Friday, August 03, 2007

Tommy Makem, R.I.P.

Tommy Makem, known as the Godfather of Irish Music for more than 50 years, has died.

Tommy moved to the United States from Northern Ireland in 1955 and in 1961 shared honors with Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival as the most promising newcomers on the folk scene. He particularly enjoyed the Irish ballads and was equally comfortable playing a banjo, a tin whistle or signing a capella. Among his best-known songs are Four Green Fields, Gentle Annie, Will You Go, Lassie, Go (above), Red is the Rose.

Though he was best known for his teamwork with the Clancy Brothers, he spent nearly half his career as a concert soloist. Kevin Cullen, formerly an international reporter for the paper, has written an extraordinary reflection of Tommy's life, The Green Fields of Tommy Makem, in the The Boston Globe

But Tommy Makem was an Irish soul singer, and souls don't die. His music is preserved, on the old vinyl LPs he made with his pals, the Clancy Brothers, more recently on CDs, more intimately in memory, in the hard drive of any brain that heard his basso profundo voice.

To hear Tommy Makem sing "Four Green Fields" was to hear Enrico Caruso sing "Vesti la giubba," or James Brown sing "I Feel Good." He was for Irish traditional music a great ambassador, and a consummate performer.

President Mary McAleese of Ireland led the tributes to Makem after his death. "Always the consummate musician, he was also a superb ambassador for the country, and one of whom we will always be proud," McAleese said.

Among Makem's favorites was The Bard of Armagh, set to the tune later adapted for Streets of Laredo:
Oh list' to the tale of a poor Irish harper
And scorn not the string of his old withered hands
But remember those fingers they once could move sharper
To raise up the strains of his dear native land.

It was long before the shamrock, dear isle's lovely emblem
Was crushed in its beauty by the Saxon's lion paw
And all the pretty colleens around me would gather
Call me their bold Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

How I love to muse on the days of my boyhood
Though four score and three years have fled by them
It's king's sweet reflection that every young joy
For the merry-hearted boys make the best of old men.

At a fair or a wake I would twist my shillelah
And trip through a dance with my brogues tied with straw
There all the pretty maidens around me would gather
Call me their bold Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

In truth I have wandered this wide world over
Yet Ireland's my home and a dwelling for me
And, oh, let the turf that my old bones shall cover
Be cut from the land that is trod by the free.

And when Sergeant Death in his cold arms doth embrace
And lull me to sleep with old Erin go bragh
By the side of my Kathleen, my dear pride, oh place me
Then forget Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

Go n-éirí an bothar leat, bard and Irisher.

Many thanks to Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters for the Gaelic translation of the old Irish blessing, "May the road rise with you."

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