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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, August 10, 2007


Isis fanzine has introduced a handy new feature on their website (the link from here is in the bits with buttons in the Links section somewhere down the left-hand column), called the Dylan Digest, intended to keep Dylan news updates coming in. It was only from reading this t'other day that I learnt of Tommy Makem's recent death. He died on Wednesday August 1, in Dover, New Hampshire, from complications arising from lung cancer. He was 74.

In The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia he crept under the far from infallible radar screen of the indexer, even though one of the book's entries, reproduced below, is...

Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem

An influential and popular US-based Irish folk group from the end of the 1950s onwards: the musically respectable flipside of the Dubliners - despite, as Dylan noted when comparing them to Northern Ireland’s McPeake Family, having ‘that touch of commerciality to them: you didn’t mind it, but it was still there’, and despite looking, in photos, like ads for knitting patterns. They’re to be seen proving the point in archive footage unearthed in the film No Direction Home (2005).

Paddy Clancy was born in Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland in 1922; brother Tom was born there in 1923; Liam was born in 1936. The older two left Ireland for Canada in 1947, crossed illegally into the US in 1948, working first in Cleveland, Ohio and then moving via Chicago to New York City. Tommy Makem, born in Keady, Northern Ireland in 1932, first joined them in 1956 in Chicago, shortly before the move to New York, where Paddy helped Folkways and Elektra to record Irish music and set up his own label, Tradition, which issued LPs by the McPeakes, Josh White, ODETTA and, from 1959 onwards, by, er, the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.

They had wanted to be actors, not singers, and Tom Clancy had some success at this - even playing on Broadway in Orson Welles’ King Lear - but the others struggled in small venues until they switched to singing, which was immediately more popular with audiences. Their first two LPs, The Rising of the Moon and Come Fill Your Glass With Us were followed by a 1961 appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show that emblazoned their name at once on the American public mind. In the late 1960s, Paddy Clancy returned to Ireland to take up dairy farming, and Tommy Makem went solo in 1969.

In Chronicles Volume One (2004) Dylan recalls, while dismissing the concept ‘protest songs’ and endorsing the very different category of ‘rebellion songs’, that the Clancy Brothers ‘and their buddy Tommy Makem’ were crucial purveyors of ‘rebellion songs’. He says that these ‘really moved me’ and that ‘they sang them all the time’, and that in the White Horse Bar on Hudson Street in the Village, where he befriended Liam, its clientele, ‘mostly…guys from the old country…would sing drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs…’ In No Direction Home Dylan calls the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem ‘musketeers’.

But Dylan was enthusing about them long before this. He told interviewers David Hammond and Derek Bailey much the same things at Slane, Ireland, in 1984: ‘The times I remember the Clancy Brothers most was not mostly in the clubs where we played [the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate and Gerde’s Folk City] but in those bars…the White Horse bar…you could always go there, any time, and they’d be singing…Irish folk songs. Actually I learnt quite a few there myself…. Liam always sang those ballads which always would get to me - I’d never heard those kind of songs before, close up, you know. I’d heard them on record but I hadn’t heard them close up. All the legendary people they used to sing about - Brennan on the Moor, or Roddy McCorley - I wasn’t aware of them, when they existed - but it was as if they’d just existed yesterday.’ In the televised part of this interview he also said: They just reached a lot of people, you know, with their exuberance and their attitude. They’re all great singers. They’re all so different, too, aren’t they?’ He adds: ‘I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life. Still is, probably.’

Liam Clancy is also to be seen in No Direction Home, sat at that White Horse Tavern bar doing his Stage Irishman act (once an actor…) and saying highly interesting things: particularly about Dylan being one of that recognisable category of person the Irish have a term for - a ‘shape-changer’; but he too was recorded talking about Bob Dylan two decades earlier, and talking too about what Dylan had told him he remembered about him from the White Horse days. He told PATRICK HUMPHRIES in October 1984:

‘. . .I was coming through La Guardia Airport about six months ago, and I had the bodhran on my back, and the guitars, and the next thing I felt this body behind me, and I got this great hairy kiss on the cheek. Now when that happens in New York you’re going to turn round and belt whoever it is. So I turn around and it’s Bob Dylan. We stood talking for a little while and suddenly the whole thing flooded back to me - what it was all like at that time. He says: “I love you guys. And I love [ROBERT] SHELTON for bringing me to your first concert in [New York] Town Hall. You know what I remember about that concert, Liam? You sang a commercial about Donnelly’s sausages!”’

In 2002 Liam Clancy published his autobiography, The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, and in it he describes the importance of the White Horse bar not only to the Clancys but to the life of Greenwich Village in general: ‘For us,’ he writes at one point, ‘the White Horse Tavern was the poetic, singing center of the Village.’ But it was also where Dylan Thomas had committed suicide by whiskey in 1953, so it was on the tourist trail, and regulars sometimes perforce valued the back room more than the bar itself:

‘Crowds of students would come on weekends to worship at the shrine. We, the locals, resented the invasion. This was our sanctuary: the back room was our singing place, the place where sea shanties, rebel songs, and raw love songs were exposed. This was where THEO BIKEL could cry over the beauty of his Old Testament recitals, where RICHARD FARINA could hold forth with snatches of his novel in progress’ and ‘where Jimmy [i.e. James] Baldwin could flaunt his homosexual intellectualism and snort scornfully at our ballsy shanties…’ (Fariña was, according to Clancy, ‘a regular’ at the White Horse and a ‘close friend’, whom he calls ‘the poet/singer/revolutionary’.)

