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Frank Harte: Storyteller in Song
 
  
 
Frank Harte

Few traditional Irish singers know as many songs as Frank Harte or sing them with as much enthusiasm and enjoyment. Born and raised in Dublin, Frank was first introduced to traditional Irish songs many years ago when he chanced upon a tinker who was singing and selling his ballad sheets at a fair in the town of Boyle. Ever since, Frank as been collecting and singing "songs that tell stories" and his vast repertoire is second to none.

Below, Frank explains what it means to be a traditional Irish ballad singer and offers some thoughts on Irish music generally.

What is meant by Irish "sean-nos" singing?

Sean nos, translated from the Irish simply means "the old way," in other words, the old way of singing. The term is generally applied to songs sung in the Irish language. Even though I sing old songs in an old way, I would not consider myself a "sean nos singer." Should you wish to hear a Sean nos singer I would suggest that you find a record of the late Joe Heaney or Darrach O'Cathain or Nicholas Toibin and listen to their styles of singing.

How would you describe the different regional styles of singing unaccompanied ballads in Ireland -- for example, the differences between Connemara or Donegal or Cork. What is the predominate style in Ireland today?

There was a time when it was easy to detect from the playing of a musician or the singing of a singer which part of Ireland he came from, or indeed almost which county he came from. The songs themselves would be an indication, as they would almost certainly have many local references in them, likewise the style of the musicians playing would indicate which part of the country he came from. In the past these individual styles were easily recognizable due to the fact that there was no other means of transmission other than the oral or aural contact between musicians and singers. Now days however with the means of mass communication, if a singer/musician from Donegal records a tune it will be learned by a musician in Kerry the following day. It would be very hard to say just what particular style dominates today… as all styles are all available on records to all musicians and singers.

What makes a ballad a "street ballad"?

Again it is almost impossible to be specific, the edges of these various definitions are very woolly. What makes a New York taxi driver? I would consider myself a ballad singer...why? because I sing songs generally without musical accompaniment, songs that have a story to tell, and I sing them in a declamatory manner. I demand that my audience stay quiet and listen to the story that I have to tell, and I tell it out loud with very little ornamentation so that the message comes across clearly.

Most of the street ballads would have started with the first line being.. "Come All you true born Irishmen" or "Come All you jolly ploughmen..." or "Come All you loyal lovers…." And so they were often classified in a derogatory manner as "Come All Ye's". A street ballad …. a ballad that had news to tell, and on the time when they were created they were generally sung in a declamatory manner in the streets by ballad singers who then sold the ballad sheet for a penny for any of the street audience that wished to purchase the song. These songs would differ from the romantic tender love songs, or the 'art ' songs such as the renowned Danny Boy etc.

Do you see the oral tradition of telling stories slipping away in the electronic age of exchanging information?

The venues for singing are fast disappearing, whereas the audiences for our music and dancing has increased out of all expectation, both nationally and internationally. The venue for the song was of course the kitchen where respect for the song and the singer was of paramount importance. Now, however, the TV has taken complete control of that quiet time when the creative elements of the individual were allowed free rein amongst their neighbours. I think it would be a brave singer or storyteller who would switch off the children's program to try to tell a story about Fionn Mac Cool. But then the older folk song collectors at the turn of the last century said that it was already too late that all of the songs were gone….and here we are today talking about and singing that same songs.

Do you see the younger generation in Ireland having much interest in keeping the tradition of ballad singing alive?

It depends on the attitude of many of the schools. In general there is a positive attitude to the promotion of Irish culture, music singing story telling, dancing and the Irish language. There is also a group called Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann which has branches throughout the country and in America and England and are doing great work in teaching and holding competitions largely for children and aspiring musicians and singers.

I think many Americans like to hold on to their romantic notions of what Ireland is all about. But how would you explain modern Ireland, and Dublin to someone?

So much of the American's perception of Ireland dates back to the massive emigration periods from the worst years of 'the great hunger' of 1847 into the 1850s and from then on up through the more recent periods of the 1920s through almost to the 1970s. The people of that time arrived in poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and in many cases speaking a different language. A people who for generations had lived in close contact with their neighbors and gregarious by nature now found themselves lonely in the middle of millions in New York. They also carried with them the stereotypical hatred of English rule and their exploitation by the landlord class. Following the freedom for which we fought and won in 1922, it was evident that our markets were largely dependent on exports to Britain, so that in effect they still maintained a form of financial control in the Irish affairs. One of the major changes has been Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community, whereby our markets are now largely European with an eye to the larger world market. European aid has contributed largely to the development of the country's infrastructure and our adoption of international computer companies has provided in large measure a great source of employment. At present, the farming community is now largely a part-time enterprise with their income being supplemented by employment in industry. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the general standard of education in the country. We now have probably the highest educated youth in Europe and it is the availability of this workforce, along with tax concessions that are attracting foreign industry to Ireland.

The biggest change in Ireland of course if the fact that in the Irish Republic we are a nation free from English rule and govern ourselves to our own advantage. For a nation that is only 80 years old we are doing quite well, we have the fastest growing economy in Europe. We now can make decisions solely for the benefit of our own nation and our own people, whereas in the past the Irish economy would have been considered only in relation to what was good for England.

The youth of Dublin have no more idea of the famine years that caused the massive exodus to America, they are living in the prosperous economy of 'The Celtic Tiger' and long may it continue. But among the mass of the people there is an awareness of the things that are essentially Irish, music, poetry, literature, language and song, all of these in the past had been associated with the stigma of poverty, now however we are confident enough to take pride in those roots and to know that we can take pride in them and bring them with us into the new millennium.

If someone in Ireland today was going to write a ballad to be sung hundreds of years from now, what might it be about?

As I often say myself regarding the songs of our people - songs, which I consider in many cases are the unwritten history of our people…. Those in power write the history and those who suffer write the songs, and given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.

The Irish ballad tradition, unlike many other nations has never waned, it has never stopped, it is a continuum and the songs are still being written about what is happening in the North of Ireland today. What songs will be sung in a hundred years from now….well just three years ago we commemorated the Rebellion of 1798 and sang the songs of two hundred years ago. I have just this week completed a CD of the traditional songs about Napoleon Bonaparte, again written about 200 years ago. I would hope that in another 100 years the people would still be singing the songs in praise of the men who fought and died, and particularly those who died in the Rebellion of 1916, to give us the freedom which we and our children enjoy today. A freedom which puts no limits to the possible achievements of my grandchildren. I would hope that someone would write a similar "We saw a Vision" which was written just a while ago to commemorate those men.
WE SAW A VISION.

In the darkness of despair we saw a vision,
We lit the light of hope
And it was extinguished.
In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision,
We planted the tree of valour,
And it blossomed.

In the winter of bondage we saw a vision,
We melted the snow of lethargy,
And the river of resurrection flowed from it.
We sent a vision aswim like a swan on the river,
The vision became a reality,
Winter became summer,
Bondage became freedom,
And this we left to you as your inheritance.

O generations of freedom remember us,
The generations of vision.
Finally, could you recommend some "must-have" records or CD's for someone who is just starting to become interested in traditional Irish ballads?

The following people are all good singers and there are records and CDs available of their singing. I would suggest that you contact Finbar Boyle in Claddagh Records, Cecilia Street, Dublin, and ask him what records he has available of "good ballad singers''. Here are a few names to start with:

Sarah Makem
Elizabeth Cronin
Nicholas Toibin
Joe Heaney
Kevin Mitchell
Len Graham
Roisin White
Sarah Ann O'Neill
Mairghead Ni Dhomhnaill

Frank's biography

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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