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The joy of a real folk song doesn't lie in sentimentality

IT IS hard to believe that in Ireland, less than 100 years ago, there was a real difference between country and town. The townspeople got the English tabloids every day from the afternoon train. And thus the women were up to date with the latest fashions and knew all about a new dance such as the foxtrot.

The biggest difference of all was in the music. Country songs were called "Come-all-yes" because most of the songs began with that line. If a country man was invited to sing at a party in the town, he would sing a come-all-ye. He would be quietly applauded and when he had gone away, people would laugh at him.

Most of the come-all-yes weren't folk songs or anywhere near it. My first time to hear a real folk song was when about 15. There was a card-playing competition in our house one night. It was called a "gamble". The usual prize was a young goat. The man who won him would put him up for a gamble again and that young goat might be very old by the time he was given his freedom.

It was on one of those occasions I heard my first song: a man from the very heart of the mountains sang a song that was very close to one that came many years after -- Lily Marlene.

The BBC engaged Seamus Ennis to do a programme called As I Roved Out on Sunday mornings. Seamus had an enormous collection of English songs and the programme was a brilliant success. Yet somebody in the BBC thought that folk music would have only a short-lived popularity and cancelled his programme. Little did they know: the wave was only rising.


In this country, the old music and song had been kept alive by the travelling people. Ciaran MacMathuna and Aindreas O Gallachoir and Sean MacReamoinn did lasting work in this context. It wasn't always appreciated. Now if you went to a party and sang a folk song you would be the hero of the hour.

RTE was not very favourable to folk music: only for the collectors that we have mentioned they might have ignored it. They gave little time to Dolly McMahon and to Eilis Moore. Delia Murphy got a good showing in her early days but she was soon forgotten. Margaret Barry was almost ignored and given hardly any space at all.

Folk music is very much alive in this country now. Indeed it is fashionable. It is very strong in Scotland and the north of England. It will survive because it is genuine. There is, of course, a great tradition of folk song in the Gaelic language but it's hard for it to break through.

If asked to define a folk song, all you can say is that you know it when it smites you. It is like love: when you are in love you needn't consult the agony aunts or the agony uncles to find out if it is the real thing. It is based on real life and is unsentimental. Usually it tells a tale simply.

The day is long gone when a country boy or girl would be laughed at if they sang a folk song in even the most sophisticated company.

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