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Album Review: Say a Song by Joseph Heaney

Joe Heaney is a widely renowned sean-nós singer who was born in raised in Connemara, a region in County Galway. His album, titled “’Say a Song’: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest,” is composed of nineteen songs written in either English or Irish and performed by Joe Heaney. This music would fall under the genre of traditional Irish music or, more specifically, sean-nós singing. Upon an initial listen through of this album, it is easy to find the unrefined or raw quality of the music, both in its performance and its recording, to be distracting. However, once the listener becomes comfortable with the casual but composed manner in which the music is performed, they can begin to uncover details in the songs which had gone unnoticed before. These details, such as Joe Heaney’s utilization of ornamentation to build up to and sustain emotional peaks, lead to a great admiration for the authenticity and individual skill with which the music is performed.
             Joe Heaney, or Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, was born in a rural, Irish-speaking village called Carna, County Galway in 1919. He was born into a large family with seven children and very modest financial means. However, what his family lacked in material wealth, it made up for in cultural wealth. There was a strong musical culture that existed in the region of Connemara, and to an even higher degree in the village of Carna. As a result of this, Joe Heaney was quickly immersed in the Irish-singing tradition, which he embraced and was eventually remembered for. Much of his repertoire was handed down to him from his direct family, and to a lesser extent, from his local community. Throughout his life, Joe Heaney performed traditional Irish music across Ireland, England, and the U.S., in the form of sean-nós singing but made seemingly little effort to record and commercialize his work. Thus, “Say a Song” was one of a handful of albums released that featured Joe Heaney, many of which were published in a spirit of preservation. Towards the end of his life, Joe Heaney worked with the University of Washington on a project which directly addressed the preservation of the songs which had come to him through the Irish oral tradition. This album is the direct result of this project not only in the roll that the University of Washington in compiling the album but also in their role in providing the recordings which were used as the source for the album. Ultimately, this album was released in 1996, two years after the death of Heaney, as a collaboration between the University of Washington’s Ethnomusicology Archives and the Northwest Folklife organization. The portion of the title of this album, “Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest,” is a direct reference to the time that he spent in Seattle and the fact that the songs on the album were recorded during this time.
            Most listeners would consider this album to be atypical in the way that there is no clear theme to this album. Rather, the album seems to merely be a random compilation of Joe Heaney’s most popular songs. The songs that have been chosen to be included in this album tend to have a thick foundation in Irish history and folklore. Thus, in order to fully appreciate the power of many of these songs, it is quite important to have a knowledge of the historical events which are referenced fleetingly throughout the songs. Additionally, the songs featured in this album span a wide range of song topics or types – including several laments, rebel songs, and love songs. Furthermore, this album provides additional variety in providing songs in both the Irish and English languages, along with songs that are entirely without words. This album ultimately represents the work carried out by Joe Heaney in collaboration with the University of Washington presented in a polished manner. Thus, it can clearly be heard in listening through the album that the recordings used were not intended for commercial distribution but instead as teaching materials. Lastly, while these recordings come from the last years of Joe Heaney’s life, as his abilities can be assumed to be decreasing, this does little to harm the quality of his performance and instead adds a character to the performances by depicting the aging, or even deteriorating, nature of the Irish-music tradition with a similarly aged and deteriorated voice.
            Of the songs featured on this album, the songs which stand out among the rest are Caolneadh na dTrí Muire, My Love She's In America/Off To California, and Seothín Seó/Óró Mo Bháidín/Coochenanty. The first and most significant of these, Caoineadh na dTrí Muire, is a lament which tells of the passion of Christ. More specifically, it depicts a conversation between Jesus and Mary in which Mary is clearly in grief for what is happening to her son. In his own opinion, Joe Heaney believes that of all the types of song which he regularly performs, he is best at performing laments. His performance of this song features heavy uses of ornamentation throughout the song, which is made possible due to its slow rhythm and the serious topic of the song. This song stands out not only for the aforementioned reasons but also in how it has the words “Ochón, is ochón ó!” repeated every other line. The meaning of this line is not particularly important (it translates roughly as “Alas, indeed, alas”), however the repetition of these words is contrasted with the unique way that Heaney decides to sing each line of the repetition and how he seizes the opportunity to showcase his wide variety of vocally decorative tenchqiues. Ultimately, the power and passion that is contained in this song makes it clear as to why it is one of Joe Heaney’s most popular and renowned songs.
The track titled “My Love She's In America/Off To California” on the album is, as the name suggests, a combination of two different tunes. Joe Heaney provides some information regarding these tunes briefly during the transition. Both of these tunes are composed entirely of Joe Heaney lilting (intended to be performed as background music for a dancer) with My Love She's In America being a reel and Off To California being a hornpipe. These tunes are immediately distinguishable from the other songs on the album due to their lack of words and showcase a mostly unfamiliar vocal technique used to emulate the sound and role of musical instruments in relation to dancing. The titles of these tunes both relate to America as they would often have been sung at gatherings the night before a member of the community emigrated to America. Ultimately, while these tunes are not particularly pleasing to listen to in themselves it is difficult not to appreciate the talent required to play the traditional role of an instrument for a dancer.
The track “Seothín Seó/Óró Mo Bháidín/Coochenanty” is also a combination of multiple different songs. This track stands out as Joe Heaney not only quickly transitions from one song to another, but goes so far as to transition from one language to another. Both Seothín Seó and Óró Mo Bháidín are written and performed in Irish, with Seothín Seó being a lullaby and Óró Mo Bháidín being a working song. While these songs already provided a strong contrast to each other, the contrast is greatly amplified by the addition of Coochenanty, a song performed in English, at the end. Additionally, this track not only demonstrates the willingness and ease through which Heaney transitions from one song to another, but also features brief spurts of commentary during which Heaney briefly explains his transitions. Again, while this track is not one of the most gratifying songs on the album to listen to, it does provide an insight into the manner in which Heaney would transition from one song to another during his performances.
            While there are no songs in this album that would be classified as standing out negatively, the lack of theme or connection between the songs definitely had a negative impact on the experience as a listener. It is clear that little thought went in to deciding the order of the songs, leading to the transitions from one song to the next often causing a rapid shift in mood. Furthermore, the songs contained in this album do not fit together as a whole, which likely impacted these troublesome transitions. In general, this is a genre which typically relies on audience interaction and observation in order to determine the mood of the listener so as to make decisions on which songs should follow. Therefore, it is understandable that, in a situation in which the listener and the performer are wholly disconnected, the transition from one song to another would not be as smooth as in a more intimate setting. Furthermore, due to the fact that this album was compiled after the death of Joe Heaney, there is little room to consult the artist on which songs to associate with eachother
            Ultimately, this album is clearly an excellent collection of rich, traditional Irish songs performed by a titan of the genre. However, this album clearly lacked the cohesion that modern day listeners have come to expect in an album produced today. This lack of cohesion is far outweighed by the quality of the individual songs, the fact that Joe Heaney had passed away before its creation, and how this album differed from the manner in which Heaney typically performed. Given that many of these songs require a knowledge of Irish language and history to fully appreciate, the contents of this album runs the risk of falling on partially deaf ears. Though, those listeners who do possess this aforementioned knowledge would likely be enamoured by the musical ability and lyrical depth provided in these songs and by the album as a whole.

Prezi Presentation:

Nicholas Harding Bradley 
Say a Song Album Cover


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