Interview transcription and Repertoire
Grateful thanks are extended to Peggy for permission to use these recordings; also to David Horsfield of Ruskin College, Oxford, for providing copying facilities. Despite the importance of the interviews, hardly any formal use has been made of them until now and no proper annotation has previously been undertaken. Indeed, prior to this joint release, their only public airing seems to have been in the form of two short extracts, which appeared in The Song Carriers - a series of radio programmes which Ewan MacColl made for BBC Midland Region in conjunction with the producer, Charles Parker, in 1964.
The idea that the in-depth interview could be a vital tool for the collecting and understanding of folksong, grew out of an ideological perspective which MacColl and Seeger adopted via their experience of working with traditional singers. The various aspects of that perspective, as they affect this interview, can be summarised as follows:
Throughout the second half of his life, Ewan MacColl remained a passionate advocate of working class musical art, arguing that the revitalisation of folksong was essential for the realisation of socialist ideology, and for the psychological desegregation of the human race. Unfortunately, very little of this argument was ever committed to print, MacColl preferring to propagate his convictions via live and recorded performances and through the training of young singers, whom he and Peggy organised into The Critics Group. Some of his beliefs are recorded in impressionistic form in his autobiography, Journeyman, and they were aired in various radio and television interviews. Also, various tape recordings of Critics Group sessions survive. However, the most complete public account of his convictions is probably to be found in the above mentioned Song Carriers. 1 I never belonged to the Critics and never worked directly with Ewan or Peggy, but I did join Singers Workshop, which had close links to the former group and employed similar working methods. As a result I spent many long hours discussing theory and teaching methods with, among others, Terry Yarnell, Denis Turner, Barry Taylor, Jim Carroll and Pat McKenzie. The following discourse draws heavily on my memories of those discussions.
Where previous collectors typically viewed traditional performers as the passive bearers of spontaneous art, MacColl and Seeger believed that folksongs articulate the thoughts, feelings and class allegiances of the people who sing them. That is because, in societies where folksong is a living force, its primary social and psychological function is one of social and emotional catharsis. The singer uses the events in the song as a means of dramatising the dilemmas and ambiguities of his or her life, thereby developing emotional solutions to those dilemmas. This function does not apply outside of living folk tradition. In the field of pop music, for example, song is a musical recreation. It is something professionally delivered to an audience which has come to be entertained; to be taken out of itself. Functionally, popular music is a mechanism for retreating from the reality of life. The folksong is an agent which facilitates the confrontation of life. In considering this argument, however, two considerations have to be borne in mind.
The new generation of critics contend that the folk did not exclusively make their own culture. They exercised promiscuity of choice, absorbing the products of tin pan alley, or its cultural equivalent, as readily as their own songs. Whether the folk sing them or merely listen to them, the songs which they absorb define individual and group identity; they are the musical elements of informal group culture. Folk and popular song therefore are functionally similar elements of popular culture, which survive by common processes of group acceptance. That is, although the products of the mass media do not accord with Cecil Sharp's famous criteria of folksong, in respect of change, they nevertheless meet his strictures in terms of selectivity and continuity. The pop song listening folk apply communal selection to their music, just like the folk song listening folk of East Anglia or West Ireland. This is not an argument I would wish to dispute. Nevertheless, it begs the question; how much freedom of choice do consumers of marketed music actually possess, and in what ways does their freedom of choice differ from that which operates within the folksong tradition?
The rationale of the pop music world is that entrepreneurs stay in business and ensure healthy profits by responding to popular taste; by marketing what the public wants. Their function is to identify consumer demand, and to tailor their commodities accordingly, in the same way as any other business enterprise. To put it another way, in folksong, communal selection and oral transmission ensures the survival of those songs which reflect the tastes and outlook of the entire group. In pop song, the same principle applies, but it operates via buyer manipulation of market forces; by application of the laws of capitalist exchange. The pop music industry in fact is a near perfect model of rational capitalist behaviour.
There is an undeniable logic in this, but it throws up a considerable number of problems. First of all, the argument that folksong is a reification is undeniable. All forms of music are reifications because all forms of music are social products. Therefore, their 'reality' is culturally defined. The question, however, is not whether folksong has any objective reality, or whether the folk chose thus to isolate any specific segment of their musical culture. It is whether we, as outside observers have anything to learn by categorising that segment on the grounds of perceived social or musical characteristics.
