'Those Who Suffer Write the Songs' – Remembering Frank Harte (1933-2005)
The obituary notices in the Irish newspapers gave the bare facts. Noted singer Frank Harte died suddenly at his home in Chapelizod, Dublin on Monday June 27, 2005. He was 72 years old. He was survived by his sons Cian and Darragh, his daughters Orla and Sinéad and their mother Stella. The body would be removed to The Church of the Nativity in Chapelizod at 5:30 PM on Thursday, June 30. A funeral mass would take place at 11:00am on the following day and afterwards the body would be taken for the final rituals to the Mount Jerome crematorium.
Just about everyone close to Frank knew that he been failing for a while. He didn’t go out as often as he used to; his movements were slower and there were occasional flashes of an uncharacteristic melancholia. But on the other hand he was singing as well as ever and he was very excited and upbeat about his latest recording project with Donal Lunny and Hummingbird Records. And he had lots of other projects in the pipeline including an album of love songs and a series of radio programs. So the end when it came was a shock to us all. We knew of course that inevitably the day would come when this brightest of stars would cease to shine. But the non rational part of us was convinced that it could not possibly come any time soon.
We told ourselves that it was a great mercy he went so quickly and wasn’t that a good way to go. His daughter Orla had found him slumped over his computer table a few hours after speaking to him from Dublin airport on her way home from America.
He was well waked. In fact it could not have been better. Music, song and the spoken word were woven into the services at both church and cemetery creating a seamless confluence of art, tribute and ritual. Emotions ran the gamut throughout as we drifted predictably between disbelief, grief and acceptance. Philip King read out a moving tribute from Japan from Donal Lunny who had only just gone back after recording with Frank. Many of Frank’s friends and admirers played, spoke or sang, including Nicholas Carolan, Gerry O’Reilly, Niamh Parsons, Des Geraghty, Altan, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and their brother Mícheál, Fr Paul Ward, Karan Casey, Paddy Glackin, Paul Brady and myself, Ronnie Drew, Len Graham, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, Tony MacMahon and at the very end The Voice Squad who sang ‘The Parting Glass’ as the final curtain was drawn across the coffin. It was extraordinary theatre and Frank would have loved every minute of it.
Folklorist and song collector Tom Munnelly gave a magnificent oration at Mount Jerome extolling Frank as internationally renowned singer, song collector, colleague and friend of over forty years. It was a send off befitting an elder statesman as Frank indeed was. Earlier in the day at the Church in Chapelizod his son Darragh speaking on behalf of Cian and himself gave an equally powerful and perceptive eulogy, added to and elaborated upon later at Mount Jerome by his sisters Orla and Sinéad. It was remarkable how well Frank’s children knew him and appreciated how extraordinary he was. They cherished him as devoted father but also as master singer, art, poetry and literature lover, professional architect, teacher, historian and general savant. They were in touch with him literally on a daily basis and he with them. They were drawn towards him not only because they loved him but because, in Dara’s words, ‘that’s where the crack was’.
He was always the best of company even towards the end when his body started to fail him. He appreciated life to the full and was passionate about everything he did. Frank was a brilliant, complex man who wore his erudition with ease. He had a finely honed, acerbic wit which invariably came to the fore when he encountered pomposity, hypocrisy or pretentiousness. But as sharp as his verbal skills were they were invariably exercised with acute sensitivity to the situation. Wicked his humour may have been but never was it cruel or mean spirited.
‘Those who suffer write the songs’
Frank passionately espoused all the songs, great and small, national and local, simple and complex, old and new, as a vital expression of a downtrodden but always resilient people. He saw the songs as deeply connected to the story of Irish men and women, at home and abroad; ‘a great people’ as Frank was always proud to point out to anyone prepared to listen. He knew that the song traditions that were the most powerful were those rooted in multiple social, historical and personal contexts and that they derived their potency and lasting relevance from those associations. His favourite saying was ‘those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.’
