A few years ago, I wrote an article in Folklife Center News about popular recordings inspired by AFC collection items. One of the ones I chose was Paul Brady’s version of an Irish ballad he called “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant” (see the lyrics at this link). In the article I revealed that Brady had based his version on the singing of Mrs. Carrie Grover, of Gorham, Maine, and that AFC has the only known recording of Mrs. Grover singing the song. Given recent developments, I think it’s time to expand my research and comments on “Arthur McBride,”  and to present Mrs. Grover’s recording to our readers.
My specific inspiration for revisiting “Arthur McBride” came from the Grammy-winning musician and recording artist Rosanne Cash. I recently co-curated a photo exhibit with Rosanne, which is currently being shown in Carnegie Hall in New York, as part of Rosanne’s curated Perspectives series. In preparing this previous blog post about the exhibit and Rosanne’s involvement with AFC, I did some research on her musical background. One delightful discovery was a blog post she wrote for the New York Times, talking about the influence of traditional ballads on her own songs. You can read her full post here, but for now let me point out a couple of paragraphs in which she wrote about her love of Brady’s recording of “Arthur McBride”:
The first thing my husband, John Leventhal, ever gave me, shortly after we met, was a cassette mix tape he had put together of some of his current favorite songs. On that tape was Paul Brady’s eight-verse version of “Arthur McBride,” a gorgeous, lilting Irish folk song with roots in the 17th century. In the ballad, young Arthur and his pal are walking serenely down the road when three military recruiters try to persuade them to join the British Army. Arthur and his friend refuse, somewhat disrespectfully, and the soldiers threaten them with swords. (…) Arthur and his buddy pull out their shillelaghs and bash the recruiters’ heads in.
I must have listened to “Arthur McBride” a thousand times. It made me want to marry John Leventhal. I did marry him. A couple of years after that, we went together to Aberdeen, Scotland, to tape “Transatlantic Sessions,” a music show that puts American and Scottish and Irish musicians together to see what they will come up with. I sat on the floor in the corner of a little room at an inn where we were taping, a few feet from Paul Brady, with no one else in the room but him and the camera operators, and listened to him sing “Arthur McBride.” It remains one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen, and a moment I’ll never forget.
Paul Brady’s “Arthur McBride” has had a similar effect on thousands of other people since it was recorded as a solo voice and guitar track on the 1976 album Andy Irvine and Paul Brady . Partly due to his virtuosity on the guitar (which he re-tuned to open G), and partly due to his clear, piercing vocal delivery, Brady’s performances are regarded as definitive; in the words of the Irish Times, “there is no finer recording of ‘Arthur McBride.’” You can hear that recording at this link.
As you might have guessed by now, I’m another devotee of Brady and of his version of “Arthur McBride.” Granted, I didn’t marry anyone because of it, but it’s one of a few brilliant recordings of traditional folk music that nurtured my interest in ballads and folksongs, and ultimately helped me become a folklorist. In the 1980s I took my love of ballads to WKCR FM in New York, where I wore out my copies of albums by Paul Brady, Planxty, The Johnstons, and related groups on the air. In the 1990s my interest in ballads and folksongs took me to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. I studied with Kenny Goldstein, a folklorist who helped bring Paul Brady to the United States on his first tour, to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival. My first teaching experience was as a Teaching Assistant to Brady’s former roommate and bandmate, Mick Moloney.
For all these reasons, once I came to work at the American Folklife Center, I was thrilled to find out a little more about the history of the song. I was especially excited to find out about the field recording of Mrs. Grover. That inspired me to put Paul Brady and Carrie Grover in that 2011 article, and, ultimately, to write this one as well.
The History of Paul Brady’s Arthur McBride
So how did Paul Brady encounter Carrie Grover? As far as we know, he’s never heard the recording of her singing “Arthur McBride.” Instead, he learned her version from a musical transcription of her singing that was published in a book. This occurred here in the U.S., in 1973.
A lot led up to Brady’s discovery of Carrie Grover. Brady hails from Strabane in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He had a musical childhood, learning piano and guitar early in life. In high school he was a rock and pop musician, but while he was at university in Dublin in the 1960s, Irish folk music exploded in popularity, with the birth of a new style of band. Often called “ballad groups,” such bands were modeled on the success of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who themselves were influenced by several years in U.S. among American folk revival groups. The ballad group movement included such famous acts as The Clancys and The Dubliners, as well as The Sands Family (in Northern Ireland), and The Irish Rovers (in Canada). Such groups typically featured several singers, a guitar, and a banjo.
