Singing (9)

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  • Teideal (Title): Singing (9).
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 850407.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): singing style.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Jill Linzee.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): between 1982 and 1984.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): inverview.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): Mike Seeger.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Singing and storytelling in Carna

Nearly twenty years after his conversation with Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger in London, Joe was interviewed by one of his graduate students, Jill Linzee1, at the University of Washington. During their conversation, Jill is able to gently but purposefully nudge Joe in the direction she wants him to go, getting him to explain why he thought the singing and storytelling traditions were so important to his community.

Jill Linzee: When did you start learning songs and stories? When did you first start telling them?

Joe Heaney: Well, I started getting interested in them before I was five years of age, I think. I did. It’s the lilt I liked, you know, the lilt of the tunes. Of course now, maybe – if there was other things, if there was radio, maybe, or something – maybe that would divert me off it. I’m not saying it would – right now, I’d say it wouldn’t, but maybe it would, I don’t know.

JL: Um-hmm.

JH: Because I know the people growing up today, you see, is singing the old songs and telling the old stories, and they all have radios. But they’re… singing the old songs and telling the old stories as usual. I got so interested, especially the stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Oisín and all these, which I haven’t told any of them yet. And, eh, I always try to leave the best for the last, you know!

And… this is what it meant by inis scéal, ‘tell a story.’ You weren’t talking about something that happened yesterday or the day before. A story meant you’re going back pre-Christian times. That is a story about the magic of the Dé Danaans, and the Manannán Mac Lir; the man who had the boat who could go under the sea, between the sea and over the sea; the magic horse that Niamh Chinn Óir2 had when she came from the Land of the Ever-Young to take Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s son with her as her husband; the King of Ireland’s son going to East and the Western World, to marry the King of the Western World’s daughter; the exploits of him as he went; the embellishments, the runs of the story.

This is a story. You came into a blacksmith’s shop and you asked him, ‘Can you make a tongs for me?’ You know, tongs for lifting the sod of turf. ‘I will, but, meantime, while I’m finishing, tell me a story.’

JL: Hmm.

JH: Then you knew what he wanted.

JL: Um-hmm.

JH: It’s like the Gobán Saor, now, the Gobán Saor… Saor is a tradesman, a mason. The Gobán was the best mason in Ireland. This was during the reign of Balor of the Evil Eye. I mentioned him, I think. The time of the Dé Danaans you know, the Gobán was the best man to make castles and all that.

JL: Right, I remember the story.

JH: Now, ‘shorten the road.’ When he asked his son, ‘Shorten the road for me,’ he didn’t ask him to get a pick-axe and start cutting up the road. ‘Shorten the road’ meant ‘tell me a story.’

JL: [When did you] tell your first story or your first song… in public, or in front of other people?

JH: Well, I’ll tell you the first time I ever told my first story, it wasn’t even in public, there was- The schools were supposed to tell little stories for… [There] was a priest who came into- from Galway, Father Fair they called him, and he was the man who was there in the school. And I told that story, ‘The Bad and Good Funeral Days,’ and I got a little prize for it. But, I mean, I didn’t mean- I wasn’t, you see, trying to get a prize, I just told the story the best way I could, the way, what I learned it. But I never sang in public until I was over twenty.

JL: Hmm. In public – but you would sing in front of the family?

JH: Well, I would sing in front of them, providing I didn’t think I was good. When I sing, they say, ‘Remember now – you’re still learning.’

JL: And who did you get all of your songs from, or most of your songs from?

JH: At home. But, you see, they told me, ‘You’re still learning. Don’t think you can sing them well until you listen to them about a thousand times.’ That was the advice. And it was good advice, too.

JL: So, your grandmother…?

