Somewhere a Voice is Calling


American Irish Musical Interpreters, 1850 - 1975

The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem: Reinventing Irish Traditional Song

Formed in Greenwich Village, New York City in the mid-1950s by brothers Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy (born in Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland) and Tommy Makem (originally of Keady, Co. Armagh, and son of noted singer Sarah Makem), the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem exemplify the cross-cultural influences of Irish traditional song and American folk music.

The group’s unconventional instrumentation of traditional Irish songs comes from their residency in Greenwich Village, which in the 1950s and 60s was the center of American folk music. While pursuing acting careers in Greenwich Village, the Clancy brothers, with Tommy Makem, sang traditional Irish songs on the side to supplement their income. Their concert repertoire initially puzzled listeners, who expected to hear sentimental numbers such as “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” rather than rebel songs such as “Brennan on the Moor.” Many songs known to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem through Irish tradition were unfamiliar to Irish-American audiences. Borrowing from the American folk tradition, the group accompanied their traditional songs with guitar, and later five-string banjo. Liam Clancy maintains that both the specific instrumentation, and the presence of any accompaniment in their music, are a product of American influence.

Clancy Brothers singing
Rising of the Moon

The group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1961 cemented their fame as a musical force, helping the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem bring the oral tradition of Irish song to a broad American audience, including the occasional Irish language song. For Irish American listeners, the success of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem was a dramatic departure from the commercial songs of Tin Pan Alley. Record sales, concert receipts, and the assertions of contemporary artists attest to the importance of the group in both Irish “traditional” and American folk contexts.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem also had a tremendous impact in Ireland following their American successes. Liam points out that listeners in Ireland “were really rediscovering their own music through the touch of Americana that we added by bringing guitar, banjo, and pennywhistle to the traditionally unaccompanied music.”

Tommy Makem left the group amicably in 1969 to pursue a solo career, and each member of the original lineup has met with success in acting, composing, television, or performing.

PDF File For more information on The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, see the select bibliography created for this exhibit.


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