Eddie Butcher

All the Days of His Life
Eddie Butcher in His Own Words
Songs, Stories and Memories of Magilligan, Co Derry
Hugh & Lisa Shields, eds.

Book + 3 CDS, Irish Traditional Music Archive. ISBN 978-0953270446

Nancy’s whiskey;  Green grows the laurel & so falls the dew;  Dandy Mick McCloskey;  My son in America;  The green veil;  The flower of Corby mill;  The smuggler;  The hiring day;  John Gaynor;  Glenshee;  The lowlands low;  Oh, the marriage, the marriage;  Skewball;  I’ll climb up a high high tree;  Mary Ackland;  The Bureau;  Ann Jane Thornton;  Sally & Johnny;  Barbara Allen;  Our wedding day;  The maid of Faughanvale;  I am a youth;  The Shamrock Shore;  The new Mallard bar;  The pisspot;  It is now for New England;  Easy-gaan Tom;  The weary gallows;  Katey of Ballinamore;  I wish that the war was o’er;  The cricket club & ball;  The walling of the men;  Come all you fair maids;  The English harvest;  The Drogheda festival;  Down the moor;  Lanigan's ball;  Green grows the laurel & so does the rue;  Baltimore;  The concrete mile;  The bonny Irish boy;  The Longfield bank;  The brisk young butcher;  The parochial house;  In Connaught I was reared;  The Point fair;  The Castle maid;  The jacket so blue;  Magilligan Gaelic team;  Johnny & Molly;  The anglers on the Roe;  The very first night;  The burning of Downhill castle;  Benevenagh surrounded in snow;  When the storm swept the countryside;  Boyne water;  Until the morning;  The cuckoo’s nest;  The wind & the rain;  Take hault o that man’s hand;  Drawing buckets of water;  My aunt Jane;  My aunt Biddy;  I have a wee dog;  The Roe bridge;  The Myroe floods;  In the county Exeter.
Cover picture This beautiful book, together with the three CDs of Eddie Butcher's singing, is a testament to the great esteem in which he is still held within the ranks of the Irish traditional singing fraternity.  For Eddie was a 'source' singer; a man with an exceptional memory for the songs he heard around him in North Derry and from whom many a better known performer obtained songs heard nowhere else.

Hugh Shields, as a young teacher from Belfast, first met Eddie in the Mallard Bar in 1953 and their musical friendship remained solid for the rest of Eddie's life.  Throughout those twenty-seven years, Hugh regularly visited Eddie - and these 67 field recordings provide a glowing representation of the man and his earthy, natural approach to songs and to life.

Eddie did not set out deliberately to become a traditional singer yet he is considered by many to be the 'sound' of the north Derry tradition.  Here was a man who grew up, lived and worked in the Magilligan area, only venturing as far as Dublin on three occasions, and once to a singing festival in Drogheda - an event so exciting that he lovingly recaptured the details in one of the tracks here, 'The Drogheda Festival'.

There is no pretence, nothing synthetic, in these songs.  Eddie shared them with great delight but he did not try to change them into different creatures before setting them free.  It is his voice, his accent and the surroundings in which he sang them that make these performances so unique.  For Eddie sings in a way that makes the songs accessible to everyone.  They are, for the most part, bare of the fireworks of ornamentation, providing a soundscape to a life lived in the 20th century, yet remaining attached to one small pocket of a green island.

All the Days of his Life has been edited by Hugh Shields' wife, Lisa, and it contains not only the words and music to the 67 songs on the accompanying CDs, but also many other little stories, jokes and snippets of conversation from Eddie.  I loved the story of the two boys visiting - one wearing a wristwatch to impress the maid of the house, the other hearing the ticking and whispering, "There's a moose at your fadge".  Now that is the kind of joke my own mother would have giggled at for hours.  I guessed, obviously, that the 'moose' in question was a mouse - but not until I looked at the Glossary did I realise that 'fadge' was potato bread.  Many other unique terms are explained there, most of them crucial to a full understanding of a song.  An example is 'The Walling of the Men' - walling being choosing.  Not at all what I had imagined at first.

