The album pictured here is one of the treasures of my youth and to this day one of my favorite of all collections of traditional songs, the first recording to be released under the group name of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Recorded largely on a reel-to-reel recorder in the kitchen of eldest brother Paddy Clancy's Greenwich Village apartment (good acoustics, but not great), the recording possesses the raw energy and arrestingly different sound that many other groups' first albums also demonstrate. Hard as it may be to imagine today as the airwaves and music vendors are awash in Celtic-flavored groups and soloists - this 1959 release on the Clancy-owned Tradition Records was the first that many Americans had ever heard of something akin to real Irish folk music. And the song that they chose to lead off this landmark recording - the song that subsequently and consequently became their opening number in concerts for decades to come - was "Brennan on the Moor."
Like many another highwayman and robber who came to be immortalized in a folk song, Willie Brennan was a very real person who was hanged for his crimes in 1804 in Clonmel, County Tipperary. In those days, following close upon the heels of the Great Rising of 1798, many extra-legal activities were punishable by death, worth mentioning perhaps because young Willie apparently never "sullied himself with blood," according to some of his contemporary admirers - however bold Brennan may be in the song, he is not a sociopathic and murderous thief of the stripe of Jesse James and other American bad guy killers. The mere act of theft, however, was itself a capital crime until well into the 19th century in Europe in general an England in particular. There are indications that there were hangings of children as young as eight for stealing loaves of bread in the 1730s, and the dark underpinning of the narrative of Dickens' Oliver Twist (and hence the musical Oliver!) is that a noose awaits those delightful pickpocketing boys should they be caught - the fate that finally befalls their handler Fagin. So Willie Brennan's apparently non-violent career of Robin-Hood-like plundering of the wealthy for the support of his dear old ma and her friends was destined to end in a painful strangulation in any event, murderer or not and rebel or not.
The song was likely penned as a broadside ballad very soon after Willie's gallows dance. But broadsides were printed on cheap newsprint and sold for a penny; few originals survive. The first printed versions of Willie Brennan's tune that we have today appeared in both Ireland and England in 1859 - long after the song had entered the folk tradition because, as we shall see, it was popular with immigrant Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. In Ireland, there are a couple of major variants and all of the versions feature eight or nine verses (with a subplot encounter with a peddler) as opposed to the five or six verse version we usually hear in the U.S.
The Clancy version has become the template for nearly every other group's adaptations and performances of the song. There is a bit of irony there because, as Liam Clancy noted in his memoir The Mountain of the Women and elsewhere, the "Brennan" song that they had first heard as youngsters was a moderately slow, mournful fiddle tune. The brothers and Makem felt that the lyric demanded more energy, and that is what they gave it. The beauty of that very first recording, however (unavailable as yet on YouTube) is that they started the song very quietly and built to a rousing climax; most live performances were largely climax with little build-up (and you may blame the banjo for that, which was not part of the original instrumentation that consisted only of Liam whacking away on a 00028 Martin guitar with nylon strings).
Our first version here is as close in time as we can get to that 1959 recording,* a live performance of the CB&TM from a 1962 Chicago PBS video:
The fully-realized performance by the group, complete with a last verse from one of the variant versions, is here from the group's 1984 reunion concert from Belfast:
Now for something a little different. I have learned of and come to admire the work of the 97th Regimental String Band while doing these articles. It's a group that specializes in authentic replications of Civil War-era tunes - I have included their version of "Goober Peas" in my piece on the song. Here is how "Brennan" might have sounded in a camp somewhere in Virginia in 1862:
Quite a resemblance here in the modified tune to a number of other Civil War melodies, notably "The Bonnie Blue Flag."
Most of the contemporary award-wining Celtic bands sound little like the Clancys, moving the acoustic folk sound more toward what we called folk-rock in the 60s. The Killigans, for example, identify themselves as "folk-punk," and the Dropkick Murphys and Pogues also go generally for the loud and electric. The band of the moment in this field is the Sligo Rags, a southern California group that has been making waves nationally. This is definitely a fresh interpretation of "Brennan":
Sort of a blues/reggae take on it - not sure exactly what I think of this. Interesting at the very least.
Declan Nerney is a contemporary Irish folk/country performer who dramatizes the Clancy version with humor and a very Hibernian squeezebox in the accompaniment:
Lastly - Bob Dylan has been open about his admiration for the Clancys (Liam especially) since he first arrived in New York in 1961. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, of course, young Mr. Zimmerman appropriated perhaps half a dozen of the Clancys tunes for his own songs, including this "Brennan" rewrite that he titled "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie" and that the Clancys called "Ride Willie Ride" - the circle completes itself as the inspirers sing the composition of the inspiree:
This is from one of the last albums by the group from the 90s. Tom Clancy has died, replaced by Bobbie Clancy on banjo; Tommy Makem has gone solo to be replaced by cousin Robbie O'Connell.
For a final thought, I turn to my brother Rick, whose Rightwing Nuthouse blog is a delightfully literate and provocative site whose politics rile me even as I'm smiling. No disagreement between us four years ago, though, when Rick published a marvelous essay called "Death, Be Not Proud" following the passing of Tommy Makem. He wrote in part:
For me, their music inspired a far more personal journey than the great issues being illuminated by the Pete Seegers or Peter, Paul, and Mary’s of the folk music scene. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s music opened the door to discovering my family’s Irish heritage and helped us all take enormous pride in who we were and where we came from....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.
...and of "Brennan on the Moor," the song that started that journey for all of us.
Addendum, March 2017
Due to arrangements that YouTube has made with thousands of content providers over the last few years, hundreds of thousands of original recordings are now available on the site - so here it is, the opening track from the 1959 album pictured above, the first version of "Brennan that I ever heard - and for my money never surpassed.