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THE CLANCY BROTHERS & TOMMY MAKEM Tradition TCD1022

Tradition are doing a grand job re-releasing seminal records from three or four decades ago - they've recently put out Seamus Ennis' "The Bonny Bunch of Roses", for which much praise - and this is the second helping of the Clancy's back catalogue, following on from "The Lark in the Morning" a few months back. It's many a long year since I first (and last) heard this record, and yet it seems like no time at all. Nor is this merely the habitual temporal distortion of a mind rapidly moving towards senility; rather, it's that the songs on the record have gone on to provide the repertoire for folk revival groups on every continent.

No doubt one has to be grateful to the Clancys for familiarising a lot of people with a lot of folk songs that they might not otherwise have heard; yet they also have to take the rap for spreading around a big helping of misinformation as regards what the folk singing tradition is all about. The sleeve notes of the time sure swallowed their line: "... folk music can sometimes be a bit rough around the edges and not always the most technically polished, yet the conviction and belief and artistry (will) still be there". True, mutatis mutandis, for virtually everything; yet the Clancys, in their quest to give the US audience something a bit less twee than what their folk revival had served up to them until then, did perhaps more than anyone to contribute to the myth that in folk song, somehow, you don't need to worry about technique or familiarity with the tradition - anyone can just get up there and belt 'em out; that shouting can be a substitute for feeling; that brashness, exuberance and rhythmic and melodic simplicity are where it's at.

But what these lads served up wasn't some class of naive peasant singing, fresh from the bogs; it was (and this record perhaps exemplifies it better than any other) a highly skilful form of variety of entertainment for the non-connoisseur, carefully contrived so as not to task the sensitivities or the attention span of even the dullest individual. The songs, a mixture of Irish and Scottish with a bit of nauticalia thrown in, are never even three minutes long, with the exception of their blockbusting finale "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" which, at 3:35, must have been somewhat of a marathon for some of their public. The boys were no strangers to the theatre and knew how to project, how to hold and keep an audience, and everything is subservient to that end, including heavily non-traditional features such as the dramatic use of vocal dynamics.

The material, of course, hardly matters as long as you keep changing the mood. So, "The Bard of Armagh" has to be followed by "The Jug of Punch", and "Ballinderry" by "Bungle Rye", all the more raucous numbers being punctuated by that irritating whoop at the start of each line which the lads had off to a T. I'll refrain from enumerating the remainder of the songs - you know them all anyway, as well as you know your mammy's birthday.

Some will argue, of course (and indeed they do), that the Clancys approach has sparked so many followers and imitators that it has become a tradition in itself. I guess that's self-evidently true, and would merely counter that it's not a tradition that I find at all moving or interesting. And yet, withal, I can't find it in me to despise this, or any of the Clancy's other recordings. Sure nostalgia's a fierce thing.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 24 of The Living Tradition magazine.