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   Volume II, Issue 3
February 2006   

Falvey presents “"Sing a Song: A Celebration of Traditional Music of Ireland and Elsewhere in Print”

by Maureen McKew

Lewis Becker

Lewis Becker

Ever since being captivated at a concert by the Clancy Brothers more than 40 years ago, Professor Lewis Becker of the Villanova University School of Law has been amassing an impressive collection of traditional Irish and other music in print. He has graciously lent a part of the collection to Falvey Memorial Library for a special exhibit, beginning March 13 and running through April 27. The exhibit is free and open to the public.  

Becker himself will host a preview of the exhibit on March 13 at 7 p.m. at the Library and talk about how he began - and has never stopped - amassing this collection which contains many unusual items. He said he was delighted to share parts of his collection with Villanova. Of particular interest to Villanovans are a broadside and a songster containing songs which grew out of the virulently anti-Irish, nativist riots in Philadelphia in 1844 which resulted in the burning of St. Augustine’s Church and the subsequent growth of Villanova College. 

To open the exhibit officially on March 16, folklorist Mick Moloney will give a talk on traditional Irish music with its origins and themes, as well as on the Becker collection. A fiddler will be present to illustrate the lecture points in song. The talk will begin at 7 p.m. 

Mick Moloney is the author of Far From the Shamrock Shore: The story of Irish American History through Song (Crown Publications, 2002). He holds a doctorate in folklore and folk life from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown and Villanova Universities, and at New York University.  

On April 6, beginning at 7 p.m., another event, reflecting the theme and components of the exhibit, will bring to Villanova two musicians with very interesting credentials. Professor David Caudill is the Arthur M. Goldberg Family Chair in Law at the Villanova School of Law and Richard H. Swain, director of library services at the Francis Harvey Green Library of West Chester University. Both sing and play various instruments.

The Becker exhibit illustrates high points in the history of the collection and transmission of traditional and popular music. For the purpose of the exhibit, traditional music is defined as that which has been handed down over generations, usually orally. Popular music refers to songs of a more temporal nature, which have identifiable composers and which are commercial for commercial purposes. 

The exhibit has been divided in several sub-themes:  

--The unity between political events and origins of songs

--The beginnings of academic collections of folksongs, beginning with Thomas Percy, an 18th century bishop of the Church of  Ireland, who rescued a manuscript from his fireplace

--Non-academic development and transmission of popular songs on broadsides, which were single-page, illustrated sheets

--The collecting of songs in the 19th century

--American songsters

--Traditional song in Ireland and the work of the folksong societies

--The literary and political influence, as seen in part through the “national” songs of Ireland

--The role of Harvard professor Francis Child, who collected English and Scottish ballads, and England’s Cecil Sharp, who came to America and collected the songs of the Appalachian settlers, which descended from English ballads

--Traditional music and musical instruments

--African American songs

--Captain Francis O’Neill (1848-1936), the chief of police in Chicago and an avid bagpiper and tune collector, who published several volumes on Irish traditional tunes

--The spoken word: stories, dialects and Celtic cultures

Clancy Brothers inspired the collection    

Book cover of Irish Minstrels and Musicians

Becker, who is in his 34th year of teaching at the law school, is a graduate of Temple University and of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He first became aware of Irish music when he heard the Clancy Brothers performing on Sunday morning television in the late 1950s. “I bought their albums,” he recalled. “Then I gradually learned there were more traditional versions of the songs they sang. At some point, I started to collect folk music books. My main interests are English, Irish and Scottish music, folklore – Irish in particular.” 

The Irish culture appeals to Becker for many reasons. As a Jewish person, he sees some similarities to the Jewish experience. “In the Irish you had people who were persecuted for their religion, unable to practice their religion, who were the subjects of social discrimination, economic discrimination, and vicious stereotypes, people who were unable to have political control of their country, but who fought against these obstacles and overcame them.” Becker also claims that he may be the only person in the Philadelphia area who subscribes to both The Jewish Exponent and The Irish Edition. 

Becker is fascinated by the romanticism of the songs. As he noted in the exhibit catalog, there are many poems written by Irish writers along a nationalistic theme. These were set to music and became widely sung. He considers these a particularly strong feature of Irish music. “These are songs that roll out of a difficult political and economic environment; they continued to be sung for hundreds of years.” 

The song books of Captain Francis O’Neill, who was a police chief in Chicago between 1901 and 1905, are great favorites of Becker, who owns a first edition of some of them. He believes some of them are still in print. “Captain O’Neill was an Irish bagpiper, who traveled to many places before settling in Chicago and joining the police department,” Becker explained. “It was said that if a man played the bagpipes well, he could find a job in the Chicago police department. In fact, there’s a letter in the exhibit, published by the Folksong Society journal. O’Neill wrote in the letter that in America, as opposed to Ireland, traditional musicians were well employed: they had good jobs and pensions. Of course, they probably all worked for the Chicago police department.”

 Another favorite of Becker’s is The Rising of the Moon and Other Poems by John Keegan Casey. He died on St. Patrick’s Day of 1870 at the age of 23, earlier having spent time in prison as a Fenian. There’s a faint inscription in the book: “To my friend from the author, 20 July 1869.” The title poem was later set to music. Only two books of Casey’s poems were published in his lifetime, which makes Becker’s copy one of a rare few.   

Becker generally obtains his books from dealers’ catalogs or a site on the web called abebooks.com However, he also has had good fortune with EBay. “Really amazing stuff shows up on EBay. I just won something called An Irish Emigrant’s Guide to the United States, written by a Father O’Hanlon and published in Boston in 1851. I am really looking forward to receiving it.” 

"Sing a Song: A Celebration of Traditional Music of Ireland and Elsewhere in Print” was organized by special collections librarians Bente Polites and Michael Foight, with graphic design by Lorraine Gallagher-Williams and Bernadette Dierkes, Creative Design department.  

We are grateful for permission to republish this article which originally appeared in Blueprints, February 2006. Maureen McKew is the assistant director, Office of Communication and Public Affairs.  Photography by John Welsh and Bernadette Dierkes