Article MT294

Len Graham

Interviewed by Vic Smith

Len was staying with us on the night of 31st October 2013 after appearing at our folk club in Lewes.  In the morning I recorded an interview with him for a short article in fRoots magazine.  It appeared in the March 2014 issue (No.369).  It soon became obvious that Len had far more of great interest to say than I would be able to put in that short piece and I have transcribed it in full for inclusion here.

As well as giving his time for the interview, Len was kind enough to offer to supply a number of the fine archive photos that he gathered together for his book on Joe Holmes.

Vic Smith

Len, we are about the same age and it seems to me that we came into this music at a very good time.  The tradition was still vibrant; there were a lot of the old singers and musicians, but also there was a good basis of what we might call academic interest in the music.  Probably, this was most true of the North of Ireland where you came from.

That is true, though I came into it very early on and the definition of 'folk' or 'traditional' didn't come into it until I was in my late teens.  They were just what we called "aul' songs".  My grandmother was singing them, my mother was singing them.  It wasn't until later that I met the sort of academic people that you are talking about - Hugh Shields, Tommy Munnelly, Robin Morton … but certainly we have been lucky on that score with people that took it beyond just being a local oral tradition and put it in the context of being an international folk movement, the big ballads, the Irish language songs, immigration and local songs - all those influences of the 'the shamrock, the rose and the thistle'.  It is very much the Ulster tradition to have all those strands coming together making a very interesting and vibrant song tradition.  The Irish song tradition in the north is particularly interesting.

It is particularly strong in the north.  Is it the mix of people that you have described that makes it like that?

I think that would be a major factor that we had that mixture and their comings and goings.  The North Channel being just 12 miles from Fair Head to Argyll and Kintyre, I used to be able to look over to Kintyre, to Campbeltown, to Islay, from where I grew up.

When all the School of Scottish Studies stuff came on line recently,1 well, it was all fascinating to me, of course, and I had been lucky enough to have access to it for years through Hamish2, but I was going through some of the Argyll stuff and a song that my grandmother sang, in fact it was a song that had an association with a piece of fabric in the form of a plaid that was handed down from generation to generation.  She sung that song and she pointed out on the plaid and she told me that was spun, that belonged to our family, our ancestors.  It was spun, dyed and woven, Now most of the dyes would be natural coming from the likes of kelp and vegetation and various things like that but one line in the plaid was indigo and she said that this had come from a boat that went down in 1834, the Enterprise, just off the coast at Glenarm, Co.  Antrim.  Well, just recently, I was looking at some of Hamish's collecting in Argyllshire around Campbeltown when he collected from the McShannons and Willie Mitchell and all those guys3, well a version of this song turned up over there.  Called Macrihanish Bay I've never heard it anywhere else, but you hear Irish songs turning up in that part of Scotland and Scottish songs in Ireland.  We have some migrant versions of Scottish songs in Ulster, usually they have been matched up with a different melody and words altered, but that is the tradition.  It's a living tradition and that is what makes it so fascinating that you have all these variants of songs.  It's been a lifelong fascination of mine and I can't imagine life without having that interest.

And in Donegal, you have one of the strongest 'Gaeltachts' in Ireland.

Yes, and where I am living was a Gaeltacht - the day before yesterday, you know - and the closest Gaeltacht to Antrim would be the Western Isles of Scotland.  The last native Irish speaker of Antrim only died in the 1970s.  But there is a lot of Irish still spoken in Antrim.  Where I am living now in Armagh was a Gaeltacht very recently.  Some of the richest poetry and songs in Irish came from the area that I am living in now, Peadar Ó Doirnín4, Art Mac Cumhaigh5 and all the big, major 18th century poets lived around that area.  They both had patrons in that area and a lot of the songs that are sung in Donegal were actually composed in the area where I am living now.

And yet you have lived through some very difficult times indeed where you live.  Has this had a very negative effect on the music, the tradition?

