Thank You For The Music, Liam

The last member of one of the first internationally successful Irish music acts passed away last week. Liam Clancy finally succumbed to interstital lung disease on December 4th in a hospital in Cork city and was buried in Ring, Co Waterford a few days later. No less a figure than Bob Dylan had this to say about him in the 80s: “I never heard a singer as good as him ever. He was just the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life, still is probably”. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were one of many acts that showed up regularly on Irish television and radio throughout the 70s and 80s. I could take or leave most of these acts, but I always liked the music of Liam and the boys. I think it was the way they sang, their choice of songs and the sense of fun that came across in their music and performances. Over the last few days, I’ve been listening to Liam’s songs and reading a few books about him and the brothers

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem took Irish music to the United States, adapted it for their American audience and brought their new version of traditional Irish music back across the Atlantic. So, I felt the best place to start was Nuala O’Connor’s book that accompanied the TV series and album of the same name, Bringing It All Back Home: The Influence of Irish Music. The series, album and book combine to tell the story of how traditional music from Scotland and Ireland was taken to North America where it influenced the development of American folk and country and how it in turn influenced traditional music in Britain and Ireland. She devotes part of a chapter to The Clancys and here’s a summary of what she has to say

In 1947, Liam’s elder brothers, Tom & Pat, were forced to emigrate from Ireland due to the economic depression that would cause mass emigration over the following decade. They went to Canada first before settling in New York in 1950. It wasn’t long before they were staging plays in Greenwich Village, the bohemian and artistic area of the city during those years. They were successful at the start but by 1953 they had to put on midnight folk concerts to pay for the staging on the plays. They were later joined by their youngest brother Liam and also by Tommy Makem. Liam had met Makem through the American folklorist Diane Hamilton Guggenheim and she brought them both to the States. As the music became more successful, they left the theatrical world behind and released their first album on their own label in 1956. It was called Irish Songs of Rebellion and was followed swiftly by an album of drinking songs called Come Fill Your Glass With Us. Who says that concept albums originated in the sixties?

Their repertoire of songs was known and sung by everyone in Ireland at the time, but these songs were only part of the oral tradition in Ireland and had never been written down. The Irish-Americans who came to their gigs did not know many of these songs as they would have been familiar with Irish songs that portrayed a more sentimental and romantic portrait of the old country. Also, The Clancys lived and performed in the artistic world of Greenwich Village and had little to do with the majority of Irish-Americans who lived in other parts of New York and in Boston and Chicago. They also departed from Irish traditional music by adapting the songs for their American audience. Influenced by folk groups such as the Weavers, they began singing in unison and adding guitar and banjo accompaniment to traditional Irish songs for the first time

They got their big break in 1961 when they appeared on the the Ed Sullivan show. A cancellation by the other act booked to appear meant that The Clancys performed for over quarter of an hour. They became famous overnight although they were still unknown in their native Ireland. The Irish broadcaster Ciarán MacMathúna saw them performing soon after and brought them on a tour of Ireland. They were reluctant to embark on the tour at first because they thought they’d be found out as chancers. In fact, they became quite popular and hugely influential. One man who saw them play Dublin in 1962 was Christy Moore. In his collection of lyrics, One Voice: My Life in Song, he says that seeing them perform was like seeing The Beatles:

These Clancy men were vital to the development of modern Ireland and certainly they helped me to cast off the shackles of conservative Catholicism and to break free from the terrible dark sentence that Mother Church had read out for me. The ideals of cold-prick De Valera were melted away by the arse-kicking sounds of the balladeers from Carrick-on-Suir via Greenwich Village. The lads had crossed the Atlantic and along with Makem discovered the wealth of culture that lay untapped until awoken by the American folk revival. I certainly needed these winds of change to rattle me off my pot of safe, middle-class, fucked-up and frustrated bank-clerk-ship of mundanity with its pension at the end of 45 years of blind subservience. The Clancys whispered revolution in my ear and I stood up and sang ‘Fuck youse all the whole fuckin’ lot of youse. I’m outa here and shove yer bank up your holy arse.’ Thanks lads.

Of course, Liam and the boys weren’t just an influence on Irish music and musicians. In Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, Liam has a few words to say about a young American singer who was making a bit of a name for himself in New York city at the beginning of the sixties:

That was about the time the young Bob Dylan showed up in town. Everywhere you went in the Village this young, restless kid seemed to be there: Gerde’s, the White Horse, Izzy Young’s. We got to like him and we started hanging out together at the Village pad parties. John Hammond of Columbia Records was producing an album of Carolyn Hester and he phoned my brother Paddy at Tradition Records to see if he could recommend a good harmonica player. Paddy suggested the new kid on the block, Bob Dylan, who ended up signing a contract with Columbia Records.

One night in the bar in Folk City, Dylan said to me, ‘Hey, Lem! Man, my records are sellin’, man! I’m goin’ ta be as big as the Clancy Brothers, man!’ He laughed his little-kid-caught-in-the-act laugh. We used to have a lot of fun together. Shortly after that he took off into the firmament.

Dylan did indeed become as big as the Clancys. He told his side of the story in the first volume of his Chronicles:

I got to be friends with Liam and began going after-hours in the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, which was mainly an Irish bar frequented mostly by guys from the old country. All through the night they would sing drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof. The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative – a lot of action in the words, all sung with great gusto. The singer always had a merry glint in his eye, had to have it. I loved these songs and could still hear them in my head long after and into the next day. They weren’t protest songs, though, they were rebel ballads … even in a simple, melodic wooing ballad there’s be rebellion waiting around the corner. You couldn’t escape it. There were songs like that in my repertoire, too, where something lovely was upturned, but instead of rebellion showing up it would be death itself, the Grim Reaper. Rebellion spoke to me louder. The rebel was aloud and well, romantic and honorable. The Grim Reaper wasn’t like that.

The Clancys’ influence on Dylan is most obvious in his borrowing of the melody of The Patriot Game for his song With God on Our Side. Of course, Brendan Behan, who wrote The Patriot Game, had himself borrowed the melody from an Appalachian folk song called The Nightingale. Bringing it all back home, indeed. I’ve included The Clancys’ version of The Patriot Game below along with their take on Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In. You can also find a few of their drinking and rebel songs as well as some by Liam on his own. It opens with one of his biggest solo successes, The Dutchman, a song he heard sung in a Chicago pub in 1972 by its author Michael Smith. I remember the song being played a lot on the radio in the 70s and 80s. It’s one of Liam’s best vocal performances and is a fitting epitaph for one of the greatest vocalists this country has produced. Thank you for the music, Liam


The Dutchman – Liam Clancy

Spanish is the Loving Tongue – Liam Clancy

When The Ship Comes In (Bob Dylan cover) The Clancy Bros

The Patriot Game – The Clancy Bros

The Holy Ground – The Clancy Bros

The Jug Of Punch – The Clancy Bros

The Wild Colonial Boy – The Clancy Bros

Carrickfergus – The Clancy Bros

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Liam Clancy

Those Were the Days – Liam Clancy

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