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Liam Clancy's Last Interview

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Liam Clancy's Last Interview
Writer's Note: This story ran in Sing Out! The Folk Music Magazine, and was Liam Clancy's final interview. We had to do it over several weeks, because he was in and out of hospitals. He wanted very much to finish it, though, knowing he was telling his story to people who loved folk music in all its forms; and that it was his last chance to tell us all how he saw the enormous role he and his brothers played in reviving Irish music, and showing all modern folk musicians how to keep this music alive in the modern musical arena. He was a lovely man, a brilliant singer, and as fine a storyteller as I've ever had the privilege to interview. Scott Alarik
       
        "When I first heard Tommy Makem and the Clancys my future it was sealed
        I was bitten by the music bug and the wound it never healed
."
        "I've Just Heard Willie Nelson," words and music by Christy Moore
       
        "I never heard a singer as good as Liam [Clancy]."
        Bob Dylan
       
        The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem ran on stage, like they did every night, whooping and laughing to the cheers of the crowd. But this was not every night for one 16 year-old Irish boy in the house. It changed his life, and part of the thrill he felt was the unspoken sense that it would.
        The three Tipperary brothers, Paddy, Tom, and Liam, and Makem, from Armagh, gathered around one large microphone. Liam raised his small guitar, Tommy strummed the banjo, and their four voices blew like an ocean gale.
        It's of a brave young highwayman, this story we will tell.
        His name was Willie Brennan and in Ireland he did dwell.
        'Twas on the Kilworth mountains he commenced his wild career.
        And many a wealthy nobleman before him shook with fear
.
       
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        "When I first saw them," Mick Moloney remembers now, "there was this elemental pride in who we were, and who we might be, that shot through me. It reflected a whole cultural shift of doubt in Irish culture. I don't know any people who gave us our confidence more in the 1960s than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem."
       
        Moloney is now a renowned Irish scholar and folklorist, regarded as the preeminent authority on Irish music in America, a crack banjo player and singer, and founder of the influential ensemble Green Fields of America. Remembering that thrill he felt, so long ago, he says flatly, "I know I would not be singing traditional songs today, if it were not for the Clancy Brothers."
       
        The Clancys' global success in the early '60s brought millions of new fans to an Irish folk tradition that was genuinely in danger of extinction.
        "We presented Irish folk songs in this different way," says Liam Clancy, the last surviving member of the group, "this hybrid we created in America, with that American can-do, upbeat, optimistic joy. So the songs came back to Ireland in a different package that was very exciting. America was held in such high esteem, the place where dreams come true. If these songs became hits there, well, they must be good songs. It's crazy when you think about it, isn't it?"
        Columbia Records has, for the first time, released the complete, unedited recording of the Clancys' historic 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, showing them at the peak of their powers and popularity. It reveals their electrifying charisma, their bold, hilarious and, at the time, radical irreverence for the proprieties of performance. The first words they say to the wildly cheering crowd are "Shut up!"
       
        But even more, the recording displays their passion for authentically presenting traditional music and culture, a crucial part of their legacy that has become obscured in the shadow their huge commercial success.
       
        Brian O'Donovan, host of WGBH's popular Celtic Sojourn radio show, hopes the concert CD dispels some of the myths that have grown around the Clancys.
        "A lot of people today think the Clancys existed purely as a commercial band, making their money singing light pub music," he says. "When you listen to what they were really singing, the authenticity of their repertoire is really striking. It was their imitators who went into the bars and got very commercial."
        To understand the revolutionary impact of the Clancys, it's important to see how much trouble Irish music was in after World War II, when the new republic, free of English rule after centuries of colonial repression, sought to take its place among the modern cultures of the world.
       
        "When you're colonized," Moloney says, "there's kind of an internalizing of a lack of self-worth. This isn't just Ireland - I've traveled a lot in Asia and seen it among indigenous cultures there, too. The language is abandoned; the culture is considered inferior, and the culture of the dominant, conquering one is affirmed in every away. Ireland was a classic case of that lack of self-worth."
       
        "So when the Clancys came along," he says, "it wasn't just that they were singing Irish songs. It was that brash confidence. We didn't have that in Ireland then, not even a smidgen of it. We were still cowering under the lash, so to speak, of colonialism and religion both."
       
