Joe Heaney (Seosamh Ó hÉanaí)

The Road from Connemara: songs and stories told and sung to Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

Topic TSCD518D and Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 143

(Position your cursor over the red asterisks Footnote to see the footnotes)

A Mastersinger from Carna

For years we met almost every night in O'Donoghue's pub in Merrion Row, Dublin.  We often shared the same stretch of bar for the night but contiguity did not lead to companionship.  There was a peppery arrogance about Joe Heaney's behaviour which I never cared for, and I am sure my presence never impinged much on his consciousness.  A picture taken by Nutan in Donoghue's in 1969 and reproduced in Fintan Vallely and Charlie Pigott's Blooming Meadows shows the singer Seán Ó Conaire looking perplexed, Joe scowling (at what, God knows) and me behind him looking apprehensive.  It sums up well the atmosphere of those days as I recall them.

I was not the only one who stepped gingerly around Joe.  Those of you who saw Michael Davitt's excellent television documentary Joe Heaney: Sing the Dark Away (made for RTÉ One in 1996) were made aware of the complexity and abrasivenes of Joe's persona.  He seemed utterly incapable of familial loyalty.  His family he abandoned utterly and left them to fend for themselves in Scotland.  When informed that his wife had died and his son who had had a kidney transplant had developed diabetes and was going blind, he never even made contact with his now parentless family.  Indeed, the dignity and lack of rancour of his son, Jackie Heaney of Clydebank, was one of the most uplifting sequences of the programme.

Although he is remembered by many for his biting tongue, Joe could also be charming, particularly in the presence of the rich and famous.  This I witnessed often enough when he was lionised by visiting and local celebrities.  But he was always aware of the transience of such superficial acclaim and frequently poured acid on the heads of these luminaries before he was finished the pint they had just bought him and their barstool was still warm after their departure.  The American playwright Patrick Carroll knew Joe well in Dublin.  I asked him if his radio play The Scattering Broadcast 27 July 1991 on BBC Radio 4 was based on Joe's life.  (The main character is an Irish traditional singer who cannot maintain relationships and even though he achieves considerable fame he continues on a course of inevitable self destruction.)  Pat replied, "No, the character is not Joe Heaney."  Then he added, "But if I hadn't known Joe I never could have written the part!"

It is an unfortunate fact that many great artists were and are unlovely people.  And Joe Heaney was a great artist.  It was his very justified belief in his outstanding ability as interpreter and as a conduit of a magnificent tradition which gave him an air of superiority which he handled badly with unfortunate social results.  If he was truculent and resentful, he had much to be resentful for, and he seems to have been his own worst enemy.  But far more important is the certainty that his legacy to the tradition for which he cared so deeply is munificent and will override whatever foibles the fact of being human inflicted upon him.

Joe was born in Áird Thoir, Carna, in the Connemara Gaeltacht in 1919.  This was the same parish of which the great folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin was to declare to an international gathering of his colleagues in 1950: "There are more folktales to be gathered in the parish of Carna than there are in the rest of Western Europe!"  It was not an idle boast.  Naturally an area conservative in the retention of its folktales and language would have a strong song tradition.  His parents and relations had many songs and he was even encouraged to sing them in the local National School.  His childhood does not seem to have been particularly happy.  He said of himself: "I was what they call the black sheep of the family...  Because I never did anything right, that's why.  Nothing to please anybody."  On leaving school he won a scholarship to go to teacher college.  He spent two years there before being expelled.  This failure seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life.  The often repeated story that Joe was asked to leave for merely being caught smoking is debunked by the man himself in the MacColl interview with a typical lack of self-pity.

JH - I got a scholarship.
EM - You must be bright.
JH - Well, I wasn't too bad that time.
EM - Better than me.  I never got a scholarship anywhere.
JH - I did.  It was my own fault I left it too.
EM - What did you leave it for?
JH - Just being too lazy, shall we say.
He initially came to public attention when he won first prize at the Oireachtas in 1942, achieving a status among premier singers which never left him.  But then, as now, sean-nós singing does not butter many parsnips in Ireland and practical reality meant labouring in Scotland and England.  His marriage in Clydebank produced two sons and two daughters before he returned to stay in London.  The strong Irish music scene in the London of the 1950s and early '60s proved congenial to Joe and he travelled back and forward between London and Dublin fairly often singing in concerts, making recordings and competing in the Oireachtas.

