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JOE HEANEY "Say A Song" Northwest Archives NWARCD001

In the early sixties Joe Heaney sang at the folk club I ran in Cardiff. It was a night that veterans of the occasion still talk about. These were boom days for the club with regular attendances of two hundred or more. Joe stood before a packed house and totally entranced them with an uncompromising programme of songs in the "Sean-Nos" style, several in the Irish language. On that night I felt that I had seen one of the all-time greats of folk music and have held that opinion ever since. Now here comes an album of live performances made circa 1978-84 proving that Joe maintained his mastery to the end.

"Sean-Nos" is the Irish "Old-Style" singing as learned by the young Heaney growing up in Carna, Co. Galway. There, folks would ask a singer to "Tell me a Song", or "Say a song", and the singer would sit half-turned, cap pulled well down, the better to distance himself from his listeners and allow full concentration on the song - by them as well as him. The style requires good storytelling quality, which Joe had in abundance, and a huge level of vocal control, needed for the intricate decorations of the melody that mark the Sean-Nos. To these gifts Joe Heaney added the insight of an artiste fully aware of the emotional impact of his songs and equal to the task of expressing it. To Joe his songs were jewels and he would not let them go out in the world unpolished. He thought deeply about technique, about tone and pace (or "pulse" as he called it, often declaring "A song does not have a rhythm - it has a pulse") and about decoration, in which he had no equal.

Joe's only departure from the style of his forebearers was in the way he faced an audience. No half-turn or cap - wearing for him, he stood proudly, with grave mien, looking his audience in the eye. Nor did he swagger or attempt to ingratiate himself with fake Oirishness, as did some later singers that he spoke of with scorn. Joe Heaney knew that he was a master of his art. He was content to send his songs out and let them do their work.

On this album nineteen of them do their work ranging from the magnificent "Eileanoir a Ruin", "Roisin Dubh", and an Irish version of "Lord Randal" to children's songs and lilting. In English we get pearls like "Red is the Rose", "The Galway Shawl" and "The Rocks of Bawn", to many of us THE Joe Heaney song.

Joe Heaney spent his final years in America where he gained a level of respect and appreciation that had not always been his lot nearer home. He moved to Seattle circa 1981 and found a position as a teacher of Irish traditions, working at the University of Washington and in schools, adult education, and doing concerts. The tapes making up this album came from these various sources under the aegis of the University. The enclosed booklet provides welcome translations of the Irish texts. All the recordists are given credit, and I send them my thanks for providing a sparkling memento of a personal idol and king of traditional song. I see that it's numbered 001. I can't wait for 002/3/etc.

Roy Harris

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This album was reviewed in Issue 20 of The Living Tradition magazine.