The Irish singer Tommy Makem who found when joined forces with Clancy Brothers and made successful appearaances with them in the early 1960s, first at Newport Folk Festival and subsequently on popular shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show, passed away on August the 1st at the age of 74. Makem and the Clancey’s made two inportant contributions to the popularising Irish singing.
First, they added instrumentation – guitars and banjos – to what had hitherto been an unaccompanied frorm of singing. The adding of this kind of instrumental accompaniment was not new to Americans – Woody Gutherie and The Weavers had been using it for a long time – but it was new to Irish folk singing. Irish singiers and singing groups, such as Christy Moore and The Dubliners, were quick to grasp the significance of this innovation. Ther realised that while unaccompanied singing could be –and still is – every effective when the surroundings are intimate, but that instrumental accompaniment is helpful in holding larger audiences.
The second innovartion – if such it could be called – was that they treated the songs as neither novelites to be heard in the music halls or art songs to be sung by semi-classical singers such as Count John McCormack. The songs were to some extent returned to the people for whom they made in the first pace and were once more central to a folk tradition that could stand in its own right.
Once they had established themseves, the Clancys and Makem steered clear of further innovation. They seemed more or less content to stick with doing what they did best, which was pleasing large audience. Innovation was left to those who followed.
Still, the passing of Tommy Makem should not go unmarked. He helped to bring the Irish “folk revival” to an audience it might not otherwise have reached and that in itself was an achievement.