        Liam is now in his seventies, and health problems have slowed his pace; but his legend remains busy at its work. Along with the Carnegie Hall release, a feature-length documentary will be released soon called "The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy."
       
        As Liam reflects on those years, it sometimes seems like a secret part of him remains the startled boy he was, staring wide-eyed at the sudden world, wondering when all this commotion will settle down, so he can get on with his Great Life Plan. After all, the brothers and Makem came to America to be actors, not singers.
       
        "At first, we just couldn't take the singing seriously," he says. "We always thought it was temporary, and then we'd go back to our acting. Singing was just too much fun. You know, if you're involved in theater, it's all about discipline: learning the lines, blocking out movement, cues. Anything that wasn't that wasn't work."
       
        And they had their success as actors. Tom Clancy was a fixture on Broadway in the 1950s, and always had a good career as a character actor. Liam appeared on Broadway and TV with Julie Harris and Robert Redford.
       
        But even then, the music would not let him go. Asked what kept drawing him back, he says, "There's a truth about it; it comes from a different part of the soul, a need to express what's happening in somebody's life. You take a song like 'Rocks of Bawn,' it could only be made by someone who knows what it feels like to have no safety net, only the muscle in his back: 'My heart is always trembling, for fear that I'll give in...And I know I'll never be able to plow the rocks of Bawn.' I grew up among neighbors like that, so those kinds of songs seemed to me like part of the earth."
       
        In his delightfully ambling memoir,  "The Mountain Of the Women," named for a mountain by his home, he lingers over his time collecting traditional songs as a teenager, taken under her wing by the folklorist Diane Guggenheim.
       
        Liam collected in Scotland, the Aran Islands, Northern Ireland (where he first met Tommy Makem) and, after coming to America in 1956, in Appalachia.
        Everywhere he went, he saw bridges between cultures, the mystical bonds of tradition. He heard illiterate Appalachian farmers tell stories he'd known all his life, told by old men around crackling fires in Tipperary. He learned that the term "hillbilly" came from the same William of Orange, King Billy, for whom Liam's  home address, William Street, was named. Again and again, he would hear the same lonesome lyric sung by an Aran fisherman that he heard from a woman in Armagh, or a hillbilly in the Carolinas. It profoundly affected the way the Clancys approached their repertoire.
       
        "What struck me was the universality," Liam says. "No matter what the accent, or change in tune, the story of the song, the emotion in it, had some universal truth. And that was always the measure for us. Always."
       
        There may be more unlikely stories from that odd crossroads where folk music meets show biz, but it's hard to find one more full of accidental heroes than the rise of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. There was the Irish actor Cyril Cusak, who casually suggested that the young actor Willie Clancy use the Irish version of William, and become Liam Clancy. There was Guggenheim, who time and again funded projects that pulled the Brothers away from their chosen paths, back towards the music.
       
        There was Pickle Bill, who inadvertently formed the duo Makem and Clancy which, in its own way, became as crucial to the struggling folk movement of the '70s and '80s as the Clancys were to the '60s revival.
       
        Even the group's name was an accident. Gate of Horn owner Alan Ribback was among the first to hire the Clancys and Makem. He grew tired of waiting to hear how they wanted to bill themselves, while they bickered over names like the Moonshiners and Jolly Tinkers. Still arguing, the boys arrived in Chicago to see "The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem" on the marquee. And that was that.
       
        Then there was the Clancys' mother, who sent her boys white Aran sweaters, just to warm them on those cold New York nights, at the precise moment they were looking for a stage get-up that didn't make them feel as foolish as suits and ties did. And that was that.
       
        There was also the ill-tempered piece of machinery that smashed Makem's hand at the mill where he was working. While he healed, he went to visit his friend Liam in New York, just as the ensemble was taking shape. Without that mill accident, Makem would likely never have been in the group.
       
        But of all the Clancy saga's accidental heroes, none was more crucial, or unlikely, than African-American pop diva Pearl Bailey - or to be more precise, the flu bug that made her ill hours before she was to headline the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. You might call it "The Germ That Saved Irish Music."
       