JH: My father had an awful lot of songs, and a lot of songs died with him that nobody ever had. See, there was no collectors, no tape-recorders, nothing at that time, you see. My grandmother – I told you, the only English song she had was ‘I wish I had someone to love me.’ And who would dare sing that while she was around! She loved to sing that. But then again, you see, the neighborhood was full of songs, you see. The whole parish of Carna, you see, was – as Alan Lomax said – the richest place in Europe, or the world, for songs and stories. No matter where you went, somebody could do something, you see.

JL: Um-hmm. Everyone in the community would…

JH: Well, they could, even if they didn’t sing it, they’d say it, you know, they’d recite it, poetry or something. Like ‘Mise Raifteirí an file, lán dóchais is grá3.’ Or they could tell a s- Even [if] they couldn’t sing a song, they’d say a song. You know, if you’re in a country house, and the people, you know – There’s always – The man of the house or the woman of the house has to do the first thing.

JL: Um-hmm.

JH: They have to sing the first song, or tell the first story.

JL: Um-hmm.

JH: Then after that they have what you call a ‘noble call.’ A ‘noble call’ is they can choose to pick somebody they feel like they want to hear singing or telling a story. And if that person either sings or tells a story – even though you only sang two verses – he fulfils his duty. And then he… or she has a noble call to call somebody else, you know4. And that’s the way it goes. And then, of course, after the noble call, then, there’s somebody ‘ll say, ‘Now we’re going to hear a story.’ This is the big, big story coming up now, like, ‘There was here long ago, long ago it was, if I was here that time I wouldn’t be here now.’ You know the- That’s the way it started, in Irish5. And that story… part one of that story was told that night, and the next night, after doing the same thing again.

Now, if there was a wedding, you see, it’d would be different, you know. At weddings, people joined hands anti-clockwise. You went- Two people were singing a song- Give me your hand [takes Jill’s hand]. The left hand – they grabbed the left – and they went like this [demonstrating] all the time they were singing, putting the clock back. And- two people. Even though I’m not singing, you’re singing, I’m doing that to your hand6.

JL: Hmm.

JH: That was the old style, and still is.

JL: You’re singing, and you’re moving my hand? Or I’m singing and you’re-

JH: Yeah. Or I’m singing. Doesn’t matter. We’ll keep moving the hand. One of us is singing, the other’s looking. Staring, staring in the face. Two men. They grab like that, you know.

JL: And they’re both singing?

JH: No. They don’t have to be.

JL: Why do they do that?

JH: To put the clock back.

JL: Why would they put the clock back?

JH: To remind themselves of the times this was sung by other people.

JL: So this was symbolic of moving the clock back?

JH: Yeah. Yeah.

JL: Would they do this through the whole song?

JH: Through the whole song. Never this way (demonstrates changing direction and winding clockwise).

JL: Do you think it was sort of a rhythmic help, in some way?

JH: Well, it was, eh, I don’t know, I-

JL: Did you find it distracting when you sang? Did anybody ever do when you sang?

JH: Well, I’d rather they didn’t, but I didn’t find it distracting, because if you don’t do anything, you just carry on singing the way you are. I’d rather… nobody did it. It’s dying out, that’s dying out, too, you know. Oh, used to be, all the time. God, I can see them now. Hmm. Especially with the old songs like ‘The Red-Haired Man’s Wife’ and songs like that.

JL: Haven’t heard that one.

JH: No? Oh, you’ll have to. That’s one of the oldest songs in the Irish language, and it’s in a- I’ll have to sing that sometime. Oh, that’s a fantastic song, you know. If you understood the Gaelic! The tailor was the cause of the whole problem. The tailor was in love with her, and who wasn’t? The tailor would suffer, he said, in Hell, just to be with her. That’s something, eh?

JL: Quite a reputation!

JH: Great- They had some great songs, you know, like that.

JL: So, when you finished your schooling, and took the exam, what happened next? Did you stay in Carna?

JH: Well, after I went to college for a while…

JL: To Dublin?

JH: Yeah. I dropped out of college7. Let’s put it that way.

JL: How long were you there?

