A Makem and a Clancy honor music past while they frame music present

Rory Makem (right) and Donal Clancy performing at the Burren Backroom series last month. Sean Smith photo

Yes, they’re called “Makem and Clancy,” but they’re not that Makem and Clancy. Not exactly, anyway. Rory Makem and Donal Clancy – the sons of, respectively, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy – are justifiably proud of their families’ storied place in Irish music, and both had the opportunity to perform with their famous fathers over the years. They’ve also forged their own musical paths:
Makem played in a band with brothers Shane and Conor that – with the addition of Mickey and Liam Spain – became the Makem and Spain Brothers, and is now the trio Makem and Spain. Clancy was a founding member of the band Danú, has played with The Chieftains and fiddler Eileen Ivers, collaborated with numerous other musicians and singers, and released three solo albums.

But throughout their individual pursuits, the latter-day Makem and Clancy have always sung the praises – literally – of their forebears, and last year finally joined forces as a duo to carry on the legacies of The Clancy Brothers and the original Makem and Clancy. Last month, they came to Somerville to perform at The Burren’s Backroom series, where they belted out classics like “Brennan on the Moor,” “Whistling Gypsy Rover,” “Wild Mountain Thyme” and many more, and shared plenty of stories and reminiscences with an appreciative, enthusiastic audience that happily sang along on practically every song.

Prior to the show, the two talked about life as Makem and Clancy – past and present.

Q. So how did you guys finally get together? I understand it was a combination of planning and unforeseen circumstances.
Makem: In early 2016, we got a call from Joanie Madden [vocalist and flutist for Cherish the Ladies], who wanted both of us for her annual cruise in February of this year. We’d thought about playing together for years, because of our love of song, and our culture, the tradition in our families, and the history of our families together, so we agreed. And besides it’s hard to say “no” to Joanie.
That summer, I was heading back to the Midwest from a festival, and Donal was at the Milwaukee Irish Fest and he said, “Why don’t you come play with me?” So we got up and did “Whistling Gypsy Rover” and a couple of other songs that our fathers used to sing, and it felt really, really good.
I was in Ireland that fall, and Donal and I ran through a whole list of songs, and thought it would be fine. And then [Burren co-owner] Tommy McCarthy called us to do his annual benefit concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin in January. So that was our first actual gig. By the time we went on Joanie’s cruise we’d already done those two appearances.

Q. An obvious question: Were you childhood friends?
Clancy: Well, at first we were in different parts of the world – my dad had settled in Canada, which was where I was born, and Tommy and his family were living in New Hampshire.
Makem: And then Liam and Tommy started to play together, so I think to make things easier, Liam moved the family to Dover [NH], where we were living. I think the first time we met would’ve been 1978. We were visiting my Aunt Molly, my granny’s sister, who also was living in Dover, and my mother called down to say “The Clancys are here.”
Clancy: That’s one of my earliest memories, actually, coming to Dover. I would’ve been three, I think. But we only stayed in Dover for five years before we moved to Waterford [Ireland].
Makem: Our older siblings were about the same age and went to school together. But the two of us didn’t really pal around that much. You have to consider that we had about a five-year age gap. When you’re 13, you don’t hang out with an eight-year-old, you know. But then Donal and his family moved to Waterford, and after that we both wound up getting into the business. I think the next time we saw each other was at a festival in Chicago – you were playing with Robbie [O’Connell] and your father.
Clancy: I remember the Makems coming to my 21st birthday party. They bought me a bottle of Jack Daniels as a present.
Makem: Yes, your dad had just finished his book [“The Mountain of the Women: Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour”], and I remember he recited it verbatim for us. [Laughs]

Q. Growing up with all that music happening around you, did it hit you that your fathers did something special?
Makem: My formative years, I guess you’d call them, were at the height of Makem and Clancy. We’d always go to their shows, and I just loved it. When I was eight or nine years old, I would go into my dad’s record collection, and I’d listen to the Kingston Trio, and The Weavers and Woody Guthrie, and so on. That was the only music I listened to. My friends were into rock and roll, and I liked it myself, but I kept going back to the folk music.
And then my father and the three Clancys had a reunion. The first concert was at Lincoln Center, so we took a big family trip down to New York – I wore my brand new suit from Sears. We were right in the front row, and then the four of them came bounding out on stage, and I’d never seen anything like it – the audience was electric, they went crazy. That’s when I realized, “Wow, this isn’t what my friends’ parents do for a living.”
Clancy: Well, living in Waterford, it was all I knew – the sessions, the parties, people coming and going – and I enjoyed the fun and the energy. And I went to the Makem and Clancy shows and the reunion concerts, too, and I liked that. There was no particular time I thought we were any different than other families.