        By then, the Clancys had released several albums on the small Tradition Records label, funded by Guggenheim and run by Paddy Clancy. Each was more successful than the last, but they were still focused on acting careers. Sullivan, host of the most popular variety show on American television, booked them for one song. When Bailey got sick, they were asked to fill 16 minutes, an unprecedented slot for a new act.
       
        "That made all the difference," Liam says. Immediately after the Sullivan appearance, they found themselves mobbed on streetcorners, forced to sign autograph after autograph. "Will you look at this? " Tom whispered to a dazed Liam. "We're bloody famous."
       
        After that, they got serious about applying their formidable acting discipline to singing, developing a canny, trademark blend of spontaneity and showmanship, disarming informality and dazzling theatrics, reverence and irreverence, that influenced the stage personalities of folk performers for years to come. The goal was to adapt what was authentic and genuine about musical tradition to the demands of the concert stage.
       
        First, they knew they had to match the power and energy of pop music.
       
        "The songs, as we had found them, could be very laid back," Liam says. "In the home, the heartbeat was much slower; the rhythm of your life was much slower. Here we were, going from a rural society into an urban, fast-paced business. You had to give that energy to the song."
       
        But always, they applied the yardstick of tradition. They borrowed much of their ensemble approach from popular American folk groups like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, but decided to retain the unison style favored in Irish social singing.
       
        "It was an extension of how things were done at home," Liam says. "You know, if somebody heard a harmony in their head - seconds, as they used to call it - they'd break into it for a bit. But it was all very haphazard, no conscious arrangement. And four manly voices in unison has great power."
       
        Similarly, they offered energetic shouts between verses, "That's right, boy" and "Whoo-yah!" It offered exuberance, surprise, and above all, energy. But those kinds of shouts also existed in tradition, in the way singers at pubs, or around a fireside, would urge each other on.
       
        Liam had a particular problem: he was introducing the guitar into Irish music. He'd picked up guitar as a teenager, but mainly to sing American folk songs. By the 1950s, it was the dominant American folk instrument, but still a stranger to Irish music. He had no model to follow, no Irish influences to imitate. Fortunately, he says with a laugh, the lads' vocals never left him enough room to get into serious trouble.
       
        "The rhythm was all-important. So instead of trying to be a good guitarist, a tricky or pretty guitarist - well, there was no way you could hear that. I had to turn the guitar into a percussion instrument, beat the hell out of it. You'd follow the melody, maybe look for a harmony, and if somebody ended up singing that, look for a lower part. It was all just making it up as you went along."
       
        The songs also had to be adapted to the norms of the music industry.
       
        "We had to work within the parameters of recording technology," he says. "You know, 'Brennan On the Moor' was probably a 15, 20 minute ballad. But you can only fit three minutes onto a single, and every song on an LP had to be a potential single. So we had to cut, cut, cut."
       
        On the Carnegie Hall recording, that reconciliation between show-biz demands and tradition is wonderfully displayed on a boisterous, twelve-minute medley of Irish children's songs. It's an exuberant tour de force, as they show how much crucial cultural information is encoded in the silly, singsongy lyrics: historic memories, markers for the passing seasons, social mores, all reminding the children that they belong to each other, and to all those who came before them, simply because they all know the same little songs, dance the same little dances, and chant the same little chants as they skip rope. It is at once grandly theatrical and reverently folkloric.
       
        In 1963, that devotion to authenticity spared them - and all of us - from a horrible, horrible idea. Television producer Sheldon Leonard hired the Clancys for an episode of the Danny Thomas sitcom "Make Room For Daddy." They were cast as Irish country bumpkins who come to America and strike it rich as singers. It was to spin off into a series called "Oh, the Clancys."
       
        "It was done so corny that they actually asked up to put on Irish accents," Liam recalls. "They said, 'We need you to sound the way Americans think that sounds.' Stage-Irish is what they wanted, that Paddy-whackery stuff."
       
        They turned the series down. Leonard didn't give up on the idea, though. He turned the dumb Micks into dumb hicks, who strike it rich on oil instead of music - and the Beverly Hillbillies was born.
       
        The Clancys' success continued to rise through the 1960s, and around them an Irish folk revival blossomed. Of course, they were not operating in a vacuum. Other attempts to rescue Irish music had begun in the 1950s. Cultural organizations like the Gaelic League and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann launched music competitions, to entice children into learning more of their traditional culture.
       
