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The Age of Extinction

Singer and song collector Sam Lee sets out on a mission to record the last of the traditional folk singers with a connection to the ancient oral culture of the British Isles.

We are living in an age of extinction, a twilight period for the oral traditions of our ancestors. Singer and song collector Sam Lee sets out on a mission to seek out and record the last of the traditional singers with a connection to the ancient oral culture of the British Isles.

In conversation with legendary folk singer Shirley Collins, Sam reveals that the singers of the old songs are still with us and they are still singing, most notably in the traveller community. It's up to us to find them, and then to listen.

Sam travels to Hampshire to meet Freda Black, a 90 year old Romany Gypsy singer, born in a horse-drawn caravan on Christmas Day. Freda has a repertoire of well over 100 traditional songs which she proudly states she will sing until she dies.

With the race against time so apparent, Sam recruits twelve folk music enthusiasts to join him on a collecting mission in Ireland. The collectors fan out across the country, tasked with recording elderly travellers with knowledge of the old songs.

We follow Sam as he hunts for new singers and returns copies of recordings to singers he's previously met. What's clear at the end of the trip is that, if you're willing to spend long days in the car, knocking on doors and chasing shadows, there are still songs out there teetering on the verge of extinction.

Sam concludes that, if these ancient songs are to thrive in today's cultural landscape, our responsibility is to transmit both what they have meant to the generations who've carried them and all that they can be now. How better to do that than to learn straight from the source whilst we still can?

Presenter: Sam Lee
Producer: Max O'Brien
A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4.

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30 minutes