The University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance hosted an international conference on singers, songs and collectors at the beginning of June, co-organised with the Traditional Song Forum. Participation was both in person and online over the weekend, with the presentations concentrated on the Saturday and Sunday; Friday night was the welcome session and a singaround.
Twenty-one conference presentations covered regional and local song traditions, individual singers, the history of individual songs and their tunes, and the activities of collectors. A few presentations fell outside these categories, such as Verena Commins’ session on physical memorials to Irish singers and Carrie Erving’s piece on performance styles influenced by ‘indie’ popular music.
By coincidence, there were two papers on aspects of the tradition in the Miramichi area of New Hampshire (these papers were both given online, one from Canada and one from the USA, although there were also several American participants present on site). It was good to see Welsh traditions being represented by two presentations – Wales often has a low profile when the traditions of the UK and Ireland are being considered. Cornwall was not neglected either, with Kate Neale’s paper on Cornish carols being scheduled after Ian Russell’s contribution on the Kilmore, County Wexford, carol tradition.
One of the themes that crossed over from both carol presentations into some of the other papers was the idea that once written down, or particularly when published, a specific collection has its own, perhaps defining, effect on the tradition. In other words, a tradition exists, but then when its songs are published, the publication steers or even ‘becomes’ the tradition. English readers of a certain age might wish to debate how true that is in respect of books such as The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs and Marrowbones. With the advent of the internet, I imagine that the influence of key texts will never be as strong again.
Although hosted in an academic institution, the presentations were largely lacking in heavyweight academic theory. David Atkinson’s paper on canon formation was something of an exception to that rule, and the presentation put together by Hugh Miller and me had some theory in it, proposing the relevance of the concepts of ‘framing’ and ‘keying’ (from Erving Goffman) to analysing the interactions between collectors and singers in different historical eras.
The conference also included a Saturday night concert featuring conference participants and invited guests: Brian Peters, Martin and Shan Graebe, Kara O’Brien and Carrie Erving from the former category, MacDara Yeates, Ceara Conway and Muireann Ni Cheannabhain and Eoghan O Ceannabhain in the latter (I hope I’ve remembered everyone).
The conference finished with another singaround on Sunday night, memorably brought to an end by a fire alarm! I might also mention the unlikely fact that next door to where we took our meals and held the singarounds, the university’s excellent sports facilities were hosting the European Quidditch Finals. Harry Potter fans will be disappointed to learn that the ‘actually existing’ form of this magical sport is wholly devoid of flying. The tournament was won by Werewolves of London (who remembers the Warren Zevon song?), who defeated an Italian team in the final. So now you know…
The conference was organised from the Irish side by Sandra Joyce, Ciara Thompson and Kara O’Brien, and from the English end by Traditional Song Forum stalwarts Steve Roud and Martin and Shan Graebe. It was a fascinating selection of various sorts of song-related content and I’m sure future events along similar lines would be very welcome. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Traditional Song Forum will be recommencing its regular online sessions (usually three talks, on a Sunday afternoon) in the autumn and details will be on the website.