As I mentioned in this previous post at Folklife Today, I recently had occasion to compile a curated set of recordings from the American Folklife Center relating to Irish American women. The recordings were put together as a special gift for some VIP guests, but it occurred to me that we could share them with everyone else too, via the blog. What better time than March, I thought, which is both Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month? And I’m happy to publish this second installment in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
To remind you of the context, on February 6, the Library of Congress kicked off its winter/spring National Book Festival Presents season with “Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women.” The event featured a conversation among award-winning novelist Alice McDermott, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, and CBS anchor Margaret Brennan. As part of the event, an audio recording selected by the American Folklife Center and presented by our director, Betsy Peterson, served as a prompt for conversation.
As extended programming surrounding this event, staff from four Library divisions—AFC, Manuscript Division, Prints & Photographs Division, and Hispanic Division —were asked to develop a display of items related to the event that would facilitate connections and engage the public with diverse collections. The Center’s contributions took two forms: a display of collection items for the public and a curated mix of field recordings. Read more about our participation in this blog post.
This is the second blog post devoted to presenting the audio, which begins below.
Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women
A Selection of Recordings from the American Folklife Center Archive (Part 2)
Selection 6: Carrie Grover (voice): “Arthur McBride.” Recorded by Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in April, 1941
Carrie Grover (1879-1959) was born Carrie Spinney in Black River, Nova Scotia. She moved to Bethel, Maine at the age of twelve. Grover had Irish, Scottish, English, and Welsh forebears. Her father and mother were both singers, 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.
One of the songs Carrie’s father sang was “Arthur McBride.” It’s a ballad that scholars concur was composed in the northern part of Ireland, most likely Donegal, in the early nineteenth century. It tells the story of young Irishmen resisting the attempt of a recruiting party to conscript them into the British army. As such, it is a song of Irish resistance to English imperialism. Carrie believed that her aunt—her father’s sister—also sang the song, making it likely that they learned it from her grandmother, who was a singer with a large repertory of folksongs.
In December 1940, after hearing Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax on the radio, 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 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 Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. After her trip, she continued to advocate for herself and her family songs. With the help of her old school, the Gould Academy, Grover published the words and music to many of them in a book, A Heritage of Songs, in 1953.
In the 1970s, Irish folksinger Paul Brady saw a copy of the book while visiting with American friends. Recognizing the song’s Irish connections, Brady learned “Arthur McBride,” and his 1976 recording of it became a classic of the Irish folk revival. It was covered by Bob Dylan on his album Good as I Been to You. It’s also a favorite of Rosanne Cash, a good friend of the Library of Congress.
Carrie Grover made it her life’s mission to make sure her family songs were not forgotten. Paul Brady and Bob Dylan helped her with this particular song, which you can read further about at this link on the Folklife Today Blog.
We’re also happy to say that others are working to promote Carrie’s legacy. In particular, the singer and scholar Julie Mainstone has created created a website devoted to Carrie’s songs, available at this link.
Selection 7: Maggie Hammons Parker (voice). “Ireland’s Green Shore.” Recorded by Alan Jabbour in Stillwell, West Virginia, in 1970
Maggie Hammons Parker (1899-1987) was part of an important family of tradition bearers from West Virginia who were documented in the 1960s and 1970s by Library of Congress fieldworkers Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer, among others. Her siblings were all singers, musicians, and storytellers. She was known for her enormous repertory of songs, family legends, and humorous stories. She also played banjo with a delicate touch, in two-finger and in “frailing” style. In the West Virginia counties of Pocahontas and Webster, she was also celebrated for her extensive knowledge of herbal cures and other folk medicine. When she was documented in the 1970s, she was a widow living with three of her other widowed or unmarried siblings, brother Burl and sisters Emma and Ruie, in a house in Stillwell, West Virginia.
“Ireland’s Green Shore” is a nineteenth century Irish broadside lyric, an adaptation into the English language of an earlier Gaelic form of political song known as the “aisling” or “dream vision.” In this genre, the narrator dreams of encountering a beautiful woman who is revealed as the soul or personification of Ireland. She often laments the political situation or the poverty of the Irish under colonial rule. The song is often known as “Erin’s Green Shore,” and under that title you can find both a broadside and sheet music on the Library of Congress website. In Maggie Hammons’s version the political context is largely lost and the song appears to be a straightforward love song, in which the narrator loves both the woman and Ireland itself. This song is usually associated with the Irish Catholic culture that became firmly established in America in the mid nineteenth century. However, it also became popular in the Appalachians, among descendants of Scots-Irish and German protestants, like Maggie Hammons and her family.
Like Carrie Grover’s version of “Arthur McBride,” Maggie Hammons Parker’s “Ireland’s Green Shore” has inspired modern folk musicians. In licensed YouTube videos, you can hear Tim O’Brien perform two different versions inspired by this field recording; he recorded one version with vocals and another version as an instrumental.
