a new book about the epic Frank Harte song collection

As Gustav Mahler noted: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” You might not expect a great classical composer to appear in a book on Irish ballad singing, however there is Mahler, in Terry Moylan’s introduction to Living Voice – Frank Hart’s song collection, not just showing the key word but identifying it.

But as Moylan explains, the worlds of Hart and Mahler were at sharp odds. Folk singers, like jazz musicians, do not perform anything the same way twice and, unlike classical performers, do not rely on notation. Hart was more committed to this philosophy.

He considered that the concept of valid keys was “irrelevant, if not rude”. When he sang, he would often take off on pitches that proved unsustainable, forcing a replay, something he warned the audience not to be embarrassed about, “because he definitely didn’t feel anything.”

But Mahler’s metaphor was nonetheless appropriate, and doubly so, in that stoves are central to many of his best singing sessions. And Hart agreed that the important thing was to let the old songs come alive again and even, at times, to surprise the singer, as an old woman did, while being recorded by an English collector, interrupted herself at some point to grab him by the lapel and say, ‘Isn’t she beautiful?”

Dublin-born Frank Hart (1933-2005) discovered what became his other profession through “the chance to hear an innovative singer sell his sheet music at a fair in Boyle”. From that moment on, he too was obsessed with songs, especially the kind that tell stories.

His epiphany must have coincided closely with that to which Irish pub owners were subjected in the wake of the Clancy Brothers’ conquest of America.

As Hart summed up in the reissue of his first recorded set: “It was the ’60s and the time that publicans, rather than being kicked out of the pub for singing and playing music, realized that they could increase their sales by promoting [something] It was previously seen as only a nuisance.”

His devotion to oral traditions posed challenges when trying to preserve them. To achieve this first record, in 1967, he had to travel to England and be accompanied by a concertina player unaccustomed to performing by ear. Instead, the guy would first listen to Hart’s vocals and “write the points” in preparation for the strumming. But when Hart started each song again, the remake didn’t quite agree with the English notation. However, they ended up recording two albums in several days.

Regardless of singing, Hart’s sets have always been accompanied by the fruits of an “enormous amount of research”. Thanks to the quantum notes for his album “And Listen to my Song,” for example, I finally knew what “heart roll” is (as in Poor Old Dicey Reilly). Not bread, it seems, but tobacco that was sold in rolls. When left in stores, it dries out on the outside, so “the best and sweetest part of tobacco was […] in the center”.

Also impressive is a footnote to the 2007 collection of Worker Songs, Gangs of Them Dig, regarding the unexpected benevolence that Adolf Hitler brought to Irish farmworkers. In the early 1930s, young men employed themselves for six months at a time for £20, a system that one commentator of the period described as a “slave market”. But by 1940, the sector was experiencing a dramatic inflation. “It was Hitler and the war that paid the farm worker: with all that money,” Hart quotes Derry singer Eddie Butcher as saying.

The book also contains some nice flashes of humor, since when justifying Molly Malone’s vulgar inclusion on the 1987 album, Hart first admitted that the poem was more associated with “trained vocalists, choruses, or raucous rugby players”. But he adds, “Just because the song went through hard times and mingled in the aforementioned company for too long, the unaccompanied singer shouldn’t neglect it.”

Basically an anthology of his cover notes and illustrations, with lyrics and partial notation for all the songs, Living Voice – Frank Hart’s Collection is a great thing. It comes in at 400 pages, between soft wrappers, but has the shape and weight of a cookie serving packet. With Christmas coming, it could be a perfect gift for the storytellers in your home.

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