Legendary uilleann piper, music collector, storyteller, broadcaster, loner and enigma Séamus Ennis (1919-82) made only two albums in the Swinging Sixties, one at either end. The one from 1969 has never been reissued in the CD or download era (the original label was bought by a man who disliked the digital medium). Can we let this lack of access to the man’s finest 40 minute snapshot continue? Of course not! I’ve digitised the album this afternoon. Below is an extract from ‘The Wheels of the World’ (Jawbone Press, 2015) about it. Set aside that amount of time, make a cup of tea and listen to one of the greats in what is more or less a podcast from 50 years ago… 🙂
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Barring his by-default appearance on one of the torrent of 1964 Newport Festival live albums, Séamus Ennis managed to traverse the 1960s – between 1961’s Ceol, Scéalta Agus Amhráin and 1969 – without enhancing his discography. It might have been otherwise. In February 1968, a former BBC colleague, H. Rooney Pelletier, newly appointed General Manager of BBC Radio Enterprises, wrote to Séamus offering to release an LP culled from his 1958 piping session for the Permanent Library. His letter, sent to Séamus at 3 Home Farm Park, Dublin 9, was returned by the current occupants with the news that Séamus had left the address in 1965. Pelletier then wrote to him c/o Donoghue’s pub, but his offer went apparently unanswered, and consequently no such record appeared.
Before the end of 1969, Bill Leader had decided to pretend he had some money and to put it where his mouth was. Launching a binary star of labels, Leader and Trailer, he was going to record the best of ‘traditional’ and ‘revival’ artists, and in many cases give a chance to people who were falling between the cracks of Topic, Transatlantic and the other independents (such as the folk-rock friendly Island Records) that were emerging at the time. His first release on the Leader imprint would profile the English traditional singer Jack Elliott of Birtley. The second would feature a man he almost recorded in the 50s and who, to his British public, had all but disappeared by this point: Séamus Ennis.
As Bill puts it, he ‘wanted to produce some of the things that were happening around that seemed to be important’. An album by Séamus would be followed directly by albums featuring fiddler Martin Byrnes and flautist Séamus Tansey, all three releases entitled Masters Of Irish Music. Reg Hall would accompany the latter two on piano, but the Ennis record would be a glorious solo showcase.
Bill Leader: ‘I first met Séamus around 1957 or so, through Jean Jenkins, ethnomusicologist and political activist. Topic was going to record an LP of Séamus and Jean. It was to be an Irish/American song swap. The venture eventually fizzled out. It was early on in my career as producer/recorder/organiser, and I failed to keep up the impetus of the idea.
‘I next saw Séamus during a period when I made frequent trips to Dublin. It was in O’Donoghue’s. He was sitting at the bar, explaining that his doctor had told him that he must drink milk, which was why he was adding it to his vodka.’
An arrangement was made for Séamus to record in Bill’s flat at 5 North Villas, Camden Town, in July 1969. Bill’s flat had already birthed several great British folk revival records, and this one would equal any of them. It is Séamus’ greatest single recording – a magical mix of piping, songs and stories.
Bill Leader: ‘Séamus needed no direction, coaching or encouragement. He was fully professional – after all, he’d worked both for the BBC and Radio Éireann. So the session consisted of his playing, singing and storytelling.
‘We were trying to get a fairly total picture of the man. That’s the way I pretty well always worked. It got a bit difficult sometimes. I hadn’t realised early on that if you just let, [say], Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman record what they wanted to record, they would record what they had recorded for the last record company. Obviously, that’s what record companies wanted [they thought] – that particular song or that particular tune. But other than that, as a general principle, I just let the artist speak.
‘Interestingly, after the record’s release, we got an angry letter from Leeds demanding a refund on account of the fact that they didn’t buy folk records in order to get a load of talking.’
Séamus tied his recording trip in with an appearance at the Keele Folk Festival, July 11-13, and a booking at Rod Stradling’s strictly traditional club at the King’s Head, Islington, on July 16. ‘Séamus was a great hero of anyone interested in traditional music: singer, astonishing piper and a wonderful storyteller,’ remembered Rod. ‘That night, there were more people in the club room than you would believe possible!’
Reg Hall: ‘The interesting thing about that was that Ennis came and did what appeared to be a totally spontaneous show – absolutely wonderful – and he recorded the next day for Bill Leader, in Bill Leader’s house, and did exactly the same spontaneous show! So it was a rehearsal!’
More than 40 years later, the King’s Head Club’s 1968-70 run would be commemorated with a double CD release of selected amateur recordings from the venue. Of the four pieces from Séamus included, only one was not featured on Masters Of Irish Music. Bill Leader had hired a man with a camera to shoot Séamus at the recording session the following day, for the LP cover:
Bill Leader: ‘I hadn’t realised that this lad didn’t want to take posed pictures, but wanted to capture Séamus candidly. It was awkward, because he was waiting for a candid moment, while Séamus, for whom showbiz was not a strange occupation, was constantly moving into poses – he would actually interrupt his conversation at some point with his hands extended in such a way that most photographers would have given their eyeteeth to have taken the snap, and this fellow ignored him! So we ended up with a session with no pictures of Séamus.’
In the event, one of Rod Stradling’s imperfect but hugely atmospheric photos from the King’s Head (Reg Hall just behind Séamus with a pint in his hand) became the LP cover.
Séamus was certainly back in Dublin by October, when he recorded (at Radio Éireann) a by now rare commission for the BBC: writing, narrating and performing music as a 10-minute show based on East Anglian folk song, for a BBC Radio 4 regional opt-out. Not so much a comeback as an oddity. Five tracks – none of them repeating the Leader material – were also recorded in 1969 for a various-artists LP on Gael Linn, Seoda Ceoil 2 (‘Musical Treasures 2’).
‘Of late they write and speak of him as the Ard-Rí or high king of Irish pipers,’ wrote Séamus’ mother, purportedly, in the notes to the Leader LP. ‘Maybe he is. He grew a bit taller than any of our folks, on both sides.’
If all this activity gave the impression that Séamus’ career was in some way back on track, or at least moving purposefully towards something, it wasn’t reflected in his lifestyle. Somewhere between nomadic by choice and destitute, he spent some months around this time being looked after at Ted and Nora Furey’s house in Ballyfermot:
Finbar Furey: ‘My mother looked after him. He wouldn’t have had much back in those days. He was very sick. It was when we were with The Clancy Brothers – ’69, ’70, ’71. And he would have been there for six months or so, because he had no place else to go. He was an awful man for the drink, Séamus was. Most of the lads drank, you know, but trust me, Séamus … I think he had TB, I’m not sure. But I remember when he was as thin as a rake – Jesus, you’d be afraid to touch him in case you’d break him. My mother took him in for six months and minded him, [then] somebody else would take him in for six months and mind him.’
Paddy Glackin, a young fiddler who became close to Séamus from 1970 onwards, isn’t so sure that this seemingly chaotic lifestyle was due to alcohol. For, despite being dressed immaculately in a suit, Séamus Ennis was inherently far more of an outsider than the generation then coming to prominence in Ireland with outwardly bohemian traits like long hair and denim trousers:
Paddy Glackin: ‘I think it’s just that inability that a lot of artists have to get settled and to be content, to be able to be organised and have a normal life. And I think Séamus had that problem. He was different – that’s the only way I can put it. And people in the ‘establishment’ found that difference very, very difficult to deal with. And he found it, in turn, equally difficult to deal with. I think people understood that he was apart.’