In 1967, Paul Brady (who played guitar) and his housemate Mick Moloney (who played mandolin and banjo) jumped on that bandwagon by joining a ballad group called The Johnstons. The group played traditional Irish songs and tunes, but also played songs by Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and other contemporary songwriters, in fresh modern arrangements. In fact, they are known for having released two full-length LPs on the same day in 1969, one of traditional songs and one of pop songs. They were very popular, recording seven LPs and touring worldwide. Because both their ballad group sound and their pop sound were very well adapted to American tastes, they came to the U.S. often, and in fact were here in the U.S. when the band eventually broke up.
After the end of The Johnstons, Brady went up to New England, as he recounted in the notes to his album Nobody Knows:
I was in Rhode Island in 1973 staying with a singer-songwriter friend, Patrick Sky. The Johnstons, the group I’d been with since ’67, had ground to a halt and I was flat broke. I decided to try and put together a solo set of songs and get some gigs.
Folksinger and folklorist Lisa Null was Patrick Sky’s business partner in the Innisfree record label, which was to become Green Linnet Records. Null had given Sky a copy of Carrie Grover’s self-published book, A Heritage of Songs, and Brady discovered it at Sky’s house. He was fascinated to find “Arthur McBride,” a song he already knew about from Ireland and England, where other versions were well known in the folk revival. But Carrie Grover’s version of the song was fresh and new, and had several verses nobody else sang. Brady responded by crafting a unique guitar arrangement and adding it to his set.
When he returned to Ireland, Brady joined the band Planxty, which already performed a version of the song (hear it here), so Brady’s version of “Arthur McBride” replaced Andy Irvine’s in the band’s set. (I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at THAT rehearsal!)
“I first performed [“Arthur McBride”] with the band Planxty at the Carlton Cinema in Dublin,” Brady recalled in his liner notes. “It kind of captured the imagination of the public at the time and became one of my most popular songs.” Brady played the song with Planxty for a little over a year. When the band broke up in December 1975, Brady and Irvine remained together as a duo, and Brady continued to perform the song. In August 1976, the duo recorded their only album, and Brady’s “Arthur McBride” was finally committed to vinyl. He continued to perform it as part of his regular concert repertoire until 1978, and a live recording from that year can be heard here. (Note how the audience bursts into applause when Brady begins the familiar guitar riff.)
The Andy Irvine and Paul Brady album is considered a classic of Irish music. Of all its songs, “Arthur McBride” is probably the one that’s had the greatest impact outside the Irish folk scene. One reason for this is that a high-profile fan recorded his own cover of Brady’s “Arthur McBride”: Bob Dylan, who had long been an admirer of Brady’s, played the song solo, on his album Good as I Been to You (1992). This cover of the song brought it to a much wider audience, and cemented Paul Brady’s reputation among Dylan’s fans as a master of traditional ballads.
Carrie Grover’s “Arthur McBride”
Carrie Grover was born Carrie Spinney in 1879 in Black River, Nova Scotia. She moved to Bethel, Maine at the age of twelve. Grover had English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh forebears, and both her parents sang traditional ballads and lyric songs. Her father had been a sailor, and recounted stories of hearing slaves singing work songs in southern ports before the Civil War. He also sang traditional ballads, including “Arthur McBride.” Her mother, too, was a singer, and they sang traditional songs both separately and together.
In later life, Mrs. Grover recalled an incident from her childhood that had a longstanding impact on her: she overheard her father remark to her mother that, after they were gone, no one would sing the old family songs anymore. This encouraged Carrie to learn as many songs as she could, and also to write out the words of her songs in a book so she could pass them on to others. She understood the importance of preserving the tunes with the words, however, and regretted that she couldn’t write music in order to preserve them—although she could both read music and play the fiddle.
In December 1940, after hearing one of Alan Lomax’s nationally distributed folk music radio shows on WGAN in Portland, Maine, Grover wrote him a letter at the Library of Congress introducing herself and telling him about her family’s songs. They began a chain of correspondence that lasted at least until Lomax left the Library, and became quite friendly; at her insistence, Lomax (who was 26 years old) addressed her as “Aunt Carrie.”
In April 1941, she took a trip to Virginia and Washington, D.C. to visit her niece, and continued to New Jersey to visit her son. During this trip, she was recorded by Lomax in the Library’s recording lab and by Sidney Robertson (later Sidney Robertson Cowell) at her niece’s home as well as her son’s home, contributing 88 songs and fiddle tunes to the Archive of Folk Song. (She was later recorded and photographed by Eloise Hubbard Linscott, and those materials, too, came to the Library, as part of the Eloise Hubbard Linscott Collection.)
