Peter Kennedy

by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone

Noted British folklorist Peter Kennedy (1922–2006), was one of Alan Lomax’s most important collaborators during the latter’s time in England. Peter’s musical roots reached back four generations. His Scottish great-grandfather, David Kennedy (1825–1886), was the son a Perth hand-loom weaver who toured the English-speaking world (Canada, USA, South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand) giving concerts and singing Scottish folksongs to emigrant families. Both of David Kennedy’s daughters had concert careers. One, Peter’s great-aunt, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930), collected Gaelic songs, using an Edison-Bell wax cylinder phonograph, which she published in arrangements for piano, harp, etc. as Songs of the Hebrides (1909–21, in three volumes). In 1911 Peter’s mother Helen and her sister Maud Karpeles helped Cecil Sharp found the EFDSS (English Folk Dance and Song Society), which Peter’s father, Douglas Kennedy, headed after Sharp’s death in 1924.

Utterly absorbed in songs and the people who made them and a skillful and engaging vocalist and performer on the squeeze-box, Peter would break into song at the drop of a hat and once even tried to teach Princess Margaret to play the melodeon. 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. Among the numerous folk revival artists he recorded and produced (or co-produced) were Shirley Collins, Rory and Alex McEwen, Ewan MacColl, the Canadian Perry Friedman, and the songwriter Cyril Tawney, who debuted on radio beside Kennedy during the BBC’s Sing Christmas program (1957).

While in his teens, Peter helped film the world’s first international folk dance festival, held in London in 1935. His own boyhood interest, however, was the theater, with a specialty in lighting and set design. On the advice of Alexander Korda, he studied three-dimensional design at the Architectural Association before being called up at age 17 to join the RAF. He used his design training to make models to prepare crews for aerial raids for landing assaults in North Africa and Italy, where he co-founded a theatrical company of American and British personnel in 1945.  

In 1948, Peter joined the staff of the EFDSS, which, moving away from the rather bloodless antiquarian spirit that had characterized its earliest years, had begun a “folk dancing for all” policy aimed at revitalizing folk dancing as a contemporary social activity. They introduced American-type folkdances with a caller, along with dance bands in the style of the London-based Folk Dance Band (whose members included Helen and Douglas Kennedy, with Peter Kennedy on drums).

With an air of adventure and a spirit filled with curiosity, Peter toured the country making audio recordings of fiddlers, pipers, traditional singers, and story tellers (he was himself a great raconteur) while making the rounds of local folk festivals. In the village of Cambo in the North East, he discovered the traditional fiddler Ned Pearson, who played for dances such as the Morpeth Rant, as well as for party games, the lancers, and the foxtrot.

Moving to the West Country, Peter became involved in regional broadcasting. He hosted a radio series, Village Barn Dance, for the British Home Service, featuring his own eight-piece band, the Haymakers Village Barn Dance Band. (Their “Seven-Step Polka” can be heard on the Columbia World Library volume England.)


When Alan Lomax arrived in Britain in 1950, the two became close friends and colleagues. Together they hosted the influential BBC programs As I Walked Out and The Song Hunter, for which Peter and the BBC staff were responsible for most of the English recordings. Peter also made field recording in the Basque country for the show and his 1951 recording of a folk festival in Opatija became the Columbia World Library volume Yugoslavia, with liner notes by the noted Harvard oral literature scholar Albert B. Lord. Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax also co-edited the 10-volume Caedmon Folk Songs of Britain (1961), reissued in the UK by Topic between 1968 and 1971.

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, revealed 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. His publication, The Fiddler’s Tune Book is still in print.

Peter also produced numerous award-winning films, including the celebrated Oss, Oss Wee Oss (1951) (recently re-released with additional material). 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 England and Harry Cox, the two Child Ballad volumesand Songs of Seductions volumes of the Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records.

Peter Kennedy’s numerous honors and awards include, most recently, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Celtic College (2003) and the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.