A LIVING VOICE: the Frank Harte song collection

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

TERRY MOYLAN (ed.)
Craft Recordings
€30
ISBN 9780955311215

Reviewed by Donal Fallon

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the ‘Three Castles Burning’ podcast, which explores the social history of Dublin.

That there has been something of a resurgence in traditional and folk music is widely acknowledged, leading to Choice Music Award success for the band Lankum and to ever-increasing audiences for a wide variety of acts in the new mainstream. What is perhaps less generally known is the re-emergence of folk and ballad clubs, like The Night Before Larry Was Stretched, a monthly gathering in the back bar of Dublin’s Cobblestone bar in pre-Covid times. There, along with some distinguished veterans with pedigrees stretching back to Tailor’s Hall or The Embankment, are younger and emerging voices. On such occasions it is not uncommon to hear the name of the late Frank Harte cited as a source and an inspiration.

The words of Brendan Kennelly, in his poem Living Ghosts, had a profound impact on the thinking of Frank Harte:

All the songs are living ghosts

And long for a living voice.

Harte would spend decades mining for the songs and stories, bringing those living ghosts to the stage and to an impressive array of albums, spanning all themes from Dublin street songs to songs of the Napoleonic Wars, and from Irish migration tales to songs of romance.

An architect by profession, Harte’s father was the proprietor of The Tap in Chapelizod. While Frank would become synonymous with the songs of the capital, his earliest memory of a song making a profound impact on him came from a childhood visit to a fair in the west of Ireland, where he heard a rendition of ‘The Valley of Knockanure’, a song detailing a War of Independence tragedy. To him, ‘it was the first song I heard, sung by a travelling man, that made me aware that we had a tradition of songs telling about the joys and sorrows, the tragedies and battles of a people in a way that I found irresistible. From that first hearing I have been fascinated by the idea of the story told in song.’

In a similar vein to Harte, the piper and music historian Terry Moylan has done much to preserve tradition, most significantly as the author of The indignant muse: poetry and songs of the Irish revolution and an earlier collection of songs exploring the Age of Revolution and the rich lyrical tradition of the 1790s.

Moylan had a great base from which to commence this impressive work of over 400 pages, as Harte’s CDs included significant booklets detailing the origin and history of the songs he selected. Moylan reproduces Harte’s notes in full, but A living voice is more than a compilation of the booklets. Additional notes from Moylan, and from Jerry O’Reilly, give insights into both the songs and Harte’s own relationship with them.

A striking feature of Frank’s releases was the artwork chosen for each album. The evocative work of Dublin-born painter Maurice MacGonigal, showing shipyard workers, was utilised for the labour collection There’s gangs of them digging. Daybreak and a candle-end, released in 1987, depicted a ballad-singer—we learn here that its origin was the late nineteenth-century Old London street cries and the cries of today. There are many reprinted depictions of ballad-singers here, from the familiar work of Jack B. Yeats to less-familiar depictions from the nineteenth-century press. There is also great usage of some of the archive of photographer Colm Keating, whose camera lens captured figures like Liam Weldon, Margaret Barry, Ewan MacColl and others over decades documenting the folk and traditional music scene. Many of Keating’s images are available to view on the Irish Traditional Music Archive website, but a selection of images of Frank and others appear in print for the first time here.

Reflecting Frank’s deep interest in the oral tradition of the capital (his early releases were almost exclusively Dublin songs), there is much here—from anonymous to Zozimus—which tells the story of Dublin. Some of the songs are familiar, like George Desmond Hodnett’s satirical ‘Take her up to Monto’, a skit from the Pike Theatre that somehow joined the canon of Dublin songs itself. But there are also less-familiar songs, like ‘The Maid of Cabra West’ and ‘Miss Brown’, which are not so widely sung in the city today.

A living voice is not intended to be a biographical work, though there are insights into Frank himself in the introductions by Darragh Harte and Moylan, Darragh recounting how Frank, ‘armed with his newly purchased Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder’, went in pursuit of the songs. Such an image recalls the great journey of Séamus Ennis, who with ‘pen, paper and pushbike’ went in search of a similar tradition in the 1940s.

A collection of lyrics like this one is not the kind of work one will read from cover to cover, but it is not intended to be so. Rather, it can take its reader from Blackpitts and the Liberties to the Isle of St Helena and the tunnels below London, depending on where one opens it. It has obvious appeal for social historians, for all the songs are products of their time and the environment in which they were written, but it also feels like a living book, in the sense that it will undoubtedly be most eagerly pursued by those who attend the folk and ballad clubs of today. Fittingly, the book concludes with a series of poems and songs written in honour of Harte since his passing, proving not only that the tradition continues but also that he himself has become a part of it.

Harte maintained that ‘those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs’. Irish history has given us a fine repertoire.

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