Tommy Makem has died and left a gaping hole in the universe of Irish music.
This native of the north of Ireland who lived in Dover, New Hampshire, for many years, will be remembered for many things — his powerful vibrating voice, his humor, a magnetic stage presence, and the wonderful songs that will be forever bawled out wherever those of Irish descent congregate. And his passionate love for the land of his birth.
The songs he wrote migrated into Irish songbooks and repertoires almost as soon as they were written, and his iconic “Four Green Fields” is more than a song, it’s an anthem. But most of all, along with three fellow Irish expats — Paddy, Tom and Liam Clancy — he launched Irish music into the consciousness of America. In the heady days of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the four met up with the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other leading lights of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village. Putting acting careers on hold, they formed The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and began singing the songs in clubs that they had been singing all their lives in their homes in Tipperary and Armagh.
They certainly changed my life. In the early ’60s, when I was a poor college student living at home in an Irish-American enclave in Boston, I spotted a simple black and white poster downtown. The picture showed four smiling Irish faces above, the collars of four Irish fishermen sweaters below and the promise of Irish music to be played soon at the Unicorn Coffee House downtown.
Hard as it is to believe now, live Irish music was extremely rare in Boston in those days. I was excited to check them out and I wasn’t sorry. They stomped, shouted, danced and harmonized both the slow and sad and the lively, rousing Irish music I had heard all my life in the homes of my Newfoundland family. They sang the songs of Ireland’s troubled history, sad Irish love ballads, rebel songs, sea chanteys, funny songs and paeans to whiskey and heroes.
The foursome was booked there for 10 nights in a row and I was lucky enough to make it there for nine. Often they sang to only one table full of fans, me and my friends. No matter. They poured as much heart and soul, energy and time, into a performance for four fans as they did the one night the Irish consul held a party and filled the place to overflowing.
I dragged everyone I knew to the club. Everyone loved them. Tommy Makem would stand straight as an arrow, one fist on a thigh, captivating his audience and filling the room with the power of his voice, a voice that commanded attention and ended conversation. When he rendered The Cobbler’s Song solo and /a cappella/, never a sound but his voice could be heard.
One night, when work would keep me from their performance, I went downtown to a department store where I bought their albums, and there were the four of them, posing for publicity photos. Tommy Makem signed his solo album for me. Delightful, but just icing on the cake — the important thing was their music. I played it every day and most nights. I played those poor old records to death. I forced them on people forever after. I’m sure I was obnoxious, but I am unrepentant still.
A year later, the quartet returned to Boston, but by this time they had been on the Ed Sullivan show and things were very different. They were booked into a big auditorium, packed with nearly every Irish American in the Greater Boston area. A pushy friend went backstage to ask where they were going afterwards and it turned out to be the Unicorn. A pair of us raced over there to discover the featured act was Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, two of our favorite blues singers. It was clearly a musical night made in heaven — first the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, now Sonny and Brownie. It was to be more magical than that. The Clancys and Makem turned out to be friends of Terry and Magee, so the four cheered, clapped and called out louder to the performers than anyone in the audience. Between sets, Sonny and Brownie sat with the four Irish guys and laughed a lot. When the official show was over, the owner ushered everyone out except me, my best friend and the performers (he had clearly taken a fancy to my friend). Everyone pushed into a crowded circle of chairs and tiny tables and the singing began. The coffeehouse employees kept the coffee coming, the Clancys kept the Jameson’s coming (with no objections from us), pouring it into our coffee every time a fresh cup arrived. The singing went on for hours — old Delta blues mingled with sea chanteys and sad Irish ballads. We smoked, drank, sang, listened and laughed.
After Irish folk and traditional music became ubiquitous, it became fashionable in some circles to bash the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem — to give credit to others for being more relevant, more authentic, more Irish, more something. Without Makem and the Clancys, what those others would have been was unheard. They broke the trail and made the others possible. And the others, good as they are, in my opinion never improved on the originals.
It was a magic night, but every sight or sound of any of the four of them was magical. I attended their concerts whenever I could. The group later splintered and the two best singers — Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy — toured and recorded together for many years. The Clancys brought over a few more brothers or nephews as the need arose, and continued on as well. Liam and Tommy’s concerts of music, poetry and humor were unmatched by anything I have seen before or since because they went so far beyond just great singing. They were consummate performers who made me cry every time they sang Gordon Bok’s “Peter Kagan and the Wind” or recited a sad poem.
Once a carload of us from the Midcoast challenged a blizzard rather than miss a Portland concert.
Eventually those two split and went their solo ways. Makem would sometimes join his three sons, The Makem Brothers, in concert. The last time I saw him perform was one of those concerts a few years ago in Orono, Maine. The sons sang the first set. The audience was enthusiastic. The curtain closed for the break. For the second set, Tommy Makem walked out in front of the curtain alone with a single spotlight on him. He stood there for long time, just turning his head, leveling his gaze at the audience. When he finally spoke, the audience — and not a young one either — went crazy with stomping and screaming. The master had arrived and taken complete charge.
After the concert, I talked to him in the hall and a friend took my picture with him. I surely still have it somewhere. Standing beside him, I felt he was no taller than I. Either he had shrunk or I had grown because I always thought of him as the very tall guy in the original group. Perhaps he was never so tall. I don’t know. Maybe it was his just his stature in the world of music that made him appear so, or the power of his voice and lyrics.
His loss goes beyond New England and Ireland and even music. We will never again see the likes of this world ambassador for Irish music, wit, wisdom, humor and good will. He was truly the Bard of Armagh.