Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 26, 2010


Scott Parker has introduced a "Forgotten Music" monthly feature on his blog.  Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short Jerry decided to start this blog the day after Scott's November posting.  Oh well.

If the name Tommy Makem is familiar, it is probably because The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem was a major folk music act in the Fifties and Sixties.  A little bit of background:  brothers Tom and Paddy Clancy emigrated from Ireland to America in the early Fifties in hopes of acting careers; younger brother Bobby soon crossed the pond to join them.  They became the original Clancy Brothers musical group, playing occasional gigs.  Bobby left and returned to Ireland in 1955.  In December of that year, Tommy Makem (whose mother was a well-known Irish folk singer) emigrated.  A month later, Liam Clancy (whom Tommy had known back in Ireland) came over.

Tommy Makem had landed a job working in a mill, but an accident crushed his hand and he found himself out of work.  He felt he could earn some money by making a record, and he knew that the Clancys were in New York and that Paddy Clancy had started a small recording company.  It was decided that the three Clancys and Makem (whose arm was still in a sling) would join forces on a one-shot album of tradition Irish songs.  Did I say traditional?  Many of the songs they recorded had been sung for centuries in a slow (dare I say it?  mournful) manner.  The Clancys and Makem livened the songs, making them boisterous and joyful while emphasizing their Irish pride.

The album was a local success and the group and its indivual members were often ask to perform the songs at parties.  By 1959, demand had grown enough for them to release a second abum; by this time, Tommy Makem's hand had healed enough to enable him to play the tin whistle.  This second album came to the attention of Ed Sullivan's people, which immediately lead to a lucrative five-year contract with Columbia Records.  By luck, this happened during a major folk music revival in America.

As their popularity grew in America, an Irish producer happened to hear them and began promoting their in Ireland, where their work was virtually unknown.  The four young men were on their way to international stardom. 

Tommy Maken left the group on good terms in 1969 to pursue a solo career.  The Clancys continued for several years in various combinations with other musicians, until the core group went their separate ways --  Tom to Hollywood (where he had a successful acting career), Paddy to the dairy farm he bought a few years earlier, and Liam to continjue his singing career.  Liam later had tax problems and was forced to declare bankruptcy; he rejoined with Tommy Makem to form an occasional musical partnership that took care of all his money problems.

Back to Tommy Makem.  As a performer and as a person, he had an infectious enthusiasm.  He bcame known as the "Bard of Armagh" and the "Godfather of Irish Music".  He was skilled on the banjo, guitar, tin whistle and bagpipes.  (He often explained that the bagpipes originated in Ireland and, when Irish gave them to the Scots, "the Scots didn't get the joke".)  He was a singer, songwriter, poet and storyteller extraordinaire.  He sang about Ireland and Irish pride, about The Troubles and about drinking; he sang about ordinary and extraordinary people, about feelings, and about love.  He did not sing such "Irish" songs as "Danny Boy", "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", "Toorah, Loorah, Loorah", and their ilk; such songs would never, never, NEVER be any part of his set.

The songs he wrote are powerful and deceptively simple:  "Four Green Fields", "Red Is the Rose", "The Winds Are Singing Freedom", "Gentle Annie", and so many more.   His version of Phil Coulter's "The Town I Used to Know" will stay with you forver.  His take on "Waltzing with Bears" is delightful. 

I have been lucky enough to see him a number of times in concert, including one of his final performances before his long, final fight with cancer (he died in 2007).  Tom and Paddy Clancy predeceased Makem; Liam Clancy passed away on Decmber 4th last year.  Three of Tommy Makem's sons, along with two friends, continue the tradition, performing as The Makem and Spain Brothers.

When Tommy Makem first entered this country back in 1955, the immigration officer welcomed him to America, saying, "Have a great life!"  "I took him at his word," Makem would tell his audience.  We are the luckier for that.

Here's just one of his great songs, "Gentle Annie" .  It's preceded by a short introduction.

Tommy Makem - Gentle Annie

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