If I have one reservation about the glossary - and indeed much of the book - it is that, because of Eddie's rich accent and dialect, many of the words on the page have been written phonetically.  Thus we have 'caley house' for ceilidh house; 'coren' for corn; and even 'All in the bloom-me of my youth and de-prime…' for - well, I think you get the picture by now.  As I listened, song after song, Eddie's words became second nature and I am sure the majority of singers would have no problem at all following their meaning.  The drawback with writing phonetically is that one man's phonetics are another man's fanatics!

All abbreviations are thoroughly explained, so EB6907, for example, beside the ballad 'Ann Jane Thornton', tells us that this is Eddie, recorded on a Uher two-track recorder between July 1966 and June 1983.  It goes on to tell where the originals now lodge.

The notes accompanying the printed songs are often enlightening.  I was delighted to read that Hugh Shields had been so impressed by Eddie's insistence that the actual Ann Jane Thornton (who inspired the ballad of the same name) had been seen walking through the streets of Derry, that he searched for corn mills in the vicinity in the hope of discovering Ann's family home - and even went so far as to put a notice in the Donegal Democrat - before realising that older versions of the ballad had originally come from Gloucestershire.  There are songs that take charge of their own destiny - and this one definitely made a break for freedom.  Great singing and a mighty ballad.

Sally and Johnny is a song in the same genre as The Banks of the Nile, but immeasurably brightened throughout by the oblivious gurglings of an incredibly cheerful baby, who seems at times to be joining with the singing.  For me, this is recording at its best.  It is so human, so approachable.  A man sits in his own kitchen and sings.

The Weary Gallows is a rousing story set in Derry gaol c.1929 and, according to Shields, 'typically Irish', although to my ears it sounds more typically English.  (The story is the same as The Prickle-Eye Bush, as recently - and magnificently - performed by Spiers and Boden).  Who knows?  Versions of this ballad exist in Iceland, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Germany and Lithuania!  Originally it would have been a girl who needed to be rescued; and it may even have been inspired by a fairy story called The Golden Ball.  An English fairy story!  … er … possibly.  For if I change one word of a traditional song in performance, I merely continue a trend that has been happening for centuries.  Which is why this collection of recordings is so relevant; Eddie having learned much of his repertoire from his own father, the link with voices long gone is impressive and moving.

Another highlight is The Maid of Faughanvale, written by Eddie, with its wide-ranging melody, beautiful rhymes, 'Flora's flowery mantles' bespangling every dale and, ultimately, a 'broken-hearted lover on the shores of Faughanvale'.  Eddie suggests that he put this song together from a fragment of his own, more from Joe Holmes, and another verse or two 'frae another yin' - but the result is joyous. 

There are folk who demand absolute obedience from those to whom they pass on their songs.  I enjoyed Eddie's comment that, 'I have lots of people coming to me looking for singing, and take them sometimes on tape.  When I ask them to sing them to me again it is not the same song at all'.  Indeed.  The unknown individual who first penned The Maid of Faughanvale might think the same - and yet be delighted at its transformation.

As a singer myself, I was ticking off which songs I might possibly attempt to learn while I listened to all of these CDs.  Occasionally I was surprised to recognise a few lines I had only ever associated with other singers - for example, the verse of I Am a Youth That's Inclined to Ramble, later sung so memorably by Paul Brady - but it was while I was listening to the third CD that I had the warmest, most compelling experience of all.  Drawing Buckets of Water is only a tiny children's rhyme - yet out of nowhere came a clear memory of my own mother dandling various ones of us on her knee as she chanted the same words.  This I had completely forgotten, but Eddie's gruff rendition brought Kitty Fahy back to life, lifting and swinging her small children as they all laughed and called for more.  Brilliant.

