MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada

The Collection: A Brief History and Review


Your tapes had wonderful stuff on them! That's a good hunting ground, better than any place in our country, it would seem (Duncan Emrich, Chief, Folklore Section, Library of Congress. 31 July, 1952).

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Photo from the Leach collection, P10779In 1949, 1950, and 1951, MacEdward Leach made three trips to Atlantic Canada with a recording machine. He was not new to collecting nor, indeed, to Canada: for many years, due to his first wife's connections, Leach spent at least a portion of the summer months in Nova Scotia. Sometime in the mid-1940s, he recorded fifteen French-Canadian folksongs at Pubnico, Nova Scotia: this tape is in the sound archives of the National Museum of Civilization. The folklorist Horace Beck said that Nova Scotia was "the place he liked best" (in "MacEdward Leach" 100) . Previously, he had collected In Virginia, Jamaica, Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

It is not indicated whether the Cape Breton trip was funded by any outside agency. In a letter to Duncan Emrich of the Library of Congress, he made mention of his plans:

As you know we are going to Cape Breton in July for six weeks or more. I have some very good contacts- thanks to you- and I think we should get some valuable material. We have only four reels of tape. Can you lend us more? You remember I left six reels of plastic tape at the Library when we came thru; if we could have that (replacing the six I am sending you now) and as many more as you think we could use I would be obliged. (31 May, 1949)

When Emrich responded that he would try (June 7, 1949), Mac replied asking that the Library spare whatever it could, "for we plan an extensive stay and Monseigneur Nicholson writes that there is 'oceans of material'" (9 June 1949). On June 22, Emrich made a formal proposal to his superior, Harold Spivacke:

Dr. MacEdward Leach, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Folklore Society will be collecting material in the Cape Breton area this summer. The project has been systematically planned with residents of Antigonish and following correspondence with Mr. John L. Campbell, collector of Gaelic materials in Scotland. It is of importance to add to our collections additional songs in this rapidly disappearing language. Some of the songs go as far back as Ossian and other early poets.

For the foregoing reasons, it is requested that the project be approved in accordance with the following budget:

10 reels of paper tape at $2.34
1 reel of plastic tape at $4.50
11 duplicate reels at $9.00
Miscellaneous expenses (packing, shipping, etc.)
20% Laboratory fee

Barr Strait, Iona: photo courtesy of Stacey MacLean

Leach did indeed get the loan of materials from the Library, and had a successful trip to Cape Breton, recording fifteen tapes. Leach journeyed in search of Celtic lore which he hoped might have even pre-dated that which was at the time being rigorously collected in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Although he succeeded in collecting a number of stories and songs belonging to multiple genres, Leach expressed a considerable degree of disappointment in his inability to collect much "ancient" Celtic material. He also perceived Cape Breton Scottish Gaelic culture to be dying, the older generations being the sole bearers of traditions. This most certainly was a commentary on the cultural dichotomy between older and younger generations occasioned by dramatic decrease in the domestic usage of Gaelic and recent stigmas attached to speaking it. Further compounding the situation was the fact that stories and songs originally told in the Gaelic language often failed to make a transition into English. Leach would later compare his perception of Cape Breton community culture with that of Newfoundland, stating that Newfoundland may afford the folklorist the opportunity to collect "living lore," while Cape Breton's lore is fragmentary and "half-recalled" ("Celtic Tales" 41). This was not altogether true. Although Leach did not manage to locate the rich deposit of ancient Celtic lore he was seeking, he did succeed in collecting a great number of Gaelic songs composed within twenty years of his visit. These songs related important events in the lives of community members. They were topical and proved that the Gaelic tradition was still strong in Cape Breton in 1949.

Despite Leach's disappointment, he managed to amass a collection of Gaelic material which included various genres of Gaelic song, fairy tales, legends: both historical and supernatural and tales from the Fenian and mythological cycles. Although the recorded material is exclusively in Gaelic, some stories which he transcribed verbatim in his field notebook were recited in English. Subsequent fieldwork and publications such as Luirgeann Eachainn Nill (stories told by Hector Campbell and ed. by John Shaw and Margaret MacDonel) and Songs Remembered in Exile (ed. by John Lorne Campbell) by well known Scottish folklorists feature some of Leach's informants and material that originally appeared in his 1949 collection. Leach himself did little with the collection. A contribution to W.E. Richmond, ed. Studies in Folklore titled "Celtic Tales from Cape Breton" is the exception. Hence, much of this material has not been available until the creation of this website.

The following year, as Leach was putting the finishing touches on The Ballad Book (New York, 1955), he applied for a grant from the American Philosophical Society to collect in Newfoundland. He again wrote to Emrich, asking for a letter of support:

My plans are to leave around the first of July for eight or ten weeks in Newfoundland. As you know there is only the one important collection and it is taken largely from a few sections and is according to Barry not accurate in transcription. But it does reveal the importance of the region for collectors. I am asking for $725— $460 for transportation, including local transportation, much of which must be by boat. $165 is for equipment, tapes, etc. and $100 for informants. I shall pay my own subsistence. (7 Apr. 1950)

To which collection Leach was referring is unclear. Both Greenleaf and Mansfield's Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland (1933) and the first edition of Karpeles's Folksongs from Newfoundland (1934) were out and should have been known to Leach. He later wrote an enthusiastic foreword to the 1968 reprint of Greenleaf and Mansfield, in which he makes little mention of Karpeles. In any case, he was to be the first person to use recording equipment in Newfoundland.

Photo from the Leach collection, P10703MacEdward Leach carried out fieldwork in Newfoundland in 1950 and returned the following year to complete the collection. His work was mainly concentrated on the eastern side of the Avalon Peninsula and featured singers and storytellers of British and Irish descent, but he also visited the west coast, including the Port au Port Peninsula. In all, six hundred songs and stories were collected. Leach was active in issuing twelve of these songs and one story on Songs of the Out-Ports of Newfoundland (Folkways FE-4075), while the remainder of the material remained unpublished.

Leach stated that in Newfoundland, "songs are sung and stories told by people of all ages—boys in their teens, burly fishermen, gaffers in the warm corner" ("Celtic Tales," 40). He was delighted to find that folklore in Newfoundland appeared to remain constant over time, "preserved," as he suggested, by "economic, geographical and social barriers" (41). This first recorded collection has become a valuable source in the study of a variety of folk traditions ranging from fairy lore to ballads.

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. MacEdward Leach would return once again to the Atlantic provinces in 1961, this time to carry out fieldwork in Labrador on a grant from the National Museum of Canada. His fieldwork yielded 138 songs which were published in 1965 by the National Museum as Ballads and Songs of the Lower Labrador Coast. Although he had hoped to return to Newfoundland and carry out fieldwork in the new medium of a video, his efforts were cut short by the onset of an illness.

This website presents songs from the 1950 and 1951 collections.

Material that Leach collected is archived at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive, the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and at the National Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.