Reviews: A couple of songbooks: Sam Henry’s Songs of the People and Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán.

A couple of songbooks: Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press) and Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán (Cló Iar Chonnacht). 

The first of these books I had a heck of a time getting hold of. It’s a famous collection — definitive, even — but like other definitive collections, it has spent a lot of time out of print. For several years I’d kept an eye out on Amazon and Abe Books, hoping to acquire a good used copy. I saw prices as high as $500. It was starting to look a little hopeless. And then in 2010 The University of Georgia Press re-issued the book in paperback at a much more reasonable price of closer to $30. 

The blurb on the book gives you an idea of just why I was so delighted to get my own copy:     

“The story of Ireland — its graces and shortcomings, triumphs and sorrows — is told by ballads, dirges, and humorous songs of its common people. Music is a direct and powerful expression of Irish folk culture and an aspect of Irish life beloved throughout the rest of the world.

Incredibly, the largest single gathering of Irish folk songs had been almost inaccessible because, originally newspaper based, it was available in only three libraries, in Belfast, Dublin, and Washington D.C. 

Sam Henry’s Songs of the People makes the music available to a wider audience than the collector ever imagined. Comprising nearly 690 selections, this thoroughly annotated and indexed collection is a treasure for anyone who performs, composes, studies, collects, or simply enjoys folk music. It is valuable as an outstanding record of Irish folk songs before World War II, demonstrating the historical ties between Irish and Southern folk culture and the tremendous Irish influence on American folk music. 

In addition to the songs themselves and their original commentary, Sam Henry’s Songs of the People includes a glossary, bibliography, discography, index of titles and first lines, melodic index, index of the original sources of the songs and information about them, geographical index of sources, and three appendixes related to the original song series in the Northern Constitution (a weekly newspaper)”. 

Sam Henry (1870-1952) was a civil servant in Northern Ireland. An amateur folklorist, entomologist, antiquarian and ornithologist — and a pretty decent fiddler — he collected songs both through his own efforts  and through his volunteer post as Song Editor of The Northern Constitution, a weekly newspaper published in the provincial town of Coleraine. The series, Songs of the People, ran from November 1923 to 1939 and, despite Henry’s efforts to have the collection printed in book form, for a long time it existed only in document form and in only three libraries (as mentioned above). In 1961 Gale Huntington, an American song collector, became aware of the collection and resolved to see it published. 

The songs are arranged by theme — just as those in The Voice of the People CD anthology are  — and are richly notated. A lovely touch (for me) is the fact that the range is clearly marked and the type of key indicated — a gapped scale or a modal scale are really easy to spot. Variations of melody or words are noted and, in all, the whole thing is a delight. 

On the other hand, Leabhar Mór na nAmhrán (The Big Book of Songs) was a real disappointment to me. It’s a huge collection of songs in the Irish language. I’ll not belabor my frustrations but note just a couple of them. First, there’s not a note of music in this book. If you want to find the melody to any of these songs you’ll need to purchase the CD on which it appears — a CD conveniently published by the publishers of the book. I had hoped not only for tunes to songs but to see alternative melodies to songs. This happens quite a lot with Irish song; the same song may be sung to a number of different tunes. But there’s not a jot. And why not, I wonder? Is there some suspicion in traditional circles of reading music? Granted, the melody of a song can have variations even from verse to verse, but why not give us the gist? (Ceolta Gael  and Ceolta Gael 2 are a couple of slim volumes that do just this, and I recommend them highly). So, a song book without music … 

The other frustration is actually the corollary of the first. There are many lyrical versions of the old songs: I can think of several versions of the words to An Bunnán Bui. But what we get is one version, the version of the person who recorded it for Cló Iar Chonnacht. I looked up some songs I know, to see if there were any verses I was missing. Most of what I looked up I couldn’t find in the book. These were well-know songs I wanted to consult. 

So, there are a lot of songs — over 400 — many are well-known. But all are without the music, they’re not much use to anyone who wants to sing them. Which is kind of the point of songs. So if you’re a singer, go with Sam Henry! 



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