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Northern Ireland is notorious, a byword for conflict between neighboring and interdependent communities. What is less appreciated is the intense richness of the culture that stems from the various groups who settled the north of Ireland. Musically, there are at least three major strands: Irish, English and Scottish. These have been intertwined through four hundred years of mutual co-existence and despite periodic antagonism. The most popular Irish dance rhythm, the reel, is Scottish in origin; pipe bands flourish; songs of English origin are sung by the most uncompromising Irish Republican; even the huge ‘Lambeg’ drum, most recently used by Protestants to intimidate neighboring Catholic communities, was formerly used by both groups in their parades. The situation was described by the late Seán O’Boyle, who worked in the 1950s on a scheme devised by Alan Lomax to collect the folk songs of Britain: “Ulster’s Folksong is as complex as Ulster’s History.” There is no single collection of songs that exemplifies the complication better than that of Sam Henry.
The Sam Henry collection is best known through the edition of Gale Huntington and Lani Herrman, published by the University of Georgia Press in 1990. Sam Henry’s ‘Songs of the People’ contains a massive number of songs, over six hundred in all. However, that is not the full story. The songs first saw publication in a weekly newspaper, the Northern Constitution of Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, which ran from 1923 to 1939. At the end of it, Sam Henry presented sets of his contributions to the Belfast Public Library and the National Library of Ireland. Later, through the agency of the Vermont song collector, Helen Hartness Flanders, and with the eager encouragement of Alan Lomax, a further set was presented to the Library of Congress. These three sets sometimes included versions different from those that were printed. Other sets exist, most importantly a large body of unpublished typescripts and manuscripts. All this inflates Sam Henry’s collection of songs to almost twice the number published. The collection amounts to a sample of the song traditions of the complex community of Northern Ireland. Through questioning it, it is possible to arrive at a plausible model of the actual mix of cultures.
In one respect, the Sam Henry song collection shows even more than Ulster’s History: it exhibits substantial influence from the United States. It includes many songs of emigration. Irish-Americans sent songs of their own composition that look back at the old country. American singers and song enthusiasts wrote with songs and questions. Returning migrants came back with songs of American origin that fixed in the local song tradition. There is substantial correspondence from Mrs. Flanders, Alan Lomax, Archibald McLeish (Librarian of Congress), Harold Spivacke (Head of the Division of Music, L.C) and C.L. Bouvé, the Registrar of Copyrights, concerning Henry’s gift to the Library of Congress and his wish for his work to be copyrighted in the United States. This reveals wheels within wheels at work in the air between Northern Ireland, Vermont and Washington. At the end of the talk, it may even appear that the complex politics of song in the United States of the 1940s outdo those of the North of Ireland.
John Moulden is one of Ireland’s leading authorities on traditional song. He is also a well-regarded singer. A teacher by trade, he retired, in 1992, as Principal of one of Northern Ireland’s Integrated Primary Schools, which are designed to educate Roman Catholic and Protestant children together. Since then he has been working on songs full time - researching, writing, lecturing and publishing. He has recently graduated from National University of Ireland, Galway, with a PhD whose subject was the cheap printing of songs in Ireland on ballad sheets and in 8-page songbooks. His publications include Thousands are sailing: a brief song history of Irish emigration (Portrush, 1994) and Songs of Hugh McWilliams, Schoolmaster, 1831(Portrush, 1992). He has lectured widely throughout Ireland and in Britain and the United States.
Rediscover Northern Ireland: In 2007, Washington D.C., the heart of the United States of America, will have the opportunity to meet face to face with people from Northern Ireland - people who contribute meaningfully and creatively to the society which has emerged from a troubled past and is now looking outward and forward to the future. As a complement to the sights and sounds America will experience at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Northern Ireland has planned a program of events for Washington D.C., starting in March 2007, which will reflect other aspects of what happens here on a daily basis. This program is collectively entitled Rediscover Northern Ireland.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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