Thursday, March 17, 2011

For St. Patrick's Day: The Incomparable Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem

"And since it falls/Unto my lot..." - that this year, St. Patrick's Day coincides with my normal Weekend Videos post, it seems only right that I devote this week's offering to the greatest and most influential Irish folk vocal group ever. What this group brought to the world will last as long as Irish music does, long after U2 and the Pogues and the Young Dubliners and the rest are simply footnotes in the story of 20th century pop music. Additionally and regarding Xroads and the KT - this is perhaps the only folk group that both was influenced by and in turn influenced the Kingston Trio.*

A word on that, and an interesting one, I think. About 10 years ago, Liam Clancy (the last of the group to pass away, in December of 2009) published a memoir called The Mountain of the Women. In it, he related how the group's first gig outside of Greenwich Village was at Bob Gibson's (and Albert Grossman's) Gate of Horn club in Chicago in 1959 or early 1960, Gibson having met Pat Clancy and Tommy Makem at the first Newport Folk Festival in '59 where both appeared as soloists before the formal start of the group. At the Gate, the boys dressed in their Irish best - meaning tweed jackets, dress shirts, and ties. They were mortified by the ridicule from some parts of the audience at their appearance and resolved that it should never happened again. Inspired by the Kingston Trio, who was at that point riding an unprecedented wave of popularity and whom Liam described as "our heroes," the group decided to wear a stage costume of the nearly-matching Aran Island-style sweaters that Mother Clancy had sent for her sons, fearing the harsh New York winters' effects on their health. ("Nearly" because, as the true Irishman knows, those cream-colored sweaters with the cable and popcorn knit are native only to the three lonely Aran isles to the west of the country, populated by fishermen who wore them to sea - in part because when and if they drowned, as they frequently did, their decomposed bodies could be identified if they washed ashore by the family pattern and individual stitching of the knit of each sweater.) The Kingstons returned the favor by recording and popularizing a number of songs that they themselves first heard from the Clancys, including "The Gypsy Rover", "Roddy McCorley", and "The Patriot Game".

The CB&TM had developed a strong local following in NYC and Boston both as soloists and as a kind of informal group, and the success of their early home-made recordings on their own Tradition Records (truly home-made: many of the tracks were recorded in oldest brother Pat's kitchen) led Columbia Records to sign them at the precise point that Ed Sullivan featured them for what was supposed to be two songs on his show in 1961. Someone in the act that was to follow them on Sullivan became ill back stage (it was live, you remember) - and the producers asked the Clancys to fill in - so they ended up on national TV for an astounding 16 minutes when they had been scheduled for five. Both the in-studio and national broadcast audiences loved them, and they were propelled into a decade of recording and concert success, not only in the U.S. but throughout the rest of the English-speaking world. And just as the Kingston's enormous record sales paved the way for record companies to sign and promote other American folk groups, the Clancys opened up an international market for many of the great '60s Irish groups that followed them, notably the Dubliners and the Wolfe Tones.

In the '70s and following, the group broke up and re-assembled in various configurations, including the much-beloved Liam Clancy-Tommy Makem duo and the reunion tours of the original four in the 1980s. But for me, it was that original group in its first few years that created the template for the way that Irish music should sound - this despite the fact that the Clancys were almost fully as much popularizers as the U.S. pop-folk groups were - and were equally derided by purists who recognized a truer Celtic art in the Chieftains and similar groups. I would guess, however, that even purists might find the 1960 Clancy sound preferable to much of what emanates from Ireland today attempting to pass as folk, be it the smarmy "Celtic"-type groups or the rockers like the Pogues and their ilk who think that folk music should be electric and shouted.

So let us recall with fondness some of the great songs of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. This handful of tunes, culled from a YouTube library of several hundred uploads and from a personal memory of many more, is simply a collection of some of my own and my family's favorites, songs we have known and sung together for fifty years and more. There are ballads here, and rebel songs, and love songs - they truly need no introduction beyond saying that this is some of the best folk music Ireland ever produced.

