LIAM CLANCY AT THE MAIN POINT
Interview with John McLaughlin
Reprinted from The Folk Life Quarterly
The Folk Life, Fall, 1979.
[The stereotype of the stage Irishman is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. Their stage act, derived to some extent from the years when the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem toured with Josh White, Sr., is a known crowd-pleasing mixture of rebel songs and sentimental ballads with dramatic monologues ad comic stories.
But its no haphazard grab-bag of melodies and soliloquies, as the following interview makes clear. Rather, its a carefully put together stage show, with a beginning, a rising middle, an a clear end, with artful placement of music and poetry in a varied, deliberately paced show thats guaranteed to send the crowd out of the door humming along with the closing verses.
The background for this skilful, professional structuring of an evenings entertainment is described by Liam Clancy in the interview which follows, obtained at the end of their evenings performance at The Main Point, Bryn Mawrs long-established folk music showcase. Asked aboutLiam how theyd so skillfully structured the closing set wed just seen, Liam offered to describe it to us, and out came the trusty tape-deck, so that we could put it in front of readers of The Folk Life. So here he is, and there you are. From here on, youre in the hands of a master].
John: Liam, what Im interested in is the way you fellows structure a set its opening and its closure for an audience, especially. Where does your skill in that come from?
Liam: Well, it comes from, I suppose, basically (laughs) twenty years of doing it!
Also from our background in the theatre. All of us in the original group, and also Tommy and I were first of all actors, and studying the plays we were in, just watching the way that a skilful playwright would build his play layer on layer, building a scene until he had established a mood and it works! Another thing that influenced us is that when were doing a new concert, as were doing in our new tour of Ireland coming up later this year, we cant go back with the same concert that weve done the last tour. So Tommy and I, well go into seclusion, and well go through our heads, and well delve up a way of approaching it and, as you say, openers and closers. Where do you go in the second song, how do you build it, where do you let down ? You move from well, the problem is youre out on the stage, spending two and a half hours a night, and youve got to keep people all the time interested. And that means movement and changes of mood. That means surprising them. Well, some of the wee things well do as apart from the songs themselves theres the sound of the tinwhistle followed by the concertina, then an unaccompanied song then therell be a new change of mood, change of lighting. Or Ill tell an Appalachian folktale.
John: Like "The Split Dog" you did tonight.
Liam: Right (laughs). Or well do a Gaelic song. Sometimes well get a bit out of tune, and Ill do a little Japanese song because of the Yamaha guitar, you know (laughter) -- oh, theyre little tricks, you know. An awful lot of them we learnt from working with people like Josh White [Sr]. He was a master at this. We were his opening act in our own younger days. Hed be backstage, waiting to go on, and wed finish our set. And, as you know, amateurs have no real "level of performance."
John: Exactly the point Utah Phillips makes! And theres no books to teach that, either.
Liam: Well, one night wed go out and wed have a few jars, and wed all be in a great mood. And, being amateurs, wed go out and wed have this wild animal! thing going on. And wed come off with the audience all going wild, and Josh would be standing in the wings laughing, you know. And wed say, "So lets see you follow that!" And what hed do, hed come out onstage, and hed look right in the eye of every person in that theatre, moving his head from one to the other, all across the audience. And hed pull up a chair, very quietly, and hed put one foot on it, and hed caress that old guitar, and hed start off, "I gave my love a cherry " and silence would pervade the hall. And then hed finish, and hed crowd that guitar, way up the neck, and hed go "Da-dadadadum!" And hed run his hand up the sixth string, until there was blood coming out of it and the electricity in that audience and they were his! We were just totally forgotten, do you see? And the following night, wed come off the stage just as limp wed have done a lousy show, we didnt know how to handle it, wed be getting this slow, rubbery applause from the crowd there was no way we were going to win them, they were Josh Whites audience and hed be back there laughing, and hed stride out there, and hed grab that chair, and go right into "Dadadadadum!" and there was just no way we were going to take over that audience.
John: And that was the craft.
Liam: That was the craft. And the structure of his set was incredible to watch too.
He would break a string on purpose if the set was going bad on him.
John: Ive seen that! He would break a string at the same place in the same song on a couple of nights running!
Liam: Oh, sure! And then hed turn to Bill Lee, the bass player, and he would give him a note, and hed start singing unaccompanied, "Summertime, and the livin is easy " and hed go on
John: That is a craft. But its a different kind of craft from just singing a song, isnt it?
Liam: Basically, thats what we do too. Were onstage for two and a half hours, and you have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you have to be building through the different sections in mood as you go.
John: You know, when I first ran across you fellow, it was through Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem albums. But one I ran across had Sarah Makem, singing "Little Beggarman."
Liam: Ah. Yes.
John: And then I found another version, of Tommy singing it, and it was the same, but different too.
John: And that kind of use of the tradition was what I was interested then, and it had nothing to do with the kind of set-building concretizing were talking about here. It was a different kind of focus.
John: You know, theres someone whos a master at this building a show too, and you wouldnt think at first he would be. Its Joe Heaney, from Connemara. He sings in the Gaelic mostly, and he sings unaccompanied, but hes a master of looking an audience in the eye. He has a very strange, twisted kind of humor too, that he introduces his songs with, and its almost like watching a snake, hes hypnotic.