JH: Couple of years. Two or three years. And after that I went to England. And then the war broke out, you know. And I came home – like a coward. Not that, but- They were gathering- They were going- Anybody under twenty, you know, they were going to put them in the Army, you know. So, I…

JL: Were you under twenty?

JH: I was. So I came home. And it was a hell of a job to get back again, you see, but when the war was over the coward went back again, you see!

JL: What were you- what did you hope to do in England?

JH: What?

JL: What were you doing in England?

JH: Construction, my dear girl! While when we were home during the war, you see, we were fishing for scallops, you know. And scallops was, eh, we got four shillings for a dozen. In the shell, you know, they’re always in the shell. And we used to walk – and I’m not exaggerating this – six miles to the- where we could go out on the bay with the currach, three oars – that reminds me of that yoke – three oars, pulling a dredge after the currach, a big iron dredge, and there’s a bag behind the dredge where the scallops go into it, if you catch any. And pulling that all day, and then walking six miles back home again. By the time we arrived home, ’twas about eight o’clock at night, we ate something, and went to bed. Our mother was to [unintelligible] to dry the clothes we had on, as they were all wet, till we’d go back- get up at four o’clock in the morning and start out again, and be out in that boat about eight o’clock in the morning. In cold, frosty weather. You grabbed two of them oars, and the best thing you’d do is to wash your hands in the salt water in the morning. It’s very cold first, but when your hands get warm you’re alright. And start rowing that boat all day. Then we used to have a bottle of tea and bread, to take our snack out on the ocean.

JL: How long did you do that for?

JH: Four years.

JL: And then the war was over and you went back to England?

JH: [The] war was over and I went back to England again. (pause) No, but Jesus! No, I didn’t. I went, I went, I went- Well, they’d started a carry-on, then, in the Bog of Allen – cutting turf. Slipping (?) the bog and all that, you know. I went to-Well you’d be as well to work for the devil as to work for that crowd. They’d take the skin off your hands, and wonder what you did with it. Working like a slave. And you’d have to kill yourself to make any money there. They were, they were, see what I mean? Instead of coal, they were having peat to feed the trains and all that during the war, you know. And you want to see the trains running on peat, you know! It would take about ten hours for a train to go from Dublin to Galway, stand- stopping and re-fueling and throwing out turf, you know.

But eventually I went to England, and I stayed there. We used to come back and forth, you know. But I never lost, you know, sight of the songs or anything. We used to come back. When I was ten years in England I came back to the Oireachtas, which I was at in 1940, and I won a prize there, and I came back in ’55 and won another prize.

JL: So it was when you were back during the war that you first entered a competition?

JH: Yeah. That’s the first time. I was too shy to do anything before that. I’m telling you. And I don’t know how I did it that day. I don’t know. I think somebody pushed me… It’s very embarrassing, you see. You’re not supposed to stand up before people singing these songs. You’re supposed to sit in a corner of the house and turn your head away. Not through bad manners – but that’s what you do, turn your head away from people.

JL: Why do you do that?

JH: I don’t know, it’s just- That’s the way it used to be done.

JL: Hmm.

JH: That’s the way.

JL: Did it make it-

JH: Nobody hardly ever faced anybody doing it, you know.

JL: Why? Why do you think that happened?

JH: I don’t know. I suppose everybody sang to himself, and thought about somebody else when they were singing. You weren’t singing for show, you were just singing the song because you want to sing it. And everybody understood. The cap – you’d pull the cap over the eye, singing, then you wouldn’t see anybody.

JL: Were you always singing by yourself?

JH: Oh, always by myself.

JL: I mean, is that generally the case? Do people join in?

JH: Oh, that was the golden rule – ‘one person, one song.’

JL: Why do you suppose that is?

JH: That is the golden rule. Unless somebody – say, you’re doing a drinking song – you say, ‘I want ye all to join me in this chorus.’ Even so, because people reckon that songs are made to listen- to be listened to, that you’ll never learn anything if you’re ‘dippity-dippity’-ing… while somebody else is singing. Listen to the song. Very important! You get me?

