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Enjoying Spring with Tunes and Oral Histories from the Folklore Institute Student Papers Collection

The following is a guest post from Emily Paulson (MLS Candidate in the Luddy School of Informatics pursuing the music librarianship specialization) as part of the spring course ILS-Z604/FOLK-F804 Folklore Archives in the Digital Age.

Photograph of purple and white flowers
Photograph of Purple European Pasque Flowers taken by Emily Paulsen

With spring in bloom and May celebrations on the horizon, I’ve found that my own favorite way to celebrate the end of a long semester is to sit back and relax in the sun listening to my favorite traditional Irish tunes. I love the storytelling and the history conveyed through this music, and there’s something about a good fiddle reel that will always spark some joy into my day. But why is this relevant? How is Irish music possibly connected to a college town in Midwest Indiana? 

When most people think of Irish music in America, they think of larger, more urban scenes in cities like Boston, Chicago, or New York. However, though it may seem inconspicuous, Bloomington is home to lively folk scenes of Scotch-Irish and bluegrass music. Though perhaps in smaller numbers than the Northeast, many Irish immigrants took to settling in farms across the Midwest, including a cluster of communities in southwestern Indiana. In fact, of all European ethnic groups to move to Indiana within the 19th century, the Irish make up the second largest group behind the Germans.[1] With the Irish came their histories and culture, one of the most memorable aspects being their musical traditions which later influenced other styles such as bluegrass and American folk music. Today, Bloomington continues to attract more music communities thanks in part to events like the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival or music sessions around town like the Irish sessions held on Tuesdays at the Runcible Spoon located just off campus.

I recently had the opportunity to dig more into the Irish music scene while working with interview materials in the IU Archives’ Folklore Institute Student Papers collection. This collection hosts a vast amount of folklore and oral histories on a variety of topics recorded by IU students taking courses in the Folklore Institute. The collection’s materials on Irish traditional music include recordings and interviews of individuals from Bloomington’s traditional (aka trad) music scene as well as additional recordings with others around the country. Among the interviews recorded in the early 2000’s is an insightful conversation on traditional music with Bloomington local Grey Larson. Larson is an accomplished composer, author, and musician of Irish traditional music who was drawn to Bloomington’s folk scene and moved here in 1981, “captivated by the town’s rich folk music community.”[2] Thomas Seaquist, the student who recorded this interview, noted from his talk with Larson that:

“Traditional music is not about a performance, or polished technique, rather, it is about the bringing together of people and social atmosphere and remembering the thing that music represents… the music is taken very seriously, but not so much as to ruin its purpose of bringing joy to a group of people and as a means of expressive communication. There is a fine balance.” [3]

Other interviews available in the collection follow and expand upon these ideas of the social aspects and the memories that performing this music represents. In interviews from 1983 and 1986, respectively, we get a chance to hear about the intimate relationships created between families and communities through these musical traditions. The former includes an interview with a man named Francis D. Johnstone, an American-born Irishman whose family originally emigrated to the U.S. in 1883. The interviewer, his wife Germaine Johnstone with questions provided by their granddaughter IU student Coleen Johnstone, discusses his memories of learning songs from his mother, remarking:

“She sang like a nightingale all Irish songs… I learned to sing [from] listening to my mother sing while she was making meals ready and washing clothes at home from when I was 5 years old till she died in 1940.”

On asking why he continues to sing these songs and performs, he reflects:

“I enjoy singing these songs. When I sing, I can usually hear my mother’s voice and I like that… The purpose of singing is to enjoy it yourself and hope others enjoy it [too]… If I perform well, that is singing and playing, I feel real good, I could do an Irish jig.” [4]

Listen below for a rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” sung by Francis D. Johnstone with following refrain on the harmonica. If you are an Indiana University affiliate, login to Media Collections Online to listen to the full interview.

The latter is an interview with Grace Quane, who was born in County Cork and moved to the U.S. in 1969. Interviewed by IU student Robert Russo, she discusses growing up listening to traditional songs and gives a taste of what a “sing-song” gathering was like:

“A sing-song is when you get together on a Sunday afternoon, maybe four o’clock for afternoon teas, and after that you would sit around the fire with your aunts and uncles and your cousins, and as a child you more or less listened to the old folks sing their traditional songs… each person has their own favorite traditional song, and you would never think of singing their song, each had your own song.” [5]

Throughout their talk, Grace discusses another important aspect of traditional music, in keeping the tradition alive. She mentions how she learned songs from school and her family and continued to pass on this music to her own children. They became so enthusiastic that her son had asked to get a tape of her songs before traveling back to Ireland, a stark contrast as to their adolescent years when they would catch their mother singing in the house; “Oh, here goes mom again singing!” Overall, it was the history and the remembrance that Grace enjoyed most about traditional songs, remarking:

“…it is like history, their music is history…it is not just music, and it is not just singing, it is the words that count. It’s your history, and it is part of you… the more they sing about the war, war and the famine, of course, which is a big thing in Ireland. Really, when I sing them it is not just singing, you are feeling, it is a really strong feeling.”

Listen below for a rendition of “Green, White, and Gold” sung by Grace Quane with no accompaniment. If you are an Indiana University affiliate, login to Media Collections Online to listen to the full interview.

The Irish music tradition is rich in stories and history, and passing down these traditions not only keeps these traditions alive but helps create new traditions and memories within families and communities. Learning about these traditions through oral history projects like the Student Papers collection is a wonderful way to continue to keep these memories and traditions alive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start new ones as well! In fact, approaching fast alongside spring commencement ceremonies is Bealtaine, a Gaelic May Day holiday historically observed in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. This holiday is traditionally held on May 1st and celebrates the beginning of summer while also marking the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It’s a time to celebrate community and promote growth and abundance for the new season, and has been traditionally celebrated with feasts, music, and bonfires. Amongst your end-of-the-year celebrations, if you’re feeling a bit festive, why not add a wee Bealtaine celebration to your calendar? Grab your friends, some good food, and celebrate the end of the semester and the start of the new fruitful season (perhaps accompanied by a few good Irish tunes to boot 😉).

[1] Price, N. et. al. (2018-03-18). “Irish Heritage in Indiana.” Hoosier History Live

[2] Bloom Magazine. (2018-07-09). “Grey Larsen Folk Artist.” Bloom Magazine: Our Town.

[3] Seaquist, Thomas. Traditional Irish Music and Grey Larson paper, undated. C627 Indiana University Folklore Institute student papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

[4] Johnstone, Coleen. Francis D. Johnstone’s Irish Folksongs paper, 1986. Paper no. 86/012, C627 Indiana University Folklore Institute student papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

[5] Russo, Robert J. Irish Folksongs and the Family paper, 1987. Paper no. 87/008, C627 Indiana University Folklore Institute student papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

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