Carrie Grover sang her version of “Arthur McBride” for Alan Lomax in April 1941, in the same building in which I’m now writing this blog. She sang the song unaccompanied, with a regular, rhythmic delivery, which is very different from Brady’s more free-flowing interpretation. This recording makes for a fascinating comparison with Brady’s classic arrangement.
As you’ll hear, Grover and Lomax appear to have begun talking about the song before the recording started, while the engineer was setting up the disc, and they chatted for a while before she sang it. They continued to talk about it after she sang it, discussing her father and her paternal grandmother, who she speculated might have known the song. I’ll mention more about these family connections later; for now, let’s hear the song:
Grover was already keeping a book of her song lyrics at the time she first wrote to Alan Lomax. Her decision to publish the book, with tunes for every song, came soon after her visit to the Library of Congress, and partly as a result of the inspiration she found here. Just a couple of months later, on June 27, 1941, she wrote a letter to Lomax saying she sometimes felt her visit must have been a dream. Lomax replied:
Your visit to Washington was definitely not a dream. It resulted in about ten of the most valuable records that the archive possesses, and I want to tell you now I can not tell you how much I appreciate the contribution you have made, and how important it is for us that you continue your work, in recalling the old songs.
Grover took Lomax’s advice to heart. On October 27 she wrote him another letter, in which she brought up the idea of publishing her book. She had recently heard a trained art singer singing folk songs, and it inspired her to write:
Is there any way that I could have my book of songs published, and have the tunes with the songs, as they are, rather than the way some high toned ballad singer thinks they ought to be? I am asking you because I think you would know if anyone does. […] I have no great dreams of fame and fortune—don’t think it. But I honestly think that the people who could collect as many songs as I have, all of them sung by relatives and friends right in my own home, are few and far between. I honestly think that such a book should be worth something and pay for itself at least, and I would have the songs, and tunes, to leave behind me.
Lomax was willing to help, but in later letters Grover became reticent, and for several stated reasons (including ill health and an unwillingness to entrust her manuscripts to the mail) delayed sending Lomax a sample of her notes about songs. Lomax promised to pitch the idea to his publisher, but we can’t be sure if he followed through. In 1942, he left the Library of Congress without having secured a book deal for her. It was one of many plans and projects Lomax was unable to complete as he moved to his World War II service in the Office of War Information and then the U.S. Army.
Luckily, Grover did not give up on the idea of publishing her book. More than ten years later, during the early 1950s, she worked with staff at her old school, Gould Academy, to transcribe many of her songs. The resulting book, A Heritage of Songs, was reportedly completed in 1953, although copies of the first edition were printed with no date. It was reprinted in 1973. Copies of both editions are extremely rare, so it was a great stroke of luck that Paul Brady ever saw the book at all.
I’ll have more to say about Carrie Grover and “Arthur McBride” in another blog post. Here, I’ll wrap up by pointing out how crucial the rapport between Lomax and Grover, and her experience at the Library of Congress, were to the preservation of her songs. Before coming to the Library, she had been visited by nearby collectors, but was worried that some of her songs might gain her a reputation locally for being “rough and unladylike.” She wanted a private session with collector for the far-away Library of Congress, whom she already felt she knew from his appearances on the radio. The idea was comforting to her, and she thought of Alan Lomax from the first as a surrogate son or nephew:
If I can go to see you, and can see you all alone, I will take my book with me, and I think from the tone of your letter that I can talk to you and sing to you as freely as I could to my own big boy. I am glad if my gift for tunes is to be of use to someone.
I can’t help wishing Mrs. Grover had lived to see her songs sung by Paul Brady and Bob Dylan, and praised by Rosanne Cash in the New York Times. It would be nice if she knew how very useful her gift for tunes has been.
Read part two of this article here: “Arthur McBride, Carrie Grover, Paul Brady, and Rosanne Cash: More About a Classic Song” (Folklife Today, December 24, 2015).
 Mrs. Grover, and generations of singers before her, called the song simply “Arthur McBride.” On Brady’s recordings, it sometimes goes by the shorter name and sometimes by “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant.”
 Technically, the album cover says “Andy Irvine Paul Brady.” The Library of Congress’s valiant catalogers dealt with this by making the title Andy Irvine, Paul Brady. Like many others, I choose to add the implied word “and.”