Peter Kennedy Has Died

It is with tremendous sadness that we note the death of esteemed British folklorist Peter Kennedy (b. 1922) on June 10, 2006, at the age of 84. As a member of the famous “Singing Kennedy” family of Scotland, Peter’s connections to folk music performance and scholarship reached back into the nineteenth century. His mother Helen and her sister Maud Karpeles had been instrumental in founding the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which Douglas Kennedy, Peter’s father, headed until 1961.

Alan Lomax was a close friend and colleague of Peter’s, and Alan’s daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, had known him since she was a child. He was a magical human being, utterly absorbed in songs and the people who made them, and in his own adventures along the early paths of folklore. Peter himself was a great raconteur, and with his squeeze box, his songs and his air of adventure and curiosity, he brought merriment wherever he went. He leaves the world a better place than he found it, though we will miss him very much indeed.

Peter Kennedy’s contributions to twentieth century folk music were enormously important. He joined the BBC when Alan Lomax arrived in Britain in 1950 and the two hosted the programs As I Walked Out andThe Song Hunter, among others, for which Peter made extensive field recordings Britain, Ireland, the Basque country, and Yugoslavia. He brought to wide audiences such important artists as Harry Cox and the Copper family (to name a few), documented and helped revive local customs, organized folk festivals, and was involved in many seminal moments in the folk revival: including, as performer and producer, the formation and popularization of the first skiffle groups. He was a skillful and engaging vocalist and performer on the squeeze-box and would break into song at the drop of a hat. Peter also produced numerous award-winning films, including the celebrated Oss Oss Wee Oss. In 1957 he founded the non-profit record label and public archive Folktrax, which ultimately became the basis for the Gloucester Institute for Traditional Arts. In recent years Kennedy edited the World Library and Portraits CD series of the Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records.

Peter Kennedy’s book, Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland (Cassell, 1975), compiled from field recordings sung in English, Lowland Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Channel Island French, Romany, and Tinker cant, was groundbreaking in its revelation of the astonishing linguistic and cultural diversity of the inhabitants of the British Isles, even as it stressed the commonalities in the repertoires of the area. Peter Kennedy was the recipient of numerous honors and awards including, most recently, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Celtic College (2003) and the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Originally posted: June 10, 2006