Trad Beat: Honoring Paddy Clancy

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By Earle Hitchner

What do Alabama-born folk-blues singer Odetta, ex-Greenbriar Boys’ banjoist Eric Weissberg (also of "Dueling Banjos" fame), Belfast singer, guitarist, and BBC Northern Ireland producer David Hammond, Canadian-born folksinger Oscar Brand, and Armagh-born singer Tommy Makem — all scheduled to perform at the Nov. 21 Paddy Clancy Memorial Concert in Manhattan’s Avery Fisher Hall — have in common? Apart from their involvement in America’s folk-music revival of the 1950s and early 1960s, they all released albums on Tradition Records, a label co-founded by folk-music collector Diane Hamilton and Paddy Clancy.

Long before the phrase "world music" became a marketing cliché, Tradition Records was home to the sounds of flamenco, Pakistan, Greece, Africa, folk, Celtic, jazz, and blues. It was the label that launched the recording career of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem ("The Rising of the Moon") as well as Odetta ("Sings Ballads and Blues") in 1956.

"She was one of the first people Paddy recorded," remembered his Mayo-born widow, Mary (née Flannery) Clancy, speaking from her sister’s home in Hempstead, L.I. "Odetta was becoming very well known at the time, and the success of her album on Tradition helped bankroll the label, in a sense, and allowed Paddy to record many more artists."

How influential was that initial album by Odetta on Tradition? Consider that a Hibbing, Minn., teenager named Robert Zimmerman, later to take the name Bob Dylan, cited "Sings Ballads and Blues" as a prime reason he turned to folk music. Also an avowed fan of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Dylan "borrowed" the melodies to their ballads "Brennan on the Moor" and "The Patriot Game" for his own compositions "Rambling, Gambling Willie" and "With God on Our Side." You don’t need to do a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" exercise to understand the vital connections linking Paddy Clancy, Tradition Records, Odetta, Bob Dylan, and the transformation of American folk music since then.

Paddy Clancy put his money where his mouth was, recording and championing music as eclectic as his own taste. It is just one of the many sides of the Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, singer, who passed away on Nov. 11, 1998, that will be evident at the Lincoln Center tribute concert this Sunday night.

Laying the groundwork

The idea for the concert began innocently enough. "I got a Christmas card from an old friend, John Gleeson," explained Mary Clancy, referring to the coordinator of Irish studies at the University of Wisconsin." He mentioned to me that we should set up a scholarship fund in memory of Paddy. We decided on a concert to start generating money, and it sort of built from there."

Mary Clancy admitted to some trepidation over the relatively short period of preparation for the concert at 2,700-seat Avery Fisher Hall.

"I’ve been told that it takes a year and a half to put one of these things together, and we’ve put it together in just a few months," she said. "It’s a little bit terrifying." With a nod toward her late husband’s love of working the land and breeding cattle on their 150-acre

farm in Carrick-on-Suir, Mary added, "I know about cows and farming, but this is something completely new to me."

What made the risk worth taking was her firm belief that Paddy Clancy would have approved and supported a scholarship fund to help young musicians.

"He was always fascinated by the idea of education and youngsters doing everything they wanted to do rather than being dictated to by economic circumstances," said Mary.

Selecting candidates for the scholarships will be an advisory board that includes former RTÉ broadcaster Ciarán Mac Mathúna, fiddler and Boston College instructor Séamus Connolly, Tommy Makem, composer, keyboardist, and University of Limerick professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, RTÉ archivist Harry Bradshaw, David Hammond, and 1999 National Heritage Fellowship winner Mick Moloney.

"What we hope to have," said Mary, "is enough funds to get Irish students to the United States to study music and get American students to, say, go to the Irish World Music Center at the University of Limerick for study. The concert is just the first step in all that."

A diverse lineup

Besides Makem and Hammond, Irish performers at the tribute concert will include stepdancers Donny and Eileen Golden, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Gabriel Donahue, balladeers Danny Doyle and Liam Tiernan (of Barleycorn), singer Carmel Quinn, and two-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Patrick Mangan.

The emcee will be Frank McCourt, author of the best-selling memoir "Angela’s Ashes" and " ‘Tis."

"Paddy and Frank knew each other for 45 years," Mary said. "Frank used to go to the Lion’s Head and the old White Horse Tavern, places where writers, raconteurs, and musicians met and where the Clancy Brothers used to sing in a back room."

In addition to Odetta, Weissberg, and Brand, the non-Irish concert performers will include ex-Silly Wizard fiddler Johnny Cunningham; singer Nick Reynolds of Kingston Trio fame; singer/songwriter Tom Paxton, who composed the poignant "The Last Thing on My Mind" and the cheeky "I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler"; and Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie, whose "One, I Love" song was memorably recorded on a solo album by ex-Solas vocalist Karan Casey two years ago. (Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, co-produced "I Am the Wee Falorie Man," David Hammond’s

1959 album of Irish folk songs for Tradition.)

"I think non-Irish people have been very interested in the folk movement over the years," said Mary Clancy, "and I’m hoping they’ll come to the concert to see some of these performers again. A number of them are friends of Paddy from the early days of the folk scene in Greenwich Village."

Now 60 years old, Mary conceded she doesn’t know all of them personally. "I myself didn’t meet Paddy until 1962 in New York City," she said. "Even though he had great success, he was really a very modest person. We married and moved to Ireland to raise a family while he continued to travel, so I never had the chance to get to know some of the people he knew. But I certainly plan to at the concert."

An enduring legacy

At Gerdes’ Folk City, a venerated Greenwich Village club now long gone, former employee Charlie Rothschild recalled a clever, if devious, ploy the owner occasionally used when contacting the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem for a performance.

"He used to book two of the Clancy Brothers, knowing that the other two would drop in and sing with them," Rothschild said. "This way, he’d only have to pay for two of them rather than four."

More than likely, they didn’t mind. The opportunity to sing and harmonize, to convey slices of Irish history and revelry with renewed strength and pride as well as a touch of theater they all shared: this was the payment, the currency they sought. And the international exposure they gave to Ireland’s oft-neglected musical tradition, especially vocal, cannot be overestimated. Countless other musicians now count on it and, at times, take it for granted.

With Tom having predeceased his brother Paddy, only Liam and Bobby (sometimes described as "the brother who stayed home") remain of the four singing Clancy Brothers. But their legacy, in tandem with friend Tommy Makem, remains vibrant, bound inextricably with the development of and current respect for folk music in both Ireland and America.

Even the 547 tracks found on Sony Music’s new 26-CD "Soundtrack for a Century," recapitulating music released on that label and its various imprints over the last 100 years, would be painfully incomplete without at least one clincher of a song from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The song selected, "The Patriot Game," features the voice of Liam Clancy and comes from a stirring concert they gave on March 17, 1963 at Carnegie Hall.

Songs like "The Foggy Dew," "The Jug of Punch," and "Boulavogue" will forever be linked to a voice that blended so well with others, Patrick "Paddy" Clancy’s. The large crop of Clancy Brothers recordings now in print, including Rykodisc’s mid-priced CD reissues of original Tradition albums, ensures that Paddy’s talent can be heard today. The scholarship fund in his name ensures that the talent of young performers can be heard tomorrow.

The Paddy Clancy Memorial Concert begins at 7 p.m. this Sunday, Nov. 21, in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, Broadway at 65th St., NYC. For tickets, call (212) 721-6500. All proceeds go to the Paddy Clancy Memorial Scholarship Fund. Contributions can also be mailed directly to the fund c/o Mary Rowley, P.O. Box 169, Warminster, PA 18974.

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