John: Like Seamus Ennis?
Liam: Like Seamus Ennis. Ive seen Seamus come out on the stage at a fleadh ceoil, and all these unfortunate tenors had been there, all twisting their program books in their hands until they were shredded to bits with nerves by the time they were through with the song, and Ennis would walk out onstage he came out one night, and the audience was bored to tears with the concert by this point, and he walks out, with his coat still on, and his pipes still in the old case. And he walks up to the microphone, and he says, "Hello." And the whole audience says "Hello" back to him. And he then turns his back to them, puts down the case, and he took off the hat, opened the case, and started taking out the pipes and putting them together.
John: The audience must have been stunned.
Liam: They were. He puts the pipes together, as he says to them, "There was a man one time, and he was going home, and he found this golden ring ."
John: Och, all right, man!
Liam: Right! "And it was too small for the finger of his hand, and he had fallen asleep during the night, just listening to the music of a fairy piper, and when he awoke this was shining in the grass near him. He knew that it must belong to the people who were making music the night before, so he went up to this cliff, and he kicked on it, and this little man came out, and said, Whats all the kicking about? And he says, I found this gold ring, and it must belong to one of your people who were singing and dancing and playing last night. And the little man says, That is a ring belonging to us, and well be forever grateful to you for returning it to us. What can we do for you in return? And so the man says to him, Ill tell you what you can do for me then. Im a piper myself, and Id love to have that tune the wee piper played last night. No sooner said than done, says the wee man, and he went in and he came out with a tiny set of pipes. And he played up the most beautiful tune that was ever heard in the world. And to this day, that tune is called "The Gold Ring." And I have it ."
John: "And I have it"!
Liam: -- and at that minute the pipes were ready, and away he went and at that point, no matter what the tune was, the audience was bound to love it.
John: Of course! Thats great setting.
Liam: There we are.
John: You know, theres something Ive noticed that were talking about. People who have a few songs, people whore just beginning to get out and perform a bit, may be musicians, but theyre not necessarily performers yet. They dont have a set. And as you say, you do have to move an audience along with you you have to start them up, to open them up and get them going but then you have to close the audience down too, at the end.
Liam: Well, you know, I once got myself into a very dangerous situation one night at an Irish festival. We had a crowd out on the street millions of dancers the pubs were all closed and this other fellow and I started singing, started out down the street, and everybody joined in, and they all followed us, because they figured we knew what we were doing, and where we were going. And by the time we got to the other end of town, we had an army! We tried to stop them, and there was no way, and I could see that it was getting a bit dangerous. Somebody got hit on the side of the head by the skin of an orange it was a small thing, but it could get sour in a minute. And I knew we had to get back to the hotel, which had big iron gates in front of it. So we started into the songs again, and got back into the mood one more time. And by the time we got back to the hotel gates there were several hundred people following us. I tried to get through the gates the old Brown Hotel in Ennis they would have torn the gates out of the cement! If I had gone in there then and they couldnt get in after me? I thought, "What in the name of God am I going to do?" So what I did was, I stood up on the wall, and very quietly I started to singing, "The Parting Glass." Slowly, bit by bit, the audience it was an audience by now all started joining in. And some people carried it, and, at the end of the song, I was able to step off the wall, slip in through the gates, and the crowd quietly dispersed.
John: Thats a great story.
Liam: I realized that night exactly what youre saying, that an audience has to be brought in, and then it has to be sent out.
John: You know Mick Moloney?
John: We had a conversation once, in an interview that was printed in The Folk Life, and he said that very few young musicians in the US are learning the slow airs, like "The Parting Glass," and so on. And he explained how that was, with the learning of music in the pubs, that kinds of social context and so on. You know, where with a slow air you need to have an audience listening, where for the jigs and reels the musicians can all join in together and learn them as they go, you know? But if thats the case, then where do these young musicians learn to close a concert, as youve just described?
Liam: Its hard. Going back to Seamus Ennis, I was in a pub in Dublin one night, and Barney McKenna was singing "Roisin a Dubh" you know [sings it].
John: I never associated Barney McKenna with singing slow airs. I always thought of him as the classic machine gun banjo picker.
Liam: Well, he was singing this, head back, eyes closed, and you could hear a pin drop and this was a big, rowdy pub, usually. And Ennis, he leant over to me and he said, "Now, there is a man who loves every note of the music." Now, that is the secret! Loving a song, or loving what youre doing its infectious!
[It is, indeed. And now if you want to hear how that translates into he kind of a concert weve been discussing, you could get in touch with Rounder Records, for the two-record set, The Makem and Clancy Concert (Blackbird BLB 1002), with big roarers like "The Rocky Road to Dublin" and "The 2,000 Year Old Alcoholic," as well as a dramatic reading of the Gordon Bok poem, "Peter Kagan and the Wind," and a version of Eric Bogles "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" that is second only to Ian Robbs tender version. And youll see why theres a lot more to Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem than the stage Irishmen theyve all too often been taken for.]