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The Clancy Brothers

The Clancy Brothers

by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor (2005-2018)
first published: April, 2005

approximate reading time: minutes

Greenwich Village was an island for people escaped from repressed backgrounds.

Bob Dylan on The Clancy Brothers: "They just reached a lot of people with their exuberance and their attitude - mostly it was attitude...they're all great singers. There was a bar called the White Horse could always go there any time, and they'd be singing, you know, the Irish folk songs. I learnt quite a few there myself. But Liam was...or me, I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I'd ever heard in my life. Still is, probably. I don't think I can think of a better ballad singer that Liam...iam always sang those ballads which would always get to me."

CBS: "When Irish music came into its own in the United States in the 1950s, there were no brighter stars in the Irish sky than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. After appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show they were soon singing for President Kennedy himself. They recorded more than 50 best-selling albums. Singing songs of Irish rebellion and songs from Irish pubs, brothers Liam, Paddy, and Tom Clancy, along with their friend Tommy Makem, filled concert halls across the country for decades."

Liam Clancy: "Greenwich Village was an island for people escaped from repressed backgrounds, who had swallowed the directive to be inferior, to know your place, to kowtow to royalty, to hierarchy, and all the other nonsense."

Long before the glory days of The Clancy Brothers young Willie Clancy - who later changed his name to Liam - was consulting with writer Frank O'Connor, painter Louis Le Broquay, and bluesman-cum-radical socialite Josh White. He shared the limelight with Robert Redford, Lenny Bruce, and Bob Dylan. With the financial backing of Guggenheim heiress Diane (pronounced Deeann) Hamilton he became an accomplished collector of folk song, and part of the team behind the important (Guggenheim-financed) folkloric music label, Tradition Records.

He has memories of the theatrical world which he older brothers dragged him into before music made them all famous, recollections of old school hack actors who would arrive at the theatre and ask, "Where's the stage, what is the play, and what is the part?" because they knew all the important roles by heart. It was theatre which first opened mid-Fifties doors for the New York- based brothers from Ireland. Singing in America was initially something they did for diversion and amusement; but it was the singing that really took off. After a groundbreaking appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on St Patrick's Day 1961 they were off on a wild improbable adventure, entertaining Ava Gardner, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, regulars at Carnegie Hall, big business. Pete Seeger accompanied them at the Newport Folk Festival, and their records featured the cream of American session players, orchestral arrangements, and all the showbiz trimmings. They were pally with the aristocracy of the folk boom. Chip Monk, the father of rock'n'roll lighting (specifically for the Stones during the 70s) worked for them first.

Liam Clancy: "Irish music was more or less dead. Old guys in a corner in a pub, and that was it. Or a scrapy fiddler. It was considered to belong to a period of poverty and deprivation. Suddenly these four fellows were on television in tuxedoes, making glossy looking records. This was a whole new concept. At the same time Sean O'Riada, a classically trained composer, decided that he would use traditional musicians in an orchestral way with arrangements and harmonies. This had never been done. Next thing you knew we were being mobbed like pop stars. One night, after a big show at the Royal Albert Hall, we were staying at the luxurious Royal Gardens Hotel in Kensington. All the maids working there were Irish. I woke up in the morning to find eight of these Irish maids standing around my bed and them all going to one another, 'T'is! T'isn't! T'is! T'isn't!'"

He lives on the south coast of Ireland in a village called Ring, not far from his home town, in a house fit for a superstar. One could easily imagine Charlton Heston or David Lee Roth living in this house. When I was at university in Ireland architectural students were annually sent down to Ring to examine the Clancy building. It was a big deal in a country where we all lived in Georgian redbricks or modern homes built with exceptional incompetence and bad taste. There are now many expensive modernist houses in Ireland but Clancy's place still cuts a dash. Ring is part of a Gaeltacht, as places where the near-extinct Irish language is still spoken, are known.

Liam Clancy: "I remember Seamus Ennis - a legendary figure in Irish folk music - telling me that, when he first worked for the BBC he was getting a small amount of money from them, and was earning a little extra with the embryonic Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin. Seamus was given a bicycle, a dime jotter, and told to cycle out to the West of Ireland to save what was left of the Gaelic culture. He used to work weeding potatoes during the day. By the oil lamp at night Seamus would write down the words and the music with all the ornamentation of the old songs."

By the late Sixties things had grown a little complicated in Ireland and America. The optimism of the Kennedy Era gave way to Vietnam. Ireland was erupting into the Civil Rights Movement and the IRA war which followed on from that. Once-nostalgic rebel songs had developed a new potency. Things were getting a little complicated within the band too.

