Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with Len Graham

I had the pleasure of interviewing the famous Irish singer and song historian, Len Graham during Catskill Irish Arts Week 2011:

How did you get started in music and singing?

I was born in a small village called Glenarm, which is in the Glens of Antrim up in the northeast of Ireland. My mother used to say I was singing before I could talk. She said she actually sung songs to me in the womb. I have no other recollections but of singing, singing, and more singing when I was young. My father was working in Glasgow during the war years (years of World War II) and he tried to get my mother to come over to Glasgow because he had acquired employment, which was hard enough to get in Ireland even during the war years. There wasn't an awful lot of work going but she wouldn't leave Glenarm. So I ended up spending an awful lot of time with my mother and grandmother. Both were what you would call compulsive singers so there was a lot of singing.

What age were you when you started in competitions?

I started singing very early and I started competing very early as well. Not that I was pushed by my parents to do that, it was more by my own desire. I probably was about ten years old around 1954 when my school entered me for a singing festival in Belfast. Then I started competing in the fleadh cheoils, which are festivals of traditional music. I was more into my teens at that stage, probably I was 18 or 19 when I started competing at the fleadhs. First of all the Ulster Fleadhs in counties Monaghan and Cavan and then the All-Irelands – Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. I retired from that in 1971 when I won the All-Ireland Senior sean-nós singing in English, as I decided I didn't want to do that anymore.

How early in your career did you meet Joe Holmes?

When I was young I sometimes sang in duet with my mother, not in harmony but in unison, and then I started singing solo a lot. There was an organization around then called the Antrim and Derry Fiddlers Association which started in 1953. They had some of the same members that started up Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in 1951. They would have some singing in between the wall to wall instrumental pieces, which was mostly fiddle playing. There are a lot of fiddle players in Antrim. They soon started calling me up for a song at these gatherings and it was at one of these nights at Dunminning near Ballymena in Co. Antrim in 1963 that this fiddler came over to me and asked for a song I'd sung, which I had learned from my grandmother. He asked me for the words of the song and he turned out to be Joe Holmes.

Photograph at Right: Len Graham and Joe Holmes performing at Féile na Bóinne, Drogheda, Co. Louth, 1976.

Joe and I formed a friendship, not just a musical friendship, but a great close friendship which ended when he died in 1978. We had fifteen years of singing songs together and going all around Ireland. I took Joe around to see singers and musicians all over Ireland. Dennis Murphy,from Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry, the Keanes who were sean- nós singers in Co. Galway, the Dohertys up in Co. Donegal and many more.

How much have you performed in the United States?

I was over to the United States in 1976 for the first time when I was sponsored by the Irish American Cultural Institute. The Smithsonian wanted Joe and I over for one of the US Bicentennial Celebrations the same year, but Joe was in his seventies by then and didn't feel like taking on the trans-Atlantic journey. On that first US Tour which lasted for nearly four weeks, I think I did twenty-one lectures/recitals in twenty-four days, so I couldn't think of coming back again at that time. But I have been coming over to the US since 1976 for different festivals and events, such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Catskills Irish Arts Week, Milwaukee Irish Fest and various universities and events. I haven't visited all the states, but I've seen a lot of them.

So you grew up singing songs in English? Did you hear much Irish spoken when you were young?

The Glens of Antrim was what you could call a Gaeltacht “the day before yesterday.” The Irish language had died out recently. Irish is still spoken, but most of the Irish speakers have gone to the Donegal Gaeltacht to learn Ulster Irish. Irish had been spoken recently in the Glens of Antrim and my mother heard native Antrim Irish spoken back in the early part of the twentieth century. The last native Irish speaker in that area died in the 1960s. A man called MacAuley from the nearby glen of Glenann, and when he died there was an obituary saying he was the last Antrim native speaker of Irish and that was I believe in 1964. There are a lot of Irish speakers in the North of Ireland and there has been a big revival in the language in recent times with a big demand for Irish medium schools. But to this day the closest Gaeltacht to the Glens of Antrim are the Western Isles of Scotland and at their closest point the distance is only twelve miles. Scots Gaelic is just a different dialect of what was all one language.

The roads into the Glens of Antrim weren't built until the time of the famine in the mid nineteenth century and they were built as famine relief schemes. Before that it was much easier to go to Scotland than it was to go to Ballymena or Belfast as crossing the mountains over rocky roads was difficult whilst all you had to do was jump on a boat on a good day and you'd be over in Scotland in no time at all. I used to love the Lammas Fair in Ballycastle in North Antrim. It's gotten quite commercial now, but every August the boats would come from Rathlin Island and some of the Western Isles of Scotland and there would be music, singing, selling of animals, and all sorts of fun which went on for several days. That's a fair that's been going on for centuries and there’s another old fair in Co.Kerry called the Puck Fair and that's been going on for years and years as well.

What is your favorite song to sing?

Some of those early songs I learned from family and neighbors have a special place- like The Murlough Shore which came from my grandmother. The Keanes, Sarah and Rita, the aunts of Dolores when I first met them in the 1960s sang another version of this song called – The Moorlough Shore, which they got from a 78 rpm gramophone record made in New York by Joe Maguire from Co. Fermanagh in the 1930s. It's a different version from what I sing. Dolores Keane was the first singer in De Dannan and on their first band album Dolores sang – The Rambling Irishman which she got from me. I in turn got a fragment of the song in the 1960s from Joe Holmes from Killyrammer, Co. Antrim and managed to track down another three verses from the daughter of the man that Joe had heard sing it from in the early years of the last century.

