A couple of months after Peter Kennedy's death in 2006, I wrote - as Enthusiasm No.53 - an appraisal of his work in the field of folk song and dance. I said that, 'as it stands, it will seem biased towards the negative - primarily because the published material to date has been almost all positive, as befitted the 'obituary' type of writing which followed closely upon Peter's death. Readers with additions, amendments or corrections are asked to e-mail me with their contributions.'
With the welcome news that the Peter Kennedy archive has been given to the Halsway Manor Society, and that Topic Records and MT Records will be releasing many of his recordings, this seems like an appropriate moment to close the correspondence - and I suspect that, by now, all who wished to contribute will have done so.
As I promised in the original piece, I contacted Derek Schofield, asking if he would be interested in publishing the result in EDS? He replied:
The whole piece is longer than I would normally accept in EDS (it’s 3000 words which, with illustrations, would run to 4 pages). Okay, it may deserve that coverage, but I only get 48 pages every 3 months!Accordingly, I am now publishing the results here. I was a little surprised that none of the contributors wanted to correct any of the points I'd raised - and that none had anything to add to the 'positive' comments I'd included ... namely that:
But I did get quite a number of letters and e-mails illustrating the negative aspects which I'd highlighted. My sincere thanks to all who wrote to me. Their contributions follow, in no particular order:
In an attempt to finance the first folksingers'/folk club guide, Peter requested through every newsletter he could get access to that advance subscriptions be sent in. Amazingly, scores of envelopes containing money and a return address began pouring in to Cecil Sharp House. I was not aware of any arrangement made for the donors to receive anything in return.
As early as 1965, a movement was afoot to oust Peter from his job. I don't know who was behind it, but it certainly gave Peter some anxious moments.
I also remember Peter snickering sarcastically when he showed me a letter from some singer's daughter, "... my father doesn't want the recordings published, as they were made early in his career and don't reflect his current talent ..." (paraphrased).
The following points are random and set down as they have come into my head:
1. I once phoned Peter Kennedy to talk about an unrelated matter, when I mentioned that I had been recording George Spicer for a Topic LP. There was a pause, then Peter said, “You can’t do that. His songs are all copyrighted to me.” I explained that I was not using any song that Peter had previously recorded from George, when Peter was working for the BBC, and Peter replied “No, he signed a contract which says that any songs remembered by him in the future will be my copyright.” To be honest, I’d never heard such rubbish in my life. So, I just laughed and said something like, “OK. See you in court, then.” Needless to say, we never heard from PK when the Topic LP came out.
2. When I visited the Appalachian singer Clarice Shelor in Virginia in 1980, I was asked if I knew PK. I said yes, and was told that Peter had previously visited Clarice, spending no more than 20 minutes with her, during which time he managed to record a few songs. Peter had said that he was late for an appointment, hence the hurry, and that he would return the following day. “But he never came back. I wonder what happened to those recordings?” I just did not have the heart to tell Clarice - a lovely lady, by the way - that the recordings were then available, to buy, on one of PK’s Folktrax cassettes.
3. When I began to collect in south-east England, I soon came to expect the question, “Do you know Peter Kennedy?” and I soon realised that a positive answer was not necessarily a good thing. I lost track of the number of English singers who had been recorded by him and who had heard no more from him.
4. Kenneth Goldstein sent PK copies of some recordings made by the American collector George Carpenter. These were sent as a present and clearly marked for his own use only. These were promptly issued by Kennedy as two Folktrax cassettes - but withdrawn when Kenny got to hear of this. Kenny was livid. (Told to me by Kenny Goldstein).
5. PK always carried a one-page contract form with him, that he would have singers sign, once he had recorded them. He told me that the idea came from Alan Lomax, who always used such a form.
6. I’m quite certain that many of the Scottish songs issued by PK on Folktrax cassettes were issued illegally. Take, for example, the Jean Elvin songs recorded for the BBC by Seamus Ennis. These were issued as part of a Folktrax cassette. I have issued a Jean Elvin song on Kyloe (a Hamish Henderson recording) and when I contacted Jean’s family was not surprised to learn that they had no idea that the songs had been issued by PK. He also issued material by Willie Mathieson; again, when I contacted the family, they had no knowledge of these recordings being issued. (Recordings not made by PK, I should add).
I recall that Kennedy objected to Topic using ‘his’ BBC recordings for Vol.19 of Topic's VoP series. He demanded payment and Topic finally agreed to pay him, so that the set could appear. I believe that Kennedy was the only collector that Topic paid for use of material for the series.
