I have listened to the music of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in the Florida Everglades, on the shore of Lake Ponchartrain, Louisiana, in Albuquerque, Tucson, on a hilltop near the LBJ Ranch, and in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but never in any place that faintly resembled Ireland.
Yet Makem and the Clancys, appearing here in a reissue of selections from several albums they made in the Sixties, always seemed to make themselves at home in those strange surroundings — and to understand how they did so is to understand their way of communicating something about tie special nature of Ireland.
They are, and always were, extremely Irish, with sweaters and everything, so Irish as to pass for an ethnic cliche. They always sing those rowdy, muscular songs you don't hear anywhere else (And why should you? The Clancy Brothers long ago formed the habit of roaming — er, roving — their native sod for authentic folk songs), songs about drinking and brawling and sailing and soldiering, usually against England, and of course becoming involved with the fair sex — songs of "rum, romance and rebellion," some forgotten scribe once wrote, although alliteration nicked the edge of truth; it is whiskey, not rum, that they sing about. That's a difference in alcoholic content of up to 20 per cent. Saints preserve us, as Mr. Keen's assistant used to say, on the face of it you would think you'd have to decorate your den to the specifications of a village pub for such music in its recorded form. On the contrary, it sounds right at home under a Texas sky on the banks of the much-mispronounced Pedernales River.
I happened to hear it there because back in the Sixties my wife and I taped a recording containing some of these very selections, along with a lot of other music, mostly classical, and took the tapes and an old recorder on a Volkswagen camper odyssey across the United States and Mexico. When we happened upon a campground with electrical outlets, we had music.
"The Leaving of Liverpool" made that trip. It is a classic, one of the handful of songs, out of all those in existence, that I never want to part with, and this arrangement of it is perfect. It isn't even about Ireland; Liverpool, as every Texas schoolboy knew intimately in those days, is decidedly English and was at the time the center of the rebirth of rock music. But a great many Irishmen worked at the Liverpool docks, back when the clipper ships were operating, and it was the isles' main docking point for trade with the Americas. The ship the song refers to, in fact, was a Yankee clipper, named "Davy Crockett." The girl being left behind is probably a Liverpool girl, but the Irish in the man singing the lament dominates the song. The arrangement sounds something like a forerunner to American bluegrass. The contrast between the delicate thread of the instrumental accompaniment and the robust, pub-brawling voices of the singers always grabbed me. The song, as sung here, has withstood my more or less constant exposure to rock in the last few years and is still in style. It complements the better rock arrangements I hear today and shames the others. I suppose it always will.
One other song I want to make special mention of is The West's Awake, which demonstrates what can be done with the awesome vocal power of a group like this. Tommy Makem's urgent, angry voice keys it, nothing pretty about the way he sings, thank goodness. The "west" refers to the western province of Connought which, geographically removed from England, was slow to shake off its apathy and join the revolt against English rule. The song chronicles the turn-about, when it comes, making a dramatic gear change near the end, as Connaught did, and soaring at the last like a battle cry, which it was.
That's a general picture of war, one of the romantic wars of the somehow less-dangerous past, but to get down to specifics, which are somewhat different, there's the hair-raising Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye, which effectively neutralizes (devastates, if you prefer) its superficial counterpart When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Pat and Tom Makem introduced Mountain Dew to the Newport Folk Festival way back in 1959, and it, Irish Rover, Rocky Road to Dublin (believed to be an old Gaelic pipe tune, originally much slower), and the title song provide insight into other aspects of the traditional Irish outlook.
Ireland, of course, has wielded world-wide influence in every field from literature to politics out of all proportion to its significance as a piece of real estate. The little island, emerald or not, has dismal weather, a paucity of natural resources and soil that sometimes refuses to grow even potatoes, but it has literally charmed the world, for ages. It must have been the people, the spirit of the Irish people — and the spirit of the Irish people is so involved with the folk tradition that there's no separating them. That tradition, and therefore the essence of a great poor little country, is what this recording is about.
Contributing Editor, Stereo Review