Frank was known to many of the general public in Ireland primarily as a singer of Dublin songs. However, Darragh pointed out that that particular part of his repertoire was in fact quite small. He sang songs of all sorts, from all over Ireland and abroad. His last four CDs for Hummingbird Records were thematically focused and constituted a remarkable body of work and artistry. His singing was positively brilliant on all of them. There was one on the 1798 Rebellion (1798 – The First Year of Liberty, 1998), an epic double CD compilation of songs on Napoleon Bonaparte (My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte, 2001) and one on the Irish famine (The Hungry Voice: The Song Legacy of Ireland’s Great Hunger, 2004). His last project, completed for Hummingbird just a few days before he died, is a selection of songs on the Irish labourer in Ireland, Great Britain and North America titled There’s Gangs of Them Diggin’. Donal Lunny accompanied him with matchless skill and sensitivity on all four projects. Frank did the art work for all the covers himself and they are a tour de force of brilliant, imaginative design. The comprehensive liner notes that Frank wrote for these CDs are by any standards wonderful works of scholarship, the product of meticulous, impeccable research all cogently distilled into this most unappreciated of genres.
His recording career began in 1967 when he recorded two albums in London for the Topic Label. Dublin Street Songs was the first to be released and it was followed in 1973 by Through Dublin City. In 1975 he recorded And Listen to my Song in Dublin for the Ram label. This began his musical collaboration with Donal Lunny. In 1987 he released Daybreak and a Candle-End for the Foetain label with Donal Lunny playing a large role in the recording, production and arrangement of the album. He also recorded a couple of tracks for We Shall Overcome, an album released by Columbia/Folkways on the theme of worldwide songs of protest featuring live performances from the 1991 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington DC. Frank sang two songs on the album – Peadar Kearney’s ‘The Foggy Dew’ and ‘The Croppies Who Will not Lie Down’, a contemporary composition of Belfast songwriter Brian Moore.
Frank straddled social classes and the disparate worlds of urban and rural Ireland with ease. He was intimately familiar with proletarian Dublin through his father’s pub in Chapelizod and he also ended up attending Blackrock College and later The Dublin Institute of Technology. His work as a professional architect brought him into the milieu of upper- and upper-middle-class Ireland but his most visceral connections were always with the world of a cappella singers and song. Most of the singers he admired were from rural Ireland. He learned and collected songs relentlessly from scores of singers including Joe Holmes, Len Graham, Eddie Butcher and Geordie Hanna and struck up solid friendships with lovers of song all over Ireland. When it came to women singers of the past he loved Delia Murphy and Maggie Barry.
His repertoire was highly eclectic. In the liner notes to And Listen to my Song he stated ‘I believe that in the overall tradition, the song of the “Orangeman” is as valid as that of the “Fenian”, and that the song from the streets of Dublin has its place alongside the song from the remote areas of Connemara.’
He also considered Irish-American songs as a vital part of our musical tradition. So many of his father’s family had emigrated to the United States, never to return, that Frank had a deep empathic connection to the huge body of Irish-American song written for the variety theatre and vaudeville stage between the mid-ninteenth century and the early twentieth century, particularly those songs in the Tin Pan Alley tradition with their deftly constructed world view of an invented, idyllic, pastoral, emerald green paradise.
Frank spent three years in Boston between 1958 and 1961 and developed a deep appreciation for this kind of song. He understood very well that Irish-Americans chose to identify with this tradition in part because it furnished a ready repository of positive cultural images which could act as a palliative to the narrative of the misery of famine, hunger and persecution in the homeland from which their parents or grandparents had fled.
I particularly remember him on numerous occasions singing Teresa Brayton’s ‘The Old Bog Road’, a song written in Ireland but very much in this genre, to audiences in the US and for American visitors in Ireland. More often than not this song is performed in thoroughly maudlin mode by mediocre singers mimicking high art styles. By contrast, Frank delivered the song with a stark, unadorned, almost unbearably poignancy, turning the focus away from the singer to the ‘emotional core’ of the song (to use ballad scholar Tristram P. Coffin’s memorable term), the theme of lifelong separation of the immigrant from the ancestral homeland, a topic that would of course resonate deeply with every American.
