Friday, August 03, 2007

Tommy Makem RIP

[crossposted to]

Tommy Makem (1932-2007), RIP.

This is a great loss--but we can hardly regret Tommy's death. He was a great musician, a kindly man, a strong advocate for younger musicians, and was, truly, the public face of Irish music in America. Going all the way back to his childhood in the Armagh of the "Hungry Thirties," and his impeccable lineage (son of the legendary source singer Sarah Makem), his 1950s appearance with the Clancy Brothers in the New York night clubs, and their legendary "extended" appearance on the live Ed Sullivan show when other acts were stranded in traffic and the Brothers woke up next morning to find themselves stars, to his ongoing very passionate advocacy for traditional music and for Irish independence (he wrote and sang angry songs, but he never condoned violence), Tommy was a great gentleman and a class act. It's hard to believe that he was "only" 74 years old--he crammed so much experience, so much music, and so much positive action into those years that he seemed both older, and ageless.

I remember the first time I saw Tommy Makem perform live (I vaguely remember seeing the Brothers on the Sullivan show in the one of their early-'60s appearances): it was around 1970, at the Arts Festival my father ran every summer in my home town. There were all kinds of visual arts exhibits, openings, gallery shows, workshops, so forth, but for me, even at age 10, the performances were what lit a fire under me.

I remember when Pete Seeger's Hudson River sloop the Clearwater sailed into our harbor, and Seeger and his beyond-cool crew of proto-environmental activists tied up, climbed the wooden stairs that ran up the cliffs above the harbor, and gave a concert on an open-age stage with the silver-dollar summer full moon rising over the water behind them. That was the time I met Pete Seeger (who for whatever reason was a prick, that night) and, before I could even speak to him in the autograph line, had grabbed the cast on my broken left arm and signed it.

But that was also the time I saw Tommy Makem: tall and skinny, already growing out his hair and sideburns (Tommy in the '70s came to look *exactly* like one of those long thin Irishmen caricatured in the Victorian English press), playing tin whistle and a long-necked Seeger-style 5-string banjo. I didn't really register the repertoire itself--I was 3 years away from hearing my first trad dance music, and Tommy was basically an American-folk-revival-style ballad singer--but I remember how cool they all seemed, even to a 10-year-old.

Go raibh mile maith agat, Tommy. Safe home.

Now playing: Miles Davis - Doxy

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