Tommy Makem Was Irish Music's Godfather

Irish musician Tommy Makem, who succumbed to lung cancer Wednesday, is credited with helping to popularize traditional Irish music in America and beyond. He is best known for songs such as "Four Green Fields" and "Red Is the Rose."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In 1961, four Irishmen in thick white Heron sweaters appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

(Soundbite of song "The Rising of the Moon")

TOMMY MAKEM & THE CLANCY BROTHERS (Irish Musicians): (Singing) By the rising of the moon. By the rising of the moon. By the rising of the moon. The fight must be together, by the rising of the moon.

BLOCK: Tommy Makem and the three Clancy brothers were booked as a secondary act to play for just a couple of minutes. But the headlining band never showed up. So the Irishmen got a big break that day, and millions of Americans were exposed to their entertaining approach to traditional Irish music.

But yesterday, Tommy Makem died of lung cancer in New Hampshire where he lived. Makem has been called the godfather of Irish music.

Starting with that TV performance, he and the Clancy Brothers became famous for popularizing traditional Irish songs of rebellion, drinking and love.

(Soundbite of song "Red is the Rose")

TOMMY MAKEM & THE CLANCY BROTHERS: (Singing) Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows. And fair is the lily of the valley...

BLOCK: Songs such as "Red is the Rose" and "Gentle Annie" introduced America to Irish music beyond well-known tunes like "Danny Boy." Among the group's fans were folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Tommy Makem played tin whistle and banjo and sang. Growing up in County Armagh, he learned songs from his mother. In the 1950s, he immigrated to New York City. After Ed Sullivan, he and the Clancy brothers played for President John F. Kennedy at Carnegie Hall, and on many TV shows. In 1969, Makem went solo.

(Soundbite of song "Four Green Fields")

BLOCK: In this song, Makem's strong streak of Irish nationalism came through. In lyrics, he wrote about Britain's rule over Northern Ireland. The region he called one of the four green fields of Ireland.

(Soundbite of song "Four Green Fields")

Mr. TOMMY MAKEM (Irish Musician): (Singing) I had four green fields, each one was a jewel. But strangers came and tried to take them from me...

BLOCK: Last month, Tommy Makem traveled to Northern Ireland to receive an honorary degree from the University of Ulster. And he had concerts planned through the end of the year.

He died Wednesday of lung cancer. Makem was 74 years old.

(Soundbite of song "Four Green Fields")

Mr. MAKEM: (Singing) ...four green fields will bloom once again, said she.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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