The Clancy Brothers
and Tommy Makem

TrackAlbum
The Croppy BoyThe Rising Of The Moon
The Parting GlassCome Fill Your Glass With Us
Bold Thady QuillCome Fill Your Glass With Us
The Whistling GypsyA Spontaneous Performance Recording!
Brennan On The MoorThe Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem
Roddy McCorleyThe Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem
Eileen AroonThe Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem
Johnny McEldooHearty And Hellish
The Butcher BoyRecorded Live In Ireland
Will You Go Lassie GoReunion: Recorded Live In New York
When The Ship Comes InThe 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration
The Final TrawlOlder But No Wiser

 

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The Clancy Brothers photo

The Clancy Brothers (l to r): Tom Clancy, Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, Paddy Clancy

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

With the editor’s approval, this is a Topper 12 …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Clancy Brothers in the history of modern Irish folk music. Along with the Dubliners, they were the first Irish group to demonstrate that such music could appeal to a wide international audience. Between them, the two groups also pioneered a new style of ‘ballad singing’ which set the template for a vast army of later – and usually inferior – imitators. In doing so, they also inspired many other people – whose styles were to be very different from their own like Christy Moore of Planxty, for example, who described them as his “greatest influence” and Mick Moloney, the guitarist and musical historian – to become interested in Irish traditional music. The innovations which these two great groups introduced into Irish music were so rapidly taken up by other musicians that neither really got the credit they deserved for their pioneering work. It is only retrospectively – with the deaths of almost all of the founding members of both groups – that they have begun to receive the credit which was always their due.

For people like me who grew up in Ireland in the late 1960s/early 1970s the music of the Clancy Brothers was very much a regular backdrop to our lives. For example, the very first record that I can remember hearing is one of my selections here. My memory is that it was playing on a Dansette, although I would not testify to this in a court of law. I have also included both my late father’s and mother’s favourite Clancy Brothers song.

The principal difference between the Clancys and the Dubliners lay in the fact that the former’s main base in the years of their greatest commercial success was in the United States. In many respects, the fact that they were an ‘emigrant’ group largely determined their eventual career trajectory and musical approach. Because of this fact, they were compelled to ‘sell’ their music to audiences which often knew very little about Irish music. This led them to adopt what Liam Clancy has described as a “don’t give a fiddler’s … belt-em-out” style. Occasionally, this raw and earthy approach sacrificed some of the subtlety which had hitherto been a feature of Irish traditional music. What it lacked in subtlety, however, was more than made up for by the vigour and energy which the group brought to their music.

That said, to concentrate too much on the Clancys’ limitations would be to downplay their considerable strengths. The chief of these was that in Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, they had two of the greatest ballad singers that Ireland has ever produced. Indeed, no less an authority than Bob Dylan has described Liam as “the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life”.

Dylan has also drawn attention to the skilful way in which the group would mix “drinking songs … and rousing rebel songs” with the much gentler romantic ballads “that would just slay you right in your tracks”.

So how did a group of brothers from Tipperary in the south of Ireland (along with Tommy Makem who was born in Armagh in the north of the country) become one of the biggest acts of the American Folk Revival of the 1960s? Both the Clancy brothers and Makem came from highly musical families. In both instances, it was their mothers (Joan or ‘Mammy’ Clancy in the former case and Sarah Makem in the latter) who were the main carriers of the ‘folk tradition’ in their respective families. While Joan had a vast stock of traditional children’s songs in her repertoire, Sarah was widely regarded as the finest folk singer in her locality (her most famous later recording, In The Month Of January, can be heard here. Both families also had a deep interest in Irish history and folklore. In Liam Clancy’s case, this was combined, with an early enthusiasm for literature and in particular for the recitation of poetry. This interest continued right through his performing career and almost always formed part of his live shows.

Poverty and unemployment were endemic in the Ireland in which the Clancys and Tommy Makem grew up. In consequence, emigration was accepted as a fact of life. The first of the Clancy family to ‘take the boat’ (as it were) were the oldest brothers, Paddy and Tom, who both enlisted in the RAF during the Second World War. While Paddy served in India, Tom was stationed in Germany. After being demobilised, both eventually made their way to Canada and from there to the United States. Following stints working at various jobs, the two brothers eventually gravitated towards acting and moved to Greenwich Village in New York in order to further their careers. Over time, they began to find some success in that profession, appearing in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. To supplement their incomes, they also started to dabble in singing, holding occasional concerts at the Cherry Lane Theatre where they also appeared in plays.

