Recently, I 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. And what better time than March, which is both Women’s History Month and Irish American Heritage Month?
To explain 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.
The visual exhibit presented materials such as songsters, fliers, programs, images, handwritten field notes and interview transcripts demonstrating the range of items in the Center’s archive related to Irish American cultural heritage. Each item in the display, which was curated by Melanie Zeck, related (directly or indirectly) to the musical compilation, which was given to Rep. Scanlon, McDermott, Brennan, and Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall.
I’ll present the audio recordings over two blog posts, starting immediately below.
Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women
A Selection of Recordings from the American Folklife Center Archive (Part 1)
This custom selection of field recordings from the American Folklife Center’s archival collections represents musical aspects of Irish-American heritage. It was presented to our special guests with gratitude for their participation in “Fearless: A Tribute to Irish American Women,” an event in the National Book Festival Presents series. The event was held in the Coolidge Auditorium, in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, on Thursday, February 6, 2020.
Selection 1: Patsy Touhey (uilleann pipes). “Bean Dubh an Ghleanna (Dark Woman of the Glen).”
Recorded by Francis O’Neill in Chicago, Illinois, ca. 1904
The recording in the player above features two of the people most important to traditional Irish music in America. The performer, Patsy Touhey (1865-1923), was the most celebrated traditional Irish musician of his day. Born in County Galway, Ireland, he came to the United States as a child and became a popular performer on the Vaudeville stage. His instrument was the uilleann pipes, a distinctively Irish bellows-blown bagpipe. Touhey attended the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where he became acquainted with Edison recording technology. He was a pioneer recording artist, recording one-off performances on wax cylinders to sell to fans. The collector, Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), was a longtime Chicago police officer, and served as the city’s Superintendent of Police from 1901 until 1905. A native of County Cork, O’Neill was also a passionate Irish musician, especially on the flute. He spent his spare time while on the police force, as well as most of his time in retirement, collecting and preserving Irish music by publishing books of sheet music which he had specially transcribed by several assistants who worked with traditional musicians to capture thousands of tunes. Between 1903 and 1924 he published nine books that remain among the most important primary sources on Irish traditional music.
O’Neill also made a number of cylinder recordings, including this one. After his death, 32 of those recordings ended up with the family of his friend, Michael Dunn, a Captain in the Milwaukee Fire Department. The cylinders remained with the Dunn family until the early 2000s—almost exactly 100 years after they were made. At that time they were donated to the Ward Irish Music Archive in Milwaukee. The Ward Archive entered into an agreement with the Library of Congress, in which the Library had the cylinders digitized, and digital copies remained as part of the American Folklife Center Archive.
The tune Touhey plays here is a traditional air he called “Bean Dubh an Ghleanna,” which is Irish Gaelic for “Dark Woman of the Glen.” It’s the melody of a song about a woman who leaves her husband to pine for her. At the beginning of the cylinder, either Touhey or O’Neill, who both spoke Irish Gaelic, announces the title in Irish. But when creating the list that accompanied his recordings, O’Neill later wrote the title down in English as “Dark Woman of the Glen.” Luckily, a staff member in the American Folklife Center spoke enough Irish to match the cylinder to its listing in O’Neill’s catalog! It’s one of several tunes in O’Neill’s collection for which one of his books contains a transcription of the same musician’s playing. This allows scholars to get a close look at the practices of O’Neill’s transcriptionists—just one reason this is a particularly significant recording of Irish music, despite the poor sound quality of the cylinder. Find out more about this collection in an issue of Folklife Center News from 2006. The pdf is available at this link.
Selections 2 & 3: Andrew Gallagher (voice). “Sentenced to Death part 1” and “Sentenced to Death part 2.”
Recorded by Alan Lomax in Beaver Island, Michigan, on August 29, 1938
In 1938, in Beaver Island, Michigan, Andrew Gallagher, known locally as “Andy Mary Ellen,” sang a song called “Sentenced to Death” for Alan Lomax, who was collecting folk music for the Library of Congress. At almost 9 minutes long, it took up more than one side of a recording disc, so it appears in two separate players above. When the song ends, you can also hear Gallagher tell Lomax about its history:
Composed by Katharine Murphy and fetched across the ocean 75 years ago by Mary Ellen Roddy. And the son…her son that’s singing the song, Andrew Gallagher.
Gallagher’s speech traces the song back through his mother, Mary Ellen Roddy, to its author, Katharine Murphy.
Mary Ellen Roddy was born on May 5, 1841, on tiny Rutland Island, in County Donegal, Ireland. In 1858, Mary Ellen made her way across the Atlantic Ocean to settle on Beaver Island, Michigan. In 1866, Mary Ellen Roddy married another Beaver Island Rutlander, Bernard “Barney” Gallagher. They had two children, Andrew and Patrick, but Barney left the family. The children became known as “Mary Ellens” because they were raised by their mother, leading to Andrew’s unusual moniker, “Andy Mary Ellen.” Mary Ellen Roddy Gallagher died in 1903. Some 35 years later, only a year before his own death, Andy Mary Ellen recorded his mother’s song for Lomax.
