17 December 2009

Liam Clancy : Putting the Irish in Folk


Above, Liam Clancey. Below, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem:
Irish music and the American folk scene

By Carl R. Hultberg / The Rag Blog / December 17, 2009

In the beginning it was William Clancy, Liam being still too Celtic and “Irish” for Ireland in the early 1950s.

His older brothers, big burly lads, had already gone to America and eventually to New York City to find jobs as Irishmen in various stage productions. William longed to go as well but the chance didn’t come until he met New York City based ethno-musicologist Dianne Hamilton Guggenheim, a protégé of Alan Lomax.

In his autobiography, Liam Clancy tries to deal with his relationship with Ms. Hamilton, an older woman. Whatever personal struggles he might have had with his patroness, the fact remained that she got him to New York City and even tried to set him up as a folksinger. Although Clancy landed a few acting jobs as a stock Irishman, he didn’t really see the future until he met Josh White.

Josh White in the early 1950s was a towering figure in the miniscule folk music scene. Unique among his black blues contemporaries, Josh had found a way to present field hand music in a posh night club setting, more akin to Billie Holiday than to, say, Leadbelly. As Liam marveled in his autobiography, The Mountain of the Women, Josh White was the consummate professional. He would pick up his guitar, throw it into tune and be on stage in minutes with the audience eating out of his hand. Liam wondered how he could ever achieve that level of taste, talent and sophistication.

Singing with his big bruiser brothers he knew the act still lacked something. What would it take to transform them from your average Irish singing family to say, something like Josh White? His mind turned to someone who had also been “discovered” by Dianne Hamilton on her Irish trip. Young Tommy Makem, the son of Ireland’s well known folksinger Sarah Makem.

Sure enough, Tommy had already come to America, was living in New Hampshire, and was ready to sing with the Clancy's. The model for the modern Irish folksinging unit was now set. With Tommy Makem in the lead singing role, the "Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem" were now an entertainment reality. Although Tommy forever chaffed against being most of the group’s talent, but restricted to a set of virtual parentheses, Tommy Makem's and Liam Clancy’s fates were now sealed.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem did indeed remake the entire image of an Irish folksinging group. Although they did do Irish sentimental favorites, they were no “cry in your beer sad memories of the past” comiseraters. They also did some Irish Republican anthems from the days of the struggles, but were not overly consumed by that passion. What they presented was a broad spectrum of Irish songs, new and old, with something for all types and ages. Not unlike Josh White.

When they did have a politically oriented hit, it was, interestingly, with the bitter "Patriot Game," which equivocated in its support for armed struggle while still championing the cause. A very sophisticated song which Bob Dylan, who hung around the Clancy's all he could in his salad days, transformed into "With God On Our Side."

Liam Clancey at the 2005 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Photo by Stacina / Flickr.

That was the wonderful thing about this ancient Irish music. Like the tunes, the themes have been around forever. Irish music made the big time on the Ed Sullivan Show and other top American venues thanks to the Clancy's and Tommy Makem. But mostly they hung around the White Horse Tavern, a well known watering hole on the West Side of New York’s Greenwich Village. In this setting they would bend their elbows with anyone.

Their solid proletarian comradeship was not necessarily political, it was just Irish and it was infectious. Much of the good energy (and a lot of the good tunes) that later enchanted the USA Folk scene in the 1960s came out of the family atmosphere created by the Clancys and Tommy Makem. If this was folk music, these guys from Ireland were surely the folk. Lift your glass to friendship, mates, the music from the distant blessed archaic past is once again being played by young men of charm and influence. All is not lost.

So Liam Clancy wasn’t necessarily the big talent in the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Although, unlike his brothers who just sang in the ensemble, he did sing lead on some songs, his soft voice could never carry the group the way Tommy Makem could. Tommy also wrote songs and played the tin whistle. But it was Liam Clancy who set the whole thing up, who’d had the vision and got to see his creation become a big success.

Many decades and albums later it was easy to look back on how Irish music came back to life in the 1950s. Once considered, like black music in the days of the minstrels, a kind of ethnic joke, no one would ever think to disparage this rich heritage again. You can thank the Clancy's and Tommy Makem for that, especially Liam. One of the reasons young people were able to be so successful as a force for cultural transformation in the 1960s was that they had the historical precedents rightly in place. Black blues, jazz, ragtime, and also Irish music, were finally being understood for what they really were, not just stupid stereotypes.

If we had to pick one song to represent the Clancy Brothers and with Tommy Makem, it would probably be impossible. But one that comes to mind is actually a tune off an album Liam Clancy made with Tommy Makem after the Clancy's had disbanded. Recorded in 1976, the song by Alan Bell, celebrates the history of wind power in Europe. It seems particularly appropriate to present this song as a sample, especially after having spent some time bemoaning the lack of spiritual energy in the USA regarding alternative energy. Here is that supposedly missing sacred prayer:

In days gone by, when the world was much younger
Men harnessed the wind to work for mankind
Seamen built tall ships to sail on the ocean
While landsmen built wheels the corn for to grind

And around and around and around went the big sail
Turning the shaft and the great wooden wheel
Creaking and groaning, the millstones kept turning
Grinding to flour the good corn from the field

In Flanders and Spain and the lowlands of Holland
And the kingdoms of England and Scotland and Wales
Windmills sprang up all along the wild coastline
Ships of the land with their high canvas sails

In Lancashire, lads work hard at the good earth
Ploughing and sowing as the seasons declare
Waiting to reap all the rich, golden harvest
While the miller is idle, his mill to repair

Windmills of wood all blackened by weather
Windmills of stone, glaring white in the sun
Windmills like giants all ready for tilting
Windmills that died in the gales and the sun
Liam Clancy passed away Friday, December 4. Thanks for bringing us The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, a group that changed the course of modern folk music. And thanks also for staying such a simple honest man. That’s actually not an easy act to pull off.

[Carl R. Hultberg's grandfather, Rudi Blesh, was a noted jazz critic and music historian, and Carl was raised in that tradition. After spending many years as a music archivist and social activist in New York's Greenwich Village, he now lives in an old abandoned foundry in Danbury, New Hampshire, where he runs the Ragtime Society.]

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