This isn’t going to be easy. We wanted to do an article on Len Graham’s new book, Joe Holmes- Here I Am Amongst You. First, let’s abandon any pretense of journalistic objectivity here. To the knowledgeable reader, Len Graham is already an icon. There is no more respected performer and scholar of real Irish songs than Len. His career is filled with triumphs, awards, friends and artistic achievements that cover four decades. His contributions to song cannot be overemphasized. The problem is not to decide what to write about Len Graham. The problem is trying to decide what to leave out. When all else fails, stay with the editor’s instructions and begin at the beginning.
So, we tied up with Len immediately prior to his appearance at this year’s Irish Fest in Milwaukee as teacher and performer. The first question was the easy one. Tell us about Joe Holmes, and why a book on him? “Well, I met Joe when I was 19 in Dunminning, Co. Antrim. Joe was living near Ballymoney, which was then home to both of us. He and I performed together for the next 15 years until his death in 1978. I’ve been planning and working on this book for years. He was a great man, and a great friend. I suppose he had the complete musical personality and outlook. That, and the fact that I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. I think this book will be a valuable tool for anyone interested in the singing tradition of the north, which has a broad and deep musical tradition.” When Len and Joe met, Joe had stopped singing, mostly due to the death of his mother in the 1950’s, though he was still an accomplished and active fiddler. Prior to that, the Holmes residence had been a well known ceili house, where singers, dancers, musicians and storytellers met frequently. Once such a fixture on the Irish cultural scene, almost all are gone now. “Well,” muses Len,” they are missed. There really aren’t any left around us now, save Sarah Anne O’Neill’s in Derrytresk, Co. Tyrone. She is the famous Geordie Hanna’s sister. There used to be a full network of them, like Eddie Butcher’s home. He was another great collector and performer of the songs.” These names come forward with all their memories in such a rush from Len that one wishes more attention had been paid in secondary school for shorthand classes. It is small wonder the research took Len years in archives ranging from Dublin to the Library of Congress in America, among a wealth of other locations.
You quickly find that “research” is an important concept to Len Graham. We know Len as the primary, living exponent of traditional Irish song. While that performance is critical in Len’s universe, of equal or even greater import is the scholastic research of each song’s history. To sit with him for even a brief time is to hear and feel the excitement for Len as he hunts down songs and lyrics, snippets of papers in archives with one more “new” verse to a song written in, say 1540! “I don’t know why that is,” he laughs.” I suppose it is something in the DNA. That, really, has been my life’s passion. Joe shared that, and he was a storehouse of songs he offered easily to others.” This research is all detailed in the back of the book in the appendices. It is hard to imagine any other study as notated and as exhaustive as this. Complete, really.
“My parents reared me tenderly,I being their only son,” are the opening lines to one of the 80 notated songs in the book. An anti-war song from the 19th century, it was one of Joe’s favorites. Strangely, the song is also known in Newfoundland, “the only other place it turns up,” states Len. It is that detail, and far more, that comes flowing naturally from Len in a current of memory and experience. Collectors like Len are constantly on the hunt for an undiscovered song, or the additional lyric. “There are such great archives, many in America like those for Irish song at Harvard and Princeton. Amazing places.” There are thousands of songs still undiscovered. “A lot of these were written on scraps of paper, or sold as broadside ballads by itinerant singers at the town markets and fairs. Thousands. Some can be humorous little ditties of a local event of the day, or a gorgeous love ballad or emigration song.” Vast numbers of them are still out there waiting. That is the sort of thing that gets Len’s dreams flowing. The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, which Joe learned from his mother is a classic example. This is a song that is said to have inspired William Butler Yeats to write his poem (it was, indeed, originally a poem), Down By The Salley Gardens. Yeats himself described his lines as, “an attempt to reconstruct an old song imperfectly remembered,” when he first published his adaptation of the song. In its older form, the song dates to the 18th century. You get the idea. Stunning context, precisely drawn by Len Graham, as scholar.
As you talk to him, the personalities of the old days have their hour again upon the stage. The aforementioned, Eddie Butcher, Maggie Barry, Paddy Tunney, Robert Cinnamond, Sarah Makem, Sarah and Rita Keane, Mary Anne Carolan, Frank Harte. All great collectors, singers, friends. Through all this history in the book, we are reminded of a different time. A time when the music was so openly and eagerly shared. Celi houses. Finding a wonderful song at some isolated farm, where the words have lain, waiting, since the 1700’s. Great, humorous stories. Moving, and some sad, memories. The real stuff of the real music. The book has them all, especially of the north of Ireland. Is there a young man or woman out there ready to carry on the scholastic side of all this in the future? “I’m not sure,” relates Len. “There is such a premium put on performance today. The focus is not the scholarship, really anywhere. That is a shame. I’m not sure where this goes in the future.”
For now, Len was on his way to Milwaukee to share his expertise, his passion and his songs with a full class of students. After that? Well, we were discussing those archives at Harvard, Princeton and The Library of Congress, and they are whispering their siren’s song to Len as we speak. The future is still the future. But, for now, Irish music has Len Graham, thanks be to God.
The book is available through www.fourcourtspress.ie