For years I searched all over Ireland and beyond for more verses of the song and then a version with extra verses turned up in the Ozark Highlands under the title of – New York Bay. The collector was Max Hunter and he collected the song from Bertha Lauderdale in 1961 and Max transcribed – Lough Erne as Lauairen, but it is without a doubt the same song. More recently a three stanza fragment turned up in the parish records of St. Patrick’s Church, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania and here the song is attributed to Jerry Monaghan who left Ireland in 1790.

You've done a lot of research on songs. What experiences have you had with that?

Yes, it's been a fascination of mine, all my life. It's been a total fascination and I've been interested in the history of songs and singers as long as I remember. It gives me no end of pleasure when I come across a fragment of a song in the song tradition over here in Ireland, to begin a search in all the archives and libraries here and beyond to try and fill in the gaps and return it to the traditional music community.

I recall Joe Holmes again singing me another tantalizing fragment of a Co. Down song – My Love Nell and then coming across it on a nineteenth century song sheet in the Library of Congress. There are numerous examples – versions and more versions. A song taught in the local primary school in Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh in the 1930s – Kitty Finnegan from Carrickadreen turned up on a nineteenth century New York broadside ballad and in this case the words were very similar to the Irish one, but the young lady in the US version is from Abington Green (Georgia) instead of Carrickadreen.

My Uncle, my mother's brother, was also a singer. My father, my mother, they were all musicians and singers. There was a fiddler in the family and a hammer dulcimer player. Yes, there was a famous relation of ours called John Rea, who made many BBC Radio programs and recordings for a Topic Records in London. His mother and my grandmother were full cousins. He was a tremendous hammer dulcimer player and he was born the same year as my mother in 1915. She remembered going around to his home as a wee girl as he lived just around the corner from us in Glenarm. She told me that he would be standing on an upturned butter box and the dulcimer balanced on two matching boxes on the kitchen table when he was no more than six or seven. So from the time he was in his teens he was broadcasting on the local radio from way back in the 1930s. He had music for dances and performed regularly with his father, who was a champion fiddler at concerts and dances all over the north of Ireland. Yes indeed, a lot of outstanding musicians came out of the Glens of Antrim.

My Uncle Willie presented me, when I was in my teens, with a shoe box full of songs he'd collected. He'd taken them down from family and neighbors and he'd taken the trouble to collect a series that had been published in a local newspaper, the Northern Constitution, and the collector was a man called Sam Henry. He published a song every week between 1923 and 1939. A good number of these were in the shoe box. He must have cut them out every week. There were some gaps. Then I heard in my late teens that Sam Henry had bequeathed two scrap books to the Central Library in Belfast and to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. I went to the Belfast collection and made copies, and filled in the gaps. There were songs that weren't in the Sam Henry collection that my uncle had collected. All together there were a lot of songs, a huge collection, over 800 songs. The University of Georgia Press in Athens, Ga., in 1990 published the whole collection. It's been out of print and they were fetching big money on the Internet. I’m told it's been recently reissued. It is called - Songs of the People, by Sam Henry, edited by Lani Herrmann. She did a wonderful job in giving lots of information, sources, and where other versions are to be found, etc.

Tell us about your book, please!

I brought a book out recently called – Here I Am Amongst You on Joe Holmes (1906-78). It was something I intended to do for years and I finally got a publisher after taking the manuscript around to numerous publishers here in Ireland. So I was delighted when the highly regarded Four Courts Press in Dublin published it in 2010. (See: ) I launched it at the Milwaukee Irish Fest in 2010 and at the Catskills Irish Arts Week along with a talk in 2011. I tried to follow the standard set by Lani Herrmann, by not just bringing out a memoir, but also to show where these songs could be found and discuss other versions, particularly the versions found in collections in the U.S.

What's been the role of those in the United States in keeping the songs going?

People were coming over from Ireland to North America for centuries and were arriving long before the famine in the mid nineteenth century. They left their DNA in the way of songs in the Appalachian Mountains, the Ozark Highlands, up in Canada and other parts. I tried to show how they are all connected. I actually was able to find more verses of songs in North America sometimes to what I had collected in Ireland. Yes, sometimes fuller versions of ‘old country’ songs turned up in the Appalachians, the Ozarks and other locations. Some of them came over here in the eighteenth century with some of the early settlers and they stayed largely unchanged and were handed down from generation to generation and were like time capsules when discovered.

There was a wonderful letter by the famous English folksong collector called Cecil Sharp. He did a lot of work in England and then he went over to the Appalachians in the early years of the twentieth century. He had filled books with ‘old country’ folksongs, much better and fuller versions than he had collected in England. In 1917 he wrote to Russell Smith at Knoxville, Tennessee after he had just returned from the mountains, joyful over a fruitful folksong collecting trip – “These missionaries with their schools! I’d like to build a wall around these mountains and let the mountain people alone. The only distinctive culture in America is here. These people live. They sustain themselves on the meanest food. They are not interested in eating, but they have time to sing ballads.”

What's your most recent CD?

I made my first solo album (LP) for Topic Records of London in 1975 and since then I have featured on many recordings – solo and in collaboration with other singers, musicians, poets and storytellers. My most recent recordings are two CDs brought out in 2010 called - Over the Hills and Far Away and another one called – Here I Am Amongst You, which is a companion sampler for the Joe Holmes book. I wanted to bring out recordings with the book, but the publisher wasn't interested in handling CDs. I hope at some stage to get the whole Len Graham Song Collection up on the Internet and make it accessible to everybody. So stay tuned!

Len Graham and Brían Ó hAirt are competing for a KickStarter grant at: In Two Minds: Irish singing collaboration w/Len Graham/

Len Graham has a web site at:

More Irish Musicians in Shamrock Road blogs:

- Mary Staunton

- Brían Ó hAirt (Brian Hart)

- Bernadette Nic Gabhann

- Aoife Clancy

- Matt and Shannon Heaton