[From Manx Quarterly #6, 1909]



In connection with the Manx Music held at the Palace on March 24th, and 25th, Dr. James Lyon, of Liverpool, delivered the following lecture on Manx Folk Song: —

Dr Lyon said: Ladies and gentlemen, this lecture is going to take half an hour in delivery, and I hope you won't find it dull. About a fortnight ago I was at a lecture, along with a friend of mine who is by way of being a wag. We sat together, and I closed my eyes during the lecture, which was something like this one is going to be, and tried intently to follow what was being said. He said, " Old man, I do envy you." I asked why. He said, " I can't sleep!" (laughter). I hope you will be something like that. I intended this lecture not to be too heavy, and I had got together for you some of the humorous experiences which fall to most collectors. But before trying them on you, I thought I would try one or two of my friends with these jokes. They looked so absolutely astonished that I decided not to treat this audience to them, and so I am going to try to be serious for a little while. To read a paper on the Folk Songs of Man in the Isle of Man itself, seems to me rather like " carrying coals to Newcastle." But I hope that what little I am going to say on the subject will not prove altogether uninteresting or unfruitful. Before I begin, just let me make two little apologies. Firstly: it isn't my fault that I am here to inflict my pet hobby on you — you must blame the committee of this Festival, and its energetic — its terribly energetic — Secretary! I'm fairly energetic myself; consequently when I received a wire from Mrs Laughton asking me if a short lecture on Folk Song were feasible, I immediately, with a view to keeping up my reputation as an energetic man, wired "Yes V' — and here I am. Secondly: you would rather expect that the man to read a paper on Manx Folk Song would himself be a Manxman — well versed in the language and customs of his people. Now, I don'ts at present understand the language; but it isn't too late, and as I am learning it, I shall probably know the elements of it an soon as some of you people — in about another ten years' time. Your customs I do know something about. Since I have been here I have been continually chaffed about my age; but it is 25 years since I paid my first visit to the Island, and, with about two exceptions, I have been here every year since. Each time I have been, my object has been to "sneak " one or two of your fine old songs for my collection. In my early days I did it because it was my hobby; now I do it because to me it is absolutely necessary. Again, through no fault of mine, I am not a Manxman. However, I have a real love for all folk song, but more especially that belonging to the Isle of Man — it is still my great hobby. By folk songs I mean national songs — I am not referring to your "carvals," or carols, but to your national songs proper. My object in saying a few words on the subject to-day is in the hope that I may impart my own enthusiasm to, at any rate, a few of you here present. Now, please don't think that what I am going to say is hard on you. It seems to me that the old saying, " A prophet has no honour save in his own country and among his own kin," might well be applied to Manx Folk Song. There are some who are interested and enthusiastic on the subject, but they are few and far between. I tell you it is the duty of Manx men and women of to-day to save their country's song for future generations, and it is a duty you must face at once, for every year — yea, every month — makes the task more difficult. I. am quite aware of the volumes already collected and published; but I am convinced, from what I myself have heard in the country districts, that there is much more of your real, beautiful, and native music still awaiting a collector. I daresay most of you know that a collector's task is nowadays by no means an easy one, for there are few people who still stick to the fine old songs of their forefathers — they are much too occupied with modern comic opera or the latest music hall song, or coon song, or, in fact, anything that is written in what they call "rag-time." You'll scarcely believe me when I tell you that even in these enlightened days I have heard such songs as " My Grandfather's Clock" and "Little Annie Rooney" referred to as folk songs (laughter). I can assure you that if you were to go into some districts — in England, at any rate — and asked a likely person to sing an old song to you — (something he had heard his father or grandfather sing) — he would either treat you with contempt and absolutely refuse point blank — and none too politely either — or he would be so elated that he would want to show you how much he could do, and you would be just as likely to get " Put me amongst the girls" as anything else (laughter). So you see, it is time to get hold of these national songs before their place is taken by the absurd ditties of to-day, and they are lost for ever. There's another difficulty. It is this. Whenever one is fortunate enough to get a person to sing some old folk songs, that person is almost certain to interpolate something of his own — to make it sound "better," in his opinion — so that one has to hear a single folk tune many times before being able to decide, even approximately, what the real notes should be. And you will find also that if a song has, say, three verses, each verse will be sung differently — and not only differently as regards the notes, but whole phrases will be altered — simply to suit the singer's taste at that particular moment. As an illustration of this, let me tell you a story of Madame Lineff. She was collecting folk songs in Russia, and wishing to check what had been written down during the singing, she asked an old man to " tell " the song once again. He began. When he came to the word corresponding to the English word "bridle," he got clean away, and began enumerating and explaining all the parts of a peasant's harness, doing this in a kind of blank verse in the style of the song. She asked, " How is that, father — that is not in the song? You sang one thing, and now you are telling another." The old man replied, " Wait, wait — let me tell you everything properly. You are only a woman. How can you know all about harness!" (laughter). This sort of thing is encountered by all collectors. Now, wouldn't it be a good thing if you could have an " authorised version " of your folk songs introduced into all your schools, and let the pupils have what I could call a "sing-song" of folk tunes — say for one hour each week? (applause). Let me tell you a story about Mr Dooley — I daresay some of you have read his sayings. He went to a performance of Richard Strauss's "Salome" — "Salomee," as he called it — and when he got back he met his friend Mr Hennessey, and asked him if he knew anything about Salome. Hennessey replied that he didn't. "Well, Hinnissy," said Mr Dooley, " it's by a German musician by the name of Strauss. They tell me it's taken from the Bible, but I'm afraid if they tried to put it back they would find it hardly fit. You know, Hinnissy, there's very little of it you might whistle, but some of it you might cough (laughter). All the time I was listenin' to it, it struck me I was in a dentist's chair having a bad tooth stopped by a plumber's assistant" (laughter). Before I proceed to give further suggestions, may I just deal very briefly with Folk Song in general? In a recently published volume of "Peasant Songs of Great Russia," Madame Lineff begins her introduction with this paragraph: — " The importance of studying the records of the creative activity of a people has been recognised long ago. Their value is very great. They supply to life what an individual might call " folk song echoes." Look at his 4th Symphony and you will see what I mean. Surely what folk song can do for one country it can do for another! It has done much for England, for Scotland, for Ireland, for Wales, and for many continental countries; and why should it not help forward the development of music in this Island? It will do so if you'll give it a chance. But there is no time to waste — if you would save what still remains to be saved, you must set to at once. I have no doubt that many of you think, " Oh ! yes, this is all very nice in theory, but how are we to set to work?" Well, I'll make a suggestion. Wouldn't it be possible to form a Folk Song Committee, with representatives in various parts of the Island? These representatives should be constantly on the lookout for any person likely to be able to sing an old song. Once you get your singer, the rest is easy. All you want then is a little tact — and a phonograph, and when you have finished, your cylinder will contain a faithful reproduction. This cylinder could then be sent up to the committee, who would, no doubt, submit it to a musical expert, who, in his turn, would say whether it was worthy of a place in the collection or not. But the first thing to be done is to form a committee of enthusiastic man and women — not only enthusiastic themselves, but capable of exciting enthusiasm wherever they go. As soon as that is done, you will be able to set to work and, as I said a moment ago, save what remains to be saved of your country's music for future generations (applause). Ladies and gentlemen, in the short time I have had at my disposal, it has been, of course, quite impossible to go into too much detail. All I hope is that you will become — some of you, at any rate — enthusiasts on the subject of your own national song — which compares most favourably with that of any other nation. I hope, too, that before long we will see published a collection of fine old Manx folk songs for use in the schools and elsewhere (loud applause).


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