logo Enthusiasms No 53
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Peter Kennedy

In Derek Schofield's article on Peter Kennedy in the current issue of EDS he wrote: 'There have already been calls for an open and critical debate on Peter's lifework'.

Over the years a file of comments and information has built up in my office.  I have now edited it into a series of positive and negative points about Mr Kennedy.  I contacted Derek, saying that if I were to publish this in MT and ask for readers' additions and amendments, would he be interested in publishing the result in EDS?  He replied that he might well be interested, adding that the Journal might be an even more appropriate place for it.

Accordingly, what follows is a conflation of comments and information from myself and others regarding Peter's Kennedy's lifework.  At it stands, it will seem biased towards the negative - primarily because the published material to date has been almost all positive, as befitted the 'obituary' type of writing which followed closely upon Peter's death.  Readers with additions, amendments or corrections are asked to e-mail me with their contributions; I am particularly interested in concrete examples of traditional performers not being paid royalties, not being asked for permission to publish their music, not being informed of Folktrax publications (as in Negative 4, below).

I will then subsume these contributions within the piece and submit it to Derek for possible publication by the EFDSS.  If they decide not to do so, I will publish it here.

Rod Stradling - 14.9.06

Peter Kennedy
an appraisal


  1. He was in the right place at the right time, and made the very most of his opportunities, producing some superb recordings, exceptional photographs and film.

  2. We will be for ever in his debt for the record he left of a now-vanished world.

  3. He came from a very privileged background, yet was interested in the culture of ordinary people.

  4. His attitude to traditional singing and music showed an insight and a ‘good nose’ for where he would find traditional song and music - more so than his father or aunt.

  5. He was often extremely kind and helpful to others.

  6. He was capable of being extremely charming.

  7. He was a very hard worker.

  8. He had supreme self-belief.


It has been alleged that:

  1. He got most of his traditional sources to sign forms assigning the copyright of the songs/tunes/dances he collected to him - in direct contravention of their own rights, and of those of his employers (see point 15, below).

  2. He then told many of them that they could not sing these songs in public again, nor to any other collector.

  3. He published and sold recordings of these singers without their permission - or even, in many cases, their knowledge.  Most were extremely angry about this when they finally learned the truth.

  4. In very few cases did he pay any sales royalties to the singers he exploited in this way.  We do know that the following people were NOT paid anything by Kennedy, nor did they have permission sought for Folktrax releases: Bob Roberts, Lizzie Higgins, Bob & Ron Copper, Belle Stewart, Scan Tester, Jimmy MacBeath, Herbert Smith, John MacDonald.

  5. We know that some peformers, whilst having been paid something, received only insultingly small amounts of money: Jeannie Robertson, Phoebe Smith, Cyril Poacher.

  6. He added his own recorded accompaniments to many recordings of unaccompanied singers, again believing that he knew better than they - and neatly sidestepping the copyright problem.

  7. The copyrighting of traditional song was a problematic area if the song was sung unaccompanied, so he sought to make recordings with his melodeon accompanying.  He accompanied Jeannie Robertson so that he could claim that the song was trad. arr. Kennedy and get the royalties that way.  He once asked Isabel Sutherland to make an album for him.  A studio was booked and Isabel turned up to find that Robin Hall was in the studio and that he would ‘play along’ as Isabel sang.  Isabel said "No Robin!" knowing what Kennedy was after.  He said, "No Robin, no record!" - so there was no record.  There is an EP recorded by Kennedy somewhere of Jeannie singing with Robin Hall's guitar dubbed in afterwards. It is, predictably, truly awful.

  8. An effort to release the Harry Cox songs was met with a demand that accompaniment should be added.

  9. He even told many revivalist singers that they were not allowed to sing songs he had collected without paying him royalties.  Vic Smith states: ‘Many years ago Kennedy was selling Folktrax cassettes at a stall at a folk festival at Newton Abbott - on the racecourse.  Tina and I sang in a concert and at the end of the set Kennedy approached us and asked where we had learned a particular song, and I replied that it was from Jane and Cameron Turriff.  "Oh, that's all right," he answered, "that's not one of mine!"  I was struck dumb for a while until I realised the implication of what he had said and I bawled at him in my angriest voice, "What fucking difference would it have made if it had been one of yours?"  He ran out of the hall leaving his stall unattended.’

  10. The exorbitant licensing fees he demanded of other record companies wishing to include ‘his’ recordings in their compilations meant that few such recordings were ever published - except by his own Folktrax label.

  11. His extraordinary self-belief led to his assumption that he knew better than his sources did.

  12. In his published transcriptions of songs (in Rounder and earlier publications) he would write what he felt the singer should have sung, rather than what they actually did.  This even extended to his composing full lines to songs which the singer always sang with a half line (Belle Stewart, Cyril Poacher, etc).

