The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem achieved enormous success in America by singing songs they had known since childhood and which were considered old hat back home in Ireland.
That didn’t matter because they seemed fresh and authentic to American audiences that had never heard such music before. But there was more to it than that.
The Clancys didn’t just sing the old songs in the old way. They brought a new style and a sense of showbiz to their performances.
The band breathed new life into old songs
In one respect, The Clancys were an idea whose time had come. The folk revival was gathering pace.
The Clancys were in the right place at the right time but that said, they made the most of the opportunities presented to them. They wanted to perform the old songs in a new way.
When recalling their early days, Tommy Makem described how most people’s idea about Irish music at that time came from performances by people like John McCormick, or even Bing Crosby.
By contrast, the three Clancys and Makem would all gather round one microphone and create a riot of sound.
Liam Clancy and the sound of galloping horses
Liam Clancy described how the band would often discuss ways of adding new energy to tired old songs.
Their rendition of Brennan on the Moor was one of their early successes. In previous generations, it had been sung in a slow, melancholy way.
Clancy describes how he was sitting on a couch while considering a new approach to the song. He started bouncing up and down on the springs to get a rhythm going.
He said to his brothers: “Let’s get the sound of galloping horses and belt it out like highwaymen.”
Adding a touch of showbiz to traditional folk music
It wasn’t just the more dynamic singing style that made The Clancys stand out.
Most performers in the folk revival were quiet and reserved on stage; barely speaking other than to introduce the songs. The Clancys were very different.
They were actors as well as singers and they brought a touch of showbiz and theatre to their performances that came like a breath of fresh air to many people.
Adding drama to songs like Finnegan’s Wake
The Clancy’s performance of Finnegan’s Wake was a perfect example of their sense of theatre.
They didn’t just sing the song. They introduced it with Tom Clancy doing a highly stylised recital of the opening lines of the novel Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.
It’s an impenetrable novel by most people’s standards and Tom was able to raise plenty of laughter by threatening to recite all 500 pages.
The Clancys pleased the public rather than the purists
For some folk music purists, The Clancys showbiz style was a little too much to take.
There’s no doubt, however, that it helped them appeal to millions of people who had never heard Irish songs before and were delighted by them.
The Clancys polished style helped to make Irish music popular across the world.