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. ~ Richard Skelly