Paddy Graber – A Living Tradition

by Stewart Hendrickson

A couple of years ago (May, 2002) I wrote a column entitled Living Traditions about two musician friends of mine who are keeping traditional music alive. One of these people is Paddy Graber, a traditional Irish singer and story teller from Vancouver, B.C.

I first met Paddy about seven years ago through the Seattle Song Circle at Rainy Camp, a weekend singing retreat outside of Seattle. Paddy is 80 years old and much of his vast repertoire of songs and stories exists only in his head. This needs to be documented for the tradition to survive, so I have begun a project to record as much of his material as possible. I released his first CD in February, and will produce a CD release concert for him on April 3 in Seattle. But more about that later.

 Paddy has performed at Northwest Folklife every year of its existence but one. In recent years he has stayed at our home during that weekend. He takes the bus down from Vancouver and makes his way from the bus station to the Seattle Center where I meet him. In the evening when we return home he always has stories to tell and will spontaneously break into an appropriate unaccompanied song. It is a delightful weekend with full days at the festival and Paddy to entertain us with songs and stories at home.

 Paddy was born in 1923 in Clonmel, County Tipperary, in southern Ireland. He grew up in a rich musical family. His mother was a Sephardic Jewess, whose lineage can be traced back to the Spanish Inquisition. Her ancestors came to Ireland about ten generations earlier. She was also a well-known traditional singer in Counties Limerick and Tipperary. His father, first-generation Irish born, was a political/labor activist.


At the age of 6 Paddy moved with his family to China. His father was invited there for business reasons.  Paddy had little schooling during those years. He moved back to England at about age 12 and began some schooling which he did not particularly like. A few years later he enlisted in the British Army after lying about his age – he looked older than he was. After the war he emigrated to Canada.


In spite of little schooling, Paddy has become an expert on Irish history, folklore, and music. Much of his musical repertoire comes from his family in Ireland, mostly his mother, and often includes local variants of traditional Irish songs.


My mother was a really good singer, and she thought that songs were precious, and she thought that if you couldn’t sing well, you didn’t. But you were expected to know them. I was never allowed to sing, but as I say, could she stop me now? I doubt it very much. I enjoy singing, or as they say at home ‘say me a song,’ perhaps that’s what I mean. One of the songs I often heard my mother sing was The Arbutus Tree. Now, in and around our home, there's rocks and boulders, trees and old buildings, and in fact almost anything that you could possibly think of. There's songs and stories and poems made about them, usually to pass on a thought or concept, or to explain how they came about. And the Arbutus tree, in the States it's known as the Madrona, but in Ireland and also here in Canada it's known as the Arbutus. The Arbutus sheds it's bark the whole year round, and of course there has to be a reason for it. And we used to have an Arbutus tree on our farm in Kilkeen, County Kerry. And it has to grow on very, very rocky soil, usually on an outcrop, and the sea breeze has to blow through the branches to be able to make it work, or at least make it grow halfway decently. Anyway, this is the song that explains how it came to be."


This is one of a series of songs throughout the British Isles, not necessarily about the Arbutus, but known as Willie of Winsbury. It starts out similar to the Child ballad, about an Irish king who tells his lovely daughter that he has promised her hand to the King of Spain. She tells her father that she can’t marry him because she loves a man, Willie of Winsboro. Here the story diverges, and the King demands that she shed her garments so that he and his chiefs might examine her to determine if she is still a virgin. She declines, but later sheds her garments and changes into a tree, and


Her love became that gentle sea breeze

Through her branches he did play

And she has shed her soft brown bark

Until this very day.


It’s a lovely song, one of my favorites. Gordon Bok heard Paddy sing the song, and later recorded it on one of his CDs.


When he first came to Canada Paddy worked in a copper mine as a technician in the assay office. He has written a number of songs about that work, including The Closing of the Britannia Beach Mine, a song about a bitter labor strike resulting in the closing of the mine.

 From this brief introduction it is evident that Paddy is a real treasure, and his songs and stories need to be preserved and passed on to future generations. That is why I have begun this project to keep the tradition alive. His CD release concert, sponsored by the Seattle Folklore Society at the Phinney Community Center in Seattle, is set for April 3 at 7:30 pm. More information is available at these web sites: and

 Paddy will be joined in concert by Piper’s Creek, a local band that plays a blend of Scottish and Irish traditional music seasoned with American and European influences. Some have described their sound as being delicate and thoughtful, while others have remarked on the underlying energies in their dance music. The band includes Kevin Auld, pipes and whistles; Christine Traxler, fiddle; Katie Cashatt, fiddle and harp; and Christian Hoffman, guitar and bouzouki.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ).  Contact him at for questions, ideas or comments.