I could go on, but really would just be repeating the same sort of thing over and over.
‘One thing I want to bring to your notice, Peter Kennedy has done to Lucy (Stewart) what he did to John McDonald - got her under contract at two guineas for THREE songs. And again there is a ten-year clause. Perhaps you could let me know what you think of this. I told Lucy I would consult you and let her know what you thought. To me, two guineas does not seem a lot for three songs especially with this ten-year clause.’
From The Armstrong Nose - Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson Edinburgh, 1996. p.101.
Letter to HH from Arthur Argo.
I have no doubt whatever that Peter Kennedy did a great deal of good with his work in the 1950s in collecting singers and musicians, though it is often forgotten that there were others involved: Bob Copper, Seamus Ennis and Sean O'Boyle for instance. I once asked Ennis how he felt about Kennedy; his reply was unrepeatable.
What is highly debatable in my mind is whether that good has been outweighed by the harm caused by his insensitivity (verging on contempt) for his informants and also for fellow researchers.
His behavior in getting informants to sign over the rights to their songs (even, in some cases, to songs they may remember in the future) has left a sour taste in the mouth, certainly here in Ireland and I am sure elsewhere in these islands. These agreements are not worth the paper they are written on, but the people he was dealing with were not to know that. He also asked a number of his singers never to sing for anybody else.
His marketing of those recordings without payment, without consent and often without the knowledge of the singers concerned was inexcusable. As well as showing a total contempt towards the singers and musicians concerned these actions have caused problems for many people who tried to follow up the work who often were met with hostility, which lost us a great deal of invaluable material and information. It must be remembered that these trips were little short of head-hunting forays and that in many cases the singers were never re-visited.
Kennedy's insensitivity was summed for me by his Folk Songs of Britain themed series where throughout the albums he dubbed accompaniments and choruses onto field recordings. Had they been in any way skillfully done it would have been like painting a beard and moustache on the Mona Lisa, however, some of them were so inept it was like using a spray-can to do the job (can you imagine an appalling fiddle accompaniment dubbed onto the singing of one of Ire land's best fiddlers!)
I believe when somebody investigated the idea of releasing albums of Harry Cox, one of his conditions was that accompaniments should be added.
A friend of mine, a collector, once sent him a set of recordings of a very important ballad singer - just for his own interest. The recordings made their way into his catalogue and, despite decades of requests to remove them, they are still available. The collector had donated the proceeds of the recordings to a Traveller children's education programme - which of course never saw a penny.
His recording of The Bald Headed End of the Broom, advertised by him on Folktrax without our permission, was recorded illegally by him from a playing of our LP, The Dunmow Flitch, sfa 106, on BBC folk on two.
I see that Folktrax have got a recording of two programmes from a series I wrote and presented for Radio 2, Voices from Arcadia [cited as 'Voices of Arcadia' CASS-1284] listed on their site.
As far as the general subject of collectors and recompense to singers is concerned, if you've not already seen it, you might like to know about this quote in a footnote from Herschel Gower's article, Analyzing the Revival:
The Influence of Jeannie Robertson, in James Porter, ed., The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore & Mythology, University of California, 1983, p.147 - 8: ‘She [Jeannie Robertson] was 48 when the first LP was issued. It, along with the dozen records which followed, brought scant returns in royalties. Her club appearances netted her fees that were usually low. After ten years she began, quite rightly, to feel exploited. Through the efforts of Norman Buchan she was awarded the M.B.E. on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday by the Queen and received it at Buckingham Palace. The Scottish Home Service of the BBC honored her in June of that year with a program, "Oor Jeannie," produced by Arthur Argo (great-grandson of the folksong collector Gavin Greig), who was responsible for many of her folk club engagements.’It's also worth noting that her first album was felt to need a guitar accompaniment if it was to be 'commercially attractive'. Because Jeannie wasn't used to accompaniment 'Things did not go well. But the problem was finally solved "backstage" when the producer put Josh in the cupboard with a mike and earphones and closed the door on him while Jeannie sang outside, unfettered.' Gower quoting an interview with Norman Buchan, p.136.
Given the huge numbers of people who came to her house and enjoyed her hospitality, I wonder if an MBE and Radio Scotland programme should be counted as suitable recompense for a family with the Robertson's level of income?
And I've just come across this piece of self-righteousness in the Folktrax catalogue:
... FTX-123, extracts of studio recs with complete original field recordings (from which Steeleye's versions were lifted without permission, credit or acknowledgement including the original singers mistakes and wrong words when recorded) ...
