Peter Kennedy

Folk-music collector


Peter Douglas Kennedy, folk-music field recordist, broadcaster, film-maker and musician: born London 18 November 1922; married first Eirlys Thomas (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second 1971 Beryl Berks (one stepson); died Leckhampton, Gloucestershire 10 June 2006.

On Christmas Day 1957, the Texan writer, broadcaster and folk-music collector Alan Lomax was the anchor-man for Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year, a mainly live-to-air programme on the BBC Home Service that was testing broadcasting technology. Five other host-producers were hooked up in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; the man in Plymouth was Peter Kennedy. According to Lomax,

Without Peter Kennedy you wouldn't have modern British folklore. I helped, but Peter Kennedy did a lot more work than I did . . . Peter was the anchor-man for many, many, many years, steadily making good input.

Lomax had disembarked in England in 1950 with a commission to gather recordings for Columbia's ambitious series of gramophone records World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. By that time, Kennedy was hosting Village Barn Dance, his own radio series for the Home Service's West Country region, just ahead of the square-dance craze triggered by photographs of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip dancing at a reception in Canada in 1951.

Alan Lomax was a born networker and Kennedy was one of the principal people with whom he hooked up - others included Bob Copper, Séamus Ennis and Hamish Henderson. Kennedy and Lomax had a great deal in common, including, it must be said, an unswerving belief in their own importance and a tendency to be snippy and sniffy about others' achievements.

They would work together regularly and extensively. Amongst their joint projects was Kennedy's first excursion into film documentary, Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953), on the subject of the Padstow hobby-horse festivities, with the folk-singer Jean Ritchie's husband George Pickow as cameraman. More usually, they collaborated on audio projects. Kennedy recorded at a folk festival in Opatija in 1951 what became the Columbia World Library volume Yugoslavia (1954), for which the folklorist Albert B. Lord wrote the sleeve notes; and Caedmon's 10-volume Folk Songs of Britain (1961), reissued in the UK by Topic between 1968 and 1971. After Lomax's death in 2002, Kennedy worked on a number of projects with the Alan Lomax Archives that appeared on the Rounder label.

Folk-song and dance was ingrained in Peter Kennedy. His father, Douglas Kennedy, had taken over as the Director of the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS, later to amalgamate with the Folk-Song Society to become the English Folk Dance and Song Society or EFDSS) after its founder Cecil Sharp's death in 1924 and held the post until 1961. He had been one of Sharp's first pupils and the author of one of the most important early guides, England's Dances: folk-dancing to-day and yesterday (1950).

Peter's mother, Helen Karpeles, was Honorary Secretary of the EFDS from its inception until 1922 and served as the Occasional Inspector of Folk Dancing in elementary schools for 1920. Her sister Maud accompanied Sharp when he went song-collecting in the Appalachians, later collaborated with A.H. Fox Strangways on the first major biography of Sharp (Cecil Sharp, 1933), and herself wrote Cecil Sharp: his life and work (1967).

Peter Kennedy developed a schoolboy interest in the technical aspects of theatre (lighting, staging, sound and make-up) and, in the absence of a college system fit for purpose, studied with the Architectural Association before being called up aged 17 to join the RAF. He eventually graduated to preparing crews for aerial raids or landing assaults, serving in North Africa and Italy where he co-founded a theatrical company of American and British personnel in 1945.

After demob and back in England, he played the drums in his parents' folk-dance band, worked for the EFDSS in the North-East and took up the squeeze-box again, launching his own village barn dances. These led to an involvement in regional radio and in turn to television work. He was based at the BBC's Bristol studios in Whiteladies Road and worked on experimental recording techniques using portable equipment and parabolic microphones to capture birdcall.

From his West Country base, the Haymakers Village Barn Dance Band - an eight-piece with fiddles, flute, accordion, guitar and drums, led by Kennedy - did their bit for expanding awareness of indigenous dance traditions; their "Seven Step Polka" figures on the 1998 reissue of the Columbia World Library volume England (1955).

Lomax and Kennedy remained members of a mutual admiration society. In 1964 Kennedy had written in English Dance and Song that

great credit should be given to Alan Lomax for the way he stirred all sorts of people and organisations into action when he was over here and for the way he stimulated folk-music broadcasting and recording all over the world.

When I interviewed Lomax in 1993, he called his friend "the neglected person in Great Britain" and said he had done

more solid recording and promoting of British lore than anyone else - more than Ewan [MacColl], more than Bert [Lloyd]. Peter Kennedy discovered and revived British folk dancing. He and his family revived an enormous amount of British custom. Peter Kennedy recorded in every area of Britain and built the largest part of the BBC library - and put it on the air. I think the way he's been treated in your country is close to scandalous. He's a charming, very, very sensitive and amazingly devoted and sapient folklorist.

Kennedy's own Folktrax company, established in 1957, released a massive amount of material, with his own recordings from 1950 onwards as its bedrock. Among the label's releases were archival programmes from the influential BBC radio series As I Roved Out (for which the likes of Bob Copper, Ennis and Kennedy recorded the living folk music tradition) and A-Roving, early recordings of the Morris music figurehead William Kimber, the Northern Irish singer Sarah Makem, the unforgettably named Mrs (Aunt Fanny) Rumble, and his aunt, Maud Karpeles, reminiscing about her life.

He also worked extensively as a freelance record producer, capturing important acts for the folk boom as the 1950s melted into the 1960s. He was instrumental in co-producing Shirley Collins' first two LPs for Folkways and Argo and recording Rory and Alex McEwen, the playwright turned folksinger Ewan MacColl, the Canadian Perry Friedman, on his way through London bound for the German Democratic Republic, and the songwriter Cyril Tawney, whose radio début had been beside Kennedy during Sing Christmas.

Ken Hunt

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