The Yellow Bittern, Alan Gilsenan’s biopic of Liam Clancy is a rather surprising illustration of 20th century counter-culture, meandering as it does from 1930s Ireland to the folk hey-day of 1960s Greenwich Village, New York and up to the present day. State recently chatted to Liam Clancy and filmmaker Alan Gilsenan about the film prior to its release on September 11th.
The film started off as a documentary’¦
Alan: Well it did but the plan was always to make a feature documentary, but part of that was going to be a one-hour documentary for RTE because they were involved, and that just turned into a two-hour TV documentary, but the plan was always to make a film. But the two versions are hugely different, it’s a different medium. One of the joys of working on this project for so long, we started five years ago, is that we got to go through so much footage, we had such a huge amount of footage.
Liam: I had old rusty cans up in my attic and I had no idea what was in them, and Alan took them and cleaned them up and put them together.
Alan: I found footage of Liam’s wedding that he hadn’t even seen himself, some great stuff. There’s really something special about that stuff that we found.
With so much footage was it difficult to edit?
Alan: Yes, hugely, especially considering the career span, and the film itself is quite long. Given the joys of modern technology we will have a lot of extras for the DVD. We were spoiled for choice.
Liam: One of the great things that Alan dreamed up was on the first day in Ardmore Studios, to have one guy in the spotlight and darkness and then as the story unfolds the ghosts of all the people that are in the story are appearing. So there is one person telling the story but you’re seeing all these ghosts emerge.
Alan: I especially felt, coming to Liam as an outsider, he lived through extraordinary times. So we’ve got a life story woven into what were extraordinary times, that period of the late fifties and early sixties in the States was a very tumultuous time.
Was there a sense of that at the time or is it more evident in retrospect?
Liam: Oh it was, there was a tremendous kind of tension in the air because of what was happening, there was a real sense of something momentous, and that electricity just permeated everything else. Also America was changing so drastically, I remember the cops, New York cops, raiding apartments where they suspected that a couple were -living in sin’! And travelling through the south everywhere you went was segregation; coloured, white, coloured, white.
Alan: I think what’s interesting about this is that my generation had a very warped idea of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Maken, that somehow they went over to some kind of Irish-American ghetto and sung the songs, whereas in actual fact you took the authentic folk and traditional songs to the States but you moved into a milieu of other influences, black influences, folk influences. And it wasn’t part of the Irish-American thing at all, it was the opposite. And what fascinated me musically was the way you took certain styles such as that of Josh White, which would have been unknown in Ireland, and made it your own and they in turn were influenced by you, I think that’s something very exciting, musically, that a lot of us here in Ireland underestimated.
Liam: Well musically too there was a great feeling of rediscovery. Just in the fifties there was a bombardment of entertainment when television was invented, and it was all pop music and all of that. And a lot of people at this time start realising that the culture that had come over with settlers, the old ballads were all being swept away by this tiny box of popularity. The old songs were all going to be gone in no time so there was this, almost crusade, to save them before they became extinct. They were a species.
With Liam the only surviving member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem this film is a timely and timeless piece of work and certainly the folk crusaders of that era should be satisfied to see the songs immortalised on celluloid.
The Yellow Bittern was released September 11th.