Singing (12)

Play recording: Singing (12)

view / hide recording details [+/-]

  • Teideal (Title): Singing (12).
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 853909.
  • 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): Lucy Simpson.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 29/01/1980.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): Brooklyn, New York, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): private.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Style and Context

The following interview segment is transcribed from audiotape supplied by Peggy Seeger to the Joe Heaney Archive, University of Washington, in 1986, which she has generously permitted us to post here. Ewan Mac Coll and Peggy Seeger recorded Joe Heaney at length over a series of sessions in late 1963 and early 1964 at their home near London, while Joe Heaney was still living in England. Many of the songs, and some of the spoken segments, were issued in 2000 in a double CD entitled The Road from Conamara (Topic/Cló Iar-Chonnachta). To coincide with the launch of that recording, the online magazine Musical Traditions published transcriptions of all of these interviews by Fred McCormick, with additional notes on Irish-language material by Éamonn Ó Bróithe; see

While all of the material that Mac Coll and Seeger recorded from Joe Heaney is of great interest, this segment is, perhaps, of particular importance — not so much for what it says about Joe’s singing, as for what it reveals about how he learned to think about singing, and about his relationship with Mac Coll, of whom he clearly had a high opinion. Indeed, he often referred to Mac Coll’s opinions in his conversations with students in the United States, especially with regard to the more mysterious aspects of his art and artistry. For this reason, it was thought appropriate to provide a fresh transcript of this particular segment in order to correct a very few minor errors and include some snippets that were omitted from the earlier version, perhaps for lack of clarity, or in order — as McCormick himself says in his general introduction to his work — to ‘facilitate readability.’. It should be pointed out that many aspects of this interview remain mysterious. Largely because of Mac Coll’s habit of switching the recorder on and off — editing the session ‘on the fly’ perhaps — it is often difficult to guess what question had been asked, or track the progress of the conversation. The examples Mac Coll played for Joe to comment upon are, except for a few short phrases, omitted from the recording, and the singers’ names can only be deduced from contextual remarks. Even so, this interview remains an important element for anyone interested in documenting Joe’s way of talking about singing, and should be compared with later interviews — especially the one conducted by Jill Linzee at University of Washington — in which he clarifies his later thinking on some of the points first raised by Mac Coll and Seeger here.

Finally, when portions of this conversation seem baffling, please remember that this tape was not recorded as a potential publication, but rather as a form of field notes. In the truest sense of the expression, ‘you had to be there’ to fully comprehend what was going on.

Ewan Mac Coll: Joe, try and remember, when you were a boy, of all the people who sang, that used to come to your house, that you heard sing, was there much difference in the styles, in the personal styles of the singers?

Joe Heaney: No, there wasn’t. They more or less had the same, what we call the same nyahh, and the same style.

EM: Hmm.

JH: It was nearly always the same.

Peggy Seeger: Same what?

EM: Same style — same nyahh.

JH: Same nyahh. Same style. Always the same style. Of course, one person sings there. The first time I sang at the Oireachtas myself I found it awful hard to get up and sing on a stage, because it’s never done there1. If you’re asked to sing a song in a country house, you’ll make sure, or try and make sure, that nobody sees you while you’re singing it — don’t you see anybody — you turn your back. Not through disrespect, but out of shyness — or, I don’t know how you call it — and if you have a cap on, you pull it over your eyes, so you won’t see or hear or listen to anybody else, except for the song you’re singing…

EM & PS: [Deal with interruption where, presumably, a child comes into the room.]

JH: If you’re wearing a cap, you’ll pull it over your eyes, so that you’re actually just living the song as you sing it, or if you haven’t a cap on, you’ll put your hand over your eyes. Then you’ll see nobody while you’re singing it. You’re just singing the song to yourself. And that’s the way you’ll find it, even tomorrow if you go back there. You’ll find the man what they call — the dorais dúnta, in the back door — what they call the cúinneach; the man who goes into the corner and sings a song, the song is heard but he’s not seen. And a cúinne of course is a Gaelic word for a corner, and the man who sits in the corner is called the cúinneach — the ‘corner man.’ You’ll hear the song, but you don’t know where it’s coming from half the time. They just, you know, they don’t stand up or face an audience at all2.

EM: Now, this style that you have of singing that you have, with massive decoration that you put into it — you decorate pretty much all the time, don’t you?

JH: Well, I try to.

EM: You decorate in some songs more than in others, I’ve noticed. You know, some songs you leave fairly plain and some songs you do a great deal of decoration, like a song like The Bonny Bunch of Roses for example, you know, where you decorate continuously along the line… What tells you which songs to decorate and which to leave alone?

JH: Well, I think it all depends on the scope left for me in the lines of the song. If there’s enough scope left for me in the line of a song to decorate, I do it. But if there isn’t, you see, I probably can only decorate one line or two lines, maybe the second or the last… What I’m trying to say, if the words of the line don’t allow me to decorate, I’ve got to sing the line. And this is the way I feel it, you see, if I think a line has… a lot of words, well that won’t let me do any decorations on the words of the line. Because I couldn’t break up the sentence too much. But if… it’s a short line, we’ll say, with not many words, that allows me to decorate a lot of the words. That’s the way I feel it anyway.

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.

