imago corvi

adventures in enamelling, stories, music and travel

Traditional Song

I have been singing traditional song now for over 30 years and I am always surprised when people say (as they sometimes do) “Are you STILL singing traditional stuff?” as if singing traditional music is something you do when you’re a kid – but later you grow up to be a singer songwriter …

Yes I am STILL singing traditional music. My biggest breakthrough is adding a few songs of a more cheerful nature 😉

To me the songs are timeless – they address human interaction and conditions that don’t change and are not so self indulgent as many (not all!) lyrics in the contemporary singer songwriter genre. I have never felt a burning urge to write songs – and I think that is what you need to have in order to be a good artist – there must be something deep within you that compels you to do it. (photo at left is collector Helen Creighton in 1940)

Instead I am captured by listening to old people sing. I recently visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization to listen to the archives again – mostly from Helen Creighton’s collection. This is the second time I have been – and both times it was a pretty intense experience. The staff are marvellously helpful and had stacks of reel-to-reel tapes waiting for me each day I came in. This time I listened to an astonishing 478 songs in one week!

I was terribly disappointed to discover that they no longer allow listeners to make copies of the recordings. This is a new policy – because the last time I was there (6 years ago) they set up the recording equipment for me! Seeing as these singers have been dead for years, and the material is traditional anyway, it seems an unnecessary precaution against “unauthorized use” which is the reason that was cited to me for the current ban. When I asked what “unauthorized use” was – they told me that they were being used in schools! Quelle horreur! Our national heritage being played to innocent students!(photo at right is Angelo Dornan 1942)

So I had to be innovative in getting the melodies down so I could learn these songs at home. I am not blessed with the ability to transcribe music on the spot – and anyway what I really wanted was to be able to hear the phrasing and delivery of these old singers. One – Burton Young – was still singing sweetly at the age of 93. Another, Angelo Dornan, had 125 songs in his repertoire – all of which he remembered after not having sung them for almost 50 years. So when there was a song I particularly liked – I sang along with it and recorded my own voice. My friend, Ottawa fiddler James Stevens joked, “So you are making field recordings of yourself!”

The good news is that I will certainly be able to learn the songs this way – but the bad news is that these great singers are still being held hostage in the vaults of the museum.

I have added a song that I recorded on my first visit to the archives to my MySpace page (where this blog was first posted)- it is “Banks of the Nile” by Walter Roast – who is the gentleman from whom Helen Creighton first collected “Farewell to Nova Scotia” He was the blacksmith of his village and is a fine singer with many great ballads in his repertoire. (that is him on the left)

… probably an “unauthorized use” … 😉

“Tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” T. S. Eliot

One comment on “Traditional Song

  1. Anonymous
    May 15, 2009

    Hello,I just read your comments about not being able to record music from folksongs at the Museum of Civilization after googling my grandfather, Angelo Dornan. I don’t know if this would help but I’m sure any one of us in the Dornan family would be honoured to have you continue recording and using the songs that he has passed on

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2008 by in music and tagged , , , , , .


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