MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada

MacEdward Leach - Fieldwork

MacEdward Leach (MUNFLA Photograph # P10701)

Much of MacEdward Leach's early fieldwork was carried out in the Southern mountain regions of the United States, as well as in the John Crow Mountains of Jamaica. Horace P. Beck, Leach's student and long-time partner in fieldwork, states that wherever he ventured he, "…was always one to ferret out the unique informant," relying on establishing contacts in the community, rather than procuring names of possible "good" informants from his academic colleagues.

All told, MacEdward Leach made four collecting trips to Atlantic Canada: the first was in 1950 to Cape Breton and Newfoundland (and is the focus of this website). The following year, 1951, he returned to Newfoundland, where he not only visited new communities, like Fermuse, Renews, Portugal Cove South, Biscay Bay, Trepassey, St. Shott's, Riverhead-St. Mary's, St. Catherine's, St. Vincent's, and Mal Bay, all of which are on the Avalon Peninsula, but also revisted some of the communities and even some of the singers from his first trip. Later, in 1960, he made a trip to the Labrador Coast.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Leach also had the opportunity to study some of the art and traditions of the Pennsylvania "Dutch." ("Dutch" in this case is a corruption of "Deutsch," the German word which means "German.") His interest in coordinating the efforts of amateur folklorists and members of these and other communities to collect folklore for a project called the Ethnic Survey resulted in the co-authoring with Henry Glassie of A Guide for Collectors of Oral Traditions and Folk Cultural Material in Pennsylvania (1968). The book provided suggestions and proscriptions for collecting, especially in rural areas. Leach's philosophy in fieldwork is evident in this work: he advises collectors to privilege the ancient item over the ephemeral and the archaic over the modern. This belief is not one that is widely held in the discipline of folklore today. It may be said, however, that Leach's emphasis on collecting contextual data did influence subsequent developments in fieldwork practices, ironically leading to a redefinition of "tradition" and " folklore" in the eyes of collectors.

"MacEdward Leach collected not tales or songs merely, but complete experiences of which tales and songs were a functional part; they were usually told with a bit of capricious humor as suits a person who has had many experiences and respects each without being overwhelmed by any" (Journal of American Folklore 1968: 113).

Influence as a teacher »