More importantly however, that segment of popular culture which commentators label 'folksong', is not bound by the laws of market economics in the same way, or to the same extent, that pop music is. That is because the folksong, almost by definition, is the preserve of the amateur and therefore exists outside the control of the market. This is not to say that folksong, or indeed any part of expressive folk art, is automatically devoid of economic exchange. As Michael Heaney has pointed out, earnings from Morris dancing could be an important supplement to regular, or possibly irregular, paid employment. This should come as no surprise, for most performance oriented folk customs involve some measure of reward. Also, it was formerly common practice for bothy singers of North East Scotland to stage concerts with paid admission and paid performers. For the matter of that, as Reg Hall has shown, throughout Britain and Ireland, the performance of dance music was at one time almost exclusively located in the hands of professional musicians. 2
The question of payment therefore is not one we can afford to ignore. Indeed, we may ask wherein lies the difference between paid folk performance and paid pop music performance? Where is the difference between a band like Oasis receiving payment to appear at Nynex Arena, and William Kimber being paid to appear on Headington vicarage lawn? First of all, taking the folk tradition as a whole, the incidence of paid performance was fairly small beer. The overwhelming majority of folk performances were by amateurs for non-paying audiences. That reflects the lack of economic sustenance which is typical of folk traditions generally. Indeed, it would have been a rare musician who could have knocked out a living performing for the members of his own community! Therefore, where payment was involved, it usually came from an interest group outside the musician's community. It usually fell outside the network of social relations which defined that musicians folk tradition. 3
Also, in the case of for example, calendar customs, or market buskers, payment was often more of a largess than a fee. To all intents and purposes it was non-negotiable and fell outside the parameters of market exchange. Again, musicians who charged for their services often existed on the margins of folk tradition, rather than as part of the tradition proper. That is, the professionalisation of a folk tradition is part of the process whereby that tradition ceases to be owned by the community at large. It is on the way to becoming the preserve of specialist practitioners. It is turning into a part of the world of popular entertainment. 4
The issue I wish to highlight, however, is not the frequency or nature of payment, or amounts paid, or how much store the performer may have placed on that payment. It is that, for musicians and singers operating within the bounds of folk tradition, various factors, chiefly precedent, peer expectations and socio/communal horizons, were a major source of inhibition as far as market orientation is concerned. A singer like Elvis Presley could satisfy market demands, and presumably his own musical tastes, by producing a string of rock 'n roll hits. Then, once market demand for rock 'n roll died, he could switch to being, say, a purveyor of sentimental ballads or of Country and Western; whatever was likely to sell. The morris dancer and the bothy singer did not have that facility. Their role as communal entertainers was established by traditional expectation. In modern society, change is an endemic feature of our entire social experience. It is something we have come to expect and to value and consequently it is something we have come to look for in music. Traditional societies are typically much more stable than the one we live in and they change much more slowly. People who are not accustomed to change do not anticipate it and do not expect to find it in their music.
In fact, one of the effects of the development of the mass media, and of the exploitative nature of pop music, has been the elevation of the professional musician from humble artisan practically to godlike being. The more popular the entertainer, the more he or she becomes physically and socially isolated from the audience. The bigger the following, the more the performer's lifestyle will diverge from that of the audience. In his or her normal environment, the folksinger is never segregated from the audience. The folksong flourishes best in social entities where audience and singer know each other intimately, and where they are communally bonded by affectual ties and shared values. Such communities embodied differences of status, and the patterns of performance which took place within them reflected these differences. Nevertheless, the bonds of solidarity which small communities generate mean that, as far as musical expression is concerned, there is effectively no distinction between singer and audience. The singer, at any given moment, is merely that member of the company who happens to be 'on their feet'. Therefore, the act of singing represents an affirmation of communal solidarity and an expression of common feeling. Therefore, singing is not merely an act of catharsis for the singer. It applies to the whole group, just as ownership of the song applies to the whole group.
The pop song does not come under the collective control of the social group in the way that folksong does. Folk cultures have been absorbing outside influences for as long as there have been outside influences. However, living folk traditions embody oral selective processes which mould external source materials to suit the collective needs and outlook of the group. External productions become customised in effect. This does not happen with pop music. The informal group adopts, via mutual accord, the sounds with which it wishes to identify, but it does not change them. Moreover, as mass media and technology grow hand in hand, pop songs become increasingly identified with almost entirely as listening material. Performance is almost always external to the group. Therefore, to suggest that pop music and folk music relate to informal group culture, in the same manner, is like comparing hand made peasant costumes with factory made clothing.
