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GUEST,Jim Carroll how important is the label traditional singer? (254* d) RE: how important is the label traditional singer? 30 Sep 07


Tom,
I have to say that I am very reluctant to make any great claims that our findings among the singers we recorded have any great universal significance. It certainly was the case that those we asked, which were those we knew over a long period, all bore out what I have said, but whether this was a case of too little, too late, we really have no way of knowing. I must bore everybody rigid by repeating that there appears to have been very little research on the subject.
I can say that my interest in this aspect of singing was ignited by a brief conversation I had with Ken Goldstein (over a Chinese meal he generously treated me, Bob Thomson and a couple of others to in Soho, London, some time in the sixties). He told us about the work he had done with N.Y. State singer, Sarah Cleveland, who told him that when she sang it was like sitting in the cinema.
Shortly afterwards we interviewed Traveller Mikeen McCarthy who, coincidentally, used exactly the same words. Mikeen was a fascinating man; tinsmith, horse dealer, caravan builder, he had sold ballads (songsheets) with his mother, at the fairs and markets in the first half of the last century and had also sung on the streets for a living. With only a very rudimentary literary ability, he was extremely intelligent, perceptive and articulate; he painted pictures with words. On one occasion, when describing a childhood memory of his father telling stories to a group of villagers around an open fire in Kerry, he told us "the fire was so hot you could band a wheel with it". It was he who told us that if he ever came back to Ireland he would take us to the house where 'The Wild Colonial Boy' was born. Interestingly, he made a clear distinction between what he called public singing (selling broadsheets and street/pub singing for money) and "fireside singing". He described how his father would turn to the wall, or pull his cap over his eyes while singing or storytelling, in order to shut out his audience. Other singers of his father's generation would do the same.
We became very close to Mikeen over the thirty years we knew him and it was like losing a part of yourself when he died three years ago. I am in the process of transcribing the hundred odd tapes we recorded of him with a view to editing them into a book, or making them available in some other way.
We tried similar approaches with other singers, extensively with Walter Pardon, but also with small farmer Tom Lenihan of West Clare, both with similar results.
One singer we wanted to work with but didn't, was Mary Delaney, a woman who has been blind from birth; we simply didn't know how to approach her on the subject of 'seeing'. Even so, on a number of occasions she came up with basic descriptions of characters and locations in songs "blondie haired boy, whitewashed and thatched house (not included in text of song).
Having said this, we deliberately didn't overdo our questioning as all the singers were still singing and we felt it intrusive to use them as lab-rats and maybe intrude on the way they approached their song.
Some description of the work we did with singers is to be found on the Enthusiasms page of Musical Traditions web-site entitled 'By Any Other Name'.
I have for a long time thought that traditional singers were creative artists and our failure to recognise that fact early enough to gather the information has led to a gaping hole in our knowledge of the tradition.
I can't find the quote from Walter I was looking for, but (at the risk of making this another War and Peace) this is part of a talk on Walter Pardon we gave at Salford some years ago.
"In the notes to the I948 album Texas Gladden Sings Blue Ridge Mountain Ballads, Alan Lomax wrote "Texas sings her antique ballads in the fashion of ballad singers from time immemorial. The emotions are held in reserve: the singer does not colour the story with heavy vocal under-scoring; she allows the story to tell itself and the members of her audience to receive and interpret it in accordance with their own emotions."
Walter spoke once about having "the right strook" for a song, S-t-r-o-o-k, which according to Walter is an old Norfolk expression. It is not easy to explain completely but pace certainly comes into it. Walter said the old singers "always sang fairly steady".    He said it was the same with playing music - too fast nowadays; no-one can keep up. Must play the right strook or step dancers, for example, couldn't get all their steps in. But it's more than just pace. We recorded an Irish singer, Tom Lenihan, in Co. Clare and he said you had to "Put the Blas on it". He also equated it with speed, not too fast but not drag it out either. He always maintained that the story was the most important aspect of a song; like Walter saying you must have imagination. It's putting yourself in the song, believing in it, getting involved in it and therefore you tell the story at the right pace to communicate it.
Walter always showed a natural professionalism on stage. To him, performing was a job to be done properly and for which he prepared so that he did not forget words, or pitch wrongly in performance, and he only ever drank shandies,- slowly. And this was a man who became a public performer in his sixties after living a fairly sheltered or insular life, probably never having seen many live performances; suddenly propelled into this strange new world, which he took calmly and modestly in his stride. However, he did find performance quite draining so, at the age of 75, he felt it was getting rather too much for him and difficult for him to keep to the high standards he set himself so he decided to stop singing in public. "
Tom, you mentioned your book what book?
Cap'n,
Eddie Lenihan is a remarkable self-publicist. There are not many people who can lay claim to being the cause of having a road re-routed in order to save a 'fairy thorn', as he did with the Ennis by-pass.
His eccentric appearance is, I believe, carefully designed to create an image in my opinion it is classic 'Darby O'Gill leprechaunism.
While it is true that there are many styles of storytelling, I have never encountered anything remotely resembling Eddie's among those we met (several of whom had choice words to say about his antics). Nor have I come across written accounts which bear his style out. In my opinion, his 'style' does nothing whatever to communicate the stories, not does it present a good image for storytelling.
Regarding your list of 'aware' singers; do you know this or are they just your particular favourites. I know one on the list proved total ignorance of ballads by presenting one of the worst programmes on the subject, 'In Praise of Ballads'. Another told us at a lecture we once attended at Cecil Sharp House that "patter and music-hall songs should all be unaccompanied, but ballads and narrative songs must always be accompanied. We're still trying to figure that one out.
I have to say, of those on your list I have heard (never heard Brian), the singing of at least half of them show little evidence of such understanding.
Jim Carroll


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