The Wheels Of The World: fRoots magazine extract

In December 2015, I contributed an enhanced extract from the book for fRoots magazine, focusing on Séamus Ennis. Here it is…

Séamus Ennis & As I Roved Out

Colin Harper

An abridged extract from The Wheels Of The World: 300 Years Of Irish Uilleann Pipers (Jawbone Press).

Late in 1950, Alan Lomax, a driven man from America whose father, John, had begun the family dynasty in field recording, arrived in England. Being a socialist, he was effectively on the run from the House Un-American Activities people back home, but was also pursuing an ambitious project to document the traditional music of the world for a series of releases on Columbia Records: The Columbia World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music.

Alan didn’t take long to get his feet under the table, with Brian George an ally, at the BBC, presenting his first of many BBC series, Adventures In Folk Song, in February 1951 – with himself and a female sidekick, Robin Roberts, singing and presenting field recordings from the BBC Permanent Library. The previous month, with an Irish volume of the Columbia series in mind, Alan and Robin had loaded up a car with a heavy Magnecord tape recorder and travelled to Dublin, heading straight to Jamestown on Brian George’s advice.

‘We found a long, young greyhound of a fellow,’ Robin later noted, ‘with mischievous sharp eyes and a low, measured brogue, always combining drollery with seriousness.’

 After a night of drinking and singing in the Ennis family kitchen the next day,’ wrote Lomax biographer John Szwed, ‘Alan was convinced they could collaborate. There were still songs to be heard that had not been recorded, Séamus said, and he could find the people. Before they set out, Alan tested his equipment by recording Séamus’ piping, and the tape recorder broke down on the first try.

They ended up borrowing a mobile recording unit and a man to operate it from Radio Éireann, with whom Séamus was still employed. Over six weeks they recorded all over Ireland, using Séamus’ contacts, from Elizabeth Cronin in Cork to fiddler Mickey Doherty in Donegal. A sizeable number of items from Séamus himself were also recorded.

Released as one of the first 14 volumes in the series in December 1954, the Lomax/Columbia double LP on Ireland would also include eight performances by Séamus, including three items on pipes: ‘The Bucks Of Oranmore’, ‘Were You At The Rock?’ and ‘The Woman Of The House’. They were his first commercially available recordings.

Over the next four years, as he continued with his somewhat frustrating Radio Éireann career – often recording traditional musicians in the field but finding that the station really didn’t know what to do with it – Séamus had several more encounters with the BBC. Already, through meeting Brian George in August 1947 in Ireland, he had recorded two long sessions of songs and piping tunes for the BBC Library and had made a handful of appearances on BBC radio programmes. He was flown over to London three times in late 1950 and 1951 for further BBC broadcasts, on one occasion performing, on uilleann pipes, 45 minutes of 14th Century Italian music, seemingly sight-reading, with a consort including guitarist Julian Bream. In May 1951, the BBC came to Dublin for The Stone Of Tory, an ambitious ‘Irish Ballad Opera’, reuniting Séamus with Lomax. It would be a turning point in the former’s career and the beginning of a major repositioning for the BBC’s involvement with the traditional music of the British Isles.

The plot explored attempts by a land agent to collect rent by gunboat on Tory Island, off Donegal, and his thwarting by magic. The production combined a cast from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre with rural Irish singers. It was seemingly the first time that professional singers and actors had worked with what we might term source singers. After three weeks of intense writing and two days of rehearsal, it was recorded.

With Alan writing it and Séamus hired as both researcher and participant (singing, playing pipes, fiddle and possibly accordion, and earning 50 guineas for his trouble), the programme was the first in a series of ‘Ballad Operas’ Lomax planned, involving different cultures of the world. The exuberant American went on a collecting trip to Scotland that summer, involving the then similarly freelance leftist writer and collector Hamish Henderson. Along the way, Alan’s force of personality helped to galvanise the beginnings of the Scottish folk song revival and the beginnings of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was having an effect in London too.

As John Szwed put it: ‘Once they saw the results of Lomax’s collecting, the BBC created a folk music project under the direction of Peter Kennedy and Séamus Ennis.

Brian George, who had been trying to promote a more active BBC involvement in folk music since his Irish adventure in 1947 – returning from a two week trip with 400 acetates worth of field recordings, courtesy of Ennis’ contacts – finally got a green light in 1951.

‘Brian was now head of a big department with a hundred people working for him,’ says Reg Hall, ‘and he head-hunted Éamonn Andrews, a radio presenter, and Séamus Ennis from Radio Éireann. He got together a budget, £10,000, and hired two field recordists, Ennis and Peter Kennedy. He had the money for three collectors, but he only ever hired others casually.’

Séamus, on a rolling permanent contract from January ‘52, would be earning twice his Radio Éireann salary, with an apparently lavish expense account on top.

