Friday, April 16, 2010

All The Great Songs Are Sad Songs

Over the Easter weekend I watched The Yellow Bittern, a film about the life and times of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem through the eyes and words of Liam Clancy and it moved me, disturbed me, upset me like nothing has since the death of George Best.

With George Best I knew, I felt, exactly why I reacted so emotionally to the news of his passing away. I never met the man (saw him on the pitch a few times though) but at the time I moved from Ireland to London he was, perhaps, the sole, role model for Ulster folk in London. A figurehead, if you will, someone to look up to who also came from Northern Ireland, a small country continuously battered with a bad negative press in the late 1960s.  George Best was an undisputed true artist, a genius who majestically carried on his frail, but agile shoulders, the hopes and dreams of each and every exiled Ulsterman and woman.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were different though.

The eldest two of a Carrick-on Suir family - Paddy (born 7th March 1922) and Tom (born 29th October 1924) – immigrated to the USA in the 1950s. They were followed a few years later by younger brother Liam (born 2nd September 1935) and, from Armagh, Tommy Makem (born 4th November 1932). The four aspired to become actors but accepted whatever manual work was available to finance their meagre lifestyle while, at the same time sending whatever they could back home to help keep the home fires burning. They were part of the infamous New York/Boston Irish scene.

Initially all four future members of this group concentrated on what was undoubtedly their first love: acting, choosing only occasionally to sing for their supper, or their drink, at New York’s famous Irish infested White Horse or folkie haven, Kenny’s Castaways. Although they released two albums in the 1950s – Rising of The Moon (1956) and Come Fill Your Glass (1959) – the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem didn’t really burst onto the scene until 1961. By then, after considering names as diverse as The Blacksmiths and the Druids – and, even at one point very nearly opting for, The Chieftains – they had finally, under the deadline of a fast approaching Boston concert appearance, settled on the professional name of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  By this time they had a tried and tested concert song list and had adopted the look/image of the Betty Duggan-knit Aran sweaters.

Their theatrical training hadn't all gone to waste because their invaluable experience on the boards, in no small way, helped to mould their dramatic stage performance and they set up the pace of their shows by quite literally running on to the stage at a gallop. And boy did they make an almighty racket, albeit an immensely pleasing one, with their four distinctive voices, Liam’s guitar and Tommy’s banjo all played and delivered with such gusto and enthusiasm.  Initially this would have been an attempt (with very unsophisticated PA equipment) for them to hear what they were playing and singing and, equally, to be heard by their quickly growing audience. At the same time though they could drop to a ‘hearing-a-pin-drop’ near-silence for a dramatic, perfectly positioned ballad, or three, which could, and did, destroy many an audience in a heartbeat.

On the 12th March 1961 they won a coveted spot on the famous and influential Ed Sullivan Show. Their fourteen minute infectious performance, natural charm and wit not only won over the massive TV audience – like they’d been doing in concerts for several months in fact – but it also resulted, first thing the following morning, in them being awarded a recording contract by Columbia Records, complete with a record breaking advance of $100,000 (around $750,000 today).

The timing of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem was perfect. They arrived on the blossoming folk music scene with the Spinners; Peter, Paul & Mary; Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the fledging Robert Zimmerman. You’d have to say that the advantage The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem enjoyed was, thanks to Sarah Makem (Tommy’s mother and renowned song collector) and the wealth of the Irish traditional song-writing cannon, they had an in-built individuality in their repertoire.

For the next eight years The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem toured the world setting box office records everywhere they played, particularly America (where they performed for JFK in 1963), Australia, the UK and Ireland where they returned to a hero’s welcome in 1962. By 1964 one third of all the albums sold in Ireland bore the proud name of The Clancy Brother and Tommy Makem.

The group were authentic, honest and incredibly popular with the general public. They loved what they did and this was blatantly transparent in every note they sang. Their sound was based more on a tribal combination of their powerful voices than on cleverly arranged harmonies. Thanks to some of the children’s street songs the boisterous group were happy to include, audiences instinctively already knew some of their programme. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem also sang songs of exile; patriots; regret; lost love; lack of love. They shone the bright light of song-writing into Ireland’s many darkened alleyways. When a song wouldn’t do the trick Liam would step up to the mike and deliver a WB Yeats poem with such power and passion there’d be a run on all the great man’s work in the local bookstores the following morning. Their songs were easy to remember because they (mostly) followed a clear developing story line and no more so than with Tommy Makem’s show-stopping The Cobbler

Their concerts were carefully constructed with a thread running throughout; a dramatic trick they’d clearly learned from their acting days. They had an overall picture they were building to reveal and when the said picture eventually emerged you could see and enjoy exactly how the concert had worked as an overall piece. Their classic 1963 live album, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem - In Person At the Carnegie Hall, catches the group at their peak.  

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem never took themselves too seriously. They all had to agree on a project before they’d commit to it as a group, meaning they all wholeheartedly supported everything they did together professionally. They wore their heartaches and heartbreaks on the sleeves of their snowy Aran sweaters. They showed one of the great endearing qualities of the nation of their birth; to care about those less well off than themselves. They were a band with a social conscious; a social consciousness that cost them dearly in concert tickets sales and album sales on several occasions. No matter how hip or unhip the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were, they always, but always, enjoyed the genuine love of their audience.

They were relentlessly and powerfully driven by the possibility of making their dreams come true.  

And then as the 1960s came to an end they ran off stage for the final time. Yes there were to be years of replacement musicians and reunions, including a high profile gaining effort in 1985, but it has to be said that the band had run the end of its natural course by the close of the decade.

And then just over forty years later I happened upon the Liam Clancy film.

Why did it have such a powerful effect on me?

Was I upset because in the course of the film Liam took a few verbal pops at his brothers?

No, I figured he was still having a hard time forgiving them for passing on (Tom in May 1990 and Paddy on 11th November 1998) and leaving him, even at 74 years of age still always the baby brother, alone without his mentoring siblings.

Was it because my father is also a Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fan?

No, not really that either, although that fact did make me stop and listen to them more closely in the beginning.

But my hurt might have come from, you know, with the passing of Tommy Makem in August 2007 and Liam himself on 4th December last year, a line had finally been drawn under their fabulous career.  I suppose the thing that hit me hardest of all was the fact that all families like to, and should, take pride in their sons’ and daughters’ successes and I figured that particularly in today’s selfish climate, what with all these weekly revelations and disclosures, I couldn’t help but feel that as a nation maybe we should have taken some time to stop and acknowledge the genuine success and real talent of our most exciting group.

Maybe on the other hand though, it’s just like they say: all the great songs are sad songs and when I saw and heard the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing once again The Parting Glass, that the well aimed arrow hit its mark and proved it was still as lethal as ever.

And now the bit before I go.

This time

I’ve seen

The Waterboys:  a totally inspiring and soulful performance of An Appointment with Mr Yeats at the Abbey Theater, Dublin.

Jean Michel Jarre with his absolutely perfect combination of music and visuals at Bercy, Paris

Lisa Edkahl just keeps getting better and better all the time and this time, at the QEH, London, was just the best!

In Treatment (the HBO Series) with a career-best performance from Gabriel Byrne

And heard 

Love Is Strange the incredible new (live) double CD from Jackson Browne and David Lindley.

And read 

the enlightening The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

Until the next time,