The Clancy Brothers:
keeping the faith

An interview by Tom Knapp,
March 1995

There seems to be an unquenchable thirst in the world for traditional Celtic music.

It's a thirst the Clancy Brothers helped create in the '60s and one they've helped satisfy for more than three decades. Liam, the youngest of the brothers, doesn't like to tally the years they've spent on the road. "Don't even remind us how long," he said, chuckling. With more than 50 albums to their credit, there's no denying the Clancys have made a permanent mark on Celtic culture. Many people credit them with giving the traditional music the boost it needed.

But how have the Clancy Brothers changed in three decades? "Not much," said nephew Robbie O'Connell, who joined the ensemble in 1977. The band's membership has altered slightly over the years. When Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy embarked on solo careers in the '70s, Bobby Clancy and Robbie O'Connell filled their slots. In 1990, brother Tommy Clancy died and Liam returned to the band. "We've been around forever," offered Liam. "We got older." Then he laughed. "Older but wiser."

Years on the road have given the Clancys much-needed seasoning, he said. "We're a bit like blues singers," he explained. "Blues singers kind of mellow into it as they go along. ... We're not as wild and woolly as we used to be. A little bit more mature." But the music? "It's very much the same as it was," he said.

Much of the Clancys' vast discography is being re-released on compact disc, he noted. "There's a boom, a massive new interest in Irish music, song and dance," he said. "We're all reaping the benefits of this renaissance." There's a flood of new Celtic musicians on the market -- including a big migration of American musicians to Ireland, where they write and record while steeping in the culture. The growth of Celtic music has taken many forms, from pure traditional renditions by the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftains to the new age renderings of Enya and Clannad. Each has its place, Liam said.

"There are as many facets as there are people working in the field," he said. "It's all grist for the mill. It's all distilled through the souls of the people who play it." The management for Irish rock band U-2 is working with Atlantic Records to produce an album series called "Celtic Heartbeats," he said. The series will work mostly with new talent but "will hopefully find room for us old-timers."

Some Americans show their Irish only on St. Paddy's Day and to them, "Danny Boy" is the only real Irish hit. To the Clancys, who have plumbed the depths of Celtic tradition for a rich and varied playlist, that's a joke -- perhaps even an insult. "I think we scotched that one a long time ago," Liam said. "To me, 'Danny Boy' is schmaltzy. But the tune to 'Danny Boy,' the 'Londonderry Air,' is magnificent. The schmoozy, oozing quality of the words are what drive me crazy."

Instead, listen to some of their classics, like "Wild Rover," "The Foggy Dew," "Finnegan's Wake," "The Jug of Punch" and "The Wild Colonial Boy." Expect to hear "Will You Go Lassie Go," Liam's personal favorite. And don't be afraid to sing along. "When you're a participant and not just an observer, it gives you so much energy," Liam said. "Once an audience starts, they just don't want to stop singing." Traditional Celtic songs often have unusual depth, Liam said, because of the living that proceeded the writing. "It's the honesty and the simplicity," he said. "Anything that comes from the writer's own personal background. Then it's real, it's not formulaic. ... I keep looking for songs that come out from that same kind of emotion."

"It comes from a different time and a different place," he added. "People were writing their own experiences, they weren't writing for profit. You can't duplicate that. You can't just say 'I'm a songwriter, I'm going to write a rap song' or 'I'm going to write a pop song.' ... That song isn't going to have any meaning. What's there to begin with?"

To write with true emotion, he said, writers need experience. "A lot of people today are just watching life secondhand on television," he said. "They're not living life. ... They've lost touch with nature, they've lost touch with family, lost touch with work."

A song needs a few things to qualify for the Clancy's repertoire, Liam explained. "Mainly we go for a good storyline, a song that's real -- not what we call Mickey Mouse. It's not made up, it's not Tin Pan Alley," he said. "The story, the emotions are the most important thing. There has to be poetry in it ... something that grabs you one way or another. It has to have universality."

The emotion filters through even when the audience doesn't know the words, he said. "Some of the most requested songs are in Irish. People don't understand what they say, but they still carry some deep emotional message to them. It seems to dredge up some old race memories. ... I think it touches some deeper core from the old European psyche. After all, the Celts started out in middle Eastern Europe. One branch of them traveled south along the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast. Another branch went north, then down through Scandinavia and Scotland." He was amazed, he said, at a recent performance in Denmark. "We thought we were going to have to have an interpreter, we didn't know how they were going to understand us," he said. "To our incredible amazement, everybody sang every song with us."

Much Irish music has grown from political turmoil. Now that peace seems to be at hand, it's possible, Liam conceded, that new Irish music will change. "We need conflict in our lives," he said. As examples he cited Italy, which produced great opera and great art on the heels of great strife, and passive Switzerland, whose great contribution to art has been the cuckoo clock. But O'Connell doesn't agree that the recent cease-fire between Irish nationalists and unionists will have much impact. "The amount of music that's related to the political situation is very small," he said. "So it's really not a factor."

Much Irish music deals with love, O'Connell said. "The drinking songs and fighting songs come later." Liam hopes peace will help, not hinder, the music. "It looks very very good at the moment," he said. "If the two conflicting traditions start a friendlier coexistence, I think there's going to be a lot of sharing. ... The fusion is happening already."

[ by Tom Knapp ]