The last notes of the old, high, and beautiful Irish civilization are dying away — a civilization which produced an epic, lyric, and musical literature as noble as any in the world. Two hundred years ago, most Irishmen spoke Gaelic and so were heritors of this remarkable oral culture. The conquest of Ireland by the English — the potato famine in the 1840's which reduced the population of the country by half — the subsequent emigration that filled America with Irishmen — the recent impact of films and the like — have dealt Gaelic culture terrible blows. Today, only a handful of cottagers in the west still speak Gaelic as their everyday language. The scientists in the Irish Folklore Commission feel a special urgency in their work, for they see an entire culture traced on the sands of the western beaches. They must recover what they can, before the next wave washes the beach smooth of the old words.
There is also an urgent need to publish records like this one from which a new, live singing tradition may grow. The singing style of the Irish is impossible to notate in our western musical script. Scholars and composers of the 18th and 19th centuries published their written versions of the songs so that the real McCoy was hidden by volumes of badly transcribed or even censored material and under layers of imitations and rewrites.
The best modern versions of Irish folksong were created by anonymous Irish singers, who apparently made up verse in their heads in Irish and translated it into English as they sang. (See Side 1, #2). From this stems the Irish come-all-ye tradition (Morrissey, etc.) which is the basis for many of our American ballads. Recently, the government of Eire has officially sponsored the Irish language. In street names, in the schools, in contests of songs, in every way possible, the attempt has been made to revive and spread this beautiful tongue. The issue is in doubt, but at least dozens of young singers have gone into country districts and learned the songs by rote from surviving folk singers. I have included many such versions in this collection.
The recordings were made by Robin Roberts and myself in January 1951 and by Brian George of BBC in 1947. All of us traveled with Seamus Ennis, a great piper and son of a great piper, a fine singer of ballads, and a man known and loved wherever Gaelic is spoken and music made in Ireland. This collection is his. Thanks go to Seamus O'Duilargea and Sean O'SuIlivan of the Irish Folklore Commission, under whom we all worked, and to Radio Eireann and the BBC for generous help when it was needed.
Alan Lomax …
The vigor and charm of these living English folksongs may surprise most listeners; perhaps most of all the British. Yet this album catches only an echo from the land of melody that England must have been two centuries ago. Remember, as you listen, that this folksong tradition was crushed by the blows of the first and most violent industrial revolution. The Acts of Enclosure in 1750 effectively destroyed the village life of which the songs had been a part. The pauperized villagers moved into the slums of the new factory towns, and in their fourteen to twenty hour days in the mills and mines there was little time or will to sing. And the moralists and ministers of that age never stopped sermonizing against the sinful amusements of the poor, including the old and pagan rustic songs and dances.
But a funeral service has often been held over English folk-song, while the tradition itself continued to exist, no matter how. The English yeoman was a stubborn singer. During the 18th Century, he created scores of new songs and shanties about his work and roared them out in the pub, the national refuge from works managers and moralists. (See Side I.) Then, because England is a land of small neighbourhoods, isolated by preference and conservative by temperament, there were many villages that kept dances and ceremonies alive which recall pagan rites or the pageantry of the middle ages. (See Side I, 4, 15, 16, and Side II. 1.) The farm labourers of these districts gave the whole gamut of British ballads and lyric songs to Cecil Sharp and other collectors who visited them in the 20th Century. (Side II, 2-13.)
This century saw an official attempt to revive English folk-song and dance, but the movement was not wholly successful. My guess is that the revivalists offered their English audience of city folk a group of songs and dances that were too purely rustic. However, the English Folk Dance and Song Society provides a magnificent center for workers and enthusiasts, and it has encouraged the people of many villages to revive or to hold on to their traditions.
Recently the B.B.C. took a hand. A whole group of imaginative radiomen turned collectors in order to write honest programs about life in Britain. The recordings made by Maurice Brown, Douglas Cleverdon, - Brian George, Jack Dillon, Geoffrey Bridson, Olive Shapeley, and especially Peter Kennedy, form the basis of a growing archive of folk-song in the B.B.C. Permanent Record Library. Their recordings of country singers, many of whom are now dead, make up this album. It is through the kindness of the B.B.C. that we publish these copyrighted recordings.
The Four Loom Weaver— Sung by Ewan McColl. Recorded by Alan Lomax
The hungry hand-loom weavers made a long ballad describing the economic crisis of 1819-1820.
We lived upon nettles while nettles were good And Waterloo porridge was the best of our food. Ewan McColl, born in the slums of Manchester, learned this song from Mrs. Whitehead, near Oldham, in Lancashire, and here sings a fragement of it in Lancashire dialect.
Fourpence a Day— Sung by Ewan McColl, learned from lead miners in Teasdale, Yorkshire. Recorded by Alan Lomax
It is only natural that England, which was the first country to experience the full impact of the industrial revolution, should produce a large number of industrial songs in traditional style. Tom Raine, a Middleton lead miner is said to have, composed this song and when this was discovered, he was blacklisted as a miner and forced to leave the district to find work. Ewan McColl, now an actor, learned this ballad style from his father, who was Scots iron moulder.
What most impressed me on my collecting trip to Scotland in the summer of 1951 was the vigor of the Scots folk singing tradition, on the one hand, and its close connection with literary sources on the other. I could give scores of incidents that illustrate this. In a byre in South Uist a rawboned Hebridean woman sang three milking croons to make her cow give more milk. The first she knew was by a modern Gaelic poet, the second she had learned in school and of the last, she said, "I do not think it has ever been printed." Yet in this district there still lives the finest tradition of work song singing in western Europe.
The Scots have the liveliest folk tradition of the British Isles, but paradoxically, it is the most bookish.
Everywhere in Scotland I collected songs of written or bookish origin from country singers, and, on the other hand, I constantly encountered bookish Scotsmen who had good traditional versions of the finest folk songs. For this reason I have published songs which show every degree and kind of literary influence.
Scots folksong is extraordinarily nationalistic, the result of the centuries of wars with England. On the other hand, the nation of Scotland is divided into two very different cultural halves — the Highlands especially the Hebrides, where Gaelic is still spoken and where there still survives the remnants of the high and beautiful Gaelic culture — and the Lowlands, where the British popular ballad is at its very best and many people speak Lalands, a vernacular felt by the Scots to be a distinct language from English. Both of these regions have been much affected by their religious history. For instance, in some regions of the Hebrides the Presbyterian Kirk absolutely and effectively forbids all dancing; and in neighboring Catholic Islands the kalays last till morning. So one never knows what mixture of shame, joy or pride in his folk culture one will encounter in a Scot, but, whether it is love of bagpipes, Burns or border ballads, there is certain to be great enthusiasm for some sort of folk music.