The Cherry Lane Theatre

Cherry Lane Theatre, West Village, NYC

In 1956, their younger brother Liam, who was also keen to pursue a stage career, joined them in New York (a clip showing the brothers Clancy acting along with Tommy Makem can be seen here. Before moving to the US, Clancy had already met Makem while on a song collecting trip to the north of Ireland. They resumed their acquaintance when Tommy also moved to New York at around the same time. Finding it difficult to make a living in the theatre, the Clancys and Makem decided to join forces and recorded their first album, The Rising Of The Moon: Irish Songs Of Rebellion, for the Tradition Label (which Tom had helped to found) in 1956. A collection of ‘rebel’ songs, it set the precedent for the raucous and rambunctious approach which the group was to pursue in the early part of its career. Generally speaking, the arrangements on the album were also largely rudimentary, with Paddy’s harmonica playing forming the main backdrop to the songs. (Three years later in 1959, the group re-recorded the entire album with added instrumentation and more unison singing. This version of the album is the one which has been reissued on CD and is far more generally available than the original one.)

My first selection, The Croppy Boy comes from this version of the album. It is one of the first recordings to show Liam’s prowess as a ballad singer. The song itself is a historical one, set at the time of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. It tells the story of a young man (the ‘croppy’ boy of the title – the name ‘croppy’ came from the fact that the rebels had their hair cut short on the model of the revolutionaries in France) who is about to be executed for his part in the insurrection. The song’s poignancy is further reinforced by its beautiful melody.

Between 1956 and 1959, the members of the group continued to follow both their own individual acting careers and to give occasional concerts, both publicly and privately. They also honed their musical skills, with Liam developing his own distinctively rhythmic style of guitar playing and Tommy Makem adding banjo and tin whistle accompaniment to their songs. The evolution in their style in the period was also partly shaped by the influence of the Kingston Trio. Liam later claimed that the Trio’s chart success with the folk song Tom Dooley led him to consider adopting a similar approach to Irish ballads. This involved shortening what traditionally had been much longer songs and singing them in a more vigorous and earthy way. In a sense, this also involved a shift away from the ‘purist’ style of approaching folk music favoured by many American revivalists.

As the Clancy Brothers’ performances became more professional, they began to attract more and more of an audience. This led them to consider pursuing a full-time musical career. Having decided to try their luck in this way, the group recorded their second album, the far more self-assured Come Fill Your Glass With Me: Irish Songs Of Drinking & Blackguarding in 1959. The record included Liam’s classic version of the great Irish ballad, The Parting Glass, on which Bob Dylan later based his own song, Restless Farewell. For me at least, The Parting Glass remains a far better song and Liam’s version of it is the definitive one.

Indeed, the song became so indelibly associated with Liam that it was sung around his graveside by the mourners at his funeral. It also showed the delicacy that marked Liam’s ballad singing, which stood in marked contrast to the ‘rowdiness’ which characterised the group’s renditions of ‘drinking’ and ‘rebel’ songs.

My mother’s favourite Clancy Brothers song is also on Come Fill Your Glass With Me; Bold Thady Quill (or Bould Thady Quill, as we know it in Ireland), a classic drinking song from County Cork.

It was at this point that the group also settled on the name ‘The Clancy Bothers and Tommy Makem’. It came about through a gradual process of elimination, with several other suggestions, including the Moonshiners, the Druids and even the Chieftains, all being rejected. The relative commercial success of their second album also led to their being booked to perform at such leading ‘folk revival’ venues as The Gate of Horn in Chicago and The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village itself. They also became leading lights among the ‘folkie’ set in the Village, developing friendships with fellow musicians like Pete Seeger and Paul Clayton (who Liam had accompanied – along with the Guggenheim heiress, Diane Hamilton – on a song collecting trip to Virginia and Carolina in 1959).

