Letters - May to June, 2000
In the case of the Lomax series on Rounder we do have some extra difficulties. Although I have worked with Alan over the last fifty years, he has unfortunately suffered a number of strokes and is now unable to do much more than nod his assent to his daughter, Anna, who has taken over the overall responsibility for the series. Thinking to make sure of a professional production she has been employing a number of graphic and literary editors with little knowledge of our original fieldwork, the performers or subject matter. So all our original notes pass through many hands and undergo a series of snips and pastings.
I personally take my own tapes to the studio in New York for transfer, but the booklets that go with them are edited down from a number of different sources, giving me very little control over what finally appears. In fact, it was for this very reason, when I was the folk studies tutor at Dartington College of Arts, the students wanted to listen to the various oral traditions , not in the library, but in their own rooms, so I decided to produce my own series of home-grown, in-house "bespoke tailored" cassette programmes on the Folktrax label.
I am very well aware of the responsibility I have towards the hundreds of informants I have recorded over the last fifty years, so, I thought it might be helpful; if I commented on some of the unfortunate bloomers that Musical Traditions reviews are laying at my door.
In fact, over the years I have spent more time with him than any other traditional singer. His 78rpm disc was the very first folksong record I personally owned and played on our wind-up gramophone and it's one I treasure to this day. The recording took place before the war in 1934 and I well remember when he came up to London to go to the Decca studios with my father and the Irish composer, E J Moeran. He sang two of his favourites: Bold Fisherman and Pretty Ploughboy and, during the war, when abroad and asked to sing a folksong, I found myself remembering and singing Harry's Ploughboy. It was the first song that sprang to mind and, after the loss of my brother in the war, the last verse had a special poignancy:
Happy is the day when all true-lovers meetMy elder brother, John, trained as an architect, apprenticed at the Bauhaus in Germany, and his pre-war girl-friend went on to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford. As a keen sailor, he joined The RNVSR, Royal Navy 'Yachtsman's Reserve' and, early in the war, found himself at Scapa Flow on the destroyer, Glowworm. After losing a man overboard, and leaving the flotilla to try and find him, all but five lost their lives as he and his crew fought it out, one small destroyer against the German fleet invading Norway, including the Scharnhorst, the Gneisnau and three Hipper class cruisers.
When their sorrows and cares are all o'er
But cursed be the wars that send many a lad to sea
And their trueloves never see them any more
Because folksinging took him away to the pubs and to drinking, Harry's wife did not approve and would not allow it in their house at Catfield, so nearly all my post-war 1950s recordings of Harry had to be made in his garden shed. Further tapes were made by Alan and myself, both at my own home and at Alan's flat, when he came to London for the TV "Balladhunter" series with David Attenborough at Alexandra Palace.
I would like to draw attention to a serious error in the notes to this album. Sean O Boyle, not a folklorist but a collector of Gaelic Songs especially in Donegal, certainly did not tell Alan Lomax about Margaret. He himself encountered her on his own in 1951, the year before Sean joined me on our first joint recording trip in 1952. In fact, Sean disapproved very strongly of my recording Margaret for the BBC as a part of the Irish tradition and stubbornly refused to come with me when I went to record her in Dundalk, but he did assist me in writing up the BBC notes to her songs when pointed out her lack of Irish. When asked what was leanan sidh in the song, My Lagan Love, Margaret had explained on the recording: "It's a turf basket".
One other point, it was for the film of Johnny that I made with Pete Seeger in 1964 that was the memorable occasion when he played on my fiddle. Johnny was still in mourning for the tragic loss of his brother, Symie, who had tipped over a paraffin lamp and burnt himself and his cottage. Johnny did not own a fiddle himself but played on those hanging up in the cottages he visited as a peddler in the Bluestack Mountains. When I took Pete and Toshi to meet him, he had not played the fiddle for three years and would not have done so then but for seeing my fiddle which he enjoyed playing. His sad eyes lit up and, in spite of the pouring rain, he gave a remarkable performance on film of dance-tunes and slow airs including The Easter Snow.
Peter Kennedy - 13.6.00
Roly Brown, in reviewing Cathal McConnell's 'Long expectant ...' locates the Star of Belle Isle in Newfoundland. So did everybody. However I came across two versions in Ireland, one from a manuscript of the early 20th Century and the other from Ben 'Sketch' McGrath - who was, I suspect, Cathal's source.
These set me thinking because there were curiosities; there is a Belle Isle in Fermanagh, situated in Upper Lough Erne - which is also named in the song - but especially because the Irish versions mentioned St John's, where the better-known Canadian collected versions did not. It seemed odd that a song, found where St John's is located should leave out any reference to St John's, while versions found in a place where there is no St John's (and there is no town called St John's in Ireland) should mention it. Eventually I thought of a possibility the song was an Irish song of emigration which went to Canada and having got there, didn't need any longer to say that the lovers were going to St John's.
I published the arguments supporting this view in the Canadian Folk Music Journal (vol 14, 1986) The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle: American Native or Irish Immigrant? Subsequently, the ideas were used in an article by Michael Gray, Back to Belle Isle in the Bob Dylan Critical Quarterly - The Telegraph (Spring 1988) and were the subject of strong criticism by Peter Narvaez in The Telegraph for Winter 1988), Backlash to Belle Isle. He found my arguments entirely unconvincing and my logic suspect. I began a reply but let the matter sit because the arguments were qualitative; neither of us had any concrete evidence. It therefore gave me the greatest pleasure, when, a couple of years later, in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, while going through an envelope of odd pages from eight-page song books (these usually date from around 1785 - 1835), I found some untitled verses which were quite plainly the final six of a version of the Star of Belle Isle - and in the circumstances, clearly of Irish provenance.
The Star of Belle Isle is of Irish origin; it became relocated in Newfoundland, it has also survived in Irish tradition and Cathal probably got the song from Ben McGrath of Boho, Co Fermanagh. Its survival and its continuation in performance is, of course, a whole lot more interesting than my self-satisfaction.
John Moulden - 8.6.00
All traditional customs involve group / community fallings out from time to time (and there've been a few about the Garland over the years), but this one seems especially sad. The first news that greeted us was that several longstanding active participants in the Ceremony had been told their services weren't needed any more. The handling of this was particularly graceless and bureaucratic. It seems that newer members of the Garland Committee have set up rules to ensure the custom won't die out. Among the innovations is a requirement people have attend a set number of meetings per year, or they can't keep their 'jobs' in the Garland Ceremony. They're also instituting a vote for the King and a four-year tenure of office.
Tradition has to evolve, but on a basic human level I find the idea that a committee can write and tell members of families that have a recorded history of involvement in the tradition for over a hundred years that they can't take their accustomed part any more, deeply saddening.
Customs are reflections of their own time, rather than the past and Castleton this year was a triumph of modern management style over more organic former approaches.
Georgina Boyes - 2.6.00
(Nothing so extreme - but some similar 'modernisation' has occurred at Bampton. When Frances Shergold retired after 45 years as Squire, four years ago, he was persuaded that his successor should be decided by ballot. This meant that the position, traditionally bequeathed to the new man with the backing and authority of his predecessor, is now supported by the votes of what could easily be fewer than half of the side. Not the best way of ensuring the continuation of the world's only truly uninterupted Morris tradition, in my opinion - Ed.)
I'm currently researching the history of eighteenth and nineteenth century emigration from Ireland. This is for a course I shall be teaching on the relationship between Irish music and emigration. One of the things I want to do is to try and relate patterns of emigration, and motives, to incidences of production of songs - ie. to ask why the Irish produced more emigration songs than any other European ethnic group. Some of the reasons are obvious: extremely high rates of emigration over a long period when broadside presses were in full flight; also the fact that in Ireland, emigration was seen as a response to British oppression; also the fact that a large proportion of Irish emigration was a flight from famine, and songs produced thereby may be a vocalisation of the horrors of that calamity. Other reasons may of course be more nebulous and possibly related to differences in social culture between the different emigrant groups.
However, it occurred to me that the incidence of song production may be positively correlated with whether emigrants viewed emigration as permanent or merely temporary. For instance, I know of several Swedish emigrant songs, where emigration was usually one way, but I cannot recall many songs from Southern or Eastern Europe, where migrants typically worked abroad for a few years before returning to their home communities. For the Irish, emigration to America was almost invariably permanent. If my hypothesis is correct therefore, we should not be surprised to find them ranking very high on this correlation.
Before I can apply the hypothesis, though, I need to know a lot more about European emigrant songs. Is there anyone out there who can clue me in?