The significance of the group both in the U.S. and internationally far transcends their fairly brief moment in the pop music sun. When Tommy Makem died in the summer of 2007, my prominent conservative blogger brother Rick published a remarkable essay titled "Death Be Not Proud" - and since he reflected at length on that and did so eloquently, I'm going to let him speak for me here:

For the Moran family, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem opened up an entirely new world, a means of discovering our past. Their music was not at all like the melodramatic “American” Irish music we were all familiar with. Their songs were of the real Ireland – a place of pain and suffering, of oppression, and a kind of fatalism that seems to me unique to the Irish people. In fact, the group’s first album – Irish Songs of the Rebellion – released in 1956, celebrated that fatalism in songs that told the story of several futile Irish uprisings against British rule. One of those songs, Roddy McCorely, is a staple of family reunions and is guaranteed to bring emotions about our heritage close to the surface:

"O see the fleet-foot host of men, who march with faces drawn,
From farmstead and from fishers’ cot, along the banks of Ban;
They come with vengeance in their eyes. Too late! Too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.

Up the narrow street he stepped, so smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp-rope on his neck, the golden ringlets clung;
There’s ne’er a tear in his blue eyes, fearless and brave are they,
As young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today."

...The image of the young McCorely going to his death so stoically is one of the most powerful of my childhood. It’s an example of a song with a mournful subject that has the effect of uplifting the listener emotionally.

Beyond the impact the group had on the world at large, their affect on my family cannot be measured. We glory in singing many of the group’s songs (accompanied by my brother Jim and his trusty Martin guitar). The drinking songs, the Irish patriot songs, and the songs of protest...There is something so defiant in those lyrics that brings out the pride I feel in being of Irish heritage.

Tommy Makem is gone. I wonder if they’ll put the lyrics to this last verse of “Jug of Punch” on his gravestone?

"And when I’m dead and in my grave
No costly tombstone will I have,
Just lay me down in my native peat
With a jug of punch at my head and feet."

No, Rick, they didn't. But no matter. You recall that on the original recording, Tom Clancy barks "The best one!" after the word "tombstone." He meant a jug, of course - but we know that the real marker is the wonderful body of music that they left behind, and the reawakened sense of identity and heritage that many of us have come to feel because of their music, especially on this day of all days. Erin go Bragh!

*One little fun indication of that - Bob Shane himself asked me to do a presentation at next August's Fantasy Camp on the influence of the Clancys and Irish music on the history of the KT. Of course I will...


Mike said...

Glad to read that those early Tradition tracks were recorded in the kitchen. I used to say they sounded like they were recorded in the bathroom. I've a good ear for linoleum and porcelain.

When I went to Ireland as a teen in 1965, one of the first things I asked was if the Clancys were "okay" and I was assured they certainly were. I first sang in public in a pub in James Gate and later affixed the label from a bottle of Guinness from that day on the front of my Gibson SJ. Had a couple of other good "singsongs" that trip, all full of Clancys material.

About 15 years later, I was lead singer for an Irish ballad group for a few years. We were more patterned on the Dubliners, with their mix of ballad and "song" (instrumental), but the tunes of the Clancys were a large part of our 150 song playlist and certainly among those the audience, immigrants included, knew best.

The group had the great good luck to break up when our flute/whistle player, who was also our tenor, moved to LA. "Good luck" because that was about the time the Celtic Music Snots -- each of them close personal friends of O'Carolan -- came along to tell us we were doing it all wrong anyway.

Thanks for some good background and some great memories, Jim. And if the road does rise to meet you tonight, just try not to break your nose and be glad you had the good sense to be walking home, not driving.

greenhawk46 said...

the only consolation to their loss is a group [which has a Clancy nephew], the High Kings-readily available on youtube-heard them live last week, terrific-same sense of fun and pride in Irish heritage CB&TM had-
nice blog post-Happy St Patrick's Day-how appropriate the timing is, eh?
Jim H.

chjajones said...

Saw Liam a few years ago in Chicago on his book tour. He sang 3-4 songs. He said his favorite was The Dutchman. But he didn't seen to know that Michael Smith wrote it and lived in Chicago! I guess it shows how even folkies stay in their own little part of that world. Very lucky now to be in Portland, and see the Fare-Thee-Wells polishing their act for the summer tour!