‘Who are we going to call now?’
I first met Frank in the mid 1960s when I was a member of The Johnstons and I treasured his friendship from the moment I met him. There was Adrienne and Lucy Johnston, Paul Brady and myself. We were always looking for new songs to perform and record and Frank even then knew more songs than anyone I had ever met. Paul Brady and I beat a path to his door at every opportunity. We were not alone. From the 1960s to the time of his death he was helping singers find the words or melodies to songs or furnishing information about the stories behind the songs. He never refused anybody a song. All of us who love to sing, and learn about songs and the singers who sang them, now have a huge void in our lives.
‘Who are we going to call now?’ Christy Moore said to me outside the church.
He always stated that his own journey in song began when at the age of 14 he heard a traveller singing ‘The Valley of Knockanure’. He was fascinated by the fact that this was a song about real people and real events. He often told this story of this personal epiphany when years later we performed together in the US in the 1980s and 90s.
By any standards Frank had a huge repertoire. And like most singers he learned them from every source available – oral, printed, recorded. He always made a distinction between the repertoire of ‘known’ songs and the songs he ‘carried’ with him at any given moment that he could readily recall in performance. He reckoned that he ‘carried’ about 300-400 songs in this active repertoire. Like many traditional musicians and singers he was never quite sure about the size of his total repertoire.
His own singing style did not lend itself readily to facile analysis. We argued long and often about what constituted a ‘good’ traditional style or a good voice in the tradition. We went back and forth on this topic, revisiting the same disputational ruts time and again, particularly in the course of long drives from the eastern United States into the mountains of West Virginia. We both agreed that it was a complicated issue. Ornamentation was important of course but only in some songs. Likewise with variation. Slow songs might need a different approach than fast songs. But not always. Tone, timbre and pitch might be important but they were not the main thing. He didn’t care too much for ‘pretty’ or over-stylised singing, but then he would make exception for certain singers who favoured that approach. He didn’t care much either for theatricality in singing, but he loved great tenors like Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. After maintaining that the quality of voice wasn’t really that important in traditional Irish singing he would then describe somebody as having a ‘good hard voice.’ He kept coming back to this.
He had a good hard voice himself. It could cut stridently through ambient noise in a crowded pub invariably reducing the place to instant silence. What would then preserve the silence was the way he delivered the song. I always felt that the most powerful part of his style was his magnificent phrasing, very much an intuitive element for any singer. He could also sing at will in a most quiet and intimate mode; a wonderful example of this is his recording of ‘The Isle of Saint Helena’ on My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte.
He loved performing in concert or in any kind of set up where there was audience attention. His forte in recent years became the thematic event where he would present a program of songs on a particular topic. He loved venues like Kilmainham Gaol where he would celebrate in song the heroic deeds and sacrifices of the men and women who fought for Ireland’s freedom down through the years. During the 1798 commemoration he was always delighted to sing songs that celebrated the major Presbyterian presence among the revolutionaries of the United Irishmen. One of his very favourite songs was the mid-nineteenth-century broadside ‘By Memory Inspired’, which cited the bravery of a litany of Protestants who died for their political beliefs.
He didn’t believe in false modesty but absolutely loved being the centre of the Irish singing scene on both sides of the Atlantic. His visits to America were many. He appeared at numerous concerts and festivals including The Blarney Star in New York, Gaelic Roots in Boston College, The Catskills Irish Arts Week, The Greater Washington Ceili Club Festival in Maryland and Irish Fest in Milwaukee. For 17 years between the mid 1980s and 2002 he was a veritable staple at the Irish Week every July in the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia. We referred to him there always as ‘The Great One’ and he loved that. When he came off the stage after a performance there, with audience applause ringing in his ears, he would always turn to me and say ‘Moloney I was f****** brilliant’.
His delight in being appreciated lasted to the very end and even beyond. Engraved on his plain, humble, handleless coffin was the inscription: ‘Frank Harte: National Treasure’
And that’s exactly what he was.
Published on 1 September 2005