Selection 8: Liz Carroll (fiddle), with Tommy Maguire (button accordion) and an unknown spoons player. “Set of Reels.” Recorded by Mick Moloney in Chicago, Illinois, on May 8, 1977
Liz Carroll (1956-) is one of the foremost fiddle players and composers in traditional Irish music. Liz is a native of Chicago, but her parents were born in Ireland; her father Kevin was from Brocca, County Offaly, and her mother Eileen was from Ballyhahill, West Limerick. Her maternal grandfather played the fiddle and her father played the accordion. She took classical musical lessons as a child, but her family was firmly ensconced in the world of Irish music, and she was soon competing in Irish music competitions, nationally and internationally. In 1973 she won the junior All-Ireland Championship on fiddle, and took the senior title in 1975.
In 1977, Mick Moloney, a fieldworker for the American Folklife Center, recorded Carroll and her musical partner Tommy Maguire playing these reels with a spoons player in Chicago as part of the Center’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. Find her recordings from that project at this link.
Liz Carroll has achieved many honors since then, including a 1994 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a veteran recording artist, on her own, in duos with Maguire and with John Doyle, in the bands Green Fields of America and Trian, and as a collaborator in many musical projects. She is also a prolific composer, with about 200 tunes to her credit; at most Irish sessions in America and in Ireland you’ll encounter tunes she has written.
In 2005 Liz Carroll played in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium as part of the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series. In 2010 she became the first American-born musician to be nominated for a GRAMMY Award for playing traditional Irish music.
Selection 9: May Mulcahy (concertina and voice). “Nori from Gibberland (Polka)” and “Put Your Little Foot Right There (Varsovienne).” Recorded by Gary Ward Stanton and Paula Johnson in Butte, Montana, on August 29, 1979
May Mulcahy (1901-1985) was part of the large Irish American community in Butte, Montana. In 1979, she was visited by fieldworkers Gary Ward Stanton and Paula Johnson, who recorded a three-part interview with her for the Montana Folklife Survey Project. She discusses the Irish community’s relations with other ethnic groups, their music, their dances, and their food traditions. Mrs. Mulcahy had been devoted to traditional dancing and to music, and was a fine concertina player. At the time of the interview, she had suffered a mild stroke and could not dance and play as well as she once could. Still, she played some fine tunes on the concertina. In Ireland, the concertina was often the instrument of choice for women musicians, and Mrs. Mulcahy was therefore participating in a tradition that went back several generations in Ireland. In this selection, Mrs. Mulcahy plays two tunes and speaks a bit about the music. The first is a polka that she called “Nori from Gibberland,” which is also known in Ireland as “Maureen from Gibberland,” but goes my several other titles including “Port Lairge.” It is considered by many scholars to be a variant of the tune “The Rose Tree,” which makes it also related to the American fiddle tune “Turkey in the Straw.”
Her second tune is often called “Put Your Little Foot Right There.” This is one of the most common tunes in the American Folklife Center archive, under many names. In the American southwest, including Texas and New Mexico, it’s commonly used to dance a waltz or varsovienne. In addition to Mrs. Mulcahy’s, we have online versions by the following performers: Métis fiddler Mary Trotchie from Montana, Anglo-American fiddler Harold Sprague from Montana, Mexican American guitarist Lottie Espinosa from California (who called it “La Varsoviana Me Muero (I Die),” and Mexican-American fiddlers Nieves and Ernestina Anaya from New Mexico (who called it “Varceliana”). Numerous other versions can be heard by visiting us at the Library of Congress. In Ireland, the same tune is known as “Shoe the Donkey” and is often used for a set or Ceili dance, as you can see in this licensed YouTube video. It demonstrates that the same tunes might have come to Irish American musicians like Mrs. Mulcahy from several sources, some Irish and some not.
Find Mrs. Mulcahy’s interviews, photos, and music at this link. [Note: although the fieldworkers spelled her name “Mae,” further research into census and property records indicates it was probably spelled “May.”]
Selection 10: Eileen Gannon (Irish harp). “O’Carolan’s Receipt (planxty) / Niall Gannon’s Favorite (jig).” Recorded at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series, on November 15, 2006
Eileen Gannon, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, is one of the foremost Irish harp players in the world. She comes from a musical family that has been at the forefront of the St. Louis Irish music community for many years. The “family business” is St. Louis Irish Arts, a music school and presenting organization run by Eileen’s mother Helen. She spent most of her summers growing up studying with harp masters in Ireland, and eventually earned both a bachelor’s degree in Music Performance from St. Louis University and a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Limerick. While studying in Ireland, Eileen taught at the Limerick Municipal School of Music and performed regularly at Dromoland and Bunratty Castles. She has won most of the awards available to an Irish harp player, most crucially the Senior Harp title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (World Irish Music Championships). Eileen has toured and performed all over the world and is a regular tutor at international festivals like the Catskills Irish Arts Week, and Scoil Eigse. Eileen represented Ireland at World Expos in 2010 in Shanghai, China and in 2015, in Milan, Italy. In this concert clip she plays two tunes. “O’Carolan’s Receipt” is attributed to the Irish harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), who is said to have written it for his friend John Stafford. It is an example of a “planxty,” an air written in honor of a friend or patron. Eileen never gives a name for the jig she plays after it, but Niall Gannon mentioned in the concert that it was his favorite jig. Following a longstanding tradition in Irish music, we’ve called it “Niall Gannon’s Favorite.” View the entire concert at this link.