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Tommy Makem

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  • Born: Keady, County Armagh, Ireland
  • Died: Dover, NH
  • Years Active: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s
  • Tommy Makem

  • Tommy Makem


Biography All Music GuideWikipedia

All Music Guide:

Folk singer Tommy Makem is one part storyteller, one part musician, one part singer, and one part actor, so his live shows are usually quite lively and engaging, especially since he has spent more than five decades in folk music. A typical Makem concert involves traditional and contemporary Irish tunes performed on banjo and tin whistle, with a bit of background on each song's history as well.

Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh, Ireland, and got much of his musical education from his mother, Sarah Makem, herself a legendary folk singer and an ethnomusicologist before the term was coined. The songs Makem learned from his mother provided the foundation for his later efforts with the Clancy Brothers and his work as a duo with Liam Clancy.

As a young man, Makem most wanted to become an actor, so he moved to New York in the mid-'50s. He began singing professionally in New York one night in 1956 when he was asked to sing at Greenwich Village's Circle in the Square Theater. After receiving $30 for singing just a few folk songs, he was hooked. Makem began hanging out with Pete Seeger and the other members of the Weavers in 1956, when he first saw them perform.

In the late '50s, Makem teamed up with Tom, Liam, and Paddy (Patrick) Clancy to form the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. The group made its professional debut at Circle in the Square Theater in the Village and was signed to Columbia Records by talent scout John Hammond in 1961. By then, folk music had come into fashion in a big way. Makem frequently shared festival bills with Seeger, Bob Dylan, and other beacons of the acoustic movement. At the 1961 Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez were chosen as the two most promising newcomers to the American folk music scene. After playing to sell-out audiences at Carnegie Hall in the early '60s, the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem made appearances throughout the '60s on major TV shows like Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and other programs. Makem originals like "Four Green Fields," "Gentle Annie," "The Rambles of Spring," "The Winds Are Singing Freedom," and "Farewell to Carlingford" have since become Irish folk music standards, performed around the world.

In 1975, realizing he was forever bumping into his old friend and partner Liam Clancy on the road, Makem and Clancy decided to pair up for a show in Cleveland, OH. The audience response was enough to convince both that they needed each other, and for the next dozen years the two often toured together. The pair earned platinum and gold records in Ireland.

Makem's albums (aside from those with the Clancy Brothers) are available on his own Red Biddy label. His sons, the Makem Brothers, are carrying on the Irish folk music tradition by running the label and performing at folk festivals around the U.S. and Ireland. Makem's solo albums from the late '60s and early '70s include Tommy Makem and Love Is Lord of All on GWP Records. His more recent '90s recordings include From the Archives for Shanachie Records and Ancient Pulsing, an album of his poetry. Makem has also been involved in numerous television projects over the years, presenting Irish traditional music to the masses, mostly on public TV. Based in Dover, NH, Makem continued to record and perform until his death from lung cancer on August 1, 2007.


Thomas "Tommy" Makem (4 November 1932 – 1 August 2007) was an internationally celebrated Irish folk musician, artist, poet and storyteller. He was best known as a member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He played the long-necked 5-string banjo, tin whistle, low whistle, guitar, bodhrán and bagpipes, and sang in a distinctive baritone. He was sometimes known as "The Bard of Armagh" (taken from a traditional song of the same name) and "The Godfather of Irish Music".

^ Martin, Douglas (3 August 2007). "Tommy Makem, 74, hero of Irish folk music, dies – International Herald Tribune". www.iht.com. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 

Life and work[edit]

Makem was born and raised in Keady, County Armagh (the "Hub of the Universe" as Makem always said), in Northern Ireland. His mother, Sarah Makem, was an important source of traditional Irish music, who was visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle. His father, Peter Makem, was a fiddler who also played the bass drum in a local pipe band named "Oliver Plunkett", after a Roman Catholic martyr of the reign of Charles II of England. His brother and sister were folk musicians also. Young Tommy Makem, from the age of 8, was member of the St. Patrick's church choir for 15 years where he sang Gregorian chant and motets. He didn't learn to read music but he made it in his "own way".

He started to work at 14 as a clerk in a garage and later he worked for a while as a barman at Mone's Bar, a local pub and as a local correspondent for The Armagh Observer.

He emigrated to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes (from his time in a pipe band). Arriving in Dover, New Hampshire, he worked at Kidder Press, where in 1956 his hand was accidentally crushed by a press. With his arm in a sling, he left Dover for New York to pursue an acting career.

The Clancys and Makem were signed to Columbia Records in 1961. The same year, at the Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez were named the most promising newcomers on the American folk scene. During the 1960s, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and made television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. The group performed for President John F. Kennedy. They also played in smaller venues such as the Gate of Horn in Chicago. They appeared jointly in the UK Albums Chart in April 1966, when Isn't It Grand Boys reached number 22.

Makem left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. In 1975, he and Liam Clancy were both booked to play a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and were persuaded to do a set together. Thereafter they often performed as Makem and Clancy, recording several albums together. He once again went solo in 1988. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Makem performed both solo and with Liam Clancy on The Irish Rovers various television shows, which were filming in Canada and Ireland.

In the 1980 and 1990s, Makem was a principal in a well-known Irish music venue in New York, "Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion." This East 57th Street club was a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. Among the performers and visitors were Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem was a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem and Clancy, particularly in the late fall and holiday season. The club was also used for warm-up performances in the weeks before the 1984 reunion concert of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Lincoln Center. In addition, the after-party for Bob Dylan's legendary 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992 was held at the Irish Pavilion.