During the winter of 1960, the Clancys’ mother sent over traditional Irish Aran jumpers (or ‘sweaters’ to use the American word) to her sons and Tommy to help them combat the particularly cold weather that year. The jumpers are known as ‘Aran’ ones in Ireland as they were traditionally worn by the fishermen on the Aran Islands off the west coast of the country. They are also known as ‘báinín’ jumpers there, from ‘ban’, the Irish word for white. When the Clancys’ manager at the time first saw them, he immediately decided that they provided the distinctive look for the band which he had been seeking for some time. Although in the short term, their new look did attract attention to the band, in the long term it also contributed to the criticism that they were adopting ‘stage Irish’ personas in order to achieve commercial success. Soon afterwards, in March 1961, the group’s career received another major boost when a talent scout, who had seen them play at the White Horse, invited them to appear on a Saint Patrick’s Day special on the Ed Sullivan TV show.

The show was then one of the most popular on American television and their performance on that occasion led, in Liam’s words, to a door opening where “nobody knew a door existed”. Among the songs they sang that night was the rousing ballad, Brennan On The Moor. The song related the story of the highwayman, Willie Brennan, who was executed in Cork in the early nineteenth century. As Bob Dylan later observed, although the song was a historical one, the Clancys sang the song as if Brennan had existed “just yesterday”.

I have included a later studio version of the song from their album, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem released later in the same year. Dylan later reworked the song into his own Rambling, Gambling Willie which he recorded for the 1962 Freewheelin’ album, but was removed from it just before release. Again, I have to admit that I much prefer the original song to the Dylan one.

The freshness and exuberance which were a key part of the Clancys’ appeal at this time were also well-captured in their 1961 album, A Spontaneous Performance Recording!. Reflecting their increasing stature in folk revival circles, the record also included guest appearances from both Pete Seeger on banjo and Bruce Langhorne on guitar. A superb musician, Langhorne is probably best known today for his work on a number of Bob Dylan’s early albums. My selection from it is The Whistling Gypsy, the very first record I ever remember hearing, and the one I referred to at the start.

The latter song is a variant – and perhaps slightly watered down – version of the classic ballad The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, which Planxty recorded on their brilliant first self-titled album. To confuse the issue further, Martin Carthy also recorded another variant version of the song, Seven Yellow Gypsies, on his 1969 album, Prince Heathen. While not maybe quite as good as either of those renditions, the Clancy Brothers’ version has a charm all of its own and also – for me at least – brings with it a whole chain of other associations and memories. It also displays Tommy Makem’s easy mastery as a ballad singer.

The group’s increased productivity album-wise in 1961 reflected their desire to capitalise on the momentum which their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show had given to their careers. Their final record released in that year, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, reflected this new self-assurance and was the best of their career up to that point. Like Brennan On The Moor, my next pick, Roddy McCorley, was a historical song. It celebrated the life of a man from County Antrim who, allegedly (the facts of the case are somewhat in dispute), was executed for his part in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. Again, the Clancys’ version is remarkably compelling and yet again shows their superb ability as storytellers. Perhaps only Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners and Christy Moore of Planxty had the same ability to draw an audience into the narrative they were unfolding.

My final selection from The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem is their version of the great Irish ballad, Eileen Aroon. It’s derived from the earlier Irish language song, Eileanóir na Rún, best known nowadays, maybe, through the classic recording by the great sean-nós singer, Joe Heaney. The Clancys’ version is not, however, the original one but, in fact, comes from a poem by Gerard Griffin, the nineteenth century Irish novelist. While Griffin’s poem is based on the original song, it altered the words considerably and adapted them to ‘Romantic’ conventions of the time. The Clancy Brothers’ rendition is a beautifully subtle one, sung with a gentleness and restraint which is very different from much of their other work. Bob Dylan – who became very friendly with Liam at around this time (he discusses their friendship here) and was strongly influenced by the group’s style – later performed Eileen Aroon in concert on a number of occasions, most notably in Dublin in 1989.

The Clancy Brothers album I probably know best is Hearty And Hellish. Although my father was primarily a classical music buff (and I grew up surrounded by the works of composers ranging from Bach to Elliott Carter), he did occasionally listen to some jazz (especially people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Ella Fitzgerald). He also liked a very select group of folk musicians; along with the Dubliners and Séamus Ennis, the Clancy Brothers also managed to cross the threshold for that club. We had several of their records in the house when I was growing up but Hellish was the one we played most regularly. My dad’s favourite from the album, Johnny McEldoo, is a witty drinking song, and a classic. While the Clancys make it seem very easy to sing, its unusual time signature means that it is in fact anything but. In later years, Liam was to claim in a tongue and cheek way that ‘McEldoo’ was the song where the Irish invented rap.

