More traditional songs from around Lough Erne's shore
Musical Traditions Records MTCD367-8
CD One: CD Two:
I Pray You Pay Attention
The Bright Silvery Light of the Moon
The Crockery Ware
From Sweet Tralee
Everyone's Done It But You
My Love, he is a Miner
Paddy and the Donkey
The Sprig of Irish Heather
Caroline and Her Sailor Bold
The Heather where the Moorcock Crows
The Irish Soldier
The Hills above Drumquin
My Tackle A Honie
The White Hare of Golan
Erin's Lovely Home
The Bonny Labouring Boy
The Tyrone Tailor
The Moon behind the Hill
The Galway Shawl
My Mother's Last Goodbye
The Little Old Mud Cabin
The Factory Girl
The Lovely River Finn
That Little Thatched Cottage
Paddy & Jimmy Halpin
Eugene Ward McElroy
Eugene Ward McElroy
Mr Bradley's Ball
A Bonny Leitrim Boy
The Granemore Hare
The Banks of the Silvery Tide
The Piley Cock
The Killyfole Boasters
Harper The Pride of Tyrone
My Charming Edward Boyle
Mr Macadam & Co
Boys and Girls Courting
The Kilmuckridge Hunt
The Mourne Still
Clinkin' o'er the lea
The Banks of the Lee
The Roslea Hunt
Stock or Wall
The Nobleman's Wedding
Blow The Candle Out
Here's A Health to the Company
Red Mick McDermott
To begin at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas said, and to facilitate readers who are unfamiliar with the background details; Keith Summers was, among many other things, a somewhat opportunistic collector of traditional music and song. More on the word opportunistic anon. For now, let me say that it is not used here in any pejorative sense.
In any event, when his employers parachuted him into their newly opened works in Co Fermanagh in 1977, he used the opportunity to record as many of the local singers as he could get to. The first tranche of these recordings was issued as The Hardy Sons of Dan. The release was produced by Keith, and released shortly before his untimely death in 2004. It was a wonderful evocation of one of the most important song traditions in these islands, and it immediately established itself as a firm favourite in my collection.
For the tenth anniversary of Keith's death, Rod Stradling and Paul Marsh have put together this companion set, and the first question I need to ask is, how does the Companion compare with the original compilation?
Well, there are a lot more tracks on this one - 50 against 37 on the earlier set, and one or two have already appeared on Topic's Voice of the People. Also, I'd got the idea from somewhere that there would be a fair bit of background noise on a lot of these songs, that being why Keith hadn't used them. Well, you try recording somebody in a pub and not picking up superfluous chatter and clatter. Even so, there were only two songs where the level of noise was sufficient to distract me.
But what about the contents? Well, there is a grand array of local songs and hunting songs, but nothing this time about football. Also, the present set contains a higher proportion of music hall and comic songs. That, for me is a disappointment. I am a man for the ballads after all, and especially those long, lyrical extravaganzas for which the province of Ulster is rightly famous, but I'll put the question of personal taste on one side for the moment. In the meantime, if there's nothing here, which quite matches the glorious majesty of Phil McDermott's Reaping of the Rushes Green, there is still plenty to whet the appetites of the most determined of ballad buffs. I Particularly enjoyed Francie Little's Charming Edward Boyle, Jimmy Halpin's Bonny Leitrim Boy, and James McDermott's Nobleman's Wedding. Even Tommy Connelly's splendidly sung, but rather hackneyed McCafferty managed to raise a few hairs on the back of my head.
I was also glad to see James's McDermott's Blow the Candle Out. It's a grand old song, which despite its extensive provenance, just doesn't get aired often enough.
But it's Maggie Murphy who takes every accolade going! With 8 tracks to herself, she is the most prolific singer on this release, and practically every one is a gem. She may not have been the subtlest of singers, but by God, she could make people sit up and listen. Even Mr Bradley's Ball, which I would otherwise have dismissed as a bit of boring nonsense becomes a tour de force in her hands. And if it's long Ulster ballads you're after, make sure you hear what she does with The Banks of the Silvery Tide.
