My brother Jim, an accomplished folk musician and life long teacher, has emailed me with the sad news that Tommy Makem, the great Irish folk singer, has died of cancer at the age of 74.
The death of Makem is significant for a number of reasons. His passing leaves only Liam Clancy left alive of the original “Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem” folk group who took America by storm in the early ‘60’s. At its height, the folk revival in America produced an astonishing outpouring of musical talent whose imprint on American culture, mores, and politics we feel to this day. The left wing activism of artists such as Pete Seeger, Mary Travers, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and a young Bob Dylan roiled the streets and changed the face of America forever. And they did it through music.
Some changes, we might indeed look at in askance; other changes relating to civil rights were necessary and vital to bringing justice to those previously denied it. The great fomenting of ideas and a new way of looking at the world began with this hearkening back to our roots as a revolutionary society that the folk revival brought to the surface. It is hard to imagine the America of today without the influence of those folk artists and the songs they taught us all.
Tommy Makem and the Clancy brothers were a little different. Their traditional Irish ditties, patriotic songs, and wonderful stories set to music revealed both the Irish experience in America and, more importantly, what those immigrants were fleeing when they came here. For me, their music inspired a far more personal journey than the great issues being illuminated by the Pete Seegers or Peter, Paul, and Mary’s of the folk music scene. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s music opened the door to discovering my family’s Irish heritage and helped us all take enormous pride in who we were and where we came from.
A purely unscientific sociological observation follows. Recent immigrants wear their heritage on their sleeve, proud of their mother country, still feeling the tug on the heart from across the ocean.
Second generation immigrants are much more determined to be “American.” And while not always rejecting that heritage, it becomes a lot less important to them over time. This was especially true of Irish immigrants who saw what happened to their fathers whose Irish brogue would prevent them from getting good jobs or even working at all.
Third generation immigrants – fully assimilated and more likely to marry outside of their ethnic group – will actually seek out and attempt to rediscover their heritage, hungry to explore the past in ways that their fathers or mothers never did.
For the Moran family, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem opened up an entirely new world, a means of discovering our past. Their music was not at all like the melodramatic “American” Irish music we were all familiar with. Their songs were of the real Ireland – a place of pain and suffering, of oppression, and a kind of fatalism that seems to me unique to the Irish people. In fact, the group’s first album – Irish Songs of the Rebellion – released in 1956, celebrated that fatalism in songs that told the story of several futile Irish uprisings against British rule. One of those songs, Roddy McCorely, is a staple of family reunions and is guaranteed to bring emotions about our heritage close to the surface:
O see the fleet-foot host of men, who march with faces drawn,
From farmstead and from fishers’ cot, along the banks of Ban;
They come with vengeance in their eyes. Too late! Too late are they,
For young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
Up the narrow street he stepped, so smiling, proud and young.
About the hemp-rope on his neck, the golden ringlets clung;
There’s ne’er a tear in his blue eyes, fearless and brave are they,
As young Roddy McCorley goes to die on the bridge of Toome today.
McCorley was a hero of the rebellion of 1798…as opposed to the Easter Rebellion or any of the dozen or so other uprisings against the British that were put to song at one time or another by the Irish. The image of the young McCorely going to his death so stoically is one of the most powerful of my childhood. It’s an example of a song with a mournful subject that has the effect of uplifting the listener emotionally.
The Irish songbook is full of music like that and Tommy Makem helped bring it alive for all of us. Makem became acquainted with the Clancy’s in Ireland back in the ‘50’s. Moving on to Canada and then New York city, the boys were originally interested in becoming actors (Tom Clancy eventually went on to appear in dozens of TV shows and movies). They began to sing in small pubs and taverns to help make ends meet. Eventually, inspired by the Kingston Trio, the boys decided to try making a living as musicians. They immersed themselves in the folk revival in New York city, meeting legends like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Dylan liked the song “Patriot Games” so much he wrote additional lyrics and released it as “With God on Our Side.”
An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961 made their careers. Since that time, the group released dozens of albums, had breakups, reunions, different family members taking part, and finally the death of Paddy and Tom Clancy and now Tommy Makem bringing what is surely an era of folk music to an end.
Beyond the impact the group had on the world at large, their affect on my family cannot be measured. We glory in singing many of the group’s songs (accompanied by my brother Jim and his trusty Martin guitar). The drinking songs, the Irish patriot songs, and the songs of protest, including this strange and wonderful tune about British oppression that fairly drips with satire:
When we were savage, fierce and wild
She came like a mother to her child.
She gently raised us from the slime
Kept our hands from hellish crime,
And sent us to Heaven in her own good time.
Now our fathers oft were very bad boys.
Guns and pikes are dangerous toys.
From Bearna Baol to Bunker Hill
They made poor England weep her fill,
But ould Brittania loves us still!
Now Irishmen, forget the past!
And think of the time that’s coming fast.
When we shall all be civilized,
Neat and clean and well-advised.
And won’t Mother England be surprised?
“Whack Fol A Diddle” perfectly expresses the mixture of hate and contempt the Irish feel toward the British to this day. There is something so defiant in those lyrics that brings out the pride I feel in being of Irish heritage.
Tommy Makem is gone. I wonder if they’ll put the lyrics to this last verse of “Jug of Punch” on his gravestone?
And when I’m dead and in my grave
No costly tombstone will I have,
Just lay me down in my native peat
With a jug of punch at my head and feet.