"Liam was for me. I never heard a singer as good as him ever. He was just the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life, still is probably …
If Ireland is a country known for ballads and balladeers, then Liam Clancy is one of her best-known sons. Singer, musician, storyteller and writer, he is a bard in the truest sense of the word, a poet of music and historian for his times.
With The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, he was in the vanguard of the traditional-music renaissance of the 50's and 60's, redefining the shape and substance of the music not only in Ireland but throughout North America as well. As a solo performer, and in various configurations with his family and Makem, he has been a popular and influential figure in music for over forty years. Which is to say: if you love good music in general and Irish traditional in particular, and if you've listened to the radio or browsed a record store since mid-century, there's a good chance you've been seduced by the voice of Liam Clancy.
Born and raised in Carrick-on-Suir, a small town in County Tipperary's southeast, Liam Clancy is the youngest of the Clancy Brothers. His mother's family owned a pub and, for Liam and his eight siblings, music and singing were a matter-of-fact of daily life. Originally drawn to painting and writing, he eventually opted for a career in theater and, by the time he was twenty, had founded a local drama society and acted at Dublin's legendary Gaiety Theater. Fate, however, intervened in 1955, when American folk-song archivist Diane Hamilton appeared at the Clancy front door with the intent of collecting material. Liam spent the next few months traveling around the country with Hamilton in search of songs and singers. One result of their journeys is the Lark in The Morning, a collection of some of Ireland's finest traditional vocalists, including renowned
Ulster ballad singer Sarah Makem and her son Tommy. A second result is that the next year, Liam and Tommy emigrated to the United States, joining older brothers Pat and Tom Clancy, to find their fortune as actors.
Liam rowed boats in Central Park, stacked books at Harvard's Widener Library, sold insurance, was a salesman for a day and worked at a tree nursery in Connecticut. He also collected songs from Appalachia for Pat's Tradition label and, with his brothers and Makem, began performing music around New York City and at benefits for The Cherry Lane and Guthrie Theaters. Word soon spread, and, in 1961, they made their debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which, in turn, led to John Hammond, Sr. signing the foursome to Columbia Records. Serious but not somber, romantic but not sentimental, frequently irreverent but never irrelevant, the group was known for its heartfelt delivery and soaring harmonies. At its heart was the magnificently unforgettable voice of young Liam Clancy. Among his fans was Christy Moore, a seminal figure on Ireland's contemporary music scene, who credits Liam with turning his head from rock 'n' roll to traditional material when he was 15.
1965 was a milestone year for Liam. He turned thirty. And he recorded Liam Clancy, his first solo album, for Vanguard Records. Recorded at the same sessions as that album's original 14 selections, nine never-before-released tracks appear on the newly remastered Irish Troubadour. The 23 tracks on this fresh compilation run the gamut-rebel ballads, drinking songs, topical tunes, laments and love songs. Not all are strictly Irish, and scholars might argue about affixing the word "traditional" to some. Unquestionable, though, is the fact that all of these songs have put down roots, sung by an artist whose own are firmly planted in his Irish heritage.
From the contemporary pen of Ewan MacColl comes "I'm A Freeborn Man," written for the BBC series "Radio Ballads." Like "Dirty Old Town," another of MacColl's poignant ballads represented here, it speaks to the effects of changing times on people, in this case the traveling people of the British Isles. Both "Ten and Nine" and "The Work of The Weavers" have their origins in Scotland's weaving trade. But, while the latter is a drinking song from a time when handloom weavers still traveled to markets to sell their goods, the former speaks more directly and darkly to the plight of workers following the Industrial Revolution. Originally written in Irish Gaelic, most probably as a tune for pipes or fiddle, "The Rocky Road to Dublin" is a true test of the singer's mettle. Liam is joined here by Luke Kelly, who was one of Ireland's most beloved singers.
Songs of love and unrequited love, betrayal and familial treachery abound in traditional music. Liam does them superbly. Set to a lovely air, "Blackwater Side" is common throughout Ireland, one theory places its origin in County Wexford, where there really is a River Blackwater. Also here are the popular "Lang A-Growing," first printed in 1792 in Johnson's "Scots Musical Museum," and the chilling "Downie Dens of Yarrow," Child Ballad No. 214. The Gaelic language is known for its poetry. Liam conveys a sense of that beauty in the hauntingly tragic "Anach Cuain" and delivers the music of the language itself in "Buachaill on Eirne," a courting song involving a rather boastful swain who signs his offer with a final warning: Maids, when you're young, never marry an old man.
Ireland's history is heard in her music, and there's irony indeed in the fact that much of her poetry and music have grown from oppression and wars. Here, examples of that uneasy marriage include "In Bodentown's Churchyard," a lament for Wolfe Tone (the Father of Irish Nationalism and leader of the 1798 Uprising), the 18th Century Irish Gaelic poem "The Convict of Clonmel" and the stirring "The Foggy Dew," a call to arms around the Easter Uprising of 1916, written by the Rev. P. O'Neill and set to the old Irish love song of the same name. Two of the best-known, best-loved songs on this album are also rebel ballads: Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game" and Brendan Behan's "Royal Canal." Rebellious in another way is the satiric "The Sash My Father Wore," a delightfully wicked take on the House of Windsor.
Finally, Liam would probably have been ousted from the Clancy clan if he hadn't put a few of those signature paeans to drinking ("All For Me Grog"), courting ("The Nightingale," "Navvy Boots," "Home, Boys, Home," "The Beggarman") and all-around good times ("Galway Races") on this album.
In the years since these songs were recorded, Liam Clancy has appeared on stage, had an award-winning series on Canadian television, performed on scores of records, at hundreds of concerts — most recently in the trio Clancy, O'Connell and Clancy with his youngest son Donal and nephew Robbie O'Connell. And, as he always has, he continues to reinvent the old songs and make way for the new. We're very fortunate to have this Irish troubadour and welcome a new compilation, which has captured a bit of the magic of Liam Clancy for all time.
Marsha Sculatti, 1998
A fan of Irish traditional music since she first heard The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in the early 60's, Marsha Sculatti has worked with Celts as diverse as the Undertones, Andy Irvine and Kevin Burke and has mastered the phrase "Shut the door" in Irish Gaelic.