Liam Clancy: "It became impossible to work with the Clancy Brothers because the creative spark was gone. They were much older than me, Paddy was fifteen years older. As time went by the drudgery set in and I was being slapped down like the younger brother. I decided to leave the group. About that time we had an accountant who assured us that everything was alright but it turned out that, for years, when we were making the most money, he had never filed Income Tax returns. He just threw everything into a box and forgot about it. We got hit for $250,000, huge money in those days. By the time we'd paid off the Eternal Infernal Revenue I was broke.

Bob Dylan: "All the legendary people the Clancys used to sing about - Brennan on The Moor and Roddy Mc Corley - I wasn't aware of them, when they existed, but it was as if they'd just existed yesterday. I would think of Brennan on the Moor the same way I would think of Jesse James... wrote some of my own songs to some of the melodies that I heard them do."

Brennan On The Moor grew up to be Dylan's Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie. The Parting Glass, which remains one of Liam Clancy's outstanding party pieces, got turned into Endless Farewell. And Dominic Behan's The Patriot Game - amid much whingeing from the lesser Behan - became With God On Our Side.

Liam Clancy: "The Fifth Peg became famous as Gerde's Folk City. Monday night was Hootenanny Night where I first saw Cisco Huston and Judy Collins who came in one night with a broken leg. Bob Dylan, going "Hey, man! Hey, man!" became a regular who started writing songs to our tunes. He'd be there every night he could, absorbing stuff like blotting paper. Dominic Behan had no entitlement to the melody he used in The Patriot Game because the tune originally derived from a big hit that Jo Stafford had in the Forties. That's where Dominic got it from but he plagued Dylan about it for the rest of his days. As far as we were concerned we were freely given these old songs by old timers, maybe some old tin whistle player up on the side of a mountain in Ireland who sang Brennan on The Moor for us first. It was originally a big long thing, about forty verses which took half the night to sing. I think we got The Parting Glass from the poet and playwright Patrick Galvin when I was living with my brother Paddy in Greenwich Village. Galvin had put out a book of songs from which we took the words, and we got the tune somewhere else. In our travels around, at folk clubs, we might pick up six songs in a night. They didn't belong to anyone; they were just being revived. You swopped them around, changed them around. If somebody wanted to write new words or if you wanted to write new words, it was great! Dominic Behan was basically very greedy. I said to Bob Dylan when he was playing in Dublin, "Did you ever pay him?" He said, "Naah!" I asked him what happened with his manager, Grossman. Dylan said, "He got very weird. He broke up with every act he was ever involved with and sued everybody for $37,000." I said to Bob, "Not $35,000 or $40,000?" Bob said, "No. $37,000." I said, "Did you ever pay him?" He said, "He died of a heart attack on a plane."

Liam Clancy (2002): "Music writer Robert Shelton, more than anyone, was responsible for Bob Dylan. He pushed and pushed and pushed. He thought Bobby Dylan was a tremendous poet. He had made a very folkie record at that time with John Hammond that wasn't doing anything, but Shelton kept pushing. It was a little later that the whole thing caught fire. Shelton used to bring him to our concerts and tell him 'Now this is how you have to put a show together!' I was coming through La Guardia airport about six months ago, and I had the bodhran (an Irish percussion instrument) on my back, and the guitars, and the next thing I felt this body behind me, and I got this great, hairy kiss on the cheek. Now when that happens in New York, you're going to turn around and belt whoever it is. So I turn around, and it's Bob Dylan. 'Hey, Liam, hey man, how's Paddy? How's Tom? Where's Tommy? I'll come down to the Pavilion to see you, we're gonna have to talk. Where's Shelton?' We stood talking for a little while, and suddenly the whole thing flooded back to me, what it was all like at that time. He says: 'I love you guys, and I love Shelton for bringing me to your first concert in Town Hall. You know what I remember about that concert, Liam? You sang a commercial about Donnelly's sausages!'"

These days Liam Clancy spends a lot of time in his extraordinary home working on the second volume of his recollections while recording a long-postponed solo album in the professional studio which nestles up against an optimistic outdoor swimming pool. He is a man with a smile on his face and a smile in his voice. When we finished talking he said that reminiscing had been a pleasant way to pass a damp afternoon.

Liam Clancy: "I go into the studio when I feel like it, get the writing done when I want to, and I'm recording the songs I've wanted to do all of my life. A lot of them are folk songs. Shane McGowan from The Pogues wrote a song for me. Shane says to me, "Hey Liam, I wrote a fuckin' song for you and you never fuckin' sang it. The Broad Majestic Shannon. I wrote that for you." I says to Shane, "I didn't know that. Not only that but I listened to it and you sang it so fast that I couldn't understand a word you said."

Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor (2005-2018)

Joe Ambrose wrote 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe sadly passed away in 2018. Visit Joe's website which was completed just before his passing, for more info:
about Joe Ambrose »»



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