By the 1980s, Bob Dylan’s folkish beginnings should have seemed a distant dream. These were the ‘born again’ years, a period in which albums like Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love revealed a new kind of Bob, one completely unlike the Greenwich Village revolutionary of The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. It would seem that while caught up in this new chapter of his spiritual journey, Dylan was also looking back to his musical origins. Indeed, in 1984, the legendary singer-songwriter sat down for a conversation with Irish musician Bono during which he opened up about his passion for Irish folk music.
After managing to catch Bob Dylan backstage at Slane Festival, Bono decided to break the ice by asking him if he’d ever visited Ireland before. “Yeah, well, when I was here, we travelled by car, so we stayed in different places,” he began, “But Irish music has always been a great part of my life because I used to hang out with the Clancy Brothers. They influenced me tremendously.”
Clad in matching cream Aran sweaters, The Clancy Brothers were one of the most prominent groups of the ’60s American folk revival and played an important role in introducing American audiences to Irish folk music. Like Dylan, they were a mainstay of the Greenwich Village folk scene, attracting huge crowds to even the dingiest cafes. “They were playing clubs as big as this room right here and the place—you couldn’t put a pin in it, it would be so packed with people,” Dylan told Bono.
In the early ’60s, Dylan and The Clancy Brothers often found themselves in the same venues. Although they only performed on the same bill once, Dylan took the opportunity to soak up every ounce of their musicality. I spent years with them running around, ’61, ’62, ’63,” he said. The Clancy’s genius was in their ability to reach back into the past and make it appropriate to the present moment, something Dylan himself would later achieve by taking the protest music of Woody Guthrie and applying it to the political climate of the 1960s.
Recounting his time playing alongside The Clancy brothers, Dylan said: “One of the things I recall from that time is how great they all were—I mean there is no question, but that they were great. But Liam Clancy was always my favourite singer, as a ballad singer. I just never heard anyone as good, and that includes Barbara Streisand and Pearl Bailey. He’s just a phenomenal ballad singer.”