Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem: Essential Collection

To hear the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem tell it, not only did they create the folk movement of the late 50s and early 60s, they did it by accident. 

The brothers came from County Tipperary, Ireland. Older brothers Tommy and Paddy left the family homestead in the early 50s.  They headed for America, where they hoped to parlay some of their experience on the Irish and English stage into careers as actors in America. 

They appeared in shows in Cleveland and off-Broadway in New York.  Tommy worked with Orson Welles in  “King Lear” and Helen Hayes in Eugene O’Neil’s “A Touch Of The Poet.” In the mid 50s the two brothers rented out the Cherry Lane Theater. 

To help support it, Paddy put his musical prowess to work as a song editor and arranger for Folkways and Elektra records. He started his own Tradition label, launching the recording careers of Greenwich Village cronies like Oscar Brand and Odetta.

A couple of years after that, little brother Liam came to the same shores in the company of Guggenheim heiress Diane Hamilton.  Clancy and Hamilton went song-catching (c.f. Appalachian Breakdown, Fuel 2000 061155), but they had problems defining their relationship.  She supported the aspiring actor and expected a romance that Liam didn’t feel. 

Liam joined his brothers in New York.  There they hooked up with another aspiring expatriate Irish actor, Tommy Makem.  Makem’s mother was noted Irish singer and folklorist Sarah Makem. 

Initially the quartet started singing for fun, gathering at the White Horse Tavern with such fellows as Theo Bikel and Josh White. They soon became an attraction, both in fundraisers for the Cherry Lane (and later for the ailing Woody Guthrie), and at venues like Folk City. Makem explains,  “We had a vast reservoir of songs none of the folk people knew in the US.”

They became acquainted with people like Bob Dylan.  Paddy claimed to have gotten Dylan his first paying job, playing harmonica for Carolyn Hester – the event memorialized in the liner notes of Dylan’s first album “Man gave me a job playing harmonica.  Gave me $1 a day. Said he like the way I played.” To which Paddy once countered, “The way he plays the harmonica, he wasn’t worth it.  He’s a great poet and songwriter, not a great harmonica player.”

Nonetheless, they were invited and performed at the Madison Square Garden Dylan tribute because of these roots.  “I was sharing a mike with George Harrison and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones,” Liam Clancy recalled of the grand finale.

The singing became so successful, they put their acting careers on hold for a few months before returning to what Makem refers to as “our proper work in the theater,” adding “the six months turned into 30 years.”

“We were singing the old fold songs in a lusty, simple way,” added Liam Clancy, “and it looked so easy and caught on in such a big way that groups of young fellows all over the world decided to do the same thing – thousands of groups.”

The group’s real watershed came in 1961.  With John Kennedy in office, there was a sudden fascination with all things Irish.  The group, having gained a following around New York, was booked onto the Ed Sullivan Show to sing a short Irish ditty.  When one of the headline acts fell ill at the last moment, their allotment went from three minutes to a full 18. 

They became a sensation.  John Hammond signed them to Columbia. The Aran sweaters they wore became fashionable.  As one Clancy described it, the group’s appearance on Sullivan “was like a blessing from the Pope.”

Their fame spread back to Ireland, bringing the “old songs” back with them. This laid the groundwork for groups like the Chieftains, among many others.  

The Brothers and Makem toured and recorded ceaselessly through the 60s. They recorded over 50 albums and put out songbooks as well.

When the decade ended, Makem left the group for a solo career and a pub on East 57th St. Tommy went back to the stage, acting in 150 plays and countless films and TV shows.  Paddy went back to the farm. Liam continued to perform.  At various times and in various combinations, Liam played with his youngest brother Bobby, his own son and cousin Robbie O’Connell, as well as in a duet with Makem. He and Makem also had a variety show on Canadian TV. 

Through the years, they would reunite every now and again to record and perform.  Tommy died in 1990, followed by Paddy eight years later almost to the day. 

At Paddy’s funeral, Liam Clancy said, “We never ended a concert without ‘The Parting Glass.’” That song, featured on this recording, sent Paddy off to heaven, with everyone in the church singing it.

Like that tune, the rest of the music here is classic Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  From the folk standard “Foggy Foggy Dew” to the drinking ditty “The Jug of Punch” to the Gaelic “Eamonn Au Chnuic” to the title track of their 1959 debut “The Rising of the Moon,” these songs of “drinking and blackguarding” remain timeless.  As do the performances.  “Our style is still the same,” Liam noted a quarter century after they started, “simple and straight and boisterous.”

Clinton, Audrey; “Makem and Clancy Go Their Separate Ways,” Newsday Pg. 21, 3/4/88.

Campbell, Mary; “Music Makers: Clancy Brothers ‘Gain Antique Value,’ Associated Press, 11/29/92

Anderson, John; “The Clancys Stand and Deliver,” Newsday, Pg. 77 11/12/92

Pareles, Jon; “Tom Clancy, a Singer and Actor; Founder of Irish Folk Band Was 67.” New York Times B24, 11/8/90 ibid

O’Connor, John J.; “Clancys Profiled on Channel 13,” New York Times Pg. C26, 3/5/87

Brennan, Brian; “Pub Singer Paddy Clancy helped spark folk revival”; Calgary Herald NS, 11/21/98

Shulgold, Marc; “The Clancys: Hello Again and Goodbye,” LA Times, Pg6/14, 11/15/85