Q. What was it like for you to forge your own musical identities?
Makem: I tried not to do any Clancys/Makem songs for the longest time, because we were trying to separate ourselves. I started with a long-necked banjo – that’s what my father always played – and I’ve had it for a long time now. And people would ask, “Is that your father’s banjo?” So I tried not to be a jukebox for the Clancys and Makem, but you know, they are all such great songs! I went through every songbook, every record I have, looking for older songs.
Once, I was backing my father for a gig in New Orleans, and I thought I’d found a song he didn’t know, “The Trip We Took Over the Mountain.” He always would have me do a song during his concerts, so I sang it, and he applauded with everyone else.
Later, when we were back in the dressing room, Dad says, “That song you sang?” And I was thinking to myself, “Here it is, it’s one he doesn’t know.” Then he says, “Your granny used to sing that song.”
It’s a tough business to be in. My parents didn’t realize how tough it was to get work if your name wasn’t Tommy Makem or Liam Clancy, or Makem and Clancy. My mom managed them for years, and she didn’t have to make too many phone calls.
I tried to write my own songs with Mickey and Liam [Spain] – Mickey’s a great songwriter. It’s hard to write a song in the vernacular, and have it sound old, like something from the folk music canon. I’ve written a lot of songs that ended up in the garbage can.
But I’d be doing it, playing the music, no matter what. And there’s so much more I need to learn.
Clancy: There was no question of me playing music – my dad gave me my first guitar when I was eight, and I was doing gigs in my early teens. I went straight into the business after leaving school, and I started off doing something different, playing with a number of bands or whoever needed a guitar player.
It was only later on that I went back into the family’s music. I played in a trio with Robbie O’Connell and my dad, and we’d do a lot of the old songs. But Robbie loves to take the old songs and give them new melodies and adapted lyrics, and of course he’s a wonderful songwriter, so we’d do some of his songs. And I would do an instrumental on guitar.
Of course, I was with Danú at the beginning before the gig with my dad came up, which paid better, so I left. I came back to the band in 2003, but I did my last tour with them in March. It got to the stage, I think, where we are all settling down and it felt like whatever used to be there had kind of faded away – a lot of the guys who’d been there had left. The rest of them are really gung ho about it, so I felt it wasn’t fair to them if I wasn’t into it anymore.
My own music has changed. When I went solo, my interests started to shift.
The thing is with Makem and Clancy, they just sang the songs they liked; it didn’t matter where they came from. It’s much the same for me. I don’t differentiate between the family repertoire and what I do myself. When I do a solo gig, I’ll do some songs I wrote myself, and some instrumentals, and some other folk songs I’ve picked up along the way, and then I’ll usually throw in some of the old favorites.

Q. Looking back, what impresses you most about the Clancys and Makem and what they accomplished – going to America and creating something that seemed totally new?
Makem: I don’t think it was new to them.
Clancy: Exactly. You had these four lads from small-town Ireland who did something that was new and exciting without realizing it. They were doing something they loved in the way they felt it should be done.
And it’s amazing that our fathers, who were such kindred spirits, with the same interests, same ambitions, same backgrounds in many ways, happened to meet – really seems like it was just meant to be.
Makem: I’ve always thought they were the four right guys at the right time.
Clancy: Irish music was practically on the verge of extinction then. It was really looked down upon. You didn’t hear older folks singing the old songs anymore, they were more interested in whatever music was popular. It was inconceivable that someone could be a professional Irish folk singer.
Makem: That’s because nobody would want to do it.
Clancy: But when the Clancys started up, and they became popular, they helped resurrect all the old songs. They inspired a lot of people and that’s a big part of their legacy.
Makem: What’s sometimes forgotten is that the Clancys – beginning with Paddy and Tom – went to New York as actors and worked on and off Broadway. The singing was a lark. They’d put on shows after the plays, and that’s how they met the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie.
Clancy: That theatrical background was very important. They knew how to construct a show, how to pace things. So that definitely helped them appeal to audiences.
Makem: They were on the periphery of the folk scene. They wouldn’t have gone to Washington Square Park or hung out with the beatniks. They would’ve been hanging out with the newspaper guys, the writers. The people who went to New York for the folk music were academics, and they wanted to be what the Clancys and my father already were. And I always found it funny that my dad and the Clancys, although they were from rural Ireland, were more well-rounded and better read – they knew more than these people.
I hate to bring Bob Dylan into this again, since everyone always brings him up. But I saw an interview he did once in which he talked about the Clancys and my father, and he said, “There was always something in their eye, as if they knew something you didn’t know.” And it was absolutely true.
Clancy: They made a big impact on Irish music, one that was felt for years and years and widely appreciated. They got this big contract with Columbia Records, which was incredible for a bunch of guys from Ireland. It was Bono who said that the Clancys were the first Irish rock stars.

But they also had an impact on Ireland itself, at a time when the country wasn’t in the best way. You’d see them wearing the sweaters, with big smiles, standing and walking tall. They were proud and happy to be Irish, and that had a big effect on everyone.