Mid-January, the Christmas lights are gone a week now. A steady slow moving stream of traffic is trickling by on Carrrick-on-Suir’s main street, the country is getting back to business. The cold rain is blowing in, following the returning tide on wide river Suir from Passage East. I need some good music to cheer up the winter blues.
And good music I’ve found in the wonderful album from Dónal Clancy, Songs of a Roving Blade, it is what brings us together, this new album I’d raved about it in the 2014 Annual issue of Irish Music Magazine. Here was yet another generation of Clancy’s taking the old songs and making something fresh and authentic with them.
I am in the Carraig Hotel talking with Dónal Clancy. Our conversation ranges from the Hills of Kilkenny to the Streets of New York. Dónal told me his plan was to be on an Irish cruise of the Caribbean in February and the colder North Eastern coast of the USA touring with Danú in March, Roving Blade indeed.
I begin by asking Dónal for his perspective on Carrick and the pivotal place it holds in the Clancy story.
“This is the place where my father grew up, but for me Ring in Waterford is home. I associate Carrick with my cousins, especially the Powers who were very musical (Kevin is on the album playing pipes). The Clancys gravitated to the Waterford Gaeltacht there was a pull of the sea at work, and I’ve included some sea songs on the album to reflect that connection. We weren’t a sporting family, so the County rivalries meant very little as we grew up, for us this was the ancient territory of the Deise; Waterford, East Cork, and the southern edges of Tipperary and Kilkenny.”
(For those outside of Ireland there is a fierce rivalry between Tipperary and Waterford when it comes to matters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, better known as the GAA. Sport in Waterford is a mix of Gaelic games and English Soccer, Tipperary are more purists , yes they do play soccer and Gaelic football, but the passion is for Hurling. The Clancy family have been immune to sport for many years now.)
This for me is the goose–bump album of 2014. Mind you I had thrill of hearing a pre–release download just before Christmas, and what a welcome present it was.
Why the goose bumps? Liam Clancy is the answer. Back in the winter of 1995/96 I spent four months singing with Liam on the recording of a couple of his Helvic label albums.
Dónal was on both of them, but as the recording process is fragmentary we never actually got it together as a band until we appeared on the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne.
The Songs of a Roving Blade album was recorded in the very same setting of the family studio in An Rinn (Ring in English), this album being dedicated to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and rightly so.
Dónal explains in the album notes that after his father died, there was a silence in the house but the ghosts of the songs were with him. Although until then he’d been happier to play the guitar, the songs had to be sung.
Sing them he does on this album. Fans of the Clancy’s will recognise almost every one of them, from Rosin The Bow, The Broom of the Cowdenknowes, Crúíscín Lán, Heave Away My Johnny, The Sean Bhan Bhoct and more. Mrs McGrath is an old family version, with a melody and chorus that were both new to me.
The goose bumps hit when Dónal sings. There are genetics at work here, he has the same vocal qualities as his father, that uncanny ability with timing, the clarity of diction, subtle storytelling, unhurried, unsullied singing. Is it nature or nurture? It has to be both of course.
So is this a tribute album? Yes and No. Dónal has been around the block enough times now to have his own career, with a long stint in Danú and collaborations with a huge number of players and singers, he doesn’t have to rest on the family credentials. But, this is different, these are the family jewels, and why wouldn’t he want the world to share them again?
His guitar playing is of course of the highest quality, delicate finger picking on Sally Brown, a punchy chop on Roddy McCorley. The backing band he has put together for the album is top drawer too. It includes his wife Mary Rafferty on box and whistle, Martin Murray on mandolin, banjo and fiddle, Seán Ó Fearghail adds fiddle on The Limerick Rake. He is joined by Danú band mates Benny McCarthy on box and Donnchadh Gough on bodhrán. David Power guests on uilleann pipes, with Karan Casey on vocals and my old sparring partner from ‘96 Pat Sheridan on backing vocals on two shanties.
This might be called Songs Of a Roving Blade, but Dónal hasn’t strayed that far from his roots and the world has another Clancy to carry the torch for folk songs. I can see Dónal roving this album around the world in 2014, a great vintage already, and it has only just been bottled!
Dónal Clancy, Songs of a Roving Blade. Own label, 2014
Donal’s great-grandparents came from Tullahought in Kilkenny, a village in the Booly mountains, by the 1890s they were living in Carrick. His great-granduncle had a pub in the town and his sister took over the running of it. Her husband ran a snooker hall in the main street. “Just across the road there“ he waves his arm in a northerly direction.
The folks-songs came down from his great grandmother (she was a Comerford) and some of these are featured on Songs of a Roving Blade. They are family variants of well known songs. Mrs McGrath for example is a version few will have heard before, it has a distinct chorus and a melody that still sounds fresh 130 years later.
I wondered if the songs were written down in notebooks, like the Mrs Cronin Collection? Not all of them says Dónal, the music came through the living tradition, they were songs that would be sung on a daily basis or would be brought out for entertainment at social gatherings. The family kept them alive by keeping them live, something which he tells me informs the way he likes to record folk music, but more of that later. “However when I made my decision to make an album of songs, I went to my Dad’s old song books and began looking through them, they were full of notes on the songs, things like the capo position to get a good key for his voice, notes on the chords to play and so on. And then we had the tapes Liam and the family made over the years and we were lucky that my Dad has his own recording studio in Ring, so there is no shortage of material.”
Is the Roving Blade in the title a reference to himself or his father? There is a polite silence but a rueful smile to accompany it. Dónal is obviously proud of his father’s achievements.
