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Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie’s Collection


In 1984 the National Sound Archive began to acquire, preserve and catalogue the collection of field recordings made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie. The end of 1998 saw the completion of the project with the acquisition of the remainder of the collection and a total of 581 open reel tapes dubbed to recordable compact disc and fully catalogued on the NSA automated system. The collection, made between 1966 and 1993, focuses on Irish and English traditional musicians, singers and storytellers. Of particular interest are the recordings of Irish musicians living in London, especially those of the travelling community with whom Jim and Pat developed a special relationship.

Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie were brought together by the icon of the British folk revival, Ewan MacColl. During the 1950s and 1960s, when Amercian folk music and skiffle were popular in English folk clubs, MacColl led a passionate campaign in support of indigenous folk song. Jim and Pat were both listening to jazz and blues at the time but, when they heard Ewan MacColl singing industrial ballads about British working people’s lives and emotions they were completely bowled over. They took up MacColl’s cause and joined The Critics, a collection of revival singers strongly influenced by MacColl and motivated by left-wing politics. Through their involvement with MacColl, Jim and Pat developed an interest in the sources of songs they were studying. They also studied traditional singers, many of whom did not necessarily regard the songs as pieces to be performed in front of a paying audience, but simply as an expression of their everyday lives or as links with their families and forebears.

In 1973, Jim and Pat heard a radio programme which featured Irish traveller Pops Johnny Connors, who sang about the eviction of travellers from a campsite in Birmingham. Jim and Pat were moved by the way he so clearly expressed the plight of travelling people and decided to track him down and hear more of his songs at first hand. Their initial meeting with Pops Johnny at a site under the flyover near Shepherds Bush in West London inspired a venture that was to completely take over their lives. They began recording songs and stories from other Irish travellers living in and around London, notably ‘Mikeen’ (little Michael) McCarthy who had an incredible repertoire of humorous tales about travelling life, and Mary Delaney who had been blind from birth and had sixteen children all of whom had survived.

In the same year Jim and Pat visited Ireland and, amongst the singers and musicians of Co. Clare, they discovered a healthy attitude towards indigenous music. They recorded songs and stories from the region around Miltown Malbay, including sessions at the Willie Clancy Summer School where they were struck not only by the technique of the musicians, such as fiddler Junior Crehan, but also by the emotional response of the audience to the music. Back in England they investigated the London Irish scene, interviewing immigrant Irish musicians about their feelings towards the music, the ways in which it had changed, and why its survival was important to them. They recorded reminiscences of country house dances and local customs from Tom McCarthy, an uilleann piper originally from West Clare, and thoughts on the current Irish music scene from fiddler Fergus McTeggart.

Although much of Jim and Pat’s collecting work focussed on Irish musicians, the most prolific singer that they encountered was an Englishman named Walter Pardon. Walter was born in 1914 and lived in the same cottage in the village of Knapton, in rural Norfolk, for the whole of his life. He had inherited an interest in old songs from his Uncle Billy and kept the songs alive because he loved them and felt that they were an important connection between himself and his family. He did not regard himself as a performer and was unused to singing in public until, during the seventies, he was visited by Peter Bellamy and Bill Leader who persuaded him to record some songs for an album ("A Proper Sort" Leader LED2111).

When Pat and Jim visited Norfolk in 1975 they were impressed by Walter’s repertoire, and in fact helped to increase it by encouraging Walter to recall songs he thought he’d completely forgotten. Walter also talked about local farm work, superstitions, the agricultural workers’ union, his childhood and his family. Recordings of background information from singers features highly in all of Jim and Pat’s work, setting the songs in a personal context and strengthening the relationship between recordist and performer. Pat and Jim maintained their friendship with Walter up to his death in 1996, after which they established The Walter Pardon Concert Fund, and it is with assistance from this fund that the NSA has been able to complete the conservation of the Walter Pardon recordings.

The Carroll/Mackenzie collection is a monumental body of work and contains material of tremendous value to singers, musicians, sociologists and anyone with an interest in the music traditions of Ireland and the UK. Jim and Pat themselves feel that these traditions in their ‘natural’ state have virtually disappeared, but their work will certainly serve to preserve what survives and will inspire performers for years to come. They have also found that collecting is a two-way stream. They feel their lives have been greatly enriched by the performers they have met and the music they’ve heard; at the same time the people they have recorded feel they have been encouraged to take a renewed pride in their music. Tom McCarthy says of Jim and Pat, "They have done more for the music than our own people, in a way", and Mikeen McCarthy agrees, "If it wasn’t for Jim and Pat, it would be all gone".

[The Carroll/Mackenzie collection (NSA number C13) is accessible through the NSA listening service.]

Clare Gilliam

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