By Eileen Murphy
In 1957, a young immigrant from Keady, Co. Armagh, named Tommy Makem stepped into the spotlight at the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago.
An actor by profession, he had come out from New York to perform in a series of plays at the University of Chicago. One night, the cast was invited to the nightclub as guests of the owners.
"I had never been in a nightclub in my life," recalled Makem with a wry chuckle. "And the rest of the cast insisted that I get up and sing."
Makem obliged, a bit reluctantly.
"I think there was jazz on that night," he said. "I got up and sang ‘The Cobbler.’ "
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
That was the end of it, as far as Makem was concerned. But the next night, the club owners went to the theater where Makem was performing and offered him a week’s engagement.
"I said, ‘Ah, no,’ but they talked me into it," Makem said. "I asked how much they’d pay me, and they said $125.
At the time, Makem was earning $45 per week as an actor.
"That’s what we got every week, the same as unemployment," he said, laughing. "So, I thought, well, I had my ticket back to New York, and the money’s good. I said yes."
So impressed were the club owners with the young singer that they offered him a second week, then a third.
A fire forced the club to close temporarily, and Makem returned to New York. There, he continued to act and recorded a couple of albums with the Clancy Brothers. When the Gate of Horn reopened, the owners invited the fledgling group to perform.
"We were trying to find a name for ourselves," Makem recalled. "We filled up maybe five or six sheets of foolscap with names like The Druids and The Blacksmiths and The Moonshiners — even The Chieftains. We couldn’t agree on anything."
The question was rendered moot when the group arrived at the nightclub.
"The owner already had our names up on the marquee: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. So that was it," he said.
"There is a legend about the two gates through which your dreams travel. One is the Gate of Ivory and the other is the Gate of Horn. They say if your dreams go through the Gate of Horn, they’ll come true."
Return to theater
Though Makem would go on, with the Clancy Brothers and then as a solo act, to forge a successful career as a singer and songwriter, acting has always remained in his blood.
His original show, "Invasions and Legacies" has made its world premiere at the Irish Repertory Theatre and is running through Oct. 14. The show marks Makem’s return to his theatrical roots, since he not only wrote the script but will perform it as well.
During a break in rehearsals last week, he spoke about his inspiration for the show.
"I’ve been interested in mythology for a very long time, he said. "Last year, I started thinking that I’d like to do something with the material."
"Invasions and Legacies" incorporates the story of the five invasions of Ireland.
"It’s all pre-history," Makem said enthusiastically. "That will be the first half of the show, saying this is what happened, this is why we are the way we are."
The second half of the show will be a concert, with songs and a great deal of Makem’s own poetry.
"I think the spoken word is very powerful," Makem said. "And we must keep these stories — our myths, our legends — alive. We owe it to the generations that will come after us."
Makem’s career on stage was almost preordained. He grew up in a house — and in a town — where Gaelic culture, especially music, was of utmost importance.
" ‘The Cobbler’ is a very traditional piece," he said. "I learned that from a woman named Mary Toner, who lived down the street from me in Keady. She showed me what to do with the shoe and the sewing and all that. Of course," he laughed, "there were bits I had to make up on my own."
While it’s well known that Makem’s mother was a famous song collector, his father and his uncle were also accomplished musicians, as were Makem’s brothers and his sister.
As a young man, Makem began his musical career in the dance halls of Ireland.
"I was singing in a showband, which was fun," he said with a rueful laugh. "But you know, showbands are dreadful altogether."
He paused for a second, then shook his head.
"It really was dreadful," he repeated. "It has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with Ireland."
His face grew serious.
"Unless something is adding to the culture, I would look very askance at it," he said.
One thing Makem looks askance at is the rise of pop culture in Ireland, particularly the music that makes it onto the record charts: Boyzone, B*Witched, Westlife, and so on.
"There are a whole lot of musicians, traditional musicians, who will never be heard," he said. "They’ll never be seen on television in Ireland, never get on the radio. And they have so much talent. It’s a mortal sin."
While Makem prefers the folk music of Pete Seeger, the Corries and Schooner Fare, he also, surprisingly, enjoys some contemporary rock.
"I think Elton John can sell a song like no one else," he said. "And Bruce Springsteen — the "Ghost of Tom Joad" album is just brilliant. But then, he’s steeped in folk and blues."
Makem is disappointed in the current Irish music scene.
"What is contemporary Irish music?" he asked rhetorically. "I haven’t heard any."
Makem thought for a minute, then shrugged.
"I don’t like a lot of the songs that I hear today," he said. "Even the ones that are supposed to be Irish songs are just pop songs, and not very good ones, either.
"The traditional musicians around today in the states are wonderful players, but I think they go too fast."
He gave a short laugh.
"The heartbeat of America is so much faster than the old country," he said.
An old song’s new life
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tommy Makem is his lack of pretension. The man who is almost universally acclaimed as the elder statesman of Irish folk music is surprisingly humble when it comes to discussing his accomplishments.