Well, certainly it affected it, but it was always there as a sub-culture.  The Antrim & Derry Fiddlers Association was formed 60 years ago in 1953.  I remember being taken to that as a child in the 1950s and the conversations were between some who were Irish speakers, others were wearing the square and compasses which meant that they were freemasons.  Some were wearing the 'two and a half'6 which was the Orange Order, someone else was wearing a Pioneer Pin - which meant total abstinence, so we had that mix of people playing the music and being good neighbours.  There are exceptions but the major conflicts were in the cities of Derry & Belfast, very much the urban areas.  The country people, the rural areas were the places where that link through the music was kept going over the generations.

It did have a negative effect, there can be no doubt about it and there were a few near misses with the bombs and things.  It was a very nasty war that went on for far too long.

You yourself have become known as something of an academic and a collector …

I never termed myself as a collector, because I never knew what a collector was.  Nicholas Carolan, the director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive did a talk at the Willie Clancy Summer School a couple of years ago, the Breandán Breathnach7 Memorial Lecture and the memorial lecture.  He more or less pointed out that we are all collectors if we are interested and going after songs.

I remember us sitting round the wireless listening to As I Roved Out in the early 1950s and Sarah Makem coming on every week on a Sunday morning and singing that song.  All of us listening and taking it down.  Well, he was saying that once you start doing that, you are a collector, so I didn't set myself up as a collector as such, I just had a fascination …  My mother said that I could sing before I could talk.  Herself and my grandmother were always singing.  I just started singing quite naturally early on.  I started learning songs and I've just continued doing this all my life.  Well, as you suggest, it started to go a bit deeper when I started going into collections and meeting people like Hugh Shields, meeting scholars and serious academics and Hamish, also, had a big impact on me.  So people like that made me realise that you have to be fulfilled with the tradition, you have to go into it a bit deeper.  This was particularly true when I had so many tantalising fragments of songs from my family, friends, other sources.  I was always hearing snatches of songs from neighbours and all sorts of people.  Perhaps you would only be given a verse, a chorus, I'll give you an example; I met the great Joe Holmes in 1963 and he sang me a verse and a chorus:

One verse and one chorus - that's all that he had.  He couldn't remember the rest of it.  Joe had learned it from a neighbour way back in the early years of the last century.  Joe was born in 1906 so sometime, probably in the late 1920s, Willie Clarke, a neighbour sang it and Joe learned it, but he left it alone and he hadn't sang it for so long and could only recall that first part and the chorus but then he said that the daughter of Willie Clarke had moved to Belfast in the 1930s.  He got her address and sometime after I had met her around 1964.  I met up with her in Belfast and she sang another three verses that made four verses, which we gave to various people, Cathal McConnell recorded it on a very early Boys of the Lough album and then Dick Gaughan recorded it and Delores Keane - she recorded it with De Dannan, Battlefield Band and so on so that was one instance of a song starting off as a fragment and then subsequently having spent all those years searching for it, it turned up in a collection in the Ozark highlands of Arkansas, The collector was Max Hunter and he was an electrical appliance salesman and going around the remote areas of the Ozarks, Arkansas and Missouri in the '50s and '60s ands he recorded a lot of great bits of songs including in 1961 a woman called Bertha Lauderdale and she sang a version called New York Bay8 which threw me a little bit at first but on closer inspection, I knew what it was because he had transcribed it as the Banks of Sweet Lauairen and that, of course, should have been the Banks of Sweet Lough Erne. So there were another couple of verses there - and then more recently, a couple of years ago, I was in Boston College and one of the lecturers there, Dr Michael O'Leary, came over and said, "I think that I may have something that would be of interest to you.  He had been doing a bit of research on a parish, an early parish for America in Pennsylvania and around Sugar Creek.  This parish was St Patrick's, built in 1803 - it's a wee wooden church, still standing, almost like a log cabin church.  Then on the centenary of the wee church, they brought out a magazine and in that magazine, was a three-stanza version of this song again and he gave me a photocopy of this with a wee bit more information, saying, "This song came over with one of our early parishioners who had left the Banks of Lough Erne in 1790.  So it was one of the early waves of emigration.  It was Gerry Monaghan so I had a name now as well.  He left on a vessel called The Eliza.  Once you get involved in this as an academic, this all becomes fascinating, not that I would call myself an academic, but it all grew out of an early introduction to song and an early fascination with something that I find so beautiful and so interesting.  It just keeps leading me around different corners.  It's a never ending well of beautiful songs and music.