The folk music revival proved both a blessing and a curse to Joe.  He began to be féted by the 'stars' of this revival.  Some, like MacColl and Seeger, Lloyd and Hamish Henderson were earnestly trying to gain a knowledge and appreciation of his art.  And at a more popular level, groups like the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners were genuinely attracted to him and respected him for what he stood for.  However, well-meant attempts by such groups to introduce him to popular audiences often came to grief.  It has to be remembered that such audiences were there only because the current fad was 'the ballads'.  Their comprehension of sean-nós, or any other form of traditional singing, was zilch.  When faced with anything which was outside their sphere of comprehension, they did as mobs anywhere will do, they attacked.  I have written elsewhere of the humiliation suffered by Joe at the hands of these yahoos.Dal gCais,  No. 7, 1984, pp 92-3  In the CD booklet Peggy Seeger recalls the disgraceful behaviour of these cretins at one concert.Actually Peggy Seeger seems to have confused two events, one in the Grafton Cinema and another in the Green Cinema.  Both events were run by Peggy Jordan after pub closing time (not as Peggy recalls, in the afternoon).  Neither did the Dublin audiences any credit.

"Joe, being the less well known, was to open.  He was booed off by this despicable crowd after the first two lines of his first song.  It is to our eternal disgrace that we other artists went on after he was forced off, almost in tears."
I will concur with Peggy's version of the concert.  You can imagine my surprise when on the aforementioned TV documentary, Peggy Jordan, the (recently deceased) impresario who ran these concerts throughout the 'sixties, recalled the same concert as follows:
"(I hired) the Stephen's Green Cinema which held eleven hundred people.  And I had Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger over from England then, at great cost to myself.  And they were the main thing.  And Liam Clancy was staying in the house too.  So Liam and Joe got sort of singing together, each one taking turns singing the one song (alternatively?).  And they went down so well that MacColl and Seeger nearly walked out.  They were furious!"
So Peggy Seeger and I seem to have got it wrong.  Those were not catcalls and boos we heard on the night, actually, the audience was clamouring for encores and shouting its appreciation!

There was only so much of this form of 'appreciation' Joe could take and, shortly after, he decided to emigrate to America permanently.  It has to be said that he did try to find work teaching and demonstrating his art within the school system in Ireland before leaving.  He made some approaches to the Department of Education seeking, as I recall, the sum of £18 a week to tour the schools but his request found no favour with the government officials whom he approached.

He found work in America as a liveried concierge in an up-market apartment block in Manhattan and was able to supplement his income with appearances at folk festivals, concerts and clubs from time to time.  While friendship with the Clancy Brothers and others gained him entrée to the folk scene, academics like Ken Goldstein, Richard Ó Driscoll and later Mick Moloney introduced him to the college circuits.  This resulted in Joe finally achieving his ambition to teach, first in Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut from 1980 until 1982, and then for the Ethnomusicology Department of the University of Washington in Seattle.  He was still working there at the time of his death in 1984.

Mick Moloney championed Joe's cause through publishing recordings and arranging appearances.  Although I do not think he has claimed any credit for it, I am assured that Moloney played a large part in Joe's being awarded The National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award for Excellence in the Folk Arts in 1982.  This Joe saw as the pinnacle of his achievement.  Although such recognition must have come as a belated vindication of his value as an artist and was very welcome, Moloney has pointed out that these highlights were spread very thinly over a lot of years.  He also makes the telling point that the majority of Heaney's support came from the non-Irish in the USA.

Towards the end of his life in Seattle Heaney seems to have become something of a recluse, particularly after encroaching ill-health made him abandon alcohol and cigarettes.  His students and neighbours described him as lonely.  It seems that he lived mainly for his teaching.  But at least the groves of Academe were agreeable to him and he was in an environment where he could preach the gospel he had been advocating all his life and know that he had, at last, found a permanent supply of willing listeners.  The university department for which he worked have compiled hundreds of hours of his lectures and recitals recorded by students and others during his tenure.  They say that this resource is the most frequently accessed single collection in their archive.  The Northwest Folklife and University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives subsequently published a posthumous CD, Say a Song: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest.NWARCD 001, 1996  These recordings show that Joe, even at the end of his days and suffering from emphysema, continued to be a consummate artist who utilised his remaining resources to their maximum effect and was still a superlative singer.

The CDs under review here come from hours of tape recordings made by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger at their home in Beckenham in 1964.  As the entire interview has been posted on this site for several months most of you will have already read some or all of it.  It and the introduction by Fred McCormick make compulsive reading.  For obvious pressures of space this introduction is much reduced in the CD booklet, so I would ask readers who have not read the entire piece to do so as it is provocative, infuriating, enlightening and consistently thoughtful.  It is however, not what I was asked to review, but it is part of the baggage to be taken on board before approaching the review and I will have to be forgiven for commenting on some aspects of the total interview without which we would not have the material for the CDs.

