Irish Musicians Saving Oral History By Recording Elders Singing Old Campfire Songs

A small collective of intrepid and inquisitive young Irish musicians have taken it upon themselves to rescue a tradition of song when perhaps no-one else was willing to listen.

With an emphasis on the Irish, Scottish, and English traveler communities, their project aims to put the elders of a nearly-past generation in front of a microphone, to enshrine their songs and stories for musicians and folklorists to hear and study for all time.

Anthropologists and linguists often pass warnings about how much oral tradition the human race loses to modernity every year. Well that’s not confined exclusively to places within the Southern Hemisphere, or among the world’s Indigenous communities. It can also be found in the most developed countries on Earth.

In Ireland, a country famous for its singers, the Song Collectors Collective (SCC) celebrates that history by honoring the people who have kept its roots alive.

Those people are sailors, tinsmiths, tinkers, but most are from the reclusive and sometimes difficult-to-approach traveler communities. Their strong culture and tight-knit families make them living goldmines of folklore and song.

Rather than simply collecting words, each song can be accessed only by exploring the life and story of the person who sang it for the SCC, or the so-called “Tradition Bearer.”

Take Freda Black for example, a Romany Traveler and great-grandmother in her mid-eighties. Daughter to a legendary gypsy boxer, and member of a family who roamed all across England, Black kept a repertoire of songs so vast she admitted she couldn’t possibly count them. She would go on to feature in the recently released album by modern folk singer, Mercury Prize nominee and SCC member, Sam Lee.

“I loved spending time at the knee of these elders,” Lee told The Guardian on the topic. “I could have gone to university and got a music degree and have learned from the textbook or just go to the well and drink from the most incredible source. I was very lucky. I caught an end of an era.”

Lee was also the host of a four-part BBC Radio 4 documentary on this effort—which took him to Greece, Georgia, and other countries.

In some cases, the words of these elders are caught on the microphone along with the songs, so you can hear their musings on where they heard the pieces the first time—and whether their mother used to sing the melodies to them.

The SCC writes that within the songs “there is a memory of the days of life on the road, in tents and the music, song and dance that went hand-in-hand with this way of life.

“It is a common plea for the songs and stories to be recorded and shared as the old ways are not being passed on and this huge store of knowledge of an ancient way of life is forgotten. In the current era of accessible recording technology there is no excuse for not documenting and sharing this rich but fragile lore,” write the SCC.

Copies of all the songs are donated to the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the National Sound Archive in London, so they can be enjoyed for centuries to come.

Having collected hundreds of recordings from dozens of singers, the SCC is beginning to host educational events and workshops, featuring some of these Tradition Bearers, sharing their stories and singing voices for those interested in hearing them, as well as how everyday people can become collectors in their own way.