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FERGUS WOODS - Kind Friends Lend An Ear

FERGUS WOODS - Kind Friends Lend An Ear
Ashtrees Press ISBN: 978957585874

This is an absorbing read on several levels, and what’s more, it’s the type of book of which there are all too few. Subtitled Songs And Stories From County Monaghan, it focuses in detail on the folk culture of one townland, and one individual in particular. Back in 1968, the author encountered Tommy McCabe, an elderly singer from the townland of Nart, and interrupted his trip to the Fleadh at Clones to spend time with him. Over the next few months he spent a good bit of time recording and documenting many aspects of the singer’s life and the community in which he lived.

He wasn’t a moment too soon – within a few years Tommy and his generation, and a lot of their oral culture, were no more. Fergus was acutely aware that this would be the case and recorded extensively. In the process, he accrued a pretty comprehensive microcosm of a culture which he recognised quite correctly as being an archetype for many rural areas of Ireland. Returning to the area nearly three decades later, he continued his collection via the memories of Tommy’s offspring, the eventual result being this book.

There are around 30 songs here, ranging from familiar traditional pieces (some in a local guise) to compositions made by the singers themselves, as well as some specifically local songs. Fergus adds his comments and also the tales associated with the songs by the singers. In my experience of collecting, these invariably add colour and context to the song itself, and often pass through one’s mind when singing. And Fergus has been singing these songs since he collected them, and his determination to get them into book form demonstrates his desire to see them survive. His practical approach to doing this has resulted in a website where the original singers can be heard, along with others where the original recordings were not of sufficient quality, giving the first verse of each song as an alternative to a written musical notation in the text. This is perfect for people like me who can’t read a note of music, and means that you can literally learn the song from the mouth of the singer. In addition, there are a number of photos, which are always good to see in a book of this sort.

A lot of organisations and individuals have contributed to the completion of this volume, which punches well above its 147 page weight in terms of significance and interest. It will take me a long time to exhaust its potential and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

John Waltham

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.