To revert to our argument about pop music and the market place, it is not true to say that capitalists produce to satisfy a need. 5 They produce to make a profit. Therefore, they do not orient themselves towards the market per se. They orient themselves towards that portion of the market from which they believe they will extract the greatest profit. They do not set out to produce what people want or need. They produce what they believe people can be persuaded into thinking they want or need. If the capitalist ethos is one of freedom of choice, the logistics of capitalist production impose severe limitations on freedom, on choice, and on the way we think. This factor becomes important if we attempt to prognosticate how market oriented and non-market oriented popular musics might differ in their responses to popular choice.
Theories which claim the non-existence of folksong conflict with other theories which relate to the sociology of knowledge and social control. So, for that matter, do theories which assume that pop song listeners exercise free will in dcitating musical fashion. We do not make our own tastes. They are dictated for us by social forces, by socialisation and education and by the need, innate within us, to be accepted within society and peer group. They are made by the world we see around us and by our view of that world. If we are not free to make our own tastes, then we should ask, who is making them for us? The MacColl/Seeger thesis, is not a straightforward application of Marxist theory, but it does draw on certain tenets of Marxist thought. Among these is the function of ideas and thought processes in terms of capitalist relationships. In Marxist theory, the class which owns the means of production also owns the means of education and of information dissemination. To Marxists, the ruling class uses these institutions as a way of implanting its own ideology in the minds of the 'lower' orders. That is a useful way of explaining the content of certain forms of the mass media other than pop music, for if anything on earth reflects ruling class interests it is our supposedly free press. Be that as it may, if the pop industry contains any anthems of support for the Conservative Party, I have failed to uncover them.
Even so, the fact that pop song is apolitical does not mean that it fails to reflect ruling class interests. All it means is that ruling class interests are served in a more intangible and insidious form than outright propaganda. The key to their operation comes via the education system and the normative processes whereby the individual is inducted into membership of society, for these are the things which define how and what we think. These are the things which mould musical taste. Therefore, if as Marxists claim, education in capitalist society teaches passive acceptance of the status quo, teaches people that they are mere cogs in a machine over which they have no control, then we should not be surprised to find that passivity manifesting in popular taste.
Conversely, if folksong is free of the market, then it ought logically to be free of external impositions of taste. If that is true, then we should be able to make three predictions.
Yet, whether their songs were overtly political, the working class of two centuries ago had a voice with which to express itself. The working class of today has effectively been forced into silence. The technological and sociological developments of the last two hundred and fifty years on the one hand have administered the artistic pauperisation of the 'lower' orders. On the other, the growth of mass education and the mass media have made the inculcation of ruling class values easier than ever before. We need to weigh these contentions rather carefully. As I just indicated, there is ample evidence to show that the rural poor were by no means excluded from the absorption of ruling class values. If that were otherwise, we would not expect find a song like The Bold Fisherman in the same repertoire as Betsy the Serving Maid. Equally, we would not find The Nobleman and the Thresherman sung by a singer who also had a very fine version of Van Diemen's Land. Nevertheless, I contend that the supportive mechanisms of the small community acted as a bulwark which effectively countered ruling class values, and that the singing of folksongs was part of that bulwark.
The labouring poor may have been forced to look up to the gentry. They may have accepted the social order as though it were an immutable part of the natural order. That does not neutralise resentment, and if the individual resented inequalities of wealth and status, there were others with whom he or she could share their feelings. And if that latter contention were not true we would not find songs like Betsy the Serving Maid and Van Diemen's Land alongside more deferential items. Today, in the industrialised West at least, the close knit community is largely a thing of the past. If we wish to find similar mechanisms of social solidarity among the industrial working class, then we have to look to those institutions of the working class, the labour and trade union movements - or rather what is left of them.
We need not doubt the logic of this. The folksong has died, and it has died because millions of workers have ceased to find any relevance in the idiom. It no longer fulfils any function in working class life, as entertainment, as emotional expression, or as political statement. Does the silence of the folk mean therefore that better forms of communication and artistic expression have rendered their tradition redundant? Or does it simply mean that the conditions under which people found a voice no longer apply? In several contributions to Musical Traditions, I have made it plain that I regard the small community as the engine of folk tradition; that the community encouraged feelings of identity and security within the individual, and that these manifested themselves in various forms of expressive folk art. 7 Generally speaking, the smaller and more isolated the community, the stronger will be the affective ties of its members, and the stronger will be its indigenous culture. That may seem a reactionary position, but I do not think so. A folk tradition cannot exist without social solidarity, and solidarity is the hallmark of the small community. Therefore, as mass society replaces the community, the folk tradition withers and dies. That makes the redundancy of the tradition inevitable, and a necessary side effect of economic progress.