As a singer, would you say that you had one, or a few or a wide range of influences.

I would say that everybody that I have met and heard sing and I have met hundreds and hundreds over the years - I think that they have all left an impression on me.  I have borrowed from an awful lot of people, Robert Cinnamond, Paddy Tunney, Joe Holmes.  Eddie Butcher, Mary Ann Carolan, numerous people.  I just came in, as you said at the start, at that tail end of when there was a rapid change.  You see, up until the first half of the 20th century, we still had our family blacksmith's forge in our village and that indicates the change that came about very rapidly, particularly after the Second World War.  The horses had to go and were taken over by the wee Ferguson tractor which trundled into the village and everything just changed so rapidly.  A lot of the people that were employed as casual farm labourers were suddenly no longer needed.  The tractor was a major change - in America as well as over here.  I've had this conversation many times over there.  Then there was rural electrification and the radio and television and all the other things that came about in the second half of the twentieth century.  My father used to say that the big long ballads went out with the electric light!  When the electric came in, the fairies went out of the window.  And the big, long, shorten-the-winter ballads - 30 or 40 verses - were no longer needed.  Well, I just came in at the tail end of that change but a lot of these people were still alive; the old people who had become involved at the latter end of the 19th century.  These people were still around and still had this vibrant tradition.

Well, there has been a revival - we can't deny that but if people like Child9 had come over to Ireland in the 19th century, then I would say that his five volumes could have been at least ten volumes.  There were huge numbers of English language ballads here in Ireland.  An awful lot of stuff was lost.  The same applies if Cecil Sharp had come across to Ireland instead of, or as well as, going to the Appalachians.

Peter Kennedy went over there in the 1950s

He came over along with Seamus Ennis and Sean O'Boyle and they did the BBC collecting, of course, but that was only over a period of a few weeks.

But he still made quite a rich collection in that time,

Oh! yes.  It just shows you how much there was … : A few weeks!  If it had been done in a systematic way that Seamus Ò'Duilearga had done with the Folklore Commission in the 1930s, but they were more interested in folklore than in the song and the music which was unfortunate.  There was a colossal amount of stuff collected by them in the 1930s but that was mainly folklore, cures, folk remedies, folk tales and all that sort of stuff.

The two albums of yours that I was very impressed with when then first came out were the two with Joe Holmes10, particularly your unison singing with him; Joe had sung in unison earlier.  Was it with his brother?

With his mother.  Jane, she was a singer.  His brother, Harry, he was a fiddler.  Harry brought Joe's fiddle back from the First World War and gave it to him.  My son is playing that fiddle now.  But, yes, that was a tradition.  Mostly in the north at the time.  The Keane sisters were doing it down in Galway and Eddie & Gracie Butcher in Co Derry, of course, but not so many songs together.  I came across it and Joe said there were quite a few people singing that way.  There were two young girls, neighbours that used to sing together.  I came across quite a few but not harmony, just unison.

Singing with Joe became of real importance to you

Oh yes!  Well, shortly after Joe died, I went full time singing.  The music has taken me around a few corners.

And the end of your interest in Joe has been this fantastic book11.

Well, I'd intended to do it for ages.  I had all sorts of ideas and I finally got down to it.  Then I finally got a publisher which was nearly as difficult as writing it.  Four Courts Press in Dublin brought it out in 2010.  I am very pleased with it.

Well, clearly it is a no-expense-spared production.  It is quite magnificent, All the songs, the tunes and all the historic photos, they are so important; I am glad that they are there.

Yes, Joe had a wonderful, interesting, eclectic collection of songs.  Some great songs; one of the first songs that he sung me was a version of The Grey Cock, a much fuller version than David Herd12 published in 1769.  When Child put it into his collection, he could only find that one version; and here Joe had it from his mother still in the living tradition in Antrim.  Well, Joe had a number of the Child ballads in his repertoire; The Dark Eyed Gypsy from his mother as well.

He had local songs as well?