Writing of Séamus in 1967, in Forty Years Of Irish Broadcasting, former Radio Éireann director Maurice Gorham asserted that ‘the present-day revival of Irish traditional music really stems from him.’ But back in the early ‘50s the Irish station had more immediate concern: ‘The post that had been vacated by Séamus was still empty [over two years later],’ Gorham wrote. ‘No successor had been found who had his gift of extracting traditional music from amateurs all over the country and weaving it into radio programmes.’

The opportunity to collect from the whole of the British Isles was an incentive in itself. Based in London, Séamus would visit a particular area – from Sussex to the Hebrides – for a few weeks at a time to collect material for the archive. ‘We expected that it might last three, maybe four, maybe five years,’ he reflected. ‘In fact, it lasted seven years.’

He would also enjoy prolific opportunities to earn substantial freelance fees in a speaking, scripting or performing capacity with various BBC radio programmes during this time of his employment as a roving recorder, and to take concert bookings: ‘And if it happened on a work day and I had to travel, I just took a day’s annual leave.’

Brian George was a very flexible boss. On one occasion, Séamus dutifully turned down a television appearance because it clashed with a field trip. When George heard about it through the grapevine, he told Séamus to put the trip back a day and do the show. In 1952 he met and married Margaret Glynn, a teacher turned air hostess. Not one to miss a trick, Séamus advanced a proposal to Woman’s Hour on the BBC Light Programme in November 1952, which reads:

‘Séamus Ennis recently married an attractive air-hostess, and she is frequently asked by passengers who notice her ring: ‘What is your husband?’ This is not an easy question to answer. He is a collector of folk music and in this talk will explain exactly how one goes about making such a collection.’

Seven guineas later, the listenership of Woman’s Hour had their answer. Unsurprisingly, Séamus later viewed his BBC years as the happiest period in his life.

The most resonant series with which he was associated was As I Roved Out. Running for six series between September 1953 and September 1958, it was in effect the national shop window for the work Séamus, Peter Kennedy and others were doing as folk song collectors for the BBC. The collectors would talk about their song-hunting adventures across the British Isles and introduce recordings they had made. Occasionally, as with Donegal fiddler Frank Cassidy and Galway Gaelic singer Colm Ó Caodháin, Séamus would enjoy an opportunity to profile his favourite discoveries. At least two episodes across the six series were broadcast from rural pubs, and Séamus often enjoyed an opportunity to perform something himself.

The half-hour shows were generally broadcast on Sunday mornings, bar series five (mysteriously on Wednesday afternoons), and would become the programme most associated with Séamus’ BBC career. In 1978, Peter Kennedy – a man who became deeply controversial within the British folk world for his business dealings and his approach to intellectual property – wrote to Folk News to outline the programme’s history and his role in it:

‘I suggested As I Roved Out and, with Séamus Ennis, presented the programmes weekly on Sunday mornings…’

Whether Kennedy was declaring that he suggested the programme or just its name is unclear. He later suggested that he had introduced The Quarrymen to George Martin – a claim rendered absurd by decades of Beatle-ology. Séamus maintained that the name was his, and would reference the programme fondly in later life. Indeed, for all the 1950s broadcasting with which he was involved – a vast amount of it, on all three home networks, regional programmes, overseas services and television (using his story-telling gifts on nascent children’s TV with the likes of Clive Dunn and Tony Hart) ­– As I Roved Out would be the only programme widely recalled in later years. Along with Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads (1958-64), As I Roved Out stands as the most significant airwaves influence on the ‘British folk revival’ of the coming decade.

As Séamus explained in a 1972 interview: ‘Each programme would be 30 minutes, of which about 14 minutes would be me. Peter Kennedy or some other part-time collector would do another 12 to 14 minutes. I would say, yes [this period was the height of my career]. That would be because of the programme. Every Sunday morning for most of the year – nine months of the year, anyway.’

There was some exaggeration in what Séamus was recalling. Over six years, there were a total of 54 episodes, from 13 in 1953 winding down to four in 1958, although each series was repeated once. Similarly, Séamus was not present in every episode, though he was there in most. He was surely correct, though, when he explained why he felt the programme resonated with a wide audience:

‘I tried always to paint a word picture of the district, the person singing and the house he lived in – just little unimportant details about my visit there, like ‘At that moment the dog came in,’ for instance.’

Séamus could connect brilliantly to people as a broadcaster and as a collector of music; he had a lower hit rate with the average punter in London’s Irish pubs and, eventually, with his erstwhile BBC colleagues:

‘All the Irish musicians were from farming or labouring backgrounds,’ says London-Irish chronicler Reg Hall. ‘They were country people. And Ennis was middle-class, articulate, and mixed in middle-class circles, and he showed it – he almost let it be known. I didn’t necessarily see this or feel this at the time, but I knew he was different, I knew he had a foot in another camp. I met Séamus Ennis five times, I reckon. I was introduced to him – and every time, he took me for a stranger! I think he bloody knew who I was. It was his way of putting me down – not that I was worth putting down. I was insignificant. But I think that was just his manner.’