However, Ewan MacColl, in advocating a modern working class expressive culture, was picking up a topic of concern to social philosophers which has been around at least since the days of Auguste Comte. It is that industrialism and mass society, in destroying the small community, also destroy the social world of the individual. On the one hand they tear down the systems of social relationships which give meaning and security to life. On the other, they introduce the individual to a regime of impersonal factory discipline, and a work routine which is inherently boring, repetitive, instrumental and soul destroying. The nett thinking of these gentlemen was that with nothing to hold it together, there was a real danger that the fabric of society would disintegrate.
The philosophers, who variously interpreted this problem, were however all convinced that progress was inevitable and that it was good. Moreover, they argued, the new industrial society contained seeds within itself which would eventually facilitate new systems of social integration. For Adam Smith, the integrative mechanism was free trade, the 'hidden hand' by which all individuals in pursuing their own ends, would combine in a state of mutual dependence. For Émile Durkheim, fulfilment and belonging would come about through the incorporative mechanisms of large scale industry. For Marx, the immiseration of the workers would result in their finding a common identity, leading them to both overthrow their oppressors, and to forge new bonds of social solidarity.
If Marx's analysis is correct, and if the folksong is an agent of solidarity, we could reasonably expect to find the folksong tradition reasserting itself during periods of massive industrial struggle. In such a reassertion, songs with a high political bias would naturally assume a central position. That does not mean however that a revitalised tradition would be exclusively political. A song does not have to contain a political message in order to perform a political act. It merely has to be part of the conditions of unity under which political acts are performed. 8
Thus we can see that, in the MacColl/Seeger repertoire, the contemporary political song, and the ostensibly non-contentious centuries old Child ballad, ultimately serve the same function. We will return to these issues shortly. In the meantime, the question of song as emotional catharsis requires discussion. It too throws up some thorny problems. As a species, we possess common emotions, for feelings of anger, love, hate, sorrow or whatever are stitched into our genetic makeup. Therefore, if folksong in its natural environment acts as an expression of these feelings, bearers of folksong the world over should logically possess a unity of performance style. That is something we should expect to hear in folksong performance.
However, apart from the problems raised earlier about measuring emotion, we have an aditional difficulty. It is that, if emotions are genetically endowed, the ways in which they are expressed are not. Expression of emotion is mediated by the individual's social culture. Depending on which culture we were reared in, the examples of others inculcate us into, say, feelings of forbearance in the face of adversity, or shows of uncontrollable grief at wakes and funerals, or possibly even into feeling humble in the presence of the great and the powerful. Only by understanding the singer's culture, then, can we properly understand and interpret the emotional content of their performance. However, this limitation notwithstanding, there is one basis of comparison which we can apply to folk music traditions the world over. They were all conceived in conditions of poverty. If hardship and poverty are the driving forces behind singing style and emotional expression, might we not hear some basic similarity linking, say Bulgaria's Valya Balanska, and North Carolina's Dillard Chandler, and Connemara's Joe Heaney? We may not always be able to understand what is eating the singer from a different culture, but we cannot be left in much doubt that something is.
We can ponder these questions by comparing folk and popular songs from the time of the American depression. That is because the depression hit everyone, townsfolk and country dwellers alike. In the decade when the once affluent New Yorker found his fortunes resembling that of poor rural Southerners, we might expect the pop songs of the day to voice an opinion on the matter. We might expect them to become 'folksongs' reasserted. In fact, we find the pop song fleeing reality in the 1930s as fast, if not faster, than in any decade before or since. It is true that the era threw up Brother Can You Spare a Dime, and Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, and Remember my Forgotten Man. It did not throw up much more of similar ilk. Songs like The Good Ship Lollipop, We're in the Money, and I Can't Get Started were far more typical of the era. That is because, at a time of economic collapse, market forces, or what was left of them, demanded a mechanism by which poverty stricken Americans could hide from the awfulness of the depression. The pop song was a means of retreat. It was a means of enabling people to forget the misery of economic chaos.