JL: Why was it very important?

JH: It’s important because they reckon you’ll never get the story of a song unless you listen to it, you know? And when two or three people are singing it, nobody has- Nobody knows what’s going on.

JL: What about the older people, that knew it very well? Why wouldn’t they join in?

JH: They wouldn’t. They’d let somebody else sing it. If they were singing it, they’d sing it themself. That was the rule.

JL: But everybody has their own unique style?

JH: -nique style, and there’s sometimes where they excuse that, when there is a song, like ‘Amhrán an Tae,’ that two people, a man and a woman, sing – like the ‘Droighneán Donn,’ or ‘The Lady in her Father’s Garden,’ or something, or ‘The Thirteen Riddles’ – something like that, when two people can sing, that’s different. Or ‘The True Lovers’ Discussion,’ which is always sung by two people. And only two. I used to hear my father, I used to hear them asking him to sing ‘The Crúiscín Lán’ at weddings. Nobody would join in. They just left him, listened to him singing.

JL: What was that?

JH: You know, the song about, ‘Let the farmer praise his ground, and the huntsman praise his hound.’

JL: I don’t know that.

JH: You don’t. I don’t think I did that yet. ‘And the shepherd the sweet, shady grove. But I’m more blessed that they, spend each happy night and day, with my smiling little crúiscín lán, lán, lán.’ That means, ‘full, full, full.’

JL: Why do you think there was this emphasis on one person singing it, rather than everybody else? Aside from-

JH: Because, you see, it’s not on the person the emphasis was. The emphasis was on the song.

JL: Okay.

JH: They wanted to listen to the song.

JL: Why?

JH: It doesn’t matter who was singing it, because in every song they reckoned there is a story. And these songs were so precious, and so looked-after by people, that if somebody was singing it, it was an insult just to take anything away from that particular person or that song. And they reckoned you didn’t do it. You weren’t listening properly if you joined in. That was the explanation the old people gave you. I sang once myself, you know… I heard somebody, you know, like… Who was- What song was [I] singing? And this somebody was in the background, ‘hm, hm, hm.’ ‘Shut up!’ this old man said8.

JL: Hmm.

JH: One singer, one song. One song, one singer. That is the golden rule. I don’t know is that changed now.

JL: What’s so important about the song?

JH: The songs are very important, because the songs, you see, every one of these songs told a story in a depressing period. Maybe emigration – especially emigration songs, and religious songs, and songs about tragic love, and whatever. You see, this is- ‘Say a song.’ Nobody ever asks you to sing a song. They say, ‘Say a song’ – abair amhrán. That means you’re telling a story in that particular song, and it’s a nice way to tell a story, to sing it. And that was the reason [for] the emphasis [unintelligible], only one person could do justice to that particular thing. And whoever did it, everybod- nobody said anything till that was finished.

JL: Why didn’t they just read out the song? If what they were concerned about is the words, the story, why didn’t they just tell the story? Why do they put it to music?

JH: Well, the point is, you know yourself, you know, no matter what you do, there’s some people, you know, they express more of a feeling for the song if they sing it. It’s like telling the story about the man who had the stutter. And he could never tell any story properly until he sang it. I never told you that.

JL: No.

JH: He was a purser on a ship going to America one time. And the cook fell overboard. And he was the only one who saw it. And he ran up to tell the captain about it. And he couldn’t get the words out: ‘t- t- t- t’. And he had to start singing a song (sings) ‘Should ault aquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, the cook has fallen overboard, and it’s – [phone rings]

JH: They always got their turn at singing; but singing was part of their whole – in fact, with all of the whole community, singing and lilting. Now, if somebody couldn’t sing a song or tell a story, they could lilt a tune, you know. And they would do- start off lilting, you know. ‘I cannot sing, I cannot tell a story, but I’ll do this (lilts). They would lilt a tune – and that was great. Just one person! No second person lilting the tune, either. That was the style and the code. And if you were singing a song – you see, I don’t know, I know for a fact, the area I was born in, that still goes on today, ‘one person, one song.’ But I have no idea what, how it goes on in other, outside that parish, you know. I’m sure in a lot of places now everybody joins in, and nobody knows what anybody else is talking about, you know. Know what I mean?

