It’s always the way. Around St. Patrick’s Day, everyone likes to think they are Irish. And while there is a generous portion of the American population who enjoy legitimate ties to the Blarney Stone, the majority of Americans who imbibe on green beer and wolf down corned beef and cabbage are merely Irish in spirit, evident in some of the choices in music they make to celebrate this most enjoyable drunken springtime holiday.
Now, you can play that overblown, undercooked new album from U2 until a Leprechaun’s rainbow beams out of your arse, but there is as much Irish heritage on No Line on the Horizon as a videotape from Osama bin Laden. Hell, man, Bono and the boys arguably checked their lineage at the door in 1990 when they jetted to Berlin to record Achtung Baby and haven’t seemed to look back since. You can always plead the case for the likes of the Dropkick Murphys and Black 47, but those dudes are American, even though they do represent the twin Irish capitals of the USA, Boston and New York City. House of Pain? Come on. They weren’t even Irish, they were Albanian or something of that nature. And don’t even get a boy started on that God awful Gaelic new age cheese, which for my money should have taken a long Riverdance off a short pier some time ago (sorry, Enya fans). Meanwhile, yes, it’s fun to exude Irish pride in unorthodox ways, like rocking out to some of the country’s most celebrated guitar heroes in groups like Them, the Boomtown Rats, Thin Lizzy, Taste, and Stiff Little Fingers, but it’s just not the same as the genuine traditional pub singalong, modernized to perfection by only one group in the last 25 years: the Pogues.
If you really want to celebrate being Irish through your stereo in the most authentic way possible (whether you are or you aren’t), look no further than the timely release of the Legacy Edition of the celebrated concert album at New York’s Carnegie Hall by the only Irishmen who truly matter, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Recorded on St. Patrick’s Day, 1963, in a year that saw one of their own sitting in the Oval Office, In Person at Carnegie Hall is by far the most essential traditional Irish folk recording out there, now officially released in its complete version, the way it was meant to be heard all along.
The album’s original release butchered the nearly two-hour concert down to a 38-minute, 11-track LP, gutting all of the show’s best performances and the priceless banter between the lads and the predominantly New York Irish crowd in favor of a mere nine cuts from this St. Paddy’s Day performance, and the last two tracks came from a wholly different show that took place on November 3 of the previous year. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in Person at Carnegie Hall: The Complete 1963 Concert is nothing less than a revelation, well deserving of the accolades of whoever it was that said “If you own only one Irish album, make it this one” in reference to the original release, only tenfold.
The person who didn’t initially release this as a double-LP back in the day should be slapped, especially when you dig into the absolutely entertaining back-and-forth between the quartet and the crowd throughout the performance. “Can you hear anything?” Liam Clancy calls up to the people sitting in the nosebleeds of Carnegie, and is met with a scattered rounds of “No!” yelled back down to the stage. “Well, pay another dollar and come down here!” he barks back, and the audience erupts with laughter before Makem and the Clancys dig into “My Johnny Lad”, one of the many traditional Irish folk songs they set fire to on this historic evening. The set list included their own arrangements of such traditional Celtic yarns as “Irish Rover”, “The Moonshiner”, “The Jolly Tinker”, “The Parting Glass”, and a 12-minute long medley of Irish children’s songs for the youngsters in the crowd, with the lads’ deep brogues, accompanied only by banjo, acoustic guitar, and tin whistle, echoed off the walls of the Hall like a symphony.
In his profoundly touching and funny liner notes, newly penned for this reissue, Liam Clancy fondly recalls the chemistry he and the boys felt with the sold-out crowd that night upon listening to the Carnegie Hall show for the first time in 45 years with all of the lads’ beer-soaked banter and twisted tales of Irish folklore finally entact: “For the next hour or so I was back on stage with the lads and the audience who weren’t an audience but part of the event, living it, breathing it, seeing it uniquely from within the pack, trading banter and jibes all round.”
Perhaps the greatest thing about this reissue is that it vindicates the authenticity of In Person at Carnegie Hall in the eyes of serious fans of Irish folk music, many of whom felt Columbia had given the Clancy Brothers and Makem the short end of the stick by hacking away at this monumental and historic performance for the sake of making it fit well on a single 12-inch record. True, the original issue did contain some very poignant and stirring compositions that signified the duality of both the joy and sorrow in the songs the Clancys and Makem sang to some degree. However, the inclusion of songs such as the great rebel anthem “Brennan on the Moor”, “Roddy McCorely”, and “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”, not to mention tearful ballads such as “Castle of Dromore” and “Eileen Aroon”, gives this full recording a renewed sense of importance. This reissue eradicates the novelty of the original as something fun for WASPs who enjoyed the lads on Ed Sullivan to play on St. Patrick’s Day, and reveals it to be a genuine document of Irish-American history as genuine as McSorley’s Ale House down on 7th St.
Though he might not have been in the audience on this night, the presence of John F. Kennedy—whom the Clancys so lovingly refer to as “Big Bad John in the White House” during this concert—looms large both on stage and in the crowd, as the boys were still reeling from their ‘command performance’ at the White House upon the invitation of JFK himself to celebrate the beginning of his third year in office. After years upon years of hearing almost exclusively about the tragedy of Kennedy’s death, it’s a welcome reprieve to hear this time capsule of appreciation for one of the US’s greatest commander-in-chiefs (albeit in the same year of his assassination), a tip of the pint to Jack from his boys down at the White Horse Tavern, the favorite Greenwich Village haunt of the Clancys and Makem. It was also the place where a young Bob Dylan, before New York stripped him of all his Midwestern goof and charm, clamored for the lads’ attention. The experience inspired him to nick a chunk of the Clancy’s classic arrangement of the traditional Irish folk tune “Patriot Game” for his own rebel anthem “With God on Our Side”, which he performed for the first time one month following the Clancys and Makem’s Carnegie Hall show.
In Person at Carnegie Hall captures a time when Abe Zapruder was just another women’s garments peddler and Oswald was that weird Communist sympathizer guy who tried to defect to the USSR, a snippet of time when the promise of “Big Bad John” staying in that oval office for the majority of the ‘60s seemed as real as rain, and everything was Irish roses and lucky shamrocks with Makem and the Clancys providing the buoyant soundtrack. It was a wonderful time to be Irish, and no other document of the time seems to capture that jubilance quite like this most essential live recording, now thankfully released the way it was always meant to be.