The songs which the working, or non-working, folk of depression America made for themselves, hid and sheltered no-one. The people who sang into the recording machines of Library of Congress collectors, told of hard times and hard employers. They told of National Guards and picket lines, of dust bowls and bread lines. They told the world what it felt like to be a miner, or a mill worker, or a poor dirt farmer, or a migrant labourer forced out of home and occupation by the ravages of God and mammon. As the music historian, Charles Hamm, put it, "There is no fantasy, no rise of song for escape ... Listening to a number of hillbilly songs from the Depression is like looking through one of the great collections of photographs from this time showing the bleak faces of country folk, their pitiful clothing and poor furnishings, the visible evidence of hunger and need." 9
The carriers of folksong do not hold a monopoly on realism, but poverty and cruel oppression left them with a very large stake. That does not mean that they were immune to the products of commercial America. The depression of the 1930s was a period of boom as far as radio was concerned, and the poor rural Southerners of depression America heard the pop songs of the day broadcast on the radio. They listened to them and they sang them. Just like everybody else, they would have regarded them as a trip to fantasy island. 10
But the songs which ordinary people made for themselves, they made out of personal experience. They made them out of their own lives, and out of their hardships and feelings and sufferings. They made them from such things because, truth to tell, they had nothing else. Songs which are born this way do not fantasise, or try to escape from life. Rather, they become the means of confronting that which is inescapable. The folksong differs from the pop song as night differs from day, but it does so less in terms of social selection and market orientation than of psychological function. 11 If that last bit is true, then several contentions must follow.
The interview approach to folksong collecting is commonplace nowadays, and it is also the standard working method of practically every other branch of social enquiry. In 1964, in the world of folksong collection, it bordered on the revolutionary. When dealing with a singer like Joe Heaney, however, we are led into a problem, for the subject of these recordings is something of an enigma. To the speaker of English he was Joe Heaney. To the Gaelic cultural revivalist, he was Seosamh Ó hÉanaí. To the cottagers of Connemara he was Joe Éiniú, which is the local form of his name in Gaelic. Different audiences, different songs, different expectations. It is important to remember this when we try and assess Joe Heaney as a carrier of tradition. It is important, in evaluating his contribution to this interview, to keep in mind the extent to which his thoughts and attitudes might have been influenced by the people he rubbed shoulders with.
Carna, which is the district of south Connemara where Joe Heaney grew to manhood, has all the qualifications to host one of the greatest folksong traditions on earth. It is remote, barren and poverty stricken, and some of the flavour of the life, work and entertainment of Connemara is heard in the actuality on these discs. In recent years a certain amount of light industry has been introduced into the area and many inhabitants qualify for governmental support in accordance with the region's special status as a Gaeltacht, or Gaelic speaking area. However, it remains essentially a fishing-cum-small holding economy, with the bulk of its inhabitants settled within a few hundred yards of the shore line. Gaelic is the first spoken language of the majority of its inhabitants, and It has been an outpost of Gaelic culture since the days when Cromwell banished the native Irish property holders to lands west of the Shannon. Along this bleak, inhospitable coast, Joe Heaney's forbears and confreres fished the Atlantic swells, dug the peat bogs for turf and grew potatoes in the bare, rocky soil. It is an unremittingly harsh environment, one made all the more so by the ruthless colonialism of foreign oppressors.
Assemble a group of aficionados of the sean-nós or old style of Gaelic singing, which is still the major form of musical expression in Connemara, and the collective opinion will be that Heaney was the idiom's greatest ever representative. Just like Michael Coleman, or Willie Clancy, or Johnny Doran, his artistry was such that it virtually defined the medium in which he performed. He was Carna to his bootstraps. There is no doubt that birth and background moulded Heaney's singing style, a style which stayed with him to the end of his days. There is no doubt either that he left Carna with a large repertoire of songs, and a perspective of life which had been shaped by poverty and hard living, and by folk and National School memories of Cromwell and the famine and landlordism and the Black and Tans. You don't have to look far into Heaney's repertoire to see that this perspective is reflected in many of the songs he sought out. But Heaney was much more than a paradigm of the Carna tradition. In a lifetime of wandering he picked up a great many songs and became many singers. He was the private singer of the kitchens of Connemara. He was the public face of Gaeldom at the Oireachtas, the annual festival of Gaelic culture. To the building labourers of Camden Town, he was a pub singer who regaled them with memories of far off shores and home. To the crowds at American folk festivals, he embodied an Ireland where the cottage door was always open, and the kettle was always on the turf fire, and the poitín still bubbled merrily and secretly nearby.
The fact that Joe Heaney spent most of his adult life away from Carna, therefore, seems to have had a major impact on the shape and content of his repertoire. Determining exactly where he picked up songs is a fruitless exercise simply because, where other singers counted their songs in dozens, Heaney counted his in hundreds. Indeed, his total song repertoire has been estimated at around 600 items. 12
Nevertheless, we know enough about his life and wanderings to be able to make a few reasonable guesses, and to see how different songs might have tied in with different phases of his life. For instance, most of his Gaelic songs appear to have been learned in Carna; either before he moved away, or during infrequent visits home. Of the Gaelic songs sung during these interviews, only one, Éamonn an Chnoic (Ned of the Hill) is not widely known in Connemara. it is a Munster song. As Éamonn Ó Bróithe's footnotes to this interview notes point out, his most likely point of acquisition of the song was his old school room in Carna. That suggests that Joe did not commune much with other Gaelic singers while in Britain. If he had done so, he would surely have picked up songs from other Gaelic speaking regions.