Katharine Murphy (ca. 1841-1885), who wrote “Sentenced to Death,” was born around the same time as Mary Ellen in Ballyhooley, County Cork. Her parents died with little to their name, and Katharine turned to writing to support herself. She wrote for a number of publications, including the famous humor magazine Punch. Most importantly for us, she wrote creative pieces for The Nation and Young Ireland, publications which championed the cause of Irish nationalism. Katharine often wrote under pseudonyms including “Catherine Townsbridge” and “Brigid” after Saint Brigid, an early Irish saint. It was under this last pseudonym that she published the evocatively titled “Sentenced to Death,” an epic poem purportedly the confession of a tenant farmer convicted of murdering his new landlord after being evicted from his land. Read more about this story in a separate blog post by Hannah Rose Baker at Folklife Today.
Selection 4: Hattie Scott Gould (fiddle). “The Irish Washerwoman.”
Recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Turlock, California, on October 31, 1939
WPA folk music Collector Sidney Robertson (later known as Sidney Robertson Cowell), encountered Hattie Scott Gould (then known as Mrs. Ben Scott), at the latter’s home in Turlock, Stanislaus County, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In her fieldnotes, Robertson recounted Scott’s touching story about her family’s support for her musical aspirations:
She learned to play the fiddle as a child, in the foothills of the Coast Range east of the Salinas Valley. There was an old violin in the family which her older brothers encouraged her to play by equipping it gradually, one string at a time. When she could manage the G string, they saved up enough to buy her a D. When she could get around on those two strings, they added the A, and so on. She played on that fiddle for several years before it had all four of its strings, and she hasn’t yet forgotten what a great moment it was when at last her fiddle was as complete as anybody’s.
Robertson also praised Scott’s playing:
She competes successfully with the men in fiddlers’ contests the length and breadth of the State; she can’t read a note and is glad of it. You can’t keep both feet on the ground when Mrs. Scott begins to play. Her large repertory includes some of the best of the fine American fiddle tunes, with some Irish and English ones for good measure.
“The Irish Washerwoman” is known throughout Britain and Ireland, with variants having been printed in the 18th Century in England, Scotland, and Wales as well as in Ireland. Nevertheless, it is firmly associated with Ireland and specifically with Irish women, so we can consider it one of Mrs. Scott’s Irish jigs. Find more of her music at this link.
Selection 5: Myra Daniels (voice). “The Honest Irish Lad.”
Recorded by Helen Hartness Flanders in East Calais, Vermont, on November 11, 1939.
Helen Hartness Flanders (1890-1972) was one of the most prolific song collectors in New England, recording with her assistant Marguerite Olney over 9000 songs on cylinders, discs, and tape. The daughter of Vermont governor James Hartness, and the wife of Vermont senator Ralph Flanders, she was herself an excellent pianist until arthritis curtailed her musical career in about 1930. That year, the Vermont government’s Commission on Country Life contracted Flanders to collect traditional folksongs. Flanders’s contract lasted only a year, but she never stopped collecting for over three decades. Most of her collection exists in two copies: one at Middlebury College in Vermont, the other here at the Library of Congress. Myra Daniels (1879-1954) was one of Flanders’s best singers, as was Daniels’s brother, Elmer George. Between them, the siblings sang Flanders almost 100 songs. On one recording, Daniels recalls learning songs from old lumberman named Frank Layton: “He was a regular tramp…. He mighta learned them in some shanty.” In a letter to Flanders, Daniels said she knew 182 songs, meaning that the collector hadn’t tapped out her extensive repertory. In addition to singing, Daniels had a reputation as a skilled herbalist. Both Daniels and her brother sometimes toured with Flanders; the collector would give lectures about ballads, while Daniels, George and other singers sang the examples. In 1948 Flanders gave one of those lectures at the Library of Congress. Myra Daniels wasn’t with her, but her brother Elmer George was. That event occurred in the Coolidge Auditorium, where “Fearless” also took place.
Daniels’s song “The Honest Irish Lad” is the chorus to “Give an Honest Irish Lad a Chance,” published in 1881 by Thomas F. Kerrigan and Dan McCarthy; Kerrigan was a singer and uilleann piper and owner of a saloon in New York city, and McCarthy was his musical partner on the Vaudeville stage. The song is a comment on the problem of anti-Irish discrimination in the nineteenth century. Myra Daniels’s performance is therefore an example of a popular topical song that entered oral tradition, to be collected from a traditional singer.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of field recordings. I’ll be posting the second half of this compilation later in March!