Quite a number of local songs, emigration songs, songs of politics, the whole gamut of the different topics that you find in the oral tradition.  Versions of songs shared with Eddie Butcher.  Again that's the fascination of it all.  Other versions of these songs might turn up in Nova Scotia or places like that.  Like I sang one last night in your club, My Parents Raised me Tenderly.  That appears in The Songs of the People - the Sam Henry collection13 and it was the singer who gave it to Sam Henry, that Joe learned it from, John MacAfee had given it to Sam way back in the 1930s, Joe's house was what they call a "Céilí House", so a lot of those people would have called in, Joe's mother was a singer and Joe played the fiddle, so it attracted a lot of the people who would have given songs to Henry - and to Peter Kennedy funnily enough.  Paddy McClusky who Kennedy collected from in the 1950s was another regular caller at the house to play tunes and give songs … and it was a two-way traffic, of course.  That's how these things were transmitted and travellers; quite a number of the travellers, they were on a direct route to Ballycastle so a lot of the travellers who would have been heading there in their barrel-topped caravans heading to the Lammas Fair - a great gathering of travellers selling donkeys and piebald ponies and doing their business over there, they would have been calling in as well so there was lots of people, tinkers, tailors, sailors.  There were Scots travellers.  Whenever I met Belle & Sheila back in the 1970s, the first thing that Belle told me was she and Alex were married in Ballymoney14; that was the nearest big town to Joe.

Cathy was born in Ireland.

She was born in Strabane, I think.  They were going back and forth to all these gatherings as well as all the other travellers.  They were the major carriers of the tradition; uillean pipers, fiddlers, the Dohertys from Donegal.  They were always coming over to these fairs right up to the first half of the 20th century.  This was the way and all the country people would be delighted to see them, carrying the news and other information.  Then you had the hiring fairs in May and November.  That was another gathering and all the other fairs.  People would go in for a drink and there would be some songs sung.  So I just came in when - well, aspects of it had gone but there were still some pretty fine remnants of it I bought a ballad sheet from a wee traveller girl at Ballycastle, in the early 1960s.  I would say that she was probably one of the last to be selling ballads on the street.  This was at the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle.

Another Scottish connection coming to the Lammas Fair were people from Islay, Jura as well.  It's only 20 nautical miles from Islay to Ballycastle, no distance at all.  They were regular visitors.  That was probably the only holiday they had, a few drinks, a dance and a few songs.

Then there would be seasonal work …

Yes, there were the tattie-howkers going over to Ayrshire, particularly, was a big thing.  There were two of my father's aunts married to Scotsmen.  One of them was from Perthshire, Peter Robertson, and he came over as a groomsman to Lord Antrim some time in the late 19th century.  And then Susan Graham lived in Scotland, there was a whole squad of them, cousins and second cousins, Grahams, who were living in Scotland.  I remember and old man, Peter Robinson in the 1950s wanted to go back to Kinlochleven.  He had been working along with a lot of the Irish navvies back in the early 20th century.  If you ever get a chance to read a book called Children of the Dead End15 by Patrick MacGill.  He describes that whole scheme of the navvies, the bothys and the huts and the craic that they had.  Peter Robertson had worked in that.  Well, as you've said, that would be the story of all these men working as in that song, The Mickey Dam.

So you became a professional singer not long after Joe Holmes died, So your career, I suppose, has been partly performance, partly teaching, running courses …

Partly schools.  The Arts Council got me involved with schools, nearly 30 years ago now.  That's been an important factor in what is a pretty precarious way of making a livelihood, between that and doing workshops and concerts and all sorts of situations you have to do in this process - talks, presentations, I'll be going back to North Carolina again next year for two weeks teaching.

Adults or children?

Well, both really, the youngest this year would be about 10 years old to probably an 80 year old.  That's that sort of range and I choose songs to cover all ages, all groups, all situations.

And in North Carolina, you are in an area that was very strong for tradition song anyway.

That's a whole fascinating connection as well, going through particularly the repertoire that Sharp collected between 1916 and 1918.  There are numerous songs in that connection that also turn up in Ulster, obviously different versions, sometimes not as full as Ulster versions but once or twice you get set back by some of the versions collected there in that early part of the last century.

You talked about the changes that came over society and music with the coming of electricity -television, radio.  How do you see the tradition in the north of Ireland now and how do you see its future?