A good proportion of his English language songs were learned in Carna as well. For the most part these were importations from the English speaking world at large. It is not surprising to find The Bonny Boy and The Old Man Rocking the Cradle amongst them. Both songs must have had a strong appeal in a land where arranged marriage, often between people of disparate age groups, was the norm. For that matter, My Boy Willie is found wherever folksongs are sung in English, but its drowning theme must have held a special fascination for people who risk their lives wresting a living from the sea. The song has been recorded from several Connemara singers and it finds echoes in many Gaelic songs, including the lament for the drowned oarsmen, Currachaí na Trá Báine (The Currachs of Trá Báine).
Joe must have learnt The Rocks of Bawn whilst in Connemara, for it was sung there by his cousin Colm Ó Caoidheáin. Its continuing popularity is testimony to the harsh environment of Connemara, and to a people who knew nothing but rock and bog, and soil as thin, and spare as the people who tilled it. Yet this song, with its cry of desperation against foul conditions and hard employers, held an equally strong message for the building labourers of Glasgow or London or Southampton, or anywhere else Joe worked. There is a persistent legend told around building sites in Britain. It's said that the construction magnate, Sir Alfred McAlpine's last dying words were, "Keep the big mixer going, and keep Paddy behind it." The story is no more convincing than any other urban legend, but Paddy stayed behind the big mixer nevertheless.
Other songs which Joe knew from childhood include O'Brien From Tipperary, a song from the American civil war, and a version of the pirate ballad, Captain Coulston. Joe knew this as The Tennis Right or Tenant's Rights. It is the name of the ship, whose crew and emigrant passengers jointly fight off a company of marauding pirates, and an oblique reference to the movement against landlordism which arose in the late 1870s. We find another oblique reference to landlordism in The Bogs of Shanaheever, which Joe called The Two Greyhounds. Joe sang no local songs in English during these interviews because, when Gaelic speakers write songs, they usually do so in their native tongue. The Two Greyhounds comes closest to being a local creation, although Shanaheever is actually north of Clifden, beyond the Gaelic speaking part of Connemara. Joe's notion that it was written by an emigrant in America is open to question. Even so, this story of a rabbit poacher, who emigrates to America on the death of his hunting dog, must have jerked a fierce response, among a people forced out of their country by the rapaciousness of the landlord class.
The anti-landlord theme in Skibbereen is anything but oblique. Like The Rocks of Bawn, this desperate story of eviction and famine and ultimate revenge would have gone down well with Joe's workmates in 1950s London. It is questionable though whether Skibbereen could have been part of his Carna inheritance, for it was far more popular with showbands and ballad groups than with Irish country singers. Famine songs generally did not survive among rural Irish singers, and Joe seems to be the only such individual who has ever been recorded singing this one. Indeed, it is something of a surprise to find that the song has been turned up more frequently among Canadian singers. 13
The author of Skibbereen is unknown, but its style and content are typical of compositions by nineteenth century middle class radicals. Many such writers were members of the Young Ireland Movement, and their compositions were frequently published in The Nation, a radical journal which included John Mitchel among its staff. Mitchel was eventually transported to the penal colonies for seditious libel, and the ballad which bears his name is suitably seditious and radical. The Glen of Aherlow is another song in the same vein. It is a composition of the Tipperary poet, Charles Kickham, which he wrote to warn young Irishmen against joining the British army. The large numbers of nineteenth century Irish enlistments is proof that the warning went unheeded. Even so, Anti-English songs were staple fare in the pubs of Camden Town, and these tales of nineteenth century oppression are complemented by two songs from the Black and Tan period; The Upton Ambush and The Valley of Knockanure.
