The historical frame of reference to the sixties of last century often conjures up times of turbulence and upheaval that overshadows the winds of freedom and expression that came out of that time.
And in the realm of folk music -- music created by the people for the people that give us glimpses of the times we live in -- that was especially true whether you were talking about America or Ireland.
Out of that milieu came the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who exploded onto the American landscape in the 1950s poised for greatness in the 1960s who realized their own American Dream in the heady formative folk scene that was Greenwich Village in New York City.
Only Liam Clancy is alive today, “the last man standing” in his own humorous words of the famous quartet that forever changed the landscape of Irish folk music.
As the youngest of those Clancys who lowered the boom on folk music scene, he remains a vital link to those halcyon days when Irish America was feeling its roots.
Two recordings that came out recently for commercial distribution help mark the tremendous impact of those men and their music. One is a compilation CD issued by Columbia Legacy Records (Sony) entitled “In Person at Carnegie Hall.” The other is a DVD titled “Liam Clancy & Friends – Live at the Bitter End.”
At 73, Liam still is a captivating performer and storyteller with decades of marvelous stories to tell enhanced by his poetic and theatrical sensibilities.
One of the staples in his act is the wistful song “Those Were the Days, My Friend” which has a sad connotation that doesn’t square with the current wave of nostalgia brought about by these two recordings.
With a touch of irony, it is great to have Liam Clancy, perhaps the most gifted of the voices in the troupe, alive and kicking and carrying the banner for the other lads as we revisit their work and a part of music history.
First and foremost is the release in March of the Clancy Brothers double CD recorded on a St. Patrick’s Day in 1963 at Carnegie Hall, New York’s most prestigious musical venue.
Originally released as a 38-minute vinyl LP (long-playing records, remember those?), it remained in request in the Columbia/Song catalog for decades, spurring a recent decision to produce a double CD containing the entire two-hour concert to give the full flavor of the evening.
Since Paddy, Tom and Liam Clancy (from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary) along with Tommy Makem (Keadue, Co. Armagh) were all thespians drawn to the more lucrative music and club scene, stagecraft and presentation were a very important element of their act.
This expanded edition on the Sony legacy label is a very important recording as their spontaneity and humor are very much to the fore amidst the 29 song selections gathered here. They are from the Irish, English and American folk canon, and if they didn’t become the definitive versions they inspired legions of other budding folk artists to follow in their footsteps.
Even Bob Dylan, the most commercially successful folk singer of those times, drew inspiration from the Clancys as he frequented the same Greenwich Village haunts and taverns, like the historic White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street where late night drinking and singing bouts were the norm.
This collection is essential for all Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fans who were swept along in the rising tide of Irish folk music on both sides of the Atlantic.
The swelling pride of Irish Americans who elected the first Irish Catholic President in Jack Kennedy in 1960 served as a springboard perhaps for the Clancys and Makem, but they were well able to furrow their own well-tended fields in entertainment along with that luck of the Irish quotient.
Serendipity placed them all in the bubbling New York acoustic music scene of the Village at the right time among so many great American performers like Pete Seeger, Odetta, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan to name a few.
Television also had redefined how we experienced entertainment. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a Sunday night live show introduced America to all the top and upcoming entertainers.
In 1961 a small slot on one of those shows led to 15 minutes of instant fame for the Clancys and Makem when Pearl Bailey cancelled an appearance at the last minute, and they were signed onto the Columbia Record label the next day by the legendary John Hammond, who recognized the talent and potential in their live performances.
The boyos took it from there while also making a fashion statement at the same time with their Aran-knit jumpers that kept the wool industry in Ireland bustling for decades.
No one who grew up Irish on either side of the Atlantic escaped their spell, and even the trad purists had to admit that they were opening doors of opportunity for all Irish musicians around the world.
If one recording could be said to encapsulate the charm of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, it is certainly this new release. The package includes a wonderful 3,000 word essay by Princeton academic Sean Wilentz putting the group and the concert in historical context.
This is valuable for those of us who lived through those times and, perhaps, more importantly for the younger generations who may not understand the massive role the group had in the evolution of Irish music as it is played today.
For instance, Wilentz tells us that the Clancys and Makem visited with President Kennedy just the month before the 1963 Carnegie Hall concert which fueled some of jokes in the live show.
Tragically, Kennedy left us in November of that year but this formidable band did much to keep the spirits of Irish America raised while building air bridges to their native home that jet airplanes traveled with increasing frequency from the 1960s onward to establish direct links with Ireland and abroad.
Even for a veteran warhorse like me who was too young to be hanging out in Carnegie Hall that night in 1963, but who was fortunate to see all four perform at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 1984 to mark their 25th anniversary reunion tour, it helped explain the grasp of Ireland’s Beatles had on Irish Americans.
Donning their white Aran sweaters once again, they had the entire hall of almost 3,000 singing each and every song along with them throughout the night in rousing, humorous or reverent fashion, and with a touching familiarity that came from a devoted following.
Whether you are of an age where you still buy and listen to CDs or are more in the digital mode, this is one recording you want the entire CD package for your library.
The folks at DARA Records can help make that happen, and it makes a perfect Mother’s or Father’s Day gift. Call 212-628-8251 or visit www.dararecords.com. They have a huge catalog of other Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem CDs as well as loads of other essential recordings.
Last June at the Bitter End Café in New York City, Liam Clancy used that opening line as the “last man standing” for an unusual solo concert at the quintessential Bleecker Street folk club that I wrote about for the Irish Voice at the time.
The concert was cobbled together to provide a nostalgic Greenwich Village backdrop for some video footage being assembled by documentary producer Alan Gilsenan for a biography on Liam Clancy. Rather than being one of those tedious stop and shoot and setup again affairs, it turned out to be an extraordinarily entertaining and intimate concert for those 200 or so crammed into the venue.
While it took stamina and some patience to last the three hours-plus, the gaps were easily filled with conversation with table mates or chats at the bar and the music acts were well worth it as they flowed uninterrupted through three sets once the cameras rolled.
So captivating were the performances that they were able to spin off a DVD with the live concert material that includes one of the last public performances from folk-singing legend Odetta, who worked and played with the Clancys and Makem all those years ago and just passed away in January of this year.
Entitled “Liam Clancy & Friends – Live at the Bitter End” on the RTE label, it proves that Liam never really stands alone, but is a magnet for music lovers and performers where ever and when ever he appears at festivals or folk clubs.
It is very much a tour d’horizon with Liam songs old and new and in-between spanning his august career with his brothers, Makem, nephew Robbie O’Connell and son Donal Clancy and his long list of friends in the music business.
Also appearing on the CD are Tom Paxton, Eric Bibb (what a voice!), Gemma Hayes, Daire Bracken, Donal Clancy, Tom Doorley, Mary Rafferty, Fionn Regan, Kevin Evans, Paul Grant, Seth Faber and, in classic Pogues, form Shane MacGowan for some memorable duets.
You’ll have to hunt this one down and be mindful of the format (NTSC or PAL) if you want to view in the U.S., though the review copy I received worked fine in my DVD player as newer equipment and computers bridge the digital divide for all regions.
Try DARA Records or visit www.essentialirish.com since it doesn’t appear on the RTE show website for some reason.