In the early 1960s, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were already established among the leading performers of the folk music revival.
They were based in the New York suburb of Greenwich Village, which had become a focal point for aspiring young folk singers.
Many of them like Peter, Paul and Mary, Paul Simon, Tom Paxton and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful were to become major stars.
But the biggest star of all would be a fresh faced young man who looked up to The Clancy Brothers and kept pestering them for advice.
He had just changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan.
The restless kid who followed the Clancys around
Dylan spent a lot of time watching the band perform and studying their singing style.
Liam Clancy, in his autobiography, Memoirs of an Irish Troubador, describes Dylan as a restless, fidgeting kid who seemed to show up everywhere the band were playing. He was forever following them around, but they liked him so they didn’t mind.
But Dylan later said his mind was like a sponge at that time. He was absorbing information at a breakneck pace, and The Clancys were an excellent source.
Dylan loved the storytelling power of Irish songs
In his autobiography, Chronicles, Bob Dylan acknowledged his debt to The Clancys and the influence they had on him.
Most biographies of Dylan, such as Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, also cover his relationship with The Clancys during his formative years as an artist.
He became close friends with the band, particularly Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem. They introduced him to numerous Irish songs like The Ould Triangle and Brennan on the Moor which Dylan loved.
Irish rebellion songs really moved me – Bob Dylan
In Chronicles, Dylan described how a lot of his contemporaries in the early 1960s were trying to write topical songs based on stories they may have heard in the papers.
Dylan felt most of the resulting songs were quite tame; they lacked power and emotion. By contrast, Dylan found a better source of inspiration in the songs The Clancys were singing.
He wrote: “What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs, and those really moved me. The Clancy Brothers — Tom, Paddy and Liam — and their buddy Tommy Makem sang them all the time.”
He not only liked the powerful melodies and the rebel themes, he was also influenced by the structure and storytelling techniques. He later incorporated some of those techniques in his own songs.
Roddie McCorley becomes Ramblin Gamblin’ Willie
Like many idealist young men, Dylan had a rebellious streak at that time and he was attracted to the stories of Irish rebels in the songs being sung by The Clancys.
They reminded him of the folk heroes of American songs sung by people like Woody Guthrie.
One day, Dylan showed Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem a new song he had written called Ramblin Gamblin Willie. It too was about a rebel folk hero and was written to the tune he had learnt from The Clancys, called Roddy McCorley.
Clancys get Dylan his first big break
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in America in 1962 and had a huge impact.
They became instant celebrities and soon were being courted by record company executives.
One day they got a phone call from the legendary John Hammond of Columbia Records. He needed a harmonica player for an afternoon’s recording session and wondered if they knew of anyone.
They suggested Bob Dylan. It was a big break for Dylan who later signed with Columbia. John Hammond became his producer.
Dylan acknowledges his debt to the Clancys
As Liam Clancy said, after that Dylan’s career just took off into the firmament but he never forgot his debt to The Clancy Brothers.
He invited them to play at his 30th anniversary concert in 1992. They joined him on stage to sing, When the Ship Comes In. After the show, Dylan insisted that everyone go back to Tommy Makem’s pub in New York for a party.
During the evening, Liam told Dylan that The Clancys were thinking of recording an album of his songs using Irish arrangements.
Dylan looked awestruck and said: “Would you do that Liam? Would you do that?”
Clancy asked him if he would mind. Dylan looked at him in surprise and said: “You still don’t get it do you Liam? You’re my heroes man, you’re my heroes.”