Fact. Under the royalty agreements which Kennedy drew up, 50% was split between ‘our informants, collectors, authors and arrangers’, and the remaining 50% was claimed by Kennedy. Source. Folk Review. March 1974.
Fact. When Geoff Wallis asked Kennedy for permission to use some recordings for a non-profit making CD, Kennedy asked him for 75% of the retail price! Source. This thread. NB., I have seen the correspondence Geoff refers to. I have also seen Kennedy's grovelling response when Geoff pointed out that the recordings were almost out of copyright and would shortly be available at a much less extortionate rate elsewhere.
Fact. The collector, Tom Munnelly once sent a tape of the singer, John Reilly to Kennedy for interest purposes only. Without consulting Munnelly or Reilly, and without paying a red cent in royalties, Kennedy published the tape in Folktrax. Source. The IRTRAD_L discussion board.
Fact. In 1979, Keith Summers attempted to record Maggie Murphy of Tempo, Fermanagh. (She had previously been recorded by Kennedy when she was still Maggie Chambers.) She was extremely reluctant, saying that Kennedy had got her to sign "a piece of paper", assigning not only the songs he had recorded from her but any she might remember in the future. Source. A lecture which Keith gave in Hermitage, Berkshire, in May 1984.
PK's commercial exploitation of Tom Munnelly's tapes of John Reilly was simply fraudulent, and about that there can be no doubt. But he did exactly the same thing with James Foley's recordings of the Tyrone singer John Corry.
I was once in contact with Albert Brazil, out in Wisbeach, and traced a recording he said he (aged nine), and his sisters Maud and Angela, had made with Hamish Henderson, who kindly sent me a tape of that particular session in Blairgowrie. Albert and his sisters had certainly received nothing, not even a copy of the tape. I later found that some of that session was included on a Folktrax cassette (Tam Buie - 60-183) and wrote of this to Hamish. He expressed surprise as he had never given Kennedy permission to use this material.
David A Stacey
A friend of Douglas Kennedy's, the Cheshire folklorist Arnold Boyd, invited Douglas to Cheshire during the 1950's to make a film of the performance of the Halloween drama Soul Caking. Douglas took Peter along to make the recording on film and tape, and Arnold Boyd footed part of the bill for the film stock, the Kennedys the other. Arnold persuaded the Antrobus Soulcakers, members of a small number of families who had been the custodians of the tradition for some time, that it was important to make the film. This went against their tradition of secrecy and it was also done at a time when the average employer did not agree with employees taking time off work to be filmed doing the strange things they were involved in, and one of the men lost his job as a reslt. So the film was a touchy matter amongst the Soul Cakers, and they entered into a lengthy correspondence with Peter in the following years. He stated several times that the film would cost so much to get into final form - matching the soundtrack to the pictures and making prints - that he could not afford to do anything with it.
Again in the 1950s, Peter shot a film of the Minehead May celebrations. In 1983 he rang up the Minehead men and asked them to let him make a video film of their custom. They thought about this and said no.
Some time during the summer of 1983, Peter passed through the village of Antrobus in Cheshire and left a Folktrax brochure with the Postmaster there. It offered for sale videos of both the Antrobus and the Minehead films.
Both the Antrobus and the Minehead men eventually had sight of this brochure, and both were furious. Both teams of traditional performers were prepared to go to law to stop the videos being marketed; the Antrobus men because of their long correspondence about the film and the Minehead men because they collect for charity and had in any case said no to the proposed marketing.
Excerpted from the Northwest Oral History Society Newsletter - Feb 1984.
my thanks to Ron Shuttleworth for this information.
In conclusion then, it would appear that nothing I wrote in Enthusiasm 53 was inaccurate or biased - beyond the fact that it was intentionally negative, intending to balance the primarily positive comments in the media at that time, as befitted the 'obituary' type of writing which followed closely upon Peter's death.
Peter Kennedy's archive will now be properly conserved, and his recordings will soon be widely available, with appropriate contextual booklets which will treat the performers with the respect they deserved ... and did not receive in their lifetimes. The worth of what he recorded will be there for everyone to see, and to study.
I do not believe that it is in anybody's long-term interest that a false and misleading account of one of this country's foremost collectors and innovators should come to be accepted as the whole story. Peter Kennedy was a normal human being - with faults as well as virtues. We would do well to remember this - and to realise that he was not the only prominent figure in this genre to leave a rather mixed legacy.
Rod Stradling - 8.2.08