Tommy Makem,
The Legendary Tommy Makem Collection
(Emerald, 2007)

With all due respect to artists whose lives and works have been celebrated with the ubiquitous "box set," one true legend who deserved it and could have filled a huge box was ignored until his death in 2007, and even now we are asked to be content with 40 songs.

In the final weeks of 2007, Tommy Makem has posthumously given us the folk album of the year. Two CDs could never hope to contain even a fraction of his output, but this is a start -- maybe some enterprising company will yet compile that true box set including his DVDs -- only available in the U.S. region -- and delight his millions of fans.

It is probably the highest tribute to a folk singer-songwriter when we think of his song as having been around for centuries. A track in point is "Gentle Annie," one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Its simplicity and language allied to the lilting melody make us all think we can sing it, but listen to Makem singing it with that wonderful distinctive voice and you know we can only be pale imitations.

"Four Green Fields," a depiction of Ireland drawing on the images of folklore like "Dark Rosaleen" and "The Mother," is hypnotic but also very true. He distills hundreds of years of history into a few beautiful minutes.

Makem was also the master of comic songs like "The Cobbler." Who else could get away with that performance, with his foot cocked over his knee miming shoe repair while delivering those wonderful comic lines with a straight face, sometimes cracked by a cheeky grin? On this album he is joined by that other Makem legend, his mother Sarah, to whom the folk tradition owes such a debt.

You also get slightly altered arrangements of classic folk songs like "Red is the Rose" and "The Irish Rover." His dramatic voice comes to the fore on tracks like "The Man from God Knows Where" and "Song of Wandering Aengus."

Tommy Makem was a writer par excellence but he was also an interpreter of songs. This is nowhere more apparent than when he sings that most poignant of love/tragic ballads, "The Butcher Boy."

I defy anyone without a heart of stone to listen to the final track without having at least a flicker of a tear in his eye as Tommy's unique voice tells us, "Farewell my friends I'm leaving soon, I'm going away for a while, but I'll come back and see you all should it be ten thousand miles" on "Farewell My Friends."

Why did it take his death to bring us this tribute?

review by
Nicky Rossiter

19 January 2008

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