Fred states that the "interview is not merely a vivid portrayal of its subject; it is also an eloquent demonstration of the philosophy of the interviewers."  And of course the shape of any interview is dictated by the perspectives of the questioner.  Nevertheless, it is asking too much of the data presented here to give us more than an incidental overview of MacColl's philosophy, However revealing such insights may be, it is unfair to extrapolate too much from them.  MacColl did not set about this interview with publication in mind, and it is very much a warts-and-all package which would have been much tightened up and edited if publication had been its objective.  What we have here is more in the form of field notes and it is indeed generous of Peggy Seeger to allow them to be presented in their raw state.

Much of the questioning is insightful, some is incredibly pompous and other areas are just plain daft.  Were he a student of mine I would have told him to try again.  Far too many of the queries are leading questions which render the replies useless.  Even if the informant would have given the same answer one cannot be sure of its veracity because the questioner supplied the answer in the question itself.  It is the nature of the questioner/respondent relationship that the latter will try to give the former the answer they expect.

EM - Now, everybody doesn't decorate, Joe, in your part of the world, do they? Not to anything like the same extent that you do? ...

And ... (Discussing differences between music hall and traditional singing):
EM - You don't believe there is any connection between the two types of music.  (Correctly, the transcriber inserts no question mark at the end of the sentence, for it is more like a statement.)
JH - No I don't, for one minute I don't believe it.
EM - For instance, the kind of singing that Dominic (Behan) does, do you think that's closer to that kind of ...
JH - Definitely its within one percent of a music hall thing.  That's my honest opinion.
EM - There's no folk style there?
JH - No, not a bit.  That's in my opinion though.  I have nothing in the world against him at all ...
EM - Nothing except he's a lousy singer - (laughs)
JH - Well, its not for me to say.

MacColl seems to be oblivious to the fact that Heaney is being extremely circumspect and watching his own back.  He is trying to please his interviewer without damning a possible ally.  Similarly when Joe is asked to decide which is the more genuinely traditional and is played recordings of an Azerbaijani singer and Joan Baez; really Ewan, in your house, as your guest, and knowing your reputation, did you really think he would have expressed a preference for Joan Baez?

Questioning on the nature of macaronic song elicits answers which are contradictory and confused.  Similarly, the passages where MacColl tries to get Joe to verbalise his thoughts on his art are unsatisfactory, mainly because neither had the vocabulary which allowed them to communicate mutually.  What MacColl is at here is seeking clarification of Joe's thought processes as a conscious artist, not some sort of noble savage whose singing ability "just growed" because of an accident of birth.  That Joe and others like him were virtuoso performers not only because of their inherited tradition but also because of individual creativity and personal effort was a proposition propounded by MacColl on The Song Carriers.  It was a comparatively novel concept in relation to folk performers at the time and its truth is not fully recognised even yet.

McCormick rightly comments that "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 be looking for."  He goes on to point out that the importance of the interview are Joe's perceptions.  Granted, but I would add a further caveat; in some cases where Joe was not sure of an answer he came out with some ferocious ould blather which I am sure he did not believe himself, but it was alright on the night.  Thankfully McCormick and Éamonn Ó Bróithe have done a commendable job in footnoting, clarifying and rectifying errors and obscurities in the text of the interview and on the CD notes.

When interviewing a storyteller or singer I make it a habit to always ask the informant where they got each story or song.  This becomes so routine that in most case the informant will soon add in this information at the end of each piece themselves.  Such information is obviously important in establishing the sources and dissemination of the informant's repertoire.  Unfortunately it is a question which MacColl asks all too infrequently.  This is particularly regrettable in the light of Heaney's statement that he never learned a song from a book.  Frankly, I don't believe him.  Certainly the majority of his repertoire was learned from his Carna childhood and absorbed from such important singers as his uncle, that phenomenal repository of song, Colm Ó Caoidheáin.  But I am sure a man of Joe's intelligence would refresh his memory and add to his repertoire from printed and other sources.  I am also quite confident that he added material he heard from the Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, Séamus Ennis and their cohorts.  He willingly gave them songs from his repertoire, so why should he not adopt some of their songs, either directly or from their recordings?  The answer to Joe's disclaiming any but oral sources is his alertness to the elitist attitude (which has not left us yet) which places more importance on songs acquired orally and relegated songs learned from print or recordings to a lesser station.  I am not sure if Joe would have always give direct answers to such questions on sources, but it is a great pity that MacColl did not ask them when he had the chance.

