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Tommy Makem, R.I.P.

August 2, 2007 |  6:00 pm

The longtime frontman for the Clancy Brothers has gone to that great pub in the sky. One strong argument for the 1960s as a period of unrepeatable cultural ferment is the fact that dazzlingly squaresville folk singers routinely topped the teenybopper charts with plangent traditional songs of the Old and New Sod. Makem's performances were arguably in line with the politically engaged folk spirit of the time, though if you don't really listen to the words they seemed to be just merry old tunes of the Emerald Isle.

One thing's for sure: Tommy Makem and the Clancy brothers retained their ability to wring unadulterated blarney from journalists until the very end. As long ago as 1967, some New York Times scribe laid aside a tear-filled pint to declare that the quartet "have become unofficial national minstrels of Eire, Raggedy-Andy musical ambassadors, an eight-legged, ambulatory chamber of commerce for the green isle they love so well...." And in one of the sweeter encomia today, the Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen unleashes his own gift of gab:

But Tommy Makem was an Irish soul singer, and souls don't die. His music is preserved, on the old vinyl LPs he made with his pals, the Clancy brothers, more recently on CDs, more intimately in memory, in the hard drive of any brain that heard his basso profundo voice.

To hear Tommy Makem sing "Four Green Fields" was to hear Enrico Caruso sing "Vesti la giubba," or James Brown sing "I Feel Good." He was for Irish traditional music a great ambassador, and a consummate performer.

I find a little Hibernian balladeering goes a very long way, but you can find good samples of Makem's artistry here, here, here and here. And don't miss the group's recital of the actual song "Tim Finnegan's Wake" (which interestingly enough is an American tune).

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