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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
CET Happy Birthday O.J. Abbott (1872-1962) (11) Happy Birthday O.J. Abbott 02 Sep 12

Actually, I don't know if this is his birthday. The information about him that is available on the internet simply says that he was born in 1872 and died in 1962, making this year the 140th anniversary of his birth and the 60th anniversary of his death.

He was born in Enfield, England in 1872 and came to Canada when he was twelve, together with his brother who was a harness-maker. They lived for a while on a farm in South March (now the Connaught Ranges, 8 miles outside of Ottawa). There were six families in South March, all first cousins whose grandfathers had come out from Ireland. The boys would work in lumber camps during the winter and come back in the spring with new songs. O.J. only had to hear a song once to learn it. He learned his songs in his youth, on farms and in lumbercamps before moving to Hull, Quebec when he got married. Many of his best songs he learned from Mrs. O'Malley who was already old when he worked on her farm in the 1880's.

In 1957 Edith Fowke was recording folk songs from Ontario singers and heard that Mr. Abbott of Hull knew a lot of old songs. She wasn't expecting anything special and was astonished when she heard a fine clear voice, right on pitch, and a delivery that changed to suit each song. Mrs. Fowke had already been collecting songs from source singers, but the best of them only knew between 20 and 30 songs. O.J. Abbott sang her 84 songs in the first week that she spent recording him, and thirty more during subsequent visits. He had not sung some of them for sixty years.

O.J. Abbott went on to be recorded on four Folkways albums, and sang at the Newport Folk Festival and at Mariposa, the year before he died. He also sang with Pete Seeger at a concert in Ottawa. His recordings are available on iTunes and I strongly recommend them. It is like listening to the 1880's. I found it fascinating how Irish this transplanted Englishman sounded at the age of about 90.

O.J. Abbott should have a place of honour in folk music, if only for the fact that he preserved the great song "By the Hush". When he sang it for Edith Fowke in 1957 it was completely unknown, either in Ireland or North America. There are no other sources for this song.
The song has now made its way back to Ireland, thanks to Frank Harte, I believe. I had occasion to experience this for myself last year. We had been on a traditional music walking tour of Dublin, stopping at various pubs, and at the last one the band invited the punters to get up and do a song. There were only a couple of us who were brave enough to take them up on their offer and I did By the Hush, as a contribution from Canada. The band was sitting just behind me, and before I had finished the first verse, they started to join in. For me that was worth the airfare to Dublin.

O.J. Abbott's story reminds you how much we owe to the singers who kept the songs alive. They didn't just appear in our songbooks. The songs lived because somebody loved them and thought they were important enough to keep.

Reading about Mr. Abbott also reminds me of a time when traditional music had a place of honour at folk festivals. Check out the Ottawa "Folk" Festival or just about any other major Canadian festival today to see how things have changed.

So here's to O.J. Abbott, and also to Edith Fowke, who recorded him, and to Mrs. O'Malley, who taught some great songs to a boy just off the boat from England.

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