It was one of those nights that performers dread - Manhattan midweek with the snow swirling down the avenues, piling a foot or more high on the footpaths.
God knows what we were doing in Folk City that night but luckily we showed or a legend would have played to an empty room. As it was, this man who had packed Carnegie Hall said “to hell with it,” after the first song and joined us at the bar.
And the show continued and a fine one it was. For Liam Clancy was a trouper and over the next couple of hours he gave his dilapidated audience a lesson in artistry and communication.
He took requests, recited Yeats, summoned forth a host of Gaelic ghosts, and then passed the guitar around and complimented every song that we served up for him.
In my callow youth Pete Seeger once warned, “what you leave out of a song is more important than what you put in.”
Liam epitomized that counsel. I’ve never heard anyone who could pack so much silence into a song. Take a listen to the recently re-released 1963 recording, In Person at Carnegie Hall by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (and while you’re at it read Sean Wilentz insightful liner notes).
Liam’s rendering of Patriot Game still stuns. It’s understated, contemplative and the end result is chilling – I know no other version that brings you so close to Fergal O’Hanlon, killed at the age of twenty in his futile attack on Brookeborough RUC Barracks in back 1957. No wonder Bob Dylan co-opted the song and gifted us the equally searing God On Our Side.
Did Liam’s power as a communicator spring from his experience as an actor? Perhaps, but it was probably just another of the many God given gifts bestowed on the Carrick man. And yet, Tommy Makem once told me that Liam couldn’t bear to be onstage alone. That he would often implore Tommy to remain with him when he took a solo turn.
And now they’re all gone and it’s a sad day. Liam, Tom, Pat and Tommy turned the insular world of Irish folk music on its ear. In many ways, they reinvented it by adding stagecraft, timing, theatricality and above all Liam’s use of silence to change the very way we listened to a song.
And what of the man himself? Some less generous souls felt he came across a little stagy; but let’s face it each public person has need of a defense mechanism, and they didn’t come much more public than the Clancys. I actually found Liam to be shy in his own way. Besides, in younger musicians (and others of their own generation) there was always a bit of jealousy of the Clancys and Makem. They seemed too good to be true.
But true they were, and bloody brilliant into the bargain. Liam, with that irrepressible twinkle in his eye was my particular favorite; he lived, ate and drank poetry, music and life, and was beyond generous and eager to pass along the vast sum of his wisdom.
The Clancys and Makem taught us that it’s not just the song; it’s how you present it and how sometimes you must strip it down to its elements so that it can breathe and glow.
I last saw Liam at NYU’s Ireland House earlier this year. Though ailing, he was still the impish seanchaí holding us spellbound as he reminisced and regaled us with tales of the early days with his brothers and Makem.
He confessed to deriving no pleasure in being the last man standing and he was wistful in the way that people are when they’re saying goodbye. Then he began to sing in Irish and time stood still. Few of us understood the words but it didn’t matter, the song spoke of love and death and the unique moment that we were living and, as ever, his trademark silence allowed each syllable to be etched in granite.
When we spoke later, he reminded me of a relative of mine who mistook him for a seal while he was scuba diving in Ring Harbor - with almost disastrous results.
That was Liam, always the irreverent smile to balance the inherent sadness in his music. We’ll miss you, a chara. Thanks for the songs – and the silence.