There’s a treasure trove of Irish traditional music scattered across the internet and hidden deep in the rooms of the Library of Congress, and a researcher from Ireland is working on making it easier for us to find it and hear it. Patrick Egan (Pádraig Mac Aodhgáin) recently sent emails to Comhaltas groups in the US asking for our help. Intrigued by his project, I called him at the Library of Congress (LOC) to find out more.
Patrick, a concertina player who grew up in Co. Wicklow hearing plenty of tunes and stories at the Saturday sessions in his father’s pub, is now an ethnomusicologist and a fellow in digital studies at the Kluge Center at the LOC studying the impact of the digital turn on Irish culture in the US. Since January he’s been going through collections in the LOC’s American Folklife Center. The center’s archive was established in 1928 to document and preserve every kind of traditional culture and now contains millions of items collected from the 19th century to now - things like films of traditional arts, oral histories, and music recordings on everything from wax cylinders to CDs.
“My area looks at different ways the American Folklife Center could link with archives in order to reach out to people,” Patrick said. He plans to link his work with a similar archive in Dublin called the Irish Traditional Music Archive, where researchers are creating a state-of-the-art digital structure to allow them to link sound files and metadata.
“So for example if a musician like John Kelly was playing a tune, and he said he got that tune off someone like Willy Clancy, and maybe Willy Clancy got it from someone else, there’s a way to link up those three people so that it’s easier to find them on the internet,” he said.
The goal is to create a standardized structure to make it easy for musicians to look up performers' names or tune names, and access all versions in many archives around the world, unlike the current situation where files are scattered on YouTube and other websites.
As part of his project, Patrick needs to know how members of the Irish traditional music community are interfacing with the internet. “Do they actually use the internet a lot to access sound files and how important are sound files to them?” he said. “What do they know about what’s in the archives and what resources do they use?” He’s asking how the internet is changing the ways in which musicians work with sound files and how the world of the Irish musician is changing in Ireland, America, and other countries. “I’m looking at a broad analysis of how this is all changing in the Irish traditional music community.”
To that end, Patrick has developed a survey for Irish traditional musicians in North America. About 300 people took the survey during the first week he started circulating it by word of mouth among friends, but he’d like to have as many musicians as possible fill it out. I took the survey myself. It’s not long and I discovered some interesting resources in it. Click this link if you’d like to take the survey too.
While he’s been working in the LOC’s American Folklife Center, Patrick has found some treasures among the more than 2,000 recordings in the 12 collections he’s listened to so far. And this is just the beginning. The reference librarians have suggested 36 collections to him.
Patrick made this chart to show what he’s found.
The Philadelphia Ceili Group’s collection has been especially rich. Beginning in 1977 they hosted a festival that attracted local and internationally known Irish traditional musicians. At these festivals they made recordings of workshops, tunes, songs, and stories about the origins of the music and the musicians’ own lives.
One of Patrick’s favorite finds featured Joe Heaney singing and lilting in the sean-nos tradition, telling stories of the songs and where he got them, and stories about his hometown in Western Connemara.
“I think that these musicians in the Philadelphia Ceili Group brought a lot to Irish culture that has yet to be tapped into,” Patrick said. “There are six boxes of about 30 tapes each just packed full of gems all the way through. Things like this are just sitting in the archives, waiting for musicians such as yourself up in New York. I’m documenting what’s in the collections to let musicians know what’s in there, to bring the music from the archives to the musicians playing now in a meaningful way.”
He said there are so many recordings that it’s unlikely they will ever all be digitized, but he hopes to point to what can be done. “Fortunately the Library of Congress is committed to getting as much as possible cleared of copyright and available to the public to the benefit of the audience,” Patrick said.
In the meantime, to get an idea of the recordings of Irish American music held in archives, you can check out these websites:
Don't forget to take the Survey on Irish Traditional Music, Song and Dance in North America.