He walked 5th Avenue to NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, arriving just in time for his evening performance, holding hands with a lovely woman with dark-blonde hair, his wife Kim, and wearing a light grey plaid jacket and his trademark headgear: a cream-colored cloth cap.
I was outside the little brick building, already packed full of people waiting for him to arrive, to greet him.
The occasion was the launch, co-sponsored by Ireland House and Columbia/Legacy Records, of the re-mastered original recording of the concert that brought Irish traditional music a new and wider audience in America: the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Carnegie Hall, March 17, 1963.
What Columbia had released 45 years earlier as the “concert recording” was a pastiche of that evening’s and other performances, and the political songs, commentaries between the songs, and spoken recitations were heavily edited. Quips about “big bad John in the White House” – the young Irish-American president who would invite the group to perform for him shortly before his assassination later that year – and Liam’s recitations of Yeats were absent, or sadly truncated.
But Columbia went back to the original acetates and, wondrously, released the whole show as a beautifully produced and packaged two-CD set in time for St. Patrick’s Day, 2009.
Where to launch this but in New York City; indeed, where but Washington Square. Liam’s days in the 1950s and 1960s as a performer in the Village, with his brothers, their friends and other regulars of the hootenannies and sing-a-longs, are old legend, now, in our city and in music history.
In 1956, a young man from County Tipperary, formerly known as Willie Clancy, came to New York to make his way as an actor. His big brothers Tommy and Patrick were here, acting. Liam had already been in Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.
He would find success on Broadway, too, appearing in the company of Robert Redford and Dirk Bogarde, learning his craft from Frank O’Connor, who had in turn learned about acting, and storytelling, from W.B. Yeats. However, Liam’s fame came as a singer capable of acting, reciting, and much more.
Liam told Rolling Stone in 2002, “I went down to New York and my brothers set up a tab for me at the White Horse Tavern. And I lived for a couple of years on fifteen-cent beers and twenty-five-cent hamburgers. And I still couldn’t pay the tab. So we used to sing folk songs in the back room, big ballsy sea shanties, and recite Dylan Thomas.”
Local artists and musicians reveled in those days. Suze Rotolo, forever to be remembered as the girl on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” recalled in her recent memoir of the Village in the 60s that “these guys made singing a theatrical event: above all, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were actors who sang.”
Speaking of the Clancys in New York before a concert in Ireland in 1984, Dylan said, “all night long we’d just sing… oh, there’d be some poets there, too, and just get up with a bottle of beer or ale or something, and just recite a poem, and even that was music. You know, that was musical too.”
Liam began his evening at Ireland House with similar memories, and constantly mixed the music of poetry, story, and song. He had just arrived in New York from Florida, where he and his wife had spent part of the winter and they had just been out walking through the Village, so those memories were fresh.
Everything he said, though, from his stories of the Village to his thoughts about the Carnegie Hall concert, absent friends, current musicians, and his favorite writers and poems was fresh, and vivid.
Sean Wilentz, the Princeton history professor and former West Villager who wrote the liner notes for the new CD acted as Liam’s introducer and interlocutor. Smartly, and gracefully, he asked very few questions, but simply let Liam perform for nearly two magical hours.
Murray Lerner, who filmed the group at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, was at Ireland House, and sat beside his old friend as Liam watched an unreleased clip of the men singing a children’s song about the Irish and the English fighting.
A delighted young Pete Seeger, his hair parted and combed like a schoolboy’s, thin as a knife blade and sharp of face, was laughing behind them as they mimed maiming and death, and sprang up resurrected in the end.
As the laughter and applause following the film faded, Liam began slowly to tell us where the song had come from. He told the story of a woman who had lost her eye, and part of her face, during the Irish civil war of the early 1920s.
To make fun of it was to make it bearable for young boys seeing her in the street. The audience fell silent, respectful. Liam had entertained us, and then he had made us think, and feel. Echoing the words of the song, he then spoke about his status as the only Clancy Brother alive: “It’s no honor, to be the last man standing,” he said quietly.
As he spoke in Ireland House that night, no one else did, and no one would have thought of doing so. Liam’s thoughts unfolded as a skilful monologue, leading us through layered stories, pausing over moments he wished to particularly recall and enrich. He interspersed what he said with the words of others – quotations from Yeats, his favorite poet; from songs; from friends. He was, as fine actors can be, a perfect mimic. He did a version of Bob Dylan singing like a Clancy Brother that had people giggling appreciatively.
Liam laughed along with us. He would try to sing like Bob; Bob used to try to sing like Liam and his brothers. That was the world of folk singing: people sharing, trading, teaching and learning from each other.
No one wanted Liam to stop talking, but he did – to sing. When he came into the building, he shook his head a little sadly at the sight of the two Martin acoustic guitars provided, and said with a grin that his fingertip calluses had worn away during a Florida winter.
He had brought with him, though, his little old black-and-silver concertina. And that he did play, while he sang in Irish an old love ballad that many there could understand. Those who had no Irish knew what it was about, all the same. As he finished, the applause began and swelled, and took forever to fade.
He loved being back in New York, said Kim, who elaborated after his performance on her husband’s story of their time in the city. They had visited with family first, but, the day before, she and Liam had left the Washington Square Hotel, and walked through the Village. He talked the whole way as they wove through streets she hadn’t seen, heard stories that were new.
Liam’s stamina showed that night at Ireland House. Columbia had provided several boxes of the new, complete Carnegie Hall concert CD, and every single guest that night left with at least one signed copy. Many had brought copies of books, including Liam’s memoir “The Mountain of the Women” and Clancy Brothers songbooks, decades-old records with well-loved covers, even old posters.
Liam signed them all, with talk and good humor and keen engagement for each person. Ten o’clock came and went. Unwillingly, the crowd began to thin. At the big polished-wood table in the cheery comfortable basement room in Ireland House, two old gentlemen remained talking: Murray Lerner and Liam Clancy, taking great delight in their own company.
On his last night in New York, last early spring, you could still feel the memory of Liam’s early days here. When Liam and Frank O’Connor put on all of Yeats’s plays about the mythic Irish hero Cuchulain in 1961, Liam said, “everybody who was in that audience could not think of Ireland again in terms of green beer and shamrocks. We had created something which was truly Irish and great.”
No one in the audience at Carnegie Hall on that spellbinding night in 1963 thought of Ireland again in the same terms, and no one in Liam’s audience at Ireland House in March would think of Ireland, or of our own neighborhood, the same way again.
That this would be the last time he sang a song for an audience in New York, the last night he walked through Washington Square, was unthinkable, for all that it would prove to be true.
After all the rest of the company had gone, Liam thanked the staff at Glucksman Ireland House for the evening, and received a chorus of repeated thanks in reply.
He kissed us good night and goodbye. Then, with Kim by one hand and his little battered concertina case in the other, he headed south with his cap at a tilt, light of step, looking up with a wide smile at the floodlit white arch atop Washington Square.
Anne Margaret Daniel is an adjunct professor of Irish literature at Ireland House and was one of the organizers of the Liam Clancy evening.