28 June 2017

Rodney McElrea, 1938-2017

This morning the BIB received from Jim MacArdle of the Watery Hill Boys the very sad news that Thomas James Rodney MacElrea of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, one of the world's foremost collectors of recordings and other material relating to country music, had died on the night of 24/5 June. Rodney had a stroke during the winter from which he never fully recovered, but Jim wrote:

Although incapacitated physically, his mind was as alert as ever. I last visited him about two weeks ago and we had made a tentative arrangement to watch 'The winding stream' video on my next visit, but unfortunately this was not to be.

Jim, who spent much time with Rodney in recent years, now sends this account of his life.

I first came across the late Rodney McElrea’s name in the late sixties on the cover of an LP titled Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, volume 2 on Dave Freeman’s County label. On the back of the album cover was a photo of Charlie’s gravestone with the inscription at the bottom stating ‘Erected and dedicated by Rodney McElrea, North Ireland, and readers of Country News and Views’.*

Rodney was first smitten by country music in 1952 when he bought his first Hank Williams 78. For over sixty years he has been an avid collector of 78s, LPs, books, letters, photos, and all kinds of memorabilia and ephemera. Rodney subscribed to country music periodicals and magazines and corresponded with like-minded enthusiasts and collectors for most of his life.

In 1962, together with his friend and fellow-editor Charlie Newman, he produced the first volume of Country News and Views, a quarterly publication consisting of articles and record reviews by both editors and guest writers, including American collector Dave Freeman.

In pursuit of his hobby, Rodney made his first trip to America in the early 1960s and visited the RCA building in New York, where he was given access to their files and commenced work on his discography of the Carter Family.

Dave Freeman, founder of County Records and a well established collector, took Rodney under his wing, and in 1965 they travelled together to North Carolina to research the life of Charlie Poole and met guitarist Norman Woodlief, Charlie's wife Lou Emma, and Cliff Rorrer, a nephew of the Ramblers’ fiddler Posey Rorrer. Seeing that Charlie’s grave had no marker, Rodney set about collecting donations from the readers of CN&V.

Rodney made numerous subsequent trips to the States, meeting Sara and Maybelle Carter, Hank Snow, and many more of his heroes over the years.

In recent years Rodney was an important part of the Bluegrass Festival at Omagh, where he gave the McAuley Lecture every year on such subjects as ‘More travels and tales’, ‘The Crooked Road’, 'Women in bluegrass’ etc.

Despite suffering from failing health in recent years, Rodney remained as enthusiastic as ever about his hobby right to the very end. He passed away peacefully last Saturday and was buried in the picturesque Droit graveyard on Tuesday, not far from his old home in Newtownstewart. He is survived by his loving wife Ruth, his sons Richard and Peter, and his daugher Lindsey.

May he Rest in Peace.

Jim MacArdle

Rodney's death notice states that he died peacefully at Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry; the funeral service was held in Omagh Gospel Hall at 2.00 p.m. yesterday (Tuesday 27 June). Links for messages of condolence and donations to 'Building Bridges, Changing Hearts' are on the same web page. The BIB editor writes:

Rodney McElrea was unquestionably a national treasure, and this should be more widely known. No one else in this island, in my opinion, has made a remotely comparable contribution to the cause of old-time and traditional country music (including bluegrass); and we can be thankful that the Ulster American Folk Park made the MacAuley Lectures available as a vehicle for his encyclopedic knowledge, which never failed to entertain as well as enlighten.

For those who knew Rodney, he will be sorely missed because there is literally no one to take his place. For those who did not, the best available guide to this man and his unique achievements may be a scholarly thesis, 'Rodney’s archive: an ethnographic encounter with a private music collection and its collector', presented by Eve Olney in 2012 for a Ph.D at the Dublin Institute of Technology. As an 'ethnographic encounter' it is not directly concerned with the music, but there's a great deal about Rodney as a person, his career as a collector, and his relationship with what he collected, together with many photographs and an associated DVD. It can be read online.

I consider myself fortunate to have met Rodney, and all my sympathies go out to Ruth.

*Rodney's part in providing Charlie Poole's gravestone was mentioned in Ireland's Own magazine, in Pauline Murphy's article of 31 May 2016.

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