In 1997 he wrote a book, Tommy Makem's Secret Ireland and in 1999 premiered a one-man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. His career includes various other acting, video, composition, and writing credits. He also established the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000.

^ Dicaire, David (2011). The Folk Music Revival, 1958–1970: Biographies of Fifty Performers and Other Influential People. McFarland. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-7864-6352-7. ^ Williams Stacey, text on the back cover of the record "Songs of Tommy Makem" Tradition Records, TLP 1044.^ Makem, Conor (20 January 2011). "First Person by Conor Makem: Johnny we hardly knew ye". Fosters.com. Retrieved 26 November 2011. ^ "The Makem & Spain Brothers : Tommy Makem Bio". Makem.com. 4 August 1998. Retrieved 2011-12-30. ^ A popular refrain at the time was Why do the Clancy Brothers sing? Because Tommy Makem (Daily Telegraph, issue no.47,327:obituary, 3 August 2007 p27 [1])^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 107. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. ^ redbiddy.com: Documentary videos seen on PBS^ imdb.com: IMDB partial listing of Makem work^ Derek Schofield (3 August 2007). "Tommy Makem – Obituary". The Guardian. p. 39. 


Makem was married to Mary Shanahan, a native of Chicago, for 37 years, and had four children – daughter Katie Makem-Boucher, and sons Shane, Conor and Rory. They also had two grandchildren, Molly Dewar née Makem and Robert Boucher. Mary died in 2001.

Makem's three sons (who perform as "The Makem Brothers") and nephews Tom and Jimmy Sweeney continue the family folk music tradition.

^ Cite error: The named reference GU was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Mary Shanahan Makem (1942–2001) – Find A Grave Memorial


Makem died in Dover, New Hampshire on 1 August 2007, following a lengthy battle with lung cancer. He continued to record and perform until very close to the end. Paying tribute to him after his death, Liam Clancy said, "He was my brother in every way." He is buried next to his wife at New Saint Mary Cemetery in Dover.

^ As a tribute to Makem, the Dover radio station, WTSN, broadcast two tributes to Makem, one on 2 August, and one on 9 August, the day of Makem's funeral. The tributes were aired on the Open Mike Show With Mike Pomp. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/0802/breaking11.htm Musician Tommy Makem dies aged 74.


Makem was a prolific composer/songwriter. His performances were always full of his compositions, many of which became standards in the repertoire. Some, notably "Four Green Fields", became so well known that they were sometimes described as anonymous folk songs. During the fall of the Iron Curtain, Makem often proudly told the story that his song "The Winds Are Singing Freedom" had become a sort of folk anthem among Eastern Europeans seeing a new future opening before them.

Makem's best-known songs include "Four Green Fields", "Gentle Annie", "The Rambles of Spring", "The Winds Are Singing Freedom", "The Town of Ballybay", "Winds of the Morning", "Mary Mack", and "Farewell to Carlingford". Even though many people mistakenly believe that Makem wrote "Red is the Rose", it is a traditional Irish folk song.

^ "690. Red is the Rose (Traditional Irish)". YouTube. 12 January 2009. Retrieved 2011-12-30. 

Performance notes[edit]

Makem had a forceful and charismatic stage presence – the result of years of public performance, a strong personality and a bard's voice. Performances frequently included the following elements:

Original Makem compositions; the first set often began with "The Rambles of Spring"The standard repertoire of folk and Irish music, both well-known and little-known (but never "Danny Boy", "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", "Toorah Loorah Looral", or other forbidden requests)Oddball songs, such as "Bridie Murphy and the Kamikaze Pilot" (Colm Gallagher) or "William Bloat" (Raymond Calvert)Poetic recitations, often as introductions to songs; a frequent source was William Butler Yeats. (Thus "Gentle Annie" usually began with "When You Are Old and Grey", and Four Green Fields usually began with Seamus Heaney's "Requiem for the Croppies".)Jokes, often silly, made funnier through repetition:"If your nose is running and your feet smell, you're upside down."Rarely: monologues, such as Marriott Edgar's "The Lion and Albert"Exhortations, nearly always successful, for the audience to join in the singing

Awards and honours[edit]

He received many awards and honours, including three honorary doctorates: one from the University of New Hampshire in 1998, one from the University of Limerick in 2001, and one from the University of Ulster in 2007; as well as the World Folk Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. With the Clancy Brothers he was listed among the top 100 Irish-Americans of the 20th century in 1999.

A bridge over the Cocheco River on Washington Street in Makem's long-time home of Dover, New Hampshire, was named the Tommy and Mary Makem Memorial Bridge in 2010.

^ Cite error: The named reference GU was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Makems honored: Dover ceremony marks naming of bridge for Tommy and Mary – Fosters


The Story of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (1984) – ShanachieReunion Concert: Belfast (1984) – ShanachiePete Seeger's Rainbow Quest (1965) (circa 1985) – Central Sun / reissued on ShanachieTommy Makem and Friends in Concert (1992) – WMHT/PBSBob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993) – SonyTommy Makem in Concert With Pete Seeger and the Egan-Ivers Band (1994) – WMHT/PBSTommy Makem in Concert With Odetta and The Barra MacNeils (1994) – WMHT/PBSTommy Makem's Ireland (1994) – WMHT/PBSA Christmas Tradition (1995) – WMHT/PBSThe Road Taken With Tommy Makem (2001) – WMHT/PBSThe Makem and Spain Brothers In Concert (2006) – WMHT/PBSThe Best of 'Hootenanny' (2007) – Shout! (Clancy Brothers featured in 3 performances)Come West Along the Road (2007) – RTÉ (completion video, featured in one performance)
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