Tommy Makem was born in Keady, Co Armagh, in 1932. His mother, Sarah Makem, born 1900, and her cousin Annie Jane Kelly were members of the Singing Greenes of Keady. They contributed a number of fine songs to the BBC and other collections. Sarah’s song As I Roved Out was used by BBC radio in the 1950s as the title and signature tune for their folk music programme. Her husband Peter was a fiddler and their sons Jack and Tommy are both musicians. As well as singing, Tommy plays whistle, war pipes (bagpipes), banjo, drums, piccolo and guitar.
The American song collector Jean Ritchie visited the Makem homestead in the winter of 1952-53 to record Sarah Makem. “It became a party that just grew; by evening the whole community was there,” she wrote later. Tommy was so impressed with the project that long after the collector had left he was still going around the locality collecting old songs.
It was during a visit by another collector, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, in 1955, that Tommy met Liam Clancy. Intent on pursuing a career as an actor, in the following year he and Liam travelled to New York and teamed up with Liam’s older brothers. They were doing some stage acting in summer stock and off Broadway. Tommy and Liam started singing in a place called The Fifth Peg in Greenwich. They soon found themselves getting $125 a week compared to $45 for acting in summer stock and off Broadway. They also listened to American folk revival groups like The Kingston Trio and The Weavers .
Tommy Makem played a full role as a singer, raconteur and instrumentalist in the Clancy Brothers which enjoyed 14 years of fame after a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961. They recorded their first album in 1959, The Rising of the Moon. In the 1960s, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sold out major venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, as well as appearing on every major television network in the US. They recorded extensively and albums include Hearty and Hellish (1962), The Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone (1962) and Freedom’s Sons (1966).
They brought a new consciousness to Irish music and, as Liam Clancy said, made it “respectable again for so-called respectable people to sing working-class songs”. As a singer, raconteur and instrumentalist, Tommy Makem played a pivotal role in the group’s success, and their lively style and presentation were imitated by numerous groups in subsequent years. They can be credited with introducing many of today’s leading performers to traditional music.
1969 Tommy Makem left the Clancy Brothers for a solo career after serving out a one-year notice. He had already recorded a solo album Songs of Tommy Makem in 1961. Best-known of his compositions are Four Green Fields and Gentle Annie. A sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden was followed by tours of Australia, Ireland and Britain.
He also became well-known for his television work, being involved in over 70 programmes, including a number of series for the BBC, Ulster and Scottish TV and a 90-minute special in 1992 for a New York TV station called Tommy Makem and Friends. Solo albums include Songs for a Better Tomorrow (1963), Bard of Armagh (1970) and In the Dark Green Woods (1974).
In 1975 he met up with Liam Clancy when they were both booked into a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio. They decided to team up and became a successful duo, best remembered for their version of Eric Bogle’s And the Band Pkayed Waltzing Mathilda. This was from their album The Makem and Clancy Concert, recorded July 25-30 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in 1977. They split amicably in 1988 and Tommy Makem resumed his solo career.
A regular visitor to Ireland, in 2006 he expressed concern about “cultural amnesia” among young people. “We’re so obsessed with modernity, we don’t realize what we’re losing,” he told the Boston Globe . “They’re making gazillions of dollars in Ireland, but they’re losing their culture.” Nevertheless, he was convinced that the innate strength of Irish traditional music would guarantee its survival.
His book, Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland, was published in 1997. He devised and performed in the one-man show Invasions and Legacies at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York in 1999.
The World Folk Music Association awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. The recipient of honorary degrees from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Limerick, an honorary DLitt was conferred on him by the University of Ulster in July 2001.
Tommy Makem died on August 1, 2007, at his home in Dover NH.. He was predeceased by his wife Mary. He has a daughter Kate and his three sons, Shane, Conor and Rory, continue the family tradition, performing as the Makem Brothers .
His death attracted considerable media interest in Ireland and America. His son Shane said his father’s greatest legacy would be his influence on other musicians. He recalled that Bob Dylan insisted he hold an after-show party in Tommy Makem’s Pavilion bar in New York after a 30th anniversary Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden in 1992 in which the Clancys and Makem had sung When the Ship Comes In.
“It was late at night when nearly everyone had gone home and I remember Bob urging my father to play some Irish ballads for himself and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Of course he obliged,” Shane said.