There is probably not much substance, however, in Joe's contention that The Harp Without the Crown is a fragment from the Fenian uprising of 1867. The harp without the crown was an emblem of the Fenians, but the raising of it is a motif which occurs in several other maritime songs. The popularity of nationalist songs such as these was matched by 'Come all ye's' like The Rocks of Bawn and 'weepies' like Erin Grá Mo Chroí and jokey songs of mismatched wedlock like Patsy McCann. Moreover, the pipers Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis were resident in London for part of Joe's time there, and there is plenty of evidence that these three cronies passed songs and tunes among themselves. Captain Wedderburn was probably a part of this concordance, for all three individuals had very similar versions. 14
Yet, outside of such company, it is hard to imagine that Joe would have found much of an audience for the Gaelic songs, or for that matter, his big English language songs like The Banks of Claudy or Barbara Allen. During this time he was recorded by Pádraic Ó Raghallaigh for Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and by Peter Kennedy for the BBC. There were infrequent visits to Ireland and appearances at Oicheanta Seanchais (traditional nights) at the Damer Hall in Dublin. He recorded commercially in 1957, for Gael Linn of Dublin, and there were a pair of extended play records which Collector Records of London put out. However, the best guide to Joe's singing world in the late fifties probably lies with the Folkways LP, Irish Music in London Pubs, which Ralph Rinzler recorded in situ in 1958. It shows a couple of 'come all ye's' and a lively Gaelic song, sandwiched between noisy instrumental medleys. In a world of building sites and shared digs and noisy pubs, these must have been lean years for the talent which made Joe Heaney such a powerful force in the Gaelic world. 15
The early sixties saw a partial acceptance of that talent into the British folk club movement. He began to attract invitations to sing around folk venues, and held a resident's chair at the Singers Club in London until his emigration to the USA. Indeed, he was so highly thought of that his residency was kept open, should he ever decide that America was not for him. Nevertheless, while Joe Heaney's singing was meat and drink to a hard core of enthusiasts, very few folkies then or now, were prepared to listen to him singing in Gaelic. That is a sad situation, and it probably explains the preponderance of English language songs sung during these interviews. Venues like The Singers Club excepted, the buckling of Joe Heaney to the English folk revival was not a happy one, and it is said that unresponsive audiences were a major factor in his decision to emigrate to America. Be that as it may, the folk revival had brought him into contact with the ballad groups, The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers, and their influence was instrumental in getting Joe established in America. There was an exchange of songs between Joe and these groups and The Jug of Punch, The Old Woman of Wexford and the version he sings here of As I Roved Out, which Joe called The Deceived Maiden, may well have been part of that exchange.
The twenty years which Joe spent in America fall outside this project. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that his acceptance there was not as artistically uncompromised as many like to think. Yet, if audiences wanted, and got, The Real Old Mountain Dew, I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me, and The Claddagh Ring, they also got some of the great treasures of Gaelic folksong like Úna Bhán (Fair Una) or Currachaí na Trá Báine, or Amhrán na hEascainne (The Song of the Eel), which is Joe's magnificent version of the ballad, Lord Randal.
He would also have given them some of the livelier songs of Gaelic Ireland; amhrán tapa, as they are called. Songs like Bean Pháidin (Páidin's wife) and Cailleach an Airgid, (The Hag with the Money) and the macaronic or dual language Cúnnla, are sometimes held in lesser esteem than the bigger items. But whatever they lack in stature they make up for in vigour and wit.
It was probably a function of the interview situation, but Joe sang several songs to MacColl and Seeger that he may not have counted normal parts of his repertoire. They include a pair of songs learned in school; Beidh Aonach Amárach i gContae an Chláir (There will be a fair tomorrow in the County Clare), and The Queen of Connemara. The latter was a composition of Francis A Fahy, a native of Kinvara in Co Galway, who spent most of his adult life as a London civil servant. There is also the lullaby Seoithín Seo, which he doubtless heard in the house where he grew up, and the obscene Whiskey Ó Roudeldum-Row. The latter would not have been sung by Joe in mixed company. Nevertheless, it represents a bawdy substratum of Gaelic culture, and one seldom reported by Gaelic folklorists.
Even when taken together, the number of omissions and errors is too small to undermine the sense of the conversation. When not singing, Joe ranges over his early life and work and his singing style, and over entertainment systems in Connemara. He talks about going to college in Dublin, about working in England and Scotland, about the Dublin ballad boom, and offers advice to young singers.
He also talks about the background to the songs, drawing on a mixture of folk history and schoolroom memories. It is here that the interview runs into its first real problem, for Joe is no historian. His manner is not one of academic detachment, or of objectivity. Neither is his knowledge very reliable. However, in an interview like this, objectivity and accuracy are not commodities we should go looking for. What is at issue is the way Joe perceived history, and how that affected his artistry, not whether he got it right. Nevertheless, as far as I am able, I have corrected his errors via the footnotes, and apologise for any that might have been missed, or for any further errors caused.