The booklet notes have been written by the producers, and they include an interview with Keith, plus reminiscences from various people who were involved with his collecting work. Also, there are thumbnail biographies of most of the singers - those for whom data exists at any rate.
Thereby hangs a curious note. Not only is there no information for Peggy McDonagh, Tommy Connolly and Packie Cunningham, but several singers are unnamed and various dates and locations are missing. This is surprising, for anyone who knew Keith knew how fastidious he was. All I can say is that I went through most of Keith's papers shortly after he died and do not remember seeing anything which related to his collecting in Fermanagh. Where they've gone to is anybody's guess, but at least we have the material, and that is far more important.
The song notes are on the whole rather sketchy, but it has to be remembered that neither Paul nor Rod could claim much expertise in the songs of Fermanagh. Wisely then they seem to have taken heed of that good old maxim, 'If you can't say owt, say nowt".
They did though raise one point; That Little Mud Cabin on the Hill (Roud 9271) turns out to be a parody of The Little Old Log Cabin Down The Lane, (Roud 2473). Given that other parodies of this song exist, I'd have thought it worth a mention.
Which brings me back to those questions of opportunism and personal taste. Far too often folksong collectors, and indeed collectors working in most of the domains of what we call folklore, embarked on the recovery of tradition armed with little more than a vaporous preconception of what they think the folk should be singing and/or what they'd like to hear. Invariably, they sought out those songs, which conformed to said preconceptions, and then concocted even more vaporous theories out of the 'evidence'.
Keith's approach was about the nearest I can think of to what anthropologists would call value free non-participant observation. He met the people, told them he wanted songs and then let the tape recorder run while they sang whatever they felt like singing. What these two sets amount to therefore, is a cross section of tradition as it existed on the ground.
Even then of course we don't get the whole picture. For example, both sets are heavily male dominated, with only three female singers between the lot. That should be no surprise, for we seem to have suffered a similar imbalance on this side of the Irish Sea. Could it be though that, since Keith relied on intermediaries to locate singers, he only found those who performed in public, and missed the ones who just sang around the house?
Again, there is very little on either set, which could be considered even slightly risqué. It is possible of course that the good folk of Fermanagh didn't sing such stuff, and that would certainly concur with other material, which has been collected in the region. However, I'd be inclined to think that bawdy songs could have been collected there if the circumstances had been different. As it was, his singers probably felt it would have been unfitting to sing anything 'outway rude' to someone as young as Keith was in those days.
Finally, other commentators have pointed to the lack of Republican songs among these recordings. This, as Henry Glassie's monumental survey of the folklore of Ballymenone 1 demonstrates, is a serious omission; remembering that Glassie was collecting in the same county as Keith, and around the same time. But if people didn't feel comfortable singing nationalistic songs, many of which understandably cursed 'the English', in front of someone from England, who are we to argue?
Well, not quite finally, Keith recorded several songs, which at that time were very popular on the commercial folk scene. One of these - Matt Hyland - has certainly been collected in Fermanagh before, and I suspect is a long standing member of the local tradition. But were Spancil Hill and The Town I Loved So Well learned from the radio, or from some similar source? I don't suppose it matters much, except to pedants like me. But if they are, they remain splendid examples of how well such songs can be absorbed into a living tradition, even at such a late date.
So to conclude and finish. This release, coming hard on the heels of Topic's splendid 3-CD set, The Flax in Bloom, reminds us of what an extraordinary storehouse of tradition Ulster represented, before the 'twin serpents' of discos and nightclubs had penetrated that far. We can only say thanks to Keith's memory for preserving this much of it. He was a good old boy, whom I and many other people who knew him still miss, and I can't think of any finer way of marking the tenth anniversary of his passing than with this companion volume. Get out there and buy it.
Fred McCormick - 12.7.14
The Stars of Ballymenone; Henry Glassie. Indiana UP. 2006.
All Silver & No Brass; An Irish Mumming. Henry Glassie. Indiana UP. 1975.