September 08, 2007
Tommy Makem, RIP
Tommy Makem died on August 1, and I heard about it only when I was on vacation in China. He was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh, only a few minutes drive from my family in Monaghan. When I was a child, the music of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers would often be heard in my home. He was a fine artist, and a respected peer of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the other folk stars of the 1960s. I hope you like the above song, which does not appear to be that old, but which features a Tommy Makem who is still fairly strong.
Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh (the "Hub of the Universe" as Makem always said), in Northern Ireland. His mother, Sarah Makem, was also a successful folk singer, as well as an important source of traditional Irish music, who was visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle.
He emigrated to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes (from his time in a pipe band). He went to work in a mill in Dover, New Hampshire; but in 1956, a mill accident crushed his hand. With his arm in a sling, he sought out the Clancy Brothers in New York to make music.
The Clancys were signed to Columbia Records in 1961. The same year, at the Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez were named the most promising newcomers on the American folk scene. During the 1960s, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and made television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. The group performed at The White House for President Kennedy. They also played in smaller venues such as Gate of Horn in Chicago.
Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. In 1975, he and Liam Clancy were both booked to play a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and were persuaded to do a set together. Thereafter they often performed as Makem and Clancy, recording several albums together. He once again went solo in 1988.
In the 1980-90s, Makem was a principal in a well-known New York Irish music venue, "Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion." This E. 57th Street club was a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. A random list of performers and visitors includes Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem was a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem & Clancy, particularly in the late fall and holiday season. The club was also used for warm-up performances in the weeks before the 1984 reunion concert of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Lincoln Center.
In 1997 he wrote a book, Tommy Makem's Secret Ireland, and in 1999 premiered his own one man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. He also established the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000.
Makem died following a lengthy battle with lung cancer in Dover, New Hampshire. He continued to record and perform until very close to the end. Paying tribute to him after his death, Liam Clancy said, "He was my brother in every way"
His sons Shane, Conor, and Rory ("The Makem Brothers") and nephew Tom Sweeney continue the family folk music tradition. He also had one daughter Katie Makem-Boucher and two grandchildren Molly Dickerman and Robert Boucher. His wife, Mary predeceased him in 2001.