Traditional singer and song collector Len Graham hails from the beautiful village of Mullaghbawn at the foot of Slieve Gullion in south County Antrim, Northern Ireland. One of Ireland’s leading folk song collectors and performers, Len Graham was born in 1944 in the seaport town of Glenarm, County Antrim into a family steeped in oral traditions. Early exposure to the rich Ulster song and music tradition inspired a lifetime devotion to song collecting, research, and singing.
During today’s performance/demonstration, Graham will explore in song and story the wide and varied traditional culture of the North of Ireland. His repertoire of English language songs includes classic ballads, broadside ballads, local songs, music hall pieces, and songs on topics as disparate as politics, murder, love, and emigration.
Graham began singing publicly as a young man while working in a textile factory in the County Londonderry town of Coleraine. In 1971, he won the prestigious “All Ireland” prize for men’s singing at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, an annual influential competition held by the cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. His interest in performance was matched by a dedication to song collecting, which brought him into contact with such respected older traditional singers as Eddie Butcher (1900-1980) and Joe Holmes (1906-1978). Graham developed a close relationship with Holmes, and in 1971 they recorded the landmark album Chaste Muses, Bards and Sages. Released in the midst of the folk revival, the pair’s strong performances of regional songs and stories were embraced by a new generation of listeners and they soon became a favorite at clubs, concerts, and festivals. A follow-up album, After Dawning, recorded by fellow Ulster collector/performer Robin Morton, appeared on the Topic label in 1978.
Graham’s first solo album, Wind and Water, was released in 1977. A few years later, in 1982, Len decided to become of fulltime professional musician and, after a guest appearance on The Boys of the Lough’s Regrouped album, he released his second solo album, Do Me Justice, in 1983. Following a third solo album, Ye Lovers All (1986), he teamed up with fiddler Gerry O’Connor, multi-instrumentalist Garry Ó Briain, and accordionist Andrew McNamara to form the folk music group Skylark. The band enjoyed widespread success on the international scene and ultimately recorded four albums. Over the years, Len Graham also toured and recorded with the Fermanagh flutist/singer Cathal McConnell and worked extensively with his wife, the noted Irish language singer and scholar Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, with whom he released a classic album of Irish children’s songs, When I Was Young (1996).
Among his many projects, none had more impact than his long-time partnership with master traditional storyteller John Campbell (1933–2006), a neighbor from his adopted hometown of Mullaghbawn. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Len and John toured extensively and enjoyed an outstanding international reputation. In addition to the duo’s skills as performers, collectors, and educators, the pair also made significant contributions towards furthering cross-community understanding of shared cultural traditions during the many years of conflict in Northern Ireland. Their two recordings, Ebb and Flow and Two for the Road are classic examples of Irish song and narrative traditions. Since John’s passing, Graham has begun touring with the noted Irish storyteller Jack Lynch, and many Washingtonians remember their excellent performances during the Northern Ireland exhibition at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Graham’s publication It’s Of My Rambles, a book accompanied by tapes of some of his field recordings, was awarded the Sean O’Boyle Cultural Traditions Award in 1993. He was also selected to receive the first TG4 Traditional Singer of the Year award in 2002 by Irish language television for both his abilities as a singer and his role in transmitting traditional songs and stories to other performers. Those who have sung or recorded songs from Graham’s repertoire include Altan, The Battlefield Band, Boys Of The Lough, Karan Casey, Cherish The Ladies,The Chieftains, De Dannan, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, Dolores Keane and the Voice Squad. His recent compilation album The One Tradition celebrates the diverse and shared song tradition of Ulster.
Graham’s collecting and research follows in the tradition of pioneer Ulster folksong collectors, such as Seán O’Boyle (1908- 1979), author of The Irish Song Tradition (1976); Hugh Shields (1929-2008), author of Shamrock, Rose and Thistle (1981), and Sam Henry (1878-1952), whose column in a local Coleraine newspaper, Songs of the People, has been collected and published as a book, most recently as Sam Henry’s Songs of the People in 1990.
Rediscover Northern Ireland Events 2008: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is the lead development agency for the arts in Northern Ireland. It is the main support for artists and arts organizations, offering a broad range of funding opportunities through our Exchequer and National Lottery funds.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and trai ning.The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was establishedin 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site at http://www.loc.gov/folklife/.
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