The version of the classic ballad The Butcher Boy which I have chosen comes from the Recorded Live In Ireland album, performed during the group’s triumphant return home tour in 1965. Sarah Makem, Tommy’s mother, had previously recorded the song in 1956. Although the first recorded version of the ballad comes from 1928, its origins go back much further than that. Its lyric includes snippets from much older ballads like Fair Margaret And Sweet William which apparently date back to the seventeenth century. It is, perhaps, Tommy Makem’s finest hour and shows a subtlety and delicacy on his part, which gives it a real pathos.

After that, a series of personnel changes – with Tommy Makem being the first to leave in 1969 and Liam following him out of the group in 1976 – and the creative exhaustion brought about by constant touring, meant that the quality of the group’s work began to fall away in relation to the high standard set by their earlier work. From the early 1970s onwards, a new generation of Irish folk bands also began to emerge whose approach towards the music went in different and innovative directions. As a result, the Clancy Brothers began to seem rather old-fashioned and it became increasingly difficult for them to differentiate themselves from the myriad, generally inferior, ‘ballad groups’ who had sprung up in the wake of their success. Indeed, this sense that the group’s music was becoming ‘stale’ helped to inspire both Tommy and Liam’s decision to strike out on new careers. Eventually, in 1976, they joined forces to form the commercially successful duo, Makem and Clancy, which lasted on and off until 1988.

In 1984, however, the creative tensions which had led to those splits in the Clancy Brothers had dissipated sufficiently for the original line-up (that is, Liam, Paddy and Tom Clancy and Tommy Makem) to reunite for a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York. They also embarked on a short tour of England, Ireland and the United States which lasted until the following year. Without the pressures of constant life on the road together, these proved celebratory affairs. They seemed to roll back the years and displayed the same levels of exuberance, vitality and sheer joy in making music which had characterised them in their best days. A regular highlight of those shows was the Clancys’ brilliant rendition of the great ballad, Will You Go Lassie Go (aka Wild Mountain Thyme). Although the song is closely associated with the McPeakes, the singing family from Belfast, they did not in fact write it as they at one time claimed. It is – it appears – largely based on a considerably older Scottish song, The Braes Of Balquhither.

Whatever the merits of those arguments about who actually composed, there is no doubt that it is a very beautiful song. Although it has been recorded by a very large number of artists (including ones of the stature of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan), the Clancys’ rendition remains my favourite. It also clearly shows what fine singers they were at their best.

A short documentary about the Reunion tour and the band’s earlier career can also be seen here. Once the tour was over, Liam and Tommy Makem went back to concentrating on their work as a duo. The other Clancy brothers also continued to tour, albeit irregularly and with a shifting line-up which generally included Paddy, Tom, their younger brother, Bobby (who had also briefly joined the group after Tommy Makem left) and their nephew, Robbie O’Connell. Because of Paddy’s other commitments (notably his farm in Ireland) their performances were mainly restricted to a limited numbers of concerts each year in the United States.

After Tom Clancy’s death in November 1990, however, Liam rejoined the group and they began to take on a more extensive workload. In 1992, this line-up of the group was invited to perform at The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan. Its contribution to the event was, in Michael Gray’s words, “a gloriously unrockist and moving” rendition of When The Ship Comes In.

In my opinion, this was – along with Lou Reed’s great version of Foot Of Pride – one of the main highlights of that night. Reflecting the group’s long links with Dylan, it was also, perhaps, unsurprising that the party afterwards took place in Tommy Makem’s pub, the Irish Pavilion.

My last selection, The Final Trawl, is from the Clancy Brothers’ final album, Older But No Wiser, first released in 1995. The song itself is by the great Scottish songwriter, Archie Fisher, and has a beautifully elegiac feel to it which fits perfectly with the overall feel of the record. More broadly speaking, the album itself served as a fitting end to the recording career of this great group, whose contribution to Irish folk music was such a towering one.