A little history. The Clancy’s based themselves at the heart of the American folk movement of the early 1960s. He tells me that on a trip to New York he met the folklorist Mick Molony, who said that in the early 1960s, the sight of the Clancy’s returning in triumph from America, ‘their white Aran ganseys draped over their arms, their sharp suits and the picture of them walking down the steps of the jet-liner, that was the image that got him to emigrate and to make a name for himself in the USA. The Clancy’s had that effect on people, you were no longer an automatic failure if you decided to leave, here was proof of what, with talent and hard work, you could accomplish. Look what you could bring home, confidence, a huge smile and you could do it by keeping your Irishness.’
Dónal tells me that when he visited New York with Liam and cousin Robbie O’Connell in the early 90’s, he was surprised to discover how many people in Greenwich Village knew his father. “We were greeted on nearly every street corner by an old pal of his, like he’d never been away, he was as much at home there as he was in Dungarvan.”
Did the trio visit the White Horse Pub? “Yes, on one trip my Dad took me in to see where it all began. The Clancy brothers would meet up in the bar after a day’s work in the theatre. They would take over a little cubicle, and have a few songs. It started as innocently as that. They made their first record around one microphone on the kitchen table in their apartment. My Dad didn’t have a guitar at that stage, they were that raw. When the copies of the discs arrived. (I think they made a couple of hundred of them) they weren’t pleased with the sound. They spent the next few months trying to make sure the recording didn’t get into circulation.”
Dónal recalls meeting singer Dave Van Ronk in Greenwich Village on one of the Clancy, O’Connell and Clancy tours they did about twenty years ago. “Dave knew my Dad from the folk scene in the 60s and 70s and Liam asked him if he was still drinking his usual, a triple Irish whiskey to honour his Irish grandmother. ‘No‘ says Van Ronk to Liam. ‘No, I’m cutting down these days. I’m only drinking double Jamesons.’ From that I got a sense of the fun they must have when the Village was the most liberal place in the USA.”
What was it like to work with Liam? “Well my Dad was a performer, he loved to sing, he loved being on stage, it was his natural environment. He had an ability that very few people are blessed with. For example when he started the song Roddy McCorley, he’d whisper, ‘Oh can you see the hosts of men ... who flee with faces wan?’ almost inaudible, the song was a conspiracy, it was about sedition. It was as if he was sharing a deep secret, and it drew the audience in, they were there in Toome Bridge. He had this uncanny ability to be able to tell a story through his songs. Mind you he was a tough act to accompany, you couldn’t switch off, you had to concentrate. I had to tune myself into the mood and emotion of every number. I hope that is something I bring to my own performances and to the recording of Songs of a Roving Blade.”
So what about the album, recorded in the family studio overlooking Helvic Bay. Dónal tells me very little has changed since I worked with Liam there in the 1990s. “You’d recognise it today, we still haven’t got Pro-tools, we still have a desk with sliders! I suppose I was a bit of a hobbyist when it came to recording and I’d bought a few new bits of equipment, high quality microphones and the like. I set about testing them, by recording myself and thought ‘there is some potential here.’ So I kept building it slowly. I brought in a few friends and family to develop the sound, dropping in sections here and there when we could get the lads in the studio.
“There’s a huge amount of talent here and it would be madness to look elsewhere for musicians.” Indeed his wife Mary adds her accordion to many a family gathering ort session in “The Loacal” in Dungarvan, and she makes a New York connection too, her father , the flute player, Mike Rafferty emigrated from his native Ballinaskill, Co. Galway to the city in 1949, just four years before the Clancy brothers walked into the Big Apple.
We talk about instrumentation on the album. Our attention moves to his guitar and a fretless bass ukulele. The guitar is a Lowden, made in the North of Ireland, although Dónal picked it up in New York when he was suffering from GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome), he even sold a Foley bouzouki to finance the guitar upgrade , (he says with a hint of regret in his voice). However, he’s very upbeat about the guitar. “The Lowden fits my voice, it has a rich bass and a bright treble, the middle doesn’t fight with my vocals, so I find it is the best instrument I have for solo singing. I wouldn’t use it when I play with Danú though, it is too mellow for high power trad tunes.”
“I only use the uke in the studio. It has these rubbery composite strings and a simple piezo pick up, so it doesn’t need batteries, and it’s amazing, it fills in right behind my voice.”
Getting back to the voice, why has it taken Dónal, so long to come round to singing? He confesses to being a guitar junky (he was taught by Martin Murray, who also appears on the album). Dónal was very happy to play in traditional bands where he became sought after as a steady rock to hold down the back line.
“As teenagers myself and a few lads would wander around the town in summer offering our services to the pubs. We got pretty bold about it too, six of us took ourselves off to Hong Kong, split into two trios and worked a summer playing in Irish bars there. We even made a very rough album back then.” (I have one of them I tell him.)
Dónal did a bit of singing when he was with Clancy O’Connell and Clancy, mainly choruses. Although the older lads were full of encouragement. It wasn’t until the final few years of Liam’s life that Dónal considered singing. “Dad said he was the last man standing, his brothers had passed away and he was left to sing their songs. When he died in 2009 I realised that I missed his singing. He’d come off long overseas tours and within hours he’d be in the back room of Mooney’s pub singing until dawn. Probably to a half dozen fishermen, and he might have played to thousands at Carnegie Hall the week before.”
Dónal tells me his own three young children are already learning the words of those family favourites. The circle is not unbroken, the faithful departed would be delighted.
With permission of Irish Music Magazine January 2014 Edition (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Dónal Clancy; (3)-(4) Liam Clancy (unknown/website).