On then to the CDs themselves.  They are handsomely presented in a black double disc (VotP) box.  The photograph reproduced on the cover is a hand-tinted portrait of a youthful Joe holding his hands in the vaguely pugilistic manner which he would strike while singing.  Cover pictureAnother copy used hang in O'Donoghue's pub and he once said that he looked like "the middleweight sean-nós champion of Carna" in it.  The accompanying booklet comes to 60 pages and contains an affectionate introductory essay by Liam Mac Con Iomaire, one of the great contemporary proselytisers of the art of sean-nós singing.  Peggy Seeger contributes some memories of the man and the actual making of the recordings.  Fred McCormick's prologue is a much condensed version of the text which appears on the MT page and which I have already commented on.  The songs are transcribed by Dan Quinn (English) and Éamonn Ó Bróithe (Gaelic).  It has to be said that the transcriptions are impeccable and that McCormick, as editor, puts his practice where is mouth is.

Topic, I assume, rather than McCormick the individual, continues the lamentable practice of absorbing the notes on the songs into the prefacing essays rather than keeping them where they are readily accessible and relevant, as headnotes.  They have made a few exceptions for some unstated reason and allowed a few of Ó Bróithe's erudite comments a place beneath the song text.

I repeat, "these recordings were not made for publication" and take cognisance of McCormick's warning about the sound quality.  They were probably made on a Uher Report, a good machine, but no Nagra III.  Thankfully, it has to be said that the sound quality is not bad at all.  And the re-mastering has certainly brought it, (in most cases) beyond the standard one would expect of domestic recordings.  I seem to detect a very slight break-up of signal at the upper end of some sustained notes which may be in the transfer rather than the original.  The fact that these are essentially field recordings need not worry the listener (for whom such an appellation may sometimes bring to mind an excuse for thoughtless recording and sloppy editing).

McCormick states "In a lifetime of majestic singing, Joe Heaney was never in better form than here"  It is true that Joe was at the height of his powers when these recordings were made.  This is not open to argument.  But as for the MacColl recordings being the finest representation of his art, I would have to differ somewhat.  They are slightly eclipsed by the Topic LP Joe Heaney: Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic and English Topic 12T 91 made only a year previously which is, for me, one of the finest recordings of traditional singing ever made.  Anywhere.

There is always an artistic tension created when a virtuoso singer like Joe is in a performance situation like a concert, recital, or recording studio.  Rather than being intimidated, they rise to the occasion.  Intimate interview situations seldom create the same fusion, for, in order to access the information the interviewer seeks, it is necessary to strive to put the subject at ease.  In doing so one runs the risk of blunting the edge of the situation when it includes performance.  This happens in several cases on these recordings.  However, it is important to put this in context; nowhere does Joe quite rise to the superlative heights he achieves on, say, Caoineadh na dTrí Muire on the Topic LP, but there is not a single track on either CD which is less than fine, and most are excellent.

Whereas we must be extremely grateful to MacColl and Seeger for having the initiative to do these interviews it has to be said that their lack of knowledge of the Irish language results in an imbalance regarding Joe's repertoire.  His first language was Irish and consequently the majority of his songs were in that tongue.  But only thirteen of the thirty nine items reproduced on the CDs are in Irish.  There seems to be another side effect of this situation reflected in these recordings; in some of the 'big songs' like Curachaí na Trá Báine and Eanach Cuain Joe uses rising and falling volume in order to emphasise points.  I have no recollection of him doing this to any great extent on recordings made before or after these sessions.  I can only speculate that he was trying to communicate through dynamics to his two listeners whom he knew could not comprehend the language he was singing in.

Such is the importance of this production I consider it only fair to give it the attention it merits and comment on every track.

CD One

CD Two

So there you have it.  Is it a complete picture of Joe Heaney?  My own feeling is that it cannot be so if it excludes his masterpiece, Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire (which he mentions in the interview but is not asked to sing).  It is also a little perverse in omitting his most popular song, The Rocks of Bawn, which he did sing in the course of the interview.  But overall this is a splendid achievement.  MacColl and Seeger have our gratitude for their foresight, and we must be thankful to McCormick and his team for seeing it through.  Coupling this with the release of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin, one can only say that 2000 has been a very good year indeed for Irish traditional singing.

Tom Munnelly - 15.11.00

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