In 1992, at the so-called Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in New York City, the Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell with special guest Tommy Makem performed a gloriously unrockist, moving ‘When the Ship Comes In’ (with Paddy Clancy on harmonica and vocals, Liam on guitar and vocals, young whippersnapper Bobby Clancy on percussion and vocals, Tommy Makem on banjo and vocals, Robbie O’Connell on guitar and vocals, and G.E. SMITH on bass).

Paddy came out of retirement for this concert - for the second time; they had re-formed in 1984 for a one-off concert and a new album, Reunion. For the party after the Dylan ‘Celebration’ concert, everyone repaired to Tommy Makem’s club, the Irish Pavilion. Liam wasn’t happy with the sales figures of the 2-CD set of the concert. As HOWARD SOUNES recounted it, sales were good ‘in the first few months and then…fell sharply. Artists who were on the CD received a percentage of royalties and were surprised to see how modest these were. “Some of the statements I got didn’t read very well,” [said] Liam Clancy. “You know, Denmark: two copies.”’

In Patrick Humphries’ 1984 interview with the Clancys, Paddy suddenly offers this odd little story about Dylan and his absorption of material back in the early days: ‘You want to know where Dylan got his stuff? There was a little folk club here in London, down in the basement; we sang in it one night.... Anyway, AL GROSSMAN paid somebody and gave them a tape-recorder, and every folk-singer that went up there was taped, and Bob Dylan got all those tapes...’ And Liam agrees with this, adding: ‘Yes, and the tune of “Farewell” [a song Dylan copyrighted in 1963 and is included in his official songbooks]...whoever was singing harmony was closer to the mike than the guy singing melody, and when [Dylan] wrote his version, he wrote it to the harmony not the melody line.

The Clancys were carriers, not composers, of their material, so they have no cause to complain that Dylan took things from them (and generally they don’t), but the songs he probably took specifically from hearing the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem performing live are: the traditional ‘Brennan on the Moor’, which becomes his ‘Rambling Gambling Willie’ (copyrighted 1962, and an outtake from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963), the traditional ‘The Parting Glass’, which mutates into ‘Restless Farewell’ on The Times They Are A-Changin’, and the Appalachian song ‘The Nightingale’, whose tune Dominic Behan used for his song ‘The Patriot Game’, which the Clancys sang and from which Dylan in turn created ‘With God On Our Side’.

Liam Clancy certainly recognised Dylan’s artistic legitimacy: indeed he specifies the moment at which this really struck him, again in the interview with Patrick Humphries. He is recalling seeing Dylan at the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL and reacting to the solo acoustic performance of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ that came after ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’:

‘I was actually filming at the Newport Festival that year. I was up a 12-foot platform filming with a telephoto lens, so I could zoom in close. And Dylan came out, and it was obvious that he was stoned, bobbing around the stage. Very Chaplinesque, actually. He broke into that “Tambourine Man” and I found myself standing there with tears streaming down my face, because - I saw the butterfly emerging from the caterpillar. I also saw, for the first time, the immense value of what the man was about. When he sang “my ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming”, I knew it was Sullivan Street on a Sunday. So it was not only a street, it was our street. I suddenly realised that this kid, who had bugged us so often, had emerged into a very major artist.’

Tom died in Cork (Ireland) on November 7, 1990; Paddy died of cancer at home back in Carrick-on-Suir on November 10, 1998; Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem survive.

Sadly, this last statement now needs amending.


Anonymous Lord Alfred said...

Speaking of the Dubliners, here is a story about the great Luke Kelly from the early 1960s:

Some time before Jack Kennedy's assassination he showed me one night in O'Donoghue's some songs written by a person called Bob Dylan.
“His real name is Zimmer-man,” said Luke, “and you have to read this stuff.”
It was in an American magazine called ‘Sing Out,' then unavailable here. The songs were of social issues, of course, and American, but there was one called ‘Blowin' in the Wind' Which Luke said would be popular, though he was characteristically skeptical
enough to wonder if Dylan had in fact written it at all.

7:14 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...


Thought this excellent version of 'The Parting Glass" by the Irish singer, Freddie White, might interest you:

7:33 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

Have been listening a lot recently to the Clancy's excellent original version of the 'Parting Glass' and to Martin Carthy's briliant ;Lord Franklin'.

What struck me was how much better these are than the original songs which Dylan based on them. It seems to me that they serve as an important reminder that we should not retrospectively overrate early Dylan - particularly at a time when he was still in the process of assimilating his influences.

Still think 'Girl from the North Country' is a masterpiece, though, and in some respects, an improvement on the original.

What I think is also interesting is that both 'Bob Dylan's dream' and 'Restless Farewell' are hampered by a type of egotism, which Dylan eliminated from his later work.

12:21 am  

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