There are other aspects of this interview which would not satisfy the seeker after veracity. MacColl's questioning technique sometimes lacks the objectivity one expects of an interview situation, and there are a few places where Joe seems to be grasping for an answer. Indeed, there are one or two instances where the drink simply seems to have got the better of him. Occasionally, he appears to add unnecessary drama to the situation. For instance, while Joe gives much valuable information about performance practices in Connemara, his picture of the private singer in the darkened corner is overdrawn. In Joe's day, the cabins of Connemara would have been dark enough. However, the manner of performance there does not involve the singer turning away from the audience. It involves him facing the other participants in the song, frequently taking the hand of the person directly opposite. Just as frequently, the listeners will play their part in the interchange with spoken words of encouragement and appreciation. In Connemara, singing is not a private experience. It is a shared experience.
Whilst editing this interview there was a considerable temptation to remove some of the sections over which I had misgivings. To have done so would have been neither fair nor impartial. Modification, for any reason other than to facilitate readability, would have meant falling into the same trap as those collectors who bowdlerised folk songs whilst claiming scientific objectivity. It is up to the reader to decide what does and does not make sense. In any event, such misgivings have to be kept in perspective. First of all, Heaney and MacColl were on close personal terms, and knew each other extremely well. It is hardly surprising therefore that the interview occasionally lapses into friendly conversation. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate how much more Heaney gave of himself in this informal atmosphere, than he would have done if faced with an impersonal inquisitor.
Secondly, in considering the reliability of some of Joe's statements, I was surprised to find how closely this 1964 discussion of singing style compared with some of the things he said to the ethnomusicologist James Cowdrey about a decade and a half later. 16 Even so, where so much of what is said remains unverifiable, one can never completely rule out the possibility that the interviewee is bilking the interviewer. The annals of blues literature, for instance, are replete with instances where a singer has either told an interviewer what he or she wanted to hear, or simply has had a laugh at the interviewer's expense. 17 Yet anyone who knew Joe Heaney knew that he was a man of forthright opinion. He knew what he believed in and he was not afraid to say so. The impression, comes through strongly that Joe thought about his attitudes and his role in the singing world very carefully, and that his answers were generally honest reflections of Joe Heaney, the man and the singer.
When dealing with oral testimony we should be less concerned with historical fact than with feeling and opinion. I am not an oral historian, but if I were, I would not use the spoken word as a means of obtaining verifiable truth. I would not interview, say, retired farm workers, to learn of numbers of cattle driven to market, or of hedges uprooted and farms consolidated. I can find those things out from documentary sources. Rather, I would be looking for the smell of horse manure; for impressions of what it must have been like to walk behind a plough in worn shoes and thin stockings 'from the clear daylight till the dawn'. I would be looking for clues which laid bare the feelings of my fellow members of the human race. That is what we get from folksong, and that is what we get from these interviews. We may not always get objectivity, we may not always get verifiable fact, but we do get Joe Heaney.
Fred McCormick - 20.4.00
A revised and abbreviated version of the above forms the introduction to the CD booklet.
Roud Numbers quoted are from the databases, The Folk Song Index and The Broadside Index, continually updated, compiled by Steve Roud. Currently containing over 200,000 records between them, they are described by him as "extensive, but not yet exhaustive". Copies are held at: The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London; Taisce Ceoil Dúchais Éireann, Dublin; and the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh. They can also be purchased direct from Steve at Southwood, Maresfield Court, High Street, Maresfield, East Sussex, TN22 2EH, UK.
|Interview Part 1
|Interview Part 2
|Interview Part 3
Grateful thanks are extended to Sean and to the university's archivist, Laurel Sercombe, for permission to use it as well as for assistance with various other aspects of this project. It should be emphasised that this is a listing solely of songs, lilts, stories etc which were recorded by the university, rather than an itemisation of Joe's entire repertoire. Sean estimates the number of songs Joe knew as being in excess of 600. It has proved impossible to obtain an entire listing. Also, the list was conceived as a working document, as a guide to recordings held, rather than as a piece of definitive scholarship.
The list shows the title or titles Joe had for each piece, followed by alternative titles in brackets, followed by (E) (I) (L) or (M) to indicate whether each piece was in English, Irish, was Lilted, or sung as a Macaronic. In a few cases, an item is followed by (F); this indicates that sole recordings the archive holds of that piece are in fragmentary form - it does not mean that Joe only knew or regarded them as fragments. Where possible, I have added translations to some of the Gaelic titles. However, my limited knowledge of Gaelic would have rendered this an unwise procedure in most instances. Where there was any doubt, they have been left alone.
|Songs and fragments
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