 

 

 

Liam Clancy (1935–2009)

Tommy Makem (1932–2007)

Paddy Clancy (1922–1998)

Tom Clancy (1924–1990)

Bobby Clancy (1927–2002)

 

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem official website

The Clancy Brothers (& associated) discographies

Liam Clancy official website

Tommy Makem: The Bard of Armagh

The Late Late Show tribute to the Clancy Brothers (RTE 1984)

Bob Dylan: Thoughts on the Clancy Brothers (YouTube)

Liam Clancy discography

Tommy Makem solo discography

Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy discography

Bobby Clancy discography

Liam Clancy sings Shane MacGowan’s The Broad Majestic Shannon

Sarah Makem (1900–1983)

The Lark In The Morning (1956) – Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem with friends & family – first album of traditional Irish music recorded in Ireland

The Clancy Brothers biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Martin Carthy, Paul Clayton, Dubliners, Bob Dylan, Séamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Planxty

TopperPost #796

5 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jun 16, 2019

    Sorry – I’m going to be disagreeable, Andrew. I did enjoy reading your piece though. I’m highly ambivalent on The Clancy Brothers. I spent many hours with “In Person At Carnegie Hall” which I bought back then, and which I believe is their best-selling album. I wore it out. I even loved O’Driscoll (The Host of The Air), though The Patriot Game and The Parting Glass were easily my favourites. . I eventually acquired half a dozen LPs. My wife always loathed their versions, and insisted on The Dubliners instead right after I played a Clancy Brothers track. Then the Birmingham and Manchester bombings made me think differently about Johnson’s Motor Car and “Three cheers for the bold IRA. You mention that they were USA-based. So easy to shout that out in Carnegie Hall, New York when you’re rich, and resident in the USA. The greatest contributor to urban terrorism was St Patrick’s Day whip-rounds in the USA. The Dubliners were way more authentic sounding. I used to like the Clancys a lot, now I really don’t. On The Parting Glass, for me after years of persuasion, The Dubliners wipe the floor with the Clancy Brothers version. Once I’d heard Dominic Behan on The Patriot Game, I couldn’t take The Clancy Brothers anymore. As you point out, they started to come across as old-fashioned. Now I think of them as Irish music-lite BUT I agree they introduced me to many great songs for the first time. Then I heard other versions!

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jun 16, 2019

    The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem was/were the only Irish traditional outfit I’d heard of in the mid sixties though I have to add that the word “of” is significant in that I’d not really heard them. But they did come up in conversation usually with “rebel songs” in the same sentence. I enjoyed your essay Andrew, and hope many others read it too. The Clancy’s & Tommy were the great popularisers for Irish music but they also made many fine records themselves (and rebel songs were but a part of a wide-ranging repertoire).

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 16, 2019

    Peter & Dave, thanks for these comments.
    Peter- Having lived in Ireland (albeit the South) during the “Troubles’ I am very ambivalent about ‘rebel’ songs myself. Indeed, only two of the twelve songs here could be seen as ‘rebel’ ones and both of those are on historical subjects (surely permissible unless we want to censor out any mention of the British role in Ireland before 1921). Incidentally both were also recorded by The Dubliners.
    I don’t approve of the Clancys occasional playing to the Nationalist gallery in the US but would point out that most of this took place before the Troubles started. As a result, it was in a very different historical context. I would also point out – as mentioned above – that both Paddy and Tommy Clancy served in the British army in the Second World War.
    In relation to ‘The Parting Glass’ – and I am very much a fan of The Dubliners – it seems to me that Liam brings a pathos and a delicacy which their version simply doesn’t match. For me at least – and for many other people – his version will always remain the definitive one.
    And I find it hard to believe that anyone would think Dominic Behan sings any song better than Liam. He was a fine songwriter but was never anything better than a passable singer.

  4. Peter Viney
    Jun 17, 2019

    I understand that the rebel songs were from the early 20th century. I agree also that Liam is technically a much finer singer than Ronnie Drew or Dominic Behan, but I guess it’s the rawness that appealed with both, especially meeting the Dominic Behan version in the theatrical context of Martin McDonagh’s play “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” I think there may be something in their spotless white sweater image that irritates. But you have persuaded me to dig out the LPs again.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Jun 17, 2019

    Peter, I agree there is something wearing at times about the Aran jumpers and their occasional over-indulgence in ‘shamrockery’. But, at their best, The Clancy Brothers were a very fine group indeed and Liam and Tommy outstanding ballad singers.

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