Well, the instrumental music has never been stronger.  Back in the '50s, my father had a friend who was an uillean piper, Willie Hope - there's a photograph of him16 - and Willie was a founder member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1951 in Mullingar.  And Willie Hope at that time along with a handful of others - you could have counted the number of pipers in Ireland on two hands at that stage including Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome and Willie Clancy err … : Frank McPeake, Frank McFadden - literally two hands.  Now there are thousands of uillean pipers and that is only one instrument.  The fiddle was always very popular, probably because it was much easier to acquire and the Scottish connection again.  They reckon that a lot of fiddles came into Ireland via Scotland.  And the reel came into Ireland via Scotland, the hornpipe came into Ireland via England, the mazurka came into Ireland from wherever.  The polka came into Ireland as a popular dance as well from Eastern Europe, so you had these things coming and going - but certainly the instrumental music is very strong.  I can't say the same about the singing.  It takes a bit more commitment.  There are some very encouraging young people coming up, but it is not as numerous or as vibrant as the astonishing instrumental tradition.  Singing is something more solitary, somehow.

A lot of people seem to want to take up singing later in life, perhaps not having the confidence when they are younger.

Maybe.  I certainly remember meeting people when I was younger who had only heard me singing on records and radio and they said, "I thought that you were a much older man!" I was always wanting to listen to and sing traditional song.  I was always hanging around with older people; I missed out altogether on The Beatles and Mick Jagger and all that stuff, you know?  I was always just hanging around fleadhs and sessions and that sort of thing.  Once you get into the songs it's different …  It's a different ball game.  If you want to get anywhere, you have to put a lot into it, spend time on your own.  Not when I was singing in unison with Joe, of course, or with Cathal17.  And there is a young American singer, Brian Hart.  He came over to the University of Limerick to do a Masters Degree and I was asked to work with him; there was someone that I was on the same waveband with.  There are certain songs that lend themselves to being sung in unison with another.  Others, the ones that need ornamentation are best on their own.

I joined a band as well in the early 1980s, 'Skylark' and we toured for ten years and again we had to choose songs that would lend themselves to 'accompaniment' where I would not have to compromise what I was doing.  It's the same with unison singing.  You have to choose sings that have got a rhythm.

Now we can't finish without talking about your partnership with John Campbell.

That would be a serious omission.  I met John via a great woman called Margaret Barry, old Maggie Barry, Joe Holmes and I were doing a tour with Maggie in 1969 and she introduced me to John, because Maggie's barrel-topped caravan was parked outside a public house near Crossmaglen, Co.  Armagh, in the early 1950s and John Campbell was working in the pub and he used to give Maggie the fare to catch the bus to go in to busk in Newry every Thursday and then Carrickmacross every Friday, so she was very fond of John who was only a young fellow at the time in the early 1950s.  So on the tour in 1969, she introduced me to John.  Well, she had met him before Alan Lomax took her over to London and all that.  You'll know that story.  Well, I married a woman from South Armagh and I ended up living in South Armagh beside John in the '80s.  We became closer friends then.  It just coincided with all the school work and the pair of us went around, It was all over the north, all colours, all creeds for a good twenty-odd years until John passed away in 2006.  So we went all over the place.  We came over here, to Scotland, Europe and the USA.  We had a wonderful time together, singing songs together and telling lies and generally enjoying ourselves.

Just one story - John Campbell and I were doing a gig together over in Harvard.  We walked into the hall and this man greeted us.  The first thing he did was to pin a round badge with the tricolour on our lapels and it said on it, "The family that sings together, stays together." And the organiser says, "I've been organising these gigs here at Harvard for many years.  You've probably heard about me, my name is Peter Johnson."

"Oh!" says John, "I don't think that I have ever had the pleasure, pleased to meet you."

"Well, you probably know my wife.  I'm sure that you have heard tell of Margaret Barry!" Well, apparently this Peter Johnson is of 'Johnson & Johnson' and he married Maggie in order to get her a visa! Of course, it was just a marriage of convenience.  "I had all the posters printed," he said, "so I had to get her into the country one way or another!"

Vic Smith - 27.3.14


Article MT294

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