Tommy Makem's legend will live on

Published Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 6:22 PM

Every Irish American who has ever listened to a note of Irish music probably has their defining moment when they realized what a hold the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had on them, conscious or otherwise. Mine came decades after they first blazed a trail on the scene destroying all notions of what Irish folk music was and would be. Like the Beatles, they impacted a generation of us Irish boomers who moved from radio to TV in the 1960s and made us proud to be Irish when these four lads splashed across the screen on The Ed Sullivan Show and launched a highly successful career on their 15 minutes of fame on the popular show that was the American Idol of its day, giving rise to so many wonderful performers.

But it took a reunion concert in 1984 at Lincoln Center by the Clancys and Makem to make me realize how much they touched us, informed us and entertained us as 3,000 devoted audience members sang virtually the entire program with Liam, Paddy, Tom and Tommy that night after a performing hiatus of 15 years as troupe.

Such was their legacy and one memory that sprang to mind when I heard of the passing of Tommy Makem last Wednesday, August 1 in New Hampshire.

The modern day "Bard of Armagh" Tommy Makem was 74 years old when he lost his battle with lung cancer in his adopted home of Dover, the mill town where he first arrived 52 years ago to see what America had to offer.

He wouldn't be long for the mill work that his relatives had undertaken upon emigration, suffering a hand injury that curtailed that career path and led him to New York to see if there was any theater work that could be found that would suit his talents. He would meet up with Liam Clancy whom he first met in his native Keady, in South Armagh when Clancy accompanied folklorist Diane Hamilton there who was interested in the folk songs and collections of Makem's mother, Sarah who had established her own reputation as a "song-catcher."

Their friendship led to meeting with Liam's older brothers Tom and Paddy in the then burgeoning Greenwich Village folk and literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s, and their theatrical pursuits quickly turned to folk music when they realized that there was more money in it at that time.

However, their thespian skills came in handy as they interpreted a wide body of Irish folk songs and delivered them in an animated fashion adorned in the hallmark Aran sweaters that made them the talk of the nation, especially after they successfully exploited some extra airtime made available when another booked act failed to show on that nationally televised Sunday night staple, The Ed Sullivan Show.

A similarly successful Carnegie Hall engagement furthered their recording and performing careers as they had a historic run that lasted over a decade until Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career and raise a family with his wife Mary.

Makem continued to work on his own, though he did reunite with Liam Clancy to form a duo for a number of years until 1988 when they went their separate ways once again.

Over the years, he gave ample evidence that he was a talented artist in his own right as he continued to be a popular presence on the festival and folk music scene with his ready mix of humor, poetry, banjo and tin whistle that rounded out his rich textured baritone.

He gained recognition as a talented composer of songs also with "The Rambles of Spring," "Farewell to Carlingford" and "Gentle Annie" among the most popular and re-recorded by ardent followers of his music.

His most famous composition would be the deeply symbolic "Four Green Fields," which again spoke of Ireland as the old mother whose land was divided, which served as a signature song for him and many others who suffered through the civil rights abuses and violence that afflicted Northern Ireland towards the end of the 20th century. It was and is a classic song that depicts the history of that corner of the island, and one will always remember the vibrato in his own voice that added poignancy to the poetic lyrics and imagery.

Makem's work with the Clancys and on his own was highly prolific, and in recent years he took great pride and encouragement of his own sons, Shane, Conor and Rory who literally followed his performance footsteps as full-time entertainers, very much in the old fashioned folk idiom, though with more contemporary flourishes when they perform with the Spain brothers who add more instruments to the fray.

In the later stages of his career, Makem grew more reflective and thoughtful. He was involved in producing a few video documentaries of his native Ireland that sought to give more contexts to his musical and literary roots which have appeared on the Public Broadcasting System.

While his recordings and writings will assure him a lasting legacy on their own merits, there was another side of him that has sown very valuable seeds as well.

Makem was not only a consummate performer in concert, folk club and festivals, but he befriended so many performers and organizers along that route who found inspiration and camaraderie in this fellow traveler.

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