  13. His extraordinary self-belief led to his assumption that he was above the mores of society - even above the law.

  14. Yet he seemed to be very litigious and was always threatening to sue people and for some reason they always seemed to back off.  Vic Smith again: ‘In the days of Karl Dallas' Folk News there was a column of pretty scurrilous stuff, ‘William Kemp’s’ - a sort of Private Eye-style exposé of nasty things on the folk scene.  I used to write quite a bit for it.  I submitted quite a long piece about Folktrax and all the contracts that he had signed and lack of royalties, etc.  Karl was delighted, but he liked short snappy pieces for this column and he said that my piece was too long and that he wanted to break it up into three parts and put it in three successive issues.  The first one came out saying something like, ‘Which famous collector is releasing a lot of the songs he collected without telling his informants or paying them?’  No names were mentioned.  In the next issue there was a big apology to Kennedy about any possible harm done to his good name by the previous month’s column!  I could never get Karl to tell me why he had apologised when I knew that every word that I had written was true.’

  15. He believed that the recordings he had made belonged to him, to make use of as he saw fit.

  16. There is a law which states that when anyone is employed to perform a certain task (like collecting recordings of folk songs), the products of that task are the property of the employer for the duration of the employment, and not just during the normal working hours.  Accordingly, recordings made in the evenings or at weekends are still the property of the employer.  He ignored this law.

  17. He was employed by the BBC, the EFDSS and by Alan Lomax as a collector and recordist for a number of years in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the majority of his recordings were made.  Even if it were true (and this is rarely the case) that he ‘went back the following day’ to make his own recordings, these would still belong to his employers.

  18. The recent publication by Rounder of parts of the Alan Lomax Collection and the British Library’s online database make it abundantly (and provably) clear that many recordings he has claimed as his are actually Lomax Foundation or BBC recordings.

  19. The great majority of the recordings he has been selling and profiting from under the Folktrax banner have never been his in law.  His activities in this area have been completely illegal.

  20. There are also a considerable number of recordings which are copies, given to him for interest’s sake, by other collectors.  He has also sold these illegally via Folktrax.  Bob Copper told Kennedy that he was learning the concertina.  Peter told him that he would like to hear what he sounded like.  Bob sent him a "pretty ropey" (Bob's words) self-recorded practice tape.  This ended up being released on Folktrax.

  21. The Folktrax products have been produced to the lowest imaginable standards and, as such, are an insult to the memories of the performers concerned.

  22. His interviews with his informants, included on the Folktrax CDs, were often condescending and trivial: “What's that tune called, Scan?”  “Oh! That's The Man in the Moon.”  “D'ye think you'll ever go up there, Scan?”

  23. The Folktrax CDs seem to average out at around 50 minutes duration; ie, they are almost half empty.  They cost £10.  For this the purchaser receives a CD-R with the title and number written in felt tip pen, a paper slip-case, and a very poorly produced photocopied sheet of paper meant to be cut up and folded into an insert card for the jewel case - which the purchaser must provide for himself.  At the very most, these materials will have cost 30p.  This would represent scandalous profiteering - even if it had not been illegal!

  24. His charm often consisted of ‘talking past’ any difficulties he might encounter.  MT readers may remember that (in Letters May - June 2000) he wrote a completely unsolicited letter concerning ‘the many errors and omissions in the [Rounder] booklets’ which MT journalists had laid at his door, and saying that ‘it might be helpful if I commented on some of the unfortunate bloomers ...’  Yet in the remaining 1152 words of his letter he did not actually comment on any of them!

  25. On the day after his dismissal from his EFDSS post, all his recordings, plus a good deal else, were found to have been stolen from the Sound Library at Cecil Sharp House.  Yet they now form part of the Peter Kennedy collection, kept in his house in Gloucester, they feature in the Folktrax catalogue - and likely to be offered for sale now that he has died.

  26. The reason for his dismissal from his EFDSS post has never been made public - but it must have been pretty serious to result in the sacking of the Director’s son.  Indeed, so serious that the EFDSS felt unable to pass details of the theft to the Police, in view of the bad publicity which would have resulted from what the investigation would have uncovered.

  27. Many people have felt unwilling to criticise Kennedy, or to expose his illegal Folktrax publications, on the (pragmatic) grounds that he has actually made the recordings available.  They are no longer available from the EFDSS (having been ‘stolen’), and much of the BBC material has been lost to technical incompetence and unconcern.  Even if this were not the case, BBC licensing charges would put them well outside the reach of most commercial folk record labels.  True, the NSA at the British Library has copies - but their copying charges are at professional rates, and their licensing fees for commercial releases are pretty expensive.

  28. Like a black-marketeer in wartime, Kennedy has been tolerated because “Where else can you get a pair of nylons?”


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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