Thursday, August 02, 2007

So. Farewell Then, Tommy Makem

Tommy Makem RIP, Paddy Clancy, RIP, Tommy Clancy, RIP, Liam ClancyTommy Makem died late last night, about six in the evening local time, in Dover, New Hampshire, USA. Makem was seventy-four, and had been suffering from lung cancer. The Ireland that awoke to the news of his passing this morning is utterly changed from the Ireland he left in the 1950s – do we really know who this man was, and what his legacy will be?

A friend of An Spailpín, who plays close, close attention to music, gets irritated when he hears the often repeated line – and it’s going to be by-God repeated all day today – that “the Clancy Brothers revived Irish traditional music.” His argument is that the music was always here, and that making traditional Irish music acceptable in Dublin isn’t the same as “reviving” it. A barman in Taylor’s Bar in Galway, a haven for music once, now sunk into infamy, told me years ago that the Chieftains did far more for the music than the Clancys, whom he considered a cabaret act. And it’s as a cabaret act that the Clancys are often seen, with the bainíns and the showbiz patter and the rest.

And that’s fair enough – everybody needs somebody to look down, as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson wrote some years ago. Maybe it is the case that Makem is now part of history. Richard Downes struggling to place Makem in context on Morning Ireland this morning is evidence of that. But An Spailpín is free of Morning Ireland’s time constraints, and will try to place Makem in the pantheon, now that he has moved on to sing with Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna and the other great Ulster Bards.

Tommy Makem was born in Keady, South Armagh, seventy-four years ago. His mother, Sarah Makem, was a noted collector and singer of folk-songs, and it was through this connection that he first met his friend and musical collaborator Liam Clancy, with whom he was to work for fifty years, on and off.

Sarah Makem was visited in the mid-fifties by Diane Hamilton, an American heiress with an interest in folk music. Ms Hamilton was touring Ireland collecting songs, and she had brought Liam Clancy with her from Carrick-on-Suir to work the recording equipment. Some years later, both men had emigrated, to make their fortune as actors on the New York stage, and they met up again in Gotham, many miles from home.

Then, as now, there was very little money in acting, and the men supplemented their acting wages by singing in the evenings in the folk clubs that were springing up all over New York as part of the folk boom that was started by Pete Seeger and others, and that would reach its crescendo with Bob Dylan. The boys discovered that there was much more money in singing than in acting and, recruiting Liam Clancy’s two elder brothers, Paddy and Tommy, they went on the road as full-time folk-singers, singing that songs that Sarah Makem had collected and that Liam and his brothers had learned at school. Their attitude was best summed up by Makem himself in Philip King’s marvellous TV documentary of some years ago, Bringing It All Back Home. Makem was reflecting on the change from acting to folk singing, and how the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem suddenly hit the big time with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. “We took the money and we ran like Hell,” said the always phlegmatic Makem. The correct attitude in all circumstances.

The Clancys and Tommy Makem could supply the one thing that the US folkies of the sixties craved above all else – authenticity. Most of the folkies who were singing Woody Guthrie songs about lonesome hobos and the hard times of the working man hadn’t done a days’ work in their lives. So to hear Irish songs being sung by guys who were from, like, Ireland, was so far out it was out of sight, and they lapped it up for all it was worth. Add in the huge Irish American market in the States and all of a sudden, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were on the crest of a wave, taking the money and running like Hell.

The wave washed up on these shores too, of course. After spending the hundred years after the famine with the head down, the nation suddenly looked up to see three chancers from Tipperary and one from the County Armagh coming out of Carnegie Hall, New York, New York, dressed in tuxedos, with their bainín jumpers draped over their arms. And those musicians, who had been playing away all this time, suddenly found their doors being beaten down by young people eager to turn onto this groove that – wait for it – had been here all the time! Can you believe it? And we didn’t even notice! Ciarán Mac Mathúna, that great scholar of Irish music, summed up their appeal by saying that while Thomas Moore took the wild harp or Erin and put it into a snuff box, the Clancys and Tommy Makem took it out of the snuff box and into a pint class.

The popularity of the Clancys and Tommy Makem spread like wildfire. In Liverpool, Luke Kelly stopped going to jazz clubs and learned to sing folk songs from Ewan McColl. Christy Moore quit a perfectly good job in the bank to take to the life of the wandering minstrel. Luke Kelly returned home to form the Dubliners in the back room of Donaghue’s of Merrion Row, Dublin, and some years later Moore would form Planxty, the band that joined the song and instrumental strands of the tradition together in the first Irish traditional music supergroup. And all because someone got sick on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem went on instead.

Like all history outlined in broad strokes, the story of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem has its non sequiturs. For starters, the Clancys weren’t quite as authentic as they seemed – just as Pete Seeger didn’t spend much time jumping railcars, so Liam Clancy was happy to report in the sleeve notes of his first solo album that he himself had only got blisters on his hands twice; once, from chopping wood in a Connecticut tree nursery, and once from rowing a boat on Central Park lake. The Clancys sang the best of rebel songs, even though the elder Clancys, Paddy and Tommy served with the RAF in India during World War II. Most ironic of all of course, was that these great ambassadors of Irish traditional music weren’t part of the tradition at all – Irish traditional music, in its purest form, is a solo art. We sing solo. The rousing choruses of the Clancys and their countless nickel and dime imitators is not part of the tradition.

Or, more correctly, not yet. One of the great things about the tradition is its fluidity, and its ability to change. That’s why the tradition is still alive. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem are now part of the tradition, and a never to be lost part because of their recordings. Lighting the living flame was one of the great official pieties about the 1916 revolution – whatever else Tommy Makem did, he did that much. The tradition was always here, will always be here – the lucht sí will look after it, even while we’re too busy turning the next dollar to do it – but the Clancys and Tommy Makem brought the tradition into the mainstream. It’s not there any more of course; O’Donaghue’s is now little more than an ersatz tourist trinket shop and our biggest musical hero is currently a Dubliner who seems to have got it into his head that not only is he American, he’s black as well. But for all that, the Clancys and Tommy Makem did their bit for the nation and for heritage, and their recordings will always be with us. God have mercy on Tommy Makem, and I take my leave with this clip of Tommy Makem in his prime, with his rich, clear baritone with that distinctive hint of vibrato, singing The Butcher Boy on Pete Seeger’s TV show. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal, agus go tseinne sé ceol bríomhar na nGael go deo i measc na n-aingil.

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