‘He was known as ‘The Ennis’,’ says English singer Bob Davenport, a near neighbour in the ‘50s, ‘and when he used to walk into the Bedford [in Camden Town] it was like watching a cowboy film where the marshal walks in and everybody looks round. When he played, there was nobody ever comes close – it stood your hair on end, it was just absolutely devastating. He was absolutely at his height. But then things went really wrong for him.’

‘He was very dicey, because he drank, and he couldn’t control it,’ says Peggy Seeger. ‘You could never tell when he was going to be capable. But when Séamus played freely, when he played the slow tunes, he was just heart-breaking, he really was. He was a total and complete character. When he arrived at your house, you knew he was there. He invaded every room, had to be waited on hand and foot, did nothing – didn’t have to, because he played the pipes!’

An off-air recording of the final show in Series One exists, being a get-together of the show’s presenters and production team plus traditional singers Bob and Ron Copper, with Séamus performing several songs and tunes solo and in collaboration. It is, alas, the only extant recording of an episode with Séamus, although a few examples of his other BBC radio works from 1948-60 do survive at source: three plays with music, two variety shows on the theme of Finnegan’s Wake, and a documentary on Patrick Weston Joyce.

The programme went so well,’ Séamus reflected, of As I Roved Out, ‘that I think pressure was brought on Radio Éireann to do such a job. And their first programme of this nature was The Job Of Journeywork [presented by Ciarán Mac Mathúna], which was the name of a tune – more or less a direct copy of my title, As I Roved Out. It was an achievement to get Radio Éireann broadcasting this material. Another direct result of As I Roved Out was the forming of all these ballad groups, of which I think The Clancy Brothers were the first.

Nevertheless, as piper and historian Pat Mitchell later noted: ‘Somewhat untypically, Séamus later modestly suggested that the [Sunday morning] proximity to the very popular Wilfred Pickles quiz programme Have A Go played a part in their popularity.’

Throughout the ‘50s, Séamus found an outlet on a wide variety of on-air platforms: dramas, discussion programmes, religious programmes, light entertainment, documentaries. Fittingly, the last series begun while he was still a BBC employee was a reunion with Alan Lomax. If As I Roved Out had been a regular update from the BBC’s folk music collecting project, A Ballad Hunter Looks At Britain, broadcast over eight episodes in November and December 1957, was a kind of summation. The project’s funding had run out, although there was a luxurious £800 budget for this programme (most of which went to Lomax). Séamus made 103 guineas for his contributions – which was just as well, as his permanent contract had expired back in March. Yet despite his tendency to vainglory, there was a deep integrity to the man. He himself had called time on the Corporation’s largesse:

I was probably the strongest cutter of my own throat,’ he explained. ‘But I voted that I thought we had the job finished now. What I was getting now was mostly variant[s] of something I had before. It’s a matter of conscience as well as common sense. You have to justify your existence, justify it with your own conscience.’

After a further three years as a freelance broadcasting musician, script-writer and presenter, with a small but growing side-line in public performances and commercial recordings, on the back of the building British folk revival – but mirroring a period in which his marriage failed – Séamus finally accepted he had run out of road with the BBC, and with London.

‘If you thought Florence was a place where you had to guard yourself from a knife in the back, says Bob Davenport, ‘the BBC in the 1950s made Florence look like a bunch of amateurs. It was sad. He was drinking more and more. Séamus was too innocent, in a way. He fell out of favour, and they stabbed him.’

I used to drop into the local at lunchtime, looking for work,’ the piper reflected. ‘One day a senior producer in the BBC said to me, ‘Do you know, Séamus, this is the British Broadcasting Corporation, not the Irish Broadcasting Corporation.’ So I said, ‘Thanks for the hint,’ and I came home.’

Radio is ephemeral, especially so in an era when few broadcasts were archived for posterity, but it was also still the prime medium in 1950s Britain. As I Roved Out was the right programme at the right time, and the beguiling genius of Séamus Ennis would be key to its success. It became a touchstone for a whole generation of British folk music performers who would come to prominence in the later ‘50s and ‘60s.

‘I remember hearing it when I was living in London,’ says Andy Irvine, ‘that was a big influence on me. In those days, a lot of people [in Ireland] listened to the BBC, because Radio Éireann was fairly young. The first time I remember seeing him was at Slattery’s in Capel Street [in the early ‘60s]. He hadn’t been living in Dublin for some time, he’d just come back from somewhere, and he got up on stage and said, ‘I’m going to play a couple of reels now, and the first one is called ‘The Master’s Return’!’