"I’ve written some songs that were garbage altogether," he said. "Everybody has. It’s rare to get good ones. . . . I guess there are a few I’m proud of."
One of the songs Makem takes pride in is "The Winds Are Singing Freedom."
"I wrote it a long time ago, and I had never sung it in public," said Makem. "In fact, I had pretty much forgotten the words.
"Then, five or six years back, I was in Ireland and I stopped in to see [singer] Tommy Sands."
Sands told his friend that there was something he had to see. He popped a tape with highlights of the Sands Family’s European concert tour into the VCR, and forwarded to the part recorded in East Germany.
"The Sands Family had finished their set, and were back to do the encore. And the song they did for the encore was ‘The Winds Are Singing Freedom,’ " recalled Makem.
"The whole audience — and this was anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 people — stood up and held hands, and they all sang the song. I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. And then Tommy Sands told me that words to the song were printed in schoolbooks in East Germany. And remember — this was before the wall came down."
He let out a bark of laughter.
"I thought a lot more of the song after seeing that," he said. "And I thought, I’d better go and learn the words."
The Clancys and beyond
Makem loves a challenge, and it is this adventurous streak that has shaped his career.
In the mid-1950s, after hurting his hand on the job at a factory in New Hampshire, he came down to New York to see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That night, he was invited to sing at a midnight concert at Circle in the Square.
"I got up onstage and sang a couple of songs, and somebody gave me $30," he said, chuckling. "I though, by God, this is the land all right. Gold growing in the streets.
"I moved down to New York to pursue acting jobs because there was so much going on in the theater and in television — shows like ‘Playhouse 90’ were shot here."
Makem wound up in an off-Broadway production of "Treasure Island," which also featured the Clancys, future Tony-winner Jerry Orbach — and ‘Frankenstein’ himself, Boris Karloff.
"I can remember the director asking me to teach Boris Karloff a sea chantey," Makem said. "We were all playing pirates, and we had to sing sea chanteys. He was a lovely, lovely man. A gentleman."
Paddy Clancy had been approached to do an album of Irish rebel songs, and asked Makem to sing on the record.
"We recorded the first record it in Kenny Goldstein’s apartment in the Bronx, just off the Grand Concourse," Makem said. "Kenny Goldstein had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which is why we used his apartment."
In addition to having a tape recorder, Goldstein and his wife also had a newborn baby girl.
"Kenny’s wife had to sit in the kitchen," Makem said, laughing. "She sat with her hand on the baby’s mouth to keep her quiet while we were singing."
The Clancys and Makem continued to act, but got together a year later to record a second album, "Come Fill Your Glass with Us."
"Zero Mostel was doing a show called ‘Ulysses in Night Town’ at a theater downtown," Makem said. "We arranged to use the theater one night after his show was over — starting at midnight — and invited a whole bunch of our friends from the White Horse Tavern to come down for the recording."
The folk music phenomenon, fueled by bands like the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, was sweeping the country. Soon, the Clancys and Makem were invited to appear on the "Ed Sullivan Show."
"We were standing in the wings waiting to go on that first night," Makem said. "And Liam Clancy had a nosebleed, and he was leaning out over his guitar in case the blood would get on his white sweater."
The floor manager walked over to the excited newcomers.
"You’d better be good, guys," he said cheerfully. "There’s 80 million people watching."
"Liam’s nosebleed stopped immediately," he said.
After the appearance on "Ed Sullivan," the band was signed by Columbia Records and released a number of best-selling albums. The band also appeared on TV variety shows and played sold-out throughout the world.
But by 1969, Makem was bored.
"I just needed a change," he said. "It was the same thing week in, week out — recording, concerts, and so on. I wanted to go out on my own, do something different."
The breakup with the Clancys was an amicable one.
"We remained close," said Makem. "There were no knife fights or anything scandalous. Just us going off in different directions."
A "fortunate" man
Makem put out a few albums and had a successful solo concert career. By chance, in the mid-’70s, he found himself on the same bill with Liam Clancy. The two old friends decided to sing a few songs together. The audience reception was electric.
"We decided to do a few things together," said Makem. And then we did more and more, and started touring together.
Lightning struck again. Makem and Clancy became one of the must successful and best-loved Irish acts of the 1970s and ’80s, with a number of top-selling albums. But by 1988, Makem was champing at the bit, eager to go solo again.
"It was the same thing all over again," he mused. "We were selling out concert halls, the albums sold well. But I wanted to do other things."
Those "other things" included creating and hosting the PBS specials "Tommy Makem’s Ireland" — he’s recently filmed two new ones — and a writing a companion book to the shows. And, of course, finding the time to write and perform in "Legacies and Invasions."
"I think if I were starting out today, I’d be a solo act," Makem said reflectively. "But it was all great, and we — the Clancys and myself — were very lucky, both to get the breaks we got, and to have had something to offer.
"We were very fortunate," he added.
The dreams, apparently, had made it through the Gate of Horn.