JL: Um-hmm.

JH: But in that particular area, up to when I was home – when was I home last? The year before last – they were still telling the stories and singing the songs the same way. Certain people. And there’s a festival every October – that’s the one I was invited back to this year, I wish I could go-

JL: You’ll go next year, then.

JH: Oh, yeah. And this is all they do. All week – ten days – speaking Irish only, telling stories in Irish, telling- singing songs in Irish, nothing at all done in English. Although there’s a lot of English-speaking people who comes to the competitions, you know. An awful lot of them. And the next year they go back again, you see – they learn more by, just by sitting there and listening.

JL: How is feeling expressed in these songs?

JH: Hm?

JL: How is feeling expressed in these songs?

JH: It all depends on the song. If it’s a sad, tragic song, every verse is different, and the feeling is expressed in different ways in different verses. Some verses, you can barely hear somebody singing it, you know, and other verses are strong, you see, in a protest, sort of a protest, you know. Like ‘Amhrán an Tae’. Jeez, I’ll have to translate that. You couldn’t do it in Irish, could you?

JL: I could try.

JH: It’d be great if you could, you know.

JL: You need to write it out for me, and I’ll give it a try.

JH: Oh, I will – I’ll write out your verses. But I’ll [unintelligible] write out the whole thing, so that you’ll know what was following.


1. At time of writing (2010), Jill Linzee is Executive Director of Northwest Heritage Resources in Lake Forest Park, Washington.

2. Joe is referring to the story included here by the title ‘Blessed is the Corpse that the Rain Falls On’.

3. ‘I am the poet Raftery, full of hope and love’ – the first line of the poem ‘Mise Raifteirí.’

4. The term ‘noble call’ as a name for this practice is interesting. As far as we tell, Joe himself never used the term on any other occasion; nor have we been able to discover evidence of anyone else using it.

5. What is often referred to as culaith ghaisce – the ‘battledress’ – a formulaic run used to begin a story in Irish; see here.

6. To visualize the winding practice (windeáil), imagine that a friend is singing, and you’re sitting or standing to his left, looking at his left profile. His left hand is bent at the elbow. Take his left hand in your right, covering his thumb with the palm of your hand, and move your hand around in a tight circle, slowly, as if you were rowing a boat, moving up as you bring his hand towards you, and down as you move it away from you. The singer will feel his hand moving in an anti-clockwise direction – thus, ‘putting the clock back’. Windeáil is still common enough among the sean-nós singers of the West-Galway Gaeltacht.

7. ‘Bean an Fhir Rua,’ one of the ‘big songs’ of the Irish repertoire.

8. This term does not signify ‘university’, although Joe may have been happy enough for his American students occasionally to think that it did. What Joe actually attended was a second-level school that was meant to qualify him for further training as a school-teacher. Unfortunately, he was expelled from this school – for reasons that remain a mystery – before completing the course, and his formal education came to an end in 1937 when he was seventeen years old.

9. Joe could be very fierce in defending the principle of ómós don amhrán – ‘respect for the song’. Liam Mac Con Iomaire describes an occasion in the Aran Islands, where Joe and some other Conamara singers were singing a concert before a lively crowd. Hearing people talking during one of his slow songs, Joe stopped singing and asked the audience, ‘Can you hear me?’ When they shouted back that they could, he told them, ‘Well, I can hear you, too!’ Unsurprisingly, this exchange put something of a damper on the proceedings. This may be the occasion Joe is thinking of here.