Fred McCormick - 31.5.00
A few weeks ago I asked for your help to get hold of a copy of the Joseph Taylor Leader 4050 LP, you might remember. Yesterday I got hold of a copy, thanks to you! A very friendly lady from Middlesex reacted to the small ad you were so kind to post on your site, and she and her husband just sent me the LP, the only thing they wanted in return was a contribution to the Red Cross! How about that? Obviously, you can now remove the ad from your site. Thank you ever so very much for your help.
Kees Kramer, Nederlands - 31.5.00
In the few moments I have to myself I wander through your pages. They are brilliantly put up - I have only the slightest idea of (and no inclination towards) HTML. The articles themselves really are of the highest quality and I'm not surprised you have won the prestigious awards you have.
I'd like to become a Friend, as I know how hard it is for a small organisation to keep going with finite amounts of cash to be spread over an ever-increasing area but still to maintain the high standard expected.
Fee Lock - 30.5.00
I've noted your recent comments regarding Rounder distribution problems. I have usually bought Rounder through Red Lick and have not found a problem until recently when I ordered Songs of Seduction from the Alan Lomax Collection. Four weeks later there was still no sign and Ann at Red Lick tells me she keeps getting promises of delivery which do not materialise. Incidentally, Frontstage in Belgium have the first 3 volumes of the Folk Songs of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales series at £9.15 each including delivery to the UK. When I spoke to them, they told me they got them from a distributor in Munich and expected to be able to deliver to the UK within not more than 2 weeks.
It's hard to see what Proper are playing at. There's something ironic about being able to get a CD of traditional British singers more quickly from Europe than Proper can deliver. I'm thinking of telling Rounder what I think about their present arrangements - perhaps the disgruntled retailers should do likewise. I guess I'll have the same trouble with Arhoolie - I've noticed that Springrhyme and Greentrax are using Music Scotland now.
As a matter of interest, whatever happened to Direct? [Direct Distribution was taken over by Proper Distribution on the 1st of February 2000, ie. three months ago - Ed.] Even Topic are now using Proper for distribution now so even their CDs probably won't be in the shops. Still at least Topic do have a mail order service.
I suggested that he contact Rounder (as I had some weeks earlier) and tell them about it. A couple of days later he wrote:
I did e-mail Rounder explaining the problems I'm having. They were most sympathetic, but implied that the fault was with Red Lick (who had delivered the rest of my order almost 4 weeks ago now) and suggested that I get directly in touch with their UK distributor. Believe it or not they then gave me Direct's details. Seems incredible doesn't it?
As an alternative, I also got hold of the details of their distributor in the Netherlands, which I will pass on to Ann at Red Lick.
A few days later, he wrote:
Rod, it gets even more bizarre. The Netherlands distributors have now referred me back to Proper because "according to Rounder's computer records, Proper have had the item you want in stock for the past six weeks." Words like "piss up" and "brewery" spring readily to mind. If anything ever turns up I will let you know.
And yesterday, he wrote again:
I finally received the CD today. It took six weeks from my order. At least it was well worth the wait. The music is quite wonderful. There is not one track which is less than excellent and the sound quality is outstanding. It is marvellous to hear so many great singers at the height of their powers. It would be even better if all the performances were complete, but I guess that the omission of an odd verse in songs like this is not quite so bad as when great chunks of rare ballads are left out.
I find myself wondering if this pruning isn't as bad or even worse than the way some of the early collectors censored some of the songs. At least they could argue that they were reflecting the mores of their times. It is hard to see any justification for this cutting - after all, I would guess that most buyers of this material would rather have a Double CD, even if it costs a bit more, if that were the only way to fit the complete songs. The tragedy is that I suspect that the complete songs will never now see a commercial release. What a wasted opportunity!
I can only echo your comments on the booklet notes. They are a great disappointment, and in such stark contrast to those that accompany the Deep River of Song or Southern Journey releases in the Alan Lomax series (although I do have only 2 from each set on which to base this comparison), which show a real love and understanding of the music and a deep respect for the artists.
On a brighter note, I'm pleased to see that your Walter Pardon will soon be available. A bit like the proverbial London buses, nothing available from him for years and then two turn up in a month!
Roger Johnson - 8.5.00
If any readers are having problems getting Rounder CDs, they might like to know that Veteran have the following in stock:
|Top of page
Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services Updated: 22.1.03