Never leaving her home town of Keady, Co. Armagh, Sarah Makem (1900-1985) is proof of the impact the traditional singer can have, even while remaining inside the community that formed her. Her father, Tommy Boyle, was a plumber and tinsmith by trade. Her mother was "one of the Singing Greenes of Keady, a family famous for its music for generations" (to quote collector Sean O'Boyle), and it was from her mother that Sarah learned most of her songs. Her house was full of music and song, which continued when she married Peter Makem.
Together Peter and Sarah had five children, the most famous of whom was her youngest, Tommy Makem. But it was not through her son alone that Sarah made an impact. As a center of the linen industry and a market town for the small farmers around it, Keady was a community in which Irish, Scots and English songs intermingled. Given this rich musical mixture, Sarah in time acquired a repertoire of over 500 songs from the various traditions, which she sang with a fluent and effortless style. Beyond the odd local social event, she never performed in public and yet her reputation preceded her. She came to world attention in 1950 when folk music collectors came to record her for the BBC. One song from that recording session eventually was used as the title song of the 1950s folk music radio program, As I Roved Out, on which she was a regularly featured performer. In 1968 she recorded her only complete album, Ulster Ballad Singer for Topic Records. From that point on she played host to a generation of aspiring traditional singers and folk music scholars who came to visit Keady to learn from her.
Sarah also is responsible for reviving and popularizing a long forgotten traditional song. Through her plaintive rendition, other singers (among them Geordie Hanna, Tommy Makem, and Paddy Tunney) came to know The Month of January. The song tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with a man far above her socially. Betrayed and abandoned by her lover, the young girl and her baby are cast into the cold and snow by her scandalized parents. Through her masterful editing and her flawless rendition of an otherwise maudlin nineteenth century parlor song, she popularised the song, placing it once again within the traditional repertoire.
Source: Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann