
Verdict: Let it ride and leave them alone.
George N Root III is a musician who loves playing covers and writing originals. Follow him on Twitter @georgenroot3 or send him a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.