Troubadour who didn't do justice to his talent
CULTURE SHOCK:Liam Clancy's seductive voice, with its warmth and precision, ensured he helped lead the folk revival movement in the late 1950s. But after that, he ended up essentially following it
ON THE NIGHT of Liam Clancy’s funeral, RTÉ’s Six One Newsdescribed him as the greatest Irish folk singer of his generation and perhaps of all time.
Even allowing for the proper extravagance of graveside encomiums, this was laying it on a bit thick. Never mind eternity – Liam Clancy was not the best Irish folk singer of his own time. I’m sure he would readily have agreed that that title belonged to a truly great artist, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí (Joe Heaney). This is not a point of any great importance – Heaney was a rare genius, and comparisons to him do no one any favours. What is important, though, is that Liam Clancy was not quite the singer he could and should have been.
To say this is not to diminish him. On the contrary, he is arguably more diminished by the implicit suggestion that his achievements matched his abilities. The melancholic truth is that his talent was bigger than what he managed to do with it. There is no shame in this, and he is in very good company, but it is worth reflecting on the reasons why his gifts so seldom found their full expression.
To get to grips with this question, we have to separate two aspects of Clancy – his influence on others and his own work. The influence was undoubtedly immense, lasting and benign. With his brothers and Tommy Makem, he put a very heavy stamp on both musical and broader cultural developments on each side of the Atlantic. The Clancys fed into the American folk revival, most famously through Bob Dylan’s idolisation of Liam. They also changed the soundtrack of Irish America from Bing Crosby and Mother Macree to something closer to the song traditions of Ireland itself. And back home they epitomised a revival of interest in that music that was also a search for a culturally distinctively brand of modernity.
Liam Clancy was a huge part of all of that and he will always be remembered for it. But most of it happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he was in his 20s. When that influence is acknowledged, there remains the question of Clancy’s own career. Or, to reduce it to another, much cruder question: how many great albums did he make? The answer, to my ears at least, is precisely one. It is a solo album, recorded for Vanguard in 1965, released as Liam Clancy, and re-released with extra material in 1999 as Irish Troubadour. The haunting thing about the album is that it is so very good. It has the odd slice of folky ham ( All For Me Grogand Hi For the Beggarman) and a rather dirge-like version of the Scottish ballad Lang A-Growing. Otherwise, the original album is a masterpiece.
These are the tracks in which you realise that Dylan’s description of Clancy as the best ballad singer he ever heard wasn’t just blarney.
There is the best version of The Rocky Road to Dublinyou’ll ever hear, sung with a joy and brio that become heart-stopping when a young Luke Kelly joins in on the chorus.
There’s a rendition of the mill-workers’ protest song Ten and Nine, in which Clancy fuses a genuine anger at social injustice with a deep compassion for the plight of the wage slave. Clancy’s singing of the great lament from his native Tipperary, The Convict of Clonmelis shaped by his actor’s instinct for the psychological state of the narrator and for the drama of his desolation.
From the quiet tragedy of Anach Cuainor Blackwater Sideto the lilting good humour of The Galway Races, Clancy brings the taste and precision, the grace and range, of a young master to bear on the songs. There’s a warmth and intimacy to his voice, a complete lack of strain, that is utterly seductive. There’s also a storyteller’s commitment to the words – Clancy’s diction and phrasing are exemplary in their clarity of expression.
The problem with this wonderful album is that there’s really nothing like it in the rest of his career. The Clancy of the next 40 years is a fine entertainer, a charismatic persona, the wonderful presence who leaps off the screen with his eloquence, devilment and intelligence in Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, and in Alan Gilsenan’s superb The Yellow Bittern. What he’s not is an older, more mature version of the great young singer so poignantly captured on that record. What we remember him singing is not a work of depth and dignity such as The Convict of Clonmelbut the faux-folk pap of The Dutchman.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Clancy was at his best as a solo singer, performing with minimal accompaniment. The great gift he had is intimacy. But was he, at some level, afraid of that intimacy? He existed as an entertainer largely in combination with his brothers, with Makem or with both. Perhaps, having tasted mainstream success with them so early, he simply could not settle for the more modest and direct style that best suited his artistic gift.
Just as obviously, however, Clancy decided at some stage that the repertoire of Irish and Scottish traditional songs that he explores with such confidence in that solo album was somehow not what his audiences wanted to hear. The “folk revival” may have opened up the world of traditional song to a whole new generation of listeners, but “folk” gradually came to mean something else – something that was, for the most part, much blander.
Having helped to lead the movement, Clancy ended up essentially following it, away from its roots in traditional song and towards a radio-friendly, middle-of-the-road mire.
In this, the unfulfilled nature of Clancy’s career is a poignant part of a larger story – the failure of popular Irish folk to develop a great re-interpreter and re-inventor of the tradition. There is no equivalent in singing to a figure in instrumental music such as Martin Hayes. There is no Irish equivalent of, for example, of what singers such as Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan or Alim Qasimov have done with Islamic singing traditions, or even of what a figure such as Martin Carthy has done in England. It is the mark both of his great talent and of his ultimate failure to do it justice that Clancy could have been that figure.