TOMMY MAKEM SEES SONGS AS THE BEST MEDICINE FOR HEALING
"For some time I have been concerned that the ancient song tradition has been neglected…..The airwaves seem to be wallowing in a vast reservoir of mediocrity."
There's a certain responsibility that comes with being a household name, and the small possibility that those in power will actually take you seriously. Moreover it's a gift to be able to do something positive, to use your name for good. That's Tommy Makem's philosophy as he told Seán Laffey when they discussed the aftermath of the inaugural The Tommy Makem International Festival of Song.
Strange how technology is often more influential than politics, back in 1950, Peter Kennedy picked up a prototype domestic tape recorder from the Scophony-Baird factory in Somerset England, a small act that would change the face of folk music forever. By 1952 Kennedy was in Keady Armagh, in Sarah Makem's cottage, recording songs as she worked "from the kitchen sink, to the range and then back again". One of those songs was 'As I Roved Out.' It became the eponymous signature tune of a BBC Radio programme, that was so influential in the folk revival both in Britain and Ireland. (Indeed in Ireland Seamus MacMahuna 's 'Job Of Journey Work' employed the same vox-pop formula, interspersing chat from musicians alongside their songs and tunes - it was radio at its best, real, engaging and new). Sitting in on that 1952 kitchen recording session was Sarah's young son, Tommy Makem, who by all accounts was half a sleep at the time, the music making (in the true Irish custom), had drifted into the small hours. But the songs stuck with him, within the decade he was performing with the Clancy Brothers, singing his mother's songs across America, (from a Keady kitchen to Carnegie Hall is some achievement for both the singers and the songs).
June 2000 Tommy Makem was back in his native Armagh championing the culture of this troubled border county, with a music festival bearing his name. The idea for the event was the result of discussions with interested parties including an impressive list of celebrity patrons. Tommy's nephew, the man on the ground, Newry based poet Peter Makem had the task of guiding the event to its very successful fulfilment.
I asked Tommy what was the spark that kindled the idea for the festival. "I had been talking to Peter about the vast culture of South Armagh, which is alive and well, and how the terrible pummeling , intimidation and denigration the area has suffered over the last 30 odd years has not been able to keep the culture from thriving . The portrayal of South Armagh as a very dark place, perpetuated by the powers that be and the press, both British and Irish, could not be further from the truth."
Tommy is ecstatic at the level of local grass roots support for all the native traditions. "Every October there is a Sean Nos weekend in Mullaghbawn, its now in the fifteen years and growing in quality every year. The Stray Leaf Folk Club in O'Hanlon's of Mullaghbawn has been operating on a weekly basis for nearly as long and many of Ireland's leading singers and instrumentalists have appeared there. (They have an impressive 13 week summer programme of traditional music, at a time when other folk clubs close for annual holidays). Another nephew of mine, John Makem has been running the Bard of Armagh Humourous Poetry Competition for five years now, with contestants from all over Ireland participating. On their "Finals" night they will have anywhere from 600 to 800 people in to enjoy the craic. The poetry tradition continues apace with superb poets like Hugh Murphy of Lislea continuing the centuries old South Armagh Poetry School tradition. New songs are being written and recorded by the likes of Briege Murphy. The Armagh Rhymers are a unique group of performers who have taken the song, music, poetry and even a local Mummer's Play to Festivals and schools all across North America and to many parts of Europe. Storyteller John Campbell and his partner singer Len Graham have also taken South Armagh stories and folksongs from Armagh to Alaska and from San Francisco to the Skelligs. Surprises keep flowing out of South Armagh!"
So with all this activity going on, why hold a summer festival of singing? "For some time I have been concerned that the ancient song tradition has been neglected. It is extremely important that the song tradition should not be allowed to lag behind," he told me. The festival was attended not just by locals but visitors form many overseas countries, surely this had a bearing on the songs that were heard over the week? "Some of the American visitors sang songs that became popular when Liam Clancy and myself recorded them in the 1980's. They also did some American songs that had come from Irish song sources, songs like 'Streets of Laredo' (same tune as the Bard of Armagh), Get Along Little Doggies (same tune as Rockin' the Cradle, which is, of course an Irish song about the Holy Family) and many more. Dutch visitors sang songs that I hadn't heard since the Clancy Brothers and I recorded them in 1957, songs like 'Kitty Magee', 'The Nightingale' and 'The Little Beggarman'. I sang some songs that I had written in the last few years with South Armagh connections, songs like 'Count Redmond O'Hanlon', 'Sweet Dromintee' and 'The Long Woman's Grave'. Polish visitors sang us a couple of songs in their nativetongue. The Makem Brothers sang some songs from their grandmother's repertoire. My mother, Sarah would have been proud of them. Great stuff altogether and very highly appreciated by the listeners."
In all the pre-publicity and press releases for the festival, much ado was made of the Irishness of the area, the ancient landscape, Neolithic archaeology, mythical connections and the central role of Armagh in the bardic and poetic tradition form the middle ages to the end of Gaelic rule. But, nothing was said of the Protestant traditions, which although they are a minority in the area, must surely be accommodated in any drive towards reconciliation. By marketing the song festival as a "festival for peace", I wondered how much support they had from the Unionist section of the community? "There were some local councillors from both sides of the isle who attended and who sang and laughed together in very obvious enjoyment. As to the songs having "colours": the song tradition of Ulster is a complete blending and mixture of three cultures: the Irish, which is predominant, the Scottish which is very strong, and the English. The songs sung at the festival, for the most part, were from the mixture known as the Ulster tradition and therefore were common to all those from Ireland who attended. One local councillor has stated publicly that the Festival of Song has done more good for South Armagh in a week than the council to which he belongs, has done in twenty-five years. This is what Peace and Reconciliation is all about, uplifting the people and the area."
For the future, Tommy would like to see more official support and a fairer treatment of the native arts by broadcast media. "People of all persuasions singing, laughing, talking and enjoying each others company must make the bureaucrats realise that the people who were there had more in common than they had differences. Bringing people together and sharing the strong culture with visitors and neighbours alike was like a tonic for the entire area of South Armagh." Yet he is critical of the way in which Radio seems to have abandoned indigenous music "The airwaves seem to be wallowing in a vast reservoir of mediocrity. The young people are not being given the choice nor the opportunity to glory in their culture because of the dull, narrow, and I personally think, misguided view of the powers that be who are allowed to decide the tastes of the country. If the reaction of those who attended the song festival in South Armagh, both young and old, is any indication, there is great hope for our culture. Perhaps the local radio stations could bring this music and enjoyment to the entire country since the national stations don't seem to have any inclination to do so."
That brings me back to Peter Kennedy and his groundbreaking radio shows, his aim was to show the commonality of the singing traditions of the islands of Ireland and Britain. Reflecting on his work in 1975 he observed, "Most of our singers turned out to be local rebels, refusing to conform to local religious and local political pressure: they were traditionalists and yet at the same time they were often outrageously progressive. What touched you when you met them was their utter sincerity, and when they sang their songs you felt they knew what they were singing about."
That spirit of honesty and individualism may be the very reason for the survival of songs and the singing tradition, and of course why it is still treated with suspicion by bourgeois bureaucrats and their servants in the media.
Seán Laffey June 2000
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