JH: No, I admit they don’t, but honestly I just can’t tell you — that’s the way I always try to sing them, you see. I want to do as much of that as possible.

EM: Colm Keane, he decorates a great deal, of course3.

JH: He does.

EM: But, on the other hand, Johnny McDonagh doesn’t decorate half as much as you do4.

JH: No, Johnny doesn’t, no. He’s more of a straight singer.

EM: But one thing he has in common with you, and with Colm Keane, and this is something apart from the decoration —5


JH: He has, he has. Without a doubt, he has.

EM: Now, what do you call this? Do you have any word for this?

JH: No, I haven’t a clue. That’s one thing I can’t explain, that. It’s just, there and that’s the way it is.

EM: Nyahh.

JH: I don’t put it in, it’s just there.

EM: It’s just there, but the point is it seems to be there with all the west, the southwest country singers, doesn’t it?6

JH: It does, whatever…

EM: But there are many parts of Ireland where it’s not there. It seems to be something peculiar to the southwest of Ireland.

JH: I suppose it’s something that’s naturally there, or something. I can’t explain that. That’s one thing I can’t explain.

EM: Why do you think it’s there? Have you any idea? What do you think its origin is?

JH: Honestly, you see, if I try to say something, you see, when I can’t tell you why, I might be…

EM: No, but have you ever thought about it, why it’s there?

JH: I have often thought about it and this is one explanation I got for it, from an old man. Before they start singing, they start to go ‘hm, hm’ [in] the head first, themselves, you know, humming to themselves, more or less through the nose first, and that could be the reason they carry it on. Because even now before I sing a song I sing it in my head first, you know, I do, to see will I get the right pitch or…7

EM: But you never seem to have any problem with pitch. I’ve never heard you sing a song out of pitch.

Peggy Seeger: He judges it in his head first, probably.

JH: I try to judge it in my head first, you know, I try to, but I suppose I’m lucky8.

EM: Hmmm. Switch off for a minute.


JH: …because I never, I never yet, I mean, I never yet heard an explanation to that, except this, that they start humming first, as a rule, [in] the countryside they start humming first before they start singing. They hum about a verse of the song first, and then they start singing. They hum it, you know, to themselves first, and then they start singing. ‘Hm, hm, hm, hm’ so on.

EM: Do you find that there are any songs that you have in your repertoire where you feel the necessity of pitching them very high and singing way up? The way, for example, eh, McDonagh does with Morrissey, for example, you know?9 Because there, he hardly drones at all on that song, does he? Have you noticed? And on the other song that he sings on this record, he pitches it way up, I’ve noticed10. Obviously, if you pitch it way up, you can’t drone, can you11?

JH: No, you can’t.

EM: Well, are there any songs in your repertoire where you feel the necessity of pitching them up? That you can think of?

JH: (after a long pause) No. (another pause) No.

EM: In short, the drone is so much part of you, so much part of your whole personal style and of your regional style, that every song must be part and parcel of that.

JH: That’s right.

EM: I see. It’s very interesting, that. It’s very interesting. Now, do you know how you produce this drone? Have you ever thought about that?

JH: I haven’t a clue. If you took the head off me now, I couldn’t tell you.

EM: You couldn’t describe …?

JH: I don’t even try to do it. It’s just — I don’t know. If it’s there, it’s there. No, honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not able to answer that. I wish I could answer it. I can’t.

EM: Because, it’s very interesting — Mike Smythe for instance, who copies you, he tries to produce the [drone]12.


JH: …You’ll either do it, or you’ll ruin it for the others.

EM: He makes a good attempt I think, though. He makes a very good attempt.

JH: Oh he does, he does. He does.


PS: [You never seem to] sing a song the same way twice.

JH: You’re quite right, I don’t.

PS: Now, when you’re going to mix — When you’re approaching a line, and you know that at certain points you’re going to decorate, do you ever see the shape of the decoration in your mind?

JH: I do. I see exactly what I am going to do with it before I reach it. I know exactly what I’m going to do, and each time I try to do it better. Hm. I do.

PS: You never make a mistake when you’re decorating? I do.

JH: Well, not in my own mind I don’t. Maybe other people sees it, but I don’t because I think it’s something that you can’t make a mistake at, because everybody decorates different. Everybody does their own decorations, because I don’t do the same way twice, I know that. I could sing a song for you now ten times tonight and each time’d be different… But I’ll either do it better, or you’re — but I’ll know exactly what I’m going to do before I reach it.


EM: [Do you] ever do the first verse very simply with very few decorations and thereafter on the verses which follow, make…?

JH: Yes. That’s quite right. I try to introduce the song first as plain as I can—

EM: I see, the theme of the song, in other words. The musical theme.

JH: I try to introduce it as clean as I can and after that, you know, I do it my own way after that. But I try to introduce it first as simple, well, as simple as I can, especially with somebody who doesn’t know the song.

EM: Yeah. When you listen to another singer, what do you listen for?

JH: Well, the style first of all. Not the voice so much, it’s the style he has, of singing. And I compare that to my own then.

EM: Um-hmm. Suppose you were to hear a singer singing in a completely different idiom, even in a different language. Do you think you could recognise the folk-singer from the non folk-singer?

JH: I could.

EM: Even in a different language.