Hugh Shields has done sterling work in notating the songs and ten pages of his original handwritten manuscripts are included towards the end of the book.  These remind me of a code I've used myself when learning a song from a singer I admire.  For example, a zigzag - and the size of the zigzag - can give an indication of a place where ornamentation was used effectively.  But for the purposes of this wonderful tribute to Eddie's life and songs I am pleased to see that Hugh's painstaking versions - some including all the tiniest variations of melody sung by Eddie between different verses - have been replaced by the basic words and airs.  These, accompanied by the recordings, are all that a singer needs.  There would be no creativity at all if we were expected to learn folk songs entirely by rote.

Among the best traditional Irish musicians there is an expectation that each repeat of a melody, or part of a melody, should vary in some way each time it is heard.  This is what makes the music sound so alive, so present tense-y.  And the same goes for traditional singing.  It is these indescribable, spontaneous initiatives of melody or rhythm that keep the listening ears absorbed and bring the true poetry of the words to our hearts.  They are not necessarily to be repeated the same way at their next airing.  Or ever.

Eddie was not a purist.  He presented his songs in the sturdy, earthy Magilligan style and although many came from his father, but he was just as happy to learn from anyone else.  He could not always give details of the ancestry of the songs he sang - not because his memory failed him but because he was simply more interested in the songs themselves.  Len Graham tells us here of Eddie singing a Country and Western song in November 1980, only a few nights before he died.  For Eddie loved singing.  He did not deliberately limit his repertoire to a certain 'type' of song.  He did not decide to be traditional.  But he lived in a place largely unruffled by the events of the outside world, so we can be confident that the songs he sings here, we would hear in other Macgilligan voices, were we able to go back in time.  His ancestors, their friends and Eddie too, are with us again if we but listen.

Old Songs In Ulster, Hugh Shields, 1992 - a previously unpublished essay, is included in this book as an appendix.

This twenty-eight page section of the book is filled with detail and also with one of the best explanations I have ever read of what exactly it is that separates the Irish 'ballad' from the English: 'Whereas the (English) ballad gives an orderly sequence of events, the Gaelic song works on allusions that invite the uninformed listener to the simple song to ask to know more'.

Hugh Shields explains that the singer of an Irish ballad would know the background to the story in the song, but that they would offer this in speech, either before or after their rendition.  Listeners would not have expected all the answers to be contained within the stanzas.

A fascinating example is quoted from a famous Irish ballad called Seamus MacMurchaidh, telling the tale of a Robin Hood type outlaw enticed into the King's castle - where he is trapped and executed by the king's daughter.  On the gallows, our hero makes one final call to his love:

But this simple verse provides but a poetic façade to the outlaw's real intentions, as he takes his revenge, managing to 'bite the half of her lip off.  He left her with a mark forever.' Joe McCafferty from Cloghaneely, Co Donegal, is the seanachaí (storyteller) on this occasion, ensuring that we now hear in the innocent lines a far darker, more ominous message.  And a warning perhaps to those who may have been toying with the idea of leading someone to their doom and then escaping scot free!

Shields discusses work songs in this essay.  He includes an entire lilt - every last syllable lovingly transcribed - yet I have to disagree with his assertion that lilting cannot be considered a specialist 'skill' (p.157).  Of course anyone who can sing could lilt, but it requires a freedom, a spontaneity and sheer spark with which, I am afraid, not all traditional singers are blessed!

In his discussions of work songs, Shields makes interesting observations and gives particular mention to the girls of the Belfast linen mills.  But these are very general comments.

Excellent photographs of such characters as Geordie Hanna, Robert Cinnamond and John Kennedy illustrate this section of the book and it is filled with Hugh Shields' particular 'take' on the traditional singing of Ulster, making it a fascinating and informative read for all fans of the songs and their style.

Marianne McAleer - 24.12.11

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 24.12.11