Wednesday, April 17, 2019

BBC Northern Ireland - Sam Henry 'Songs of the People'

(What a terrific gate and pillar!) I'm really looking forward to this new series, starting this coming Sunday and available on iPlayer after that. When later musicologists, such as Alan Lomax in the USA, had the ability to transport recording equipment around rural communities to record the song traditions, Sam Henry from Coleraine (1878–1952) was a couple of generations earlier and combined his love of collecting traditional culture with a 'proper day job'. Nevertheless his work is monumental and world-famous - the celebrated song collection Songs of the People (most recently reprinted in 2010 by the University of Georgia Press) and his own photography (link here) in particular. His varied collection reflects the varied cultural life of Ulster.

He was also part of the early interest in Ulster-Scots-American presidents, publishing his research into the President Chester Alan Arthur connections with Cullybackey in the Belfast Telegraph in December 1938 (see previous blog post here), including the 1882 visit of the President's son, Chester Alan Arthur Junior, and President's sister Mary Arthur M'Elroy, to the ancestral cottage which still stands today. Junior got sick from eating gooseberries from a nearby bush, and was then given 'a piece and milk'. Mary had brought her late Ulster-born father's diary with her, which began 'I was born in the Dreen, near Cullybackey'.

In the same article Henry traced the Arthur family's roots back to Dunoon, on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland; he quoted an extract of a song about Dreen which had been written by Dr George Raphael Buick, and told  of how Betty Arthur the President's great-aunt, sat at her spinning wheel at Killycowan near Ballymena singing the old ballad 'Willie's On the Dark Blue Sea', which had been written by Henry S Thompson.

Sam Henry concluded the article with the blockbuster question which those of us who love this stuff frequently ask ourselves in an ever-faster world – "Of what avail is the rehabilitation of these bones of the past?".  For me, these are the things which make us more than just consumers or voters. They make us rooted human beings.


Sam Henry Songs Of The People 
Sunday 21 April
BBC Two Northern Ireland, 10.00pm

A new series for BBC Northern Ireland explores the unique story of Sam Henry and his monumental music collection - Songs of the People - that is often referred to as an ‘Ulster jewel’ and a century later, remains hugely important to folk artists around the world. 

Starting on BBC Two NI on Sunday 21 April at 10pm, Sam Henry Songs Of The People is a two-part series – comprised of a documentary and concert - looking at the man behind the music and how his passion for preserving the past produced a diverse collection of more than 800 songs that is unique to Ulster and recognised internationally. 

Born in Coleraine in 1878, Sam was a noted public speaker, folklorist, photographer, local historian and genealogist.  He began collecting songs and taking photographs while working as a customs and pensions officer. Travelling around small farms and villages, he carried a fiddle and played music to put people at ease, recognising there was a wealth of stories and songs to be shared. 

In this revealing documentary, folklorists, archivists and contemporary music collectors, examine how Sam’s pioneering approach - in an official capacity and later when song collecting - placed him at the heart of rural communities and inspired his greatest work. 

Sam appreciated the diverse cultural heritage of local communities and their traditions, and looked for an outlet to share the huge collection of material he had gathered; between 1923 and 1939 he wrote a column for the Northern Constitution publishing the continuing series Songs of the People. 

In his own words, Sam said the aim was to “search out, conserve, and make known the treasures of the songs of the people” and he collection spanned both Ulster-Scots and Irish traditions.

Sam Henry Songs Of The People has been supported by Northern Ireland screen, through the Ulster-Scots and Irish Language Broadcast Funds. 

The second programme in this two-part series, to be broadcast on BBC Two NI on Sunday 28 April, is a special concert celebrating Sam Henry’s vast and diverse song collection with performances from folk artists including Andy Irvine, Cup O’ Joe, Pauline Scanlon and Scottish folk singer Hannah Rarity.

Songs of the People captured everyday life in the early 20th century and gives us a fascinating insight into the past, reflecting both the Ulster-Scots and Irish traditions that made the north west, where Sam Henry lived, so unique. 

Sam Henry Songs Of The People is a Sonas Productions and Below The Radar TV co-production made for BBC Northern Ireland, starting on Sunday 21 April at 10pm on BBC Two Northern Ireland.