Henry, Samuel (‘Sam’) (1878–1952), folk-song collector, was born in Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, youngest among five sons of William Henry and Mary Henry (née Biggart). He had two sisters; one of his brothers became town clerk of Coleraine. Educated locally, he entered the customs and excise service and worked in Omagh and for a time in England; but after being posted to his home area, and particularly when he visited old people in connection with the newly instituted old age pension, he took the opportunity to collect old songs and tunes. He was able to play the fiddle and could transcribe tunes as he heard them performed; moreover, his friendliness and wide interests made him a welcome visitor. He became very well known in the northern half of Ulster; he was a borough councillor, presbyterian church elder, founder member and president of the Coleraine Rotary Club, president of the Route Naturalists Field Club, and chairman for many years of Coleraine Music Festival. He was also a fellow of the RSAI.
Sam Henry was a popular lecturer, and was one of the pioneer radio broadcasters in Northern Ireland. Local papers and magazines published many of his articles on folklore, genealogy, and natural history, but he is remembered chiefly for instigating ‘Songs of the people’, a weekly column published between November 1923 and December 1939 in the Northern Constitution. The total in the newspaper and in Henry's voluminous manuscripts reached well over 800 songs. As well as publishing, with annotations and music, songs he had himself collected in farmhouses and cottages throughout the area, he asked the newspaper's readers to send in traditional songs that had been sung by local people, and occasional collaborators added a small amount of material. The column did not publish versions of nineteenth-century sentimental ballads, and Henry did not encourage the preservation of bawdy material and political songs. The newspaper could only publish the tunes in tonic sol-fa notation. Though this was widely known at the time, and adequate for Henry's stated aim of keeping the songs in currency, ethnomusicologists criticise tonic sol-fa as insufficiently precise for recording the nuances of folk music performances. Some critics complain also that Henry's collection falls short of modern scholarly standards. However, it is probably inappropriate to judge it by such standards, since ‘Songs of the people’ can be regarded as in some ways more like the ballad broadsheets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Songs recorded by Henry, such as ‘If I were a blackbird’, became part of the repertoire of many singers in Ireland and beyond; the Henry collection is the largest and most influential folksong collection from Ulster. It is irreplaceable; no equivalent anthology could ever be gathered again, and it contains much of interest to social and local historians as well as to performers. Disappointed that he had not been able to publish his collection in book form, Henry none the less hoped that he and his work would be remembered by his neighbours because he had ‘put an old song in their mouths’ (his own words, quoted in several of the sources below).
He died after months of ill-health on 25 May 1952, at the home of his only daughter in Kilrea, Co. Londonderry. His wife, Mamie (née Liken), had died the year before.