        In Dublin, a composer-folklorist named Sean O Riada was doing for Irish music what Ralph Vaughan Williams had done in England, setting folk melodies to classical settings in order to establish its bona fides as great music. The traditional ensemble O Riada assembled eventually morphed into the Chieftains.
        Throughout the Clancys' best years, Liam and Tommy always stood a bit apart. For one thing, they were the only real musicians of the bunch. Makem has written songs so timeless, like "Four Green Fields," that many believe they are traditional.
       
        And Liam always had a different, more personal, way of singing. While the others belted, he seemed to whisper, as if sharing secrets. Along with his scruffy good looks, and a certain bohemian cache from palling around with the likes of Bob Dylan, who hailed him as a primary vocal influence, Liam seemed hipper than the rest.  
       
        Rising young Irish star Cara Dillon got her start in the folk-pop band Equation. Her latest CD, "Hill of Thieves," is mostly traditional, including the Clancy standard "The Parting Glass," which Bob Dylan used as the template for his '60s classic, "Restless Farewell."
       
        "I think Liam is responsible for a lot of people like myself doing what we're doing today," Cara Dillon says. "He made the music seem very cool. It's the art of storytelling, which is really his forte; and he makes it seem so easy, like he's sitting in your front porch. I've taken a lot of that on board with me."
       
        Liam's solo recordings from the '60s, which are available on reissued CDs, stand up remarkably well today. His singing feels modern, both in its conversational naturalism and its canny use of melodic space to create both musicality and intimacy. Listen to how most young singers approach traditional material today, and there's much more of a through-line to Liam's style than to the Brothers' ensemble sound.
       
        As the Clancys spawned legions of imitators, their innovations became cliches, and the songs they popularized became chestnuts, butchered by thousands of lousy imitators in the backrooms of pubs. A backlash was inevitable.
       
        "In a way, they Clancys became victims of their own success," says Robbie O'Connell, a Clancy nephew and brilliant guitarist-songwriter. "In the mid-60s, there were so many groups going around wearing Aran sweaters, playing guitars and banjos. Their imitators kind of watered down the whole thing they started; and I'd hear people be very dismissive about the Clancys, saying they were too commercial, too old-fashioned."
       
        As the group's fame began to eclipse its adventurousness, Liam and Tommy both champed at the bit.
       
        "This eventually happens with so many groups," Liam says. "You develop a repertoire of favorites, and it becomes stale. Tommy and I were always trying to introduce more creative material; but since Paddy and Tom didn't play instruments, they put up huge resistance. Every night, we heard the same thing: 'But this is what the audience wants to hear.'"
       
        A deeper problem for Liam was that he was years younger than his brothers, and had barely known them growing up. To much of the world, he was the star of the group, clearly the finest singer and musician. But to his brothers, he would always be the runt of the litter.
       
        "You know, no matter how old you get," Liam says, "you never stop being a little brother. And it just sticks in your craw. Finally, I said, 'I just can't be a brother anymore; I'm too old to be.'"
       
        Liam left the group in 1973; Tommy had left a few years earlier, replaced by another older brother, Bobby Clancy. In later years, O'Connell sometimes filled Liam's slot, as guitarist and ballad singer.
       
        In 1975, Liam and Tommy were both enjoying vibrant, though smaller-scale, solo careers, when they were simultaneously booked into a sprawling, multi-venue club in Cleveland called Pickle Bills. Liam was singing in one part of the club, Tommy in another, and they'd meet each night to make sure they weren't doing the same songs.
       
        "After a few nights, it became apparent this was ridiculous," Liam says. "So we put a set together, and the place just went wild."
        Liam flew back to Alberta, where he had his own television series, and invited Tommy on as a guest. That show won a Canadian Emmy award, and the station asked Liam and Tommy to do another season together. Soon, the duo of Makem and Clancy was playing the grand halls the Clancys used to play. But they were determined not to get boxed in by success.
       
        "It was so much easier with just the two of us," says Liam. "We threw the doors wide open; we weren't stuck with all the Clancy Brothers favorites. We were like kids with toys, not restricted in a way, shape, or form."
       
        Their expansiveness proved crucial to a folk movement rebuilding itself after the collapse of the commercial revival. Liam and Tommy mined the hip new Celtic sound for arrangement ideas and accompanists, and found songs from new folk writers like David Mallett, Bill Staines, and Stan Rogers.
       
        The attention they gave these new writers added important validation at a time when the folk movement was suffering from some of the same cultural insecurity that plagued Irish music in the 1950s. The music industry had decided folk music was passe, a relic of the '60s, and many of the '60s revival's biggest stars oddly seemed to agree. Not Makem and Clancy, and their presence on the lower-profile folk stages of the '70s was hugely important.
       
        In Ireland and Scotland, many young musicians felt the revival had exalted the vocal repertoire at the expense of the instrumental music, and sought to remedy that by creating ensembles like Planxty and the Bothy Band that arranged the old tunes in hip, new ways. In many ways, they were simply following the Clancy template, adapting tradition to modern aesthetics.
       
        Makem and Clancy were uniquely able to bridge the gulf between older fans and this new Celtic wave: to remind older fans that people had scolded the Clancys for changing the music, too, while appealing to new Celtic fans with their hip arrangement ideas and expansive repertoire. Just as they helped the post-revival folk movement regain its confidence, they helped Celtic music through this crucial transition, as it grew from a genre defined by its ethnicity and repertoire into a universal form, like jazz or classical music, that is defined by its stylistic approach.
       
        "Tommy and Liam helped create the fundamental design of what we call Celtic music today," says Brian O'Donovan, "the tenet that you can have people singing a Suzanne Vega or Richard Thompson song, and it easily blends into the traditional Celtic repertoire because of how it's approached."
       
        The rift between old and new fans could be ugly; but by the 1970s, Liam and Tommy were old hands at this. And the ways they handled it helped heal it.
       
        "We kind of expanded on that Clancy concept of not caring," Liam says, "and allowing the playfulness to spark against the reverence we had for the material we sang. We used to start phony arguments, and really create a tension on stage. To tell you the truth, I think we kind of intimidated audiences, so maybe it's not surprising that we never heard that criticism ourselves. But you know, you see a lot of that kind of snobbery in the theater, that kind of partisan pettiness. We knew how destructive it could be, and we just had no time for it."
       
        But Liam was also able to appeal to all sides because he genuinely respected all sides. He staunchly believes that traditional music needs both purists and mavericks, and that each can learn from the other.
       
        "You know, people said the Clancys were going to wreck the music forever," he says. "But we just opened a door where nobody knew a door existed. I think that's why Irish tradition has survived so long; it branches out in so many directions, and all those branches make for a healthy tree. And it all sorts itself out, you know. What is just fashion will disappear, because fashions come and go; but true art, things of real value, remain and become part of the tradition."
        Makem and Clancy flourished for 13 years, but eventually began to feel some of the same ennui that plagued the Clancy Brothers.
       
        "It had just run its course," Liam says. "We'd get so weary traveling that instead of working out something new and creative, we'd sometimes say, 'Oh, to hell with it; let's do last night's set.' And it was like putting the needle on the record, and your mind would be off, thinking about the steak you were going to have afterwards, and suddenly realize you'd just sung 'Gentle Annie.' When it gets to that, it's time to say bye-bye."
       
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        Donal Clancy, 33, is Liam's son and one of the finest guitarists in Celtic music. As he travels the Celtic circuit with his terrific band Danu, he sees definite signs that the Clancy Brothers are getting hip again. Young fans don't remember the fuss over whether they were too commercial, or too old-fashioned, they just feel the raw power of the songs.
       
        "I think young people have a lot more respect for them now than they maybe did in the '70s or '80s," he says. "I know all my friends really love the Clancy Brothers now. You know, they haven't heard them all their lives growing up. They discover them for themselves and think it's amazing."
       
        Moloney says, "They invented a genre; they invented the damn thing, for God's sake. You look back and you see four mighty men who were ahead of their time and gave us all a sense of confidence we badly needed. When Liam held that guitar up to the microphone, hammering away with that strutting, exuberant rhythm - how many people can say they changed a whole culture? And they did; they did."
       

updated 1 year ago