The Song Collector

Researchers help define and preserve culture. Last night, I got to hear Len Graham (a researcher and collector of Irish ballads) sing songs he has collected over the decades. Here’s a YouTube video of Len performing “at the Big Muddy Folk Festival in Boonville, Missouri on April 4, 2008.”

Len called last night’s performance “It’s of my Rambles… Recollections of Singers and Songs from the Ulster Tradition.” He prefaced each song with an explanation of how and where it was collected and which demographic group claimed to have originated the song (Ulster, the Travellers in Ireland, etc.). He explained some of the meanings behind each song.

Len spends his life singing and tracking down songs and singers.  He transcribes and archives words and melodies so that they aren’t lost to humanity. He’s travelled to Australia to find people who know rare songs and to Arkansas to record missing verses to a known song. These are just a couple of the many travel stories he told.

Len Graham singing at Na Píobairí Uilleann. The placard to the left lists Alfie Mulligan, who I’ve posted a snippet of on this blog (playing uilleann pipes at his brother’s Cobblestone pub).

Here you can see what the uilleann pipes look like (photo downloaded from an online blog).  (There are lots of YouTube videos available of uilleann pipers.)

Len spoke of a time not so long ago when there were just ten or so uilleann pipers in all of Ireland. Today, he says, more than a thousand people play these pipes.

He’s part of a vibrant oral tradition of storytelling that’s alive in Ireland today. But the songs have also been recorded and archived in important libraries–such as the one here in Dublin and another at Brown University. A researcher from Harvard (named Child) did a lot of important research into Irish ballads back in the 1800s.

I especially enjoyed Len’s songs involving heather (the name of a flower that became the name of my sister).  I also found “When Irish men throughout this world are brothers one and all” to be quite catchy.

This event was part of Na Píobairí Uilleann’s monthly Notes & Narratives lectures, which the organization describes as a series of “performance-based lectures on traditional music, song and dance by some of Ireland’s finest traditional artists.” Last night’s event was held at the Na Píobairí Uilleann hall on Henrietta Street.

Thanks, Jonathan Kennedy, my fully-bright friend, for the heads up about this event. Hope you’re putting your uilleann pipes to good use out there in Western Ireland this weekend!