Link to Previous Artist
25 of 35
Link to Next Artist

Joe Heaney

Oct. 15, 1919 - May 1, 1984

Culture
State
Tradition
Year
United States Map Highlighting New York
Loading...
Singer Joe Heaney's appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, such as this one in 1966, led him to emigrate from Ireland. He settled in New York City and quickly became an important teacher and performer in the Irish community. Photograph by Diana Davies, courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution
Joe Heaney, courtesy University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives
Joe Heaney at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, photograph by Diana Davies, courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution
Joe Heaney (right), courtesy University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives
Joe Heaney, photograph by Ann Meuer, courtesy University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives
Joe Heaney at the 1968 Philadelphia Folk Festival, photograph by Diana Davies, courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution
Joe Heaney at the 1968 Philadelphia Folk Festival, photograph by Diana Davies, courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution

Joe Heaney grew up in the parish of Carna, a remote village in Connemara, County Galway, along the west coast of Ireland. He and his brothers and sisters often collected shellfish for dinner. Every evening, families in the area gathered for storytelling and singing. At that time, no one was able to afford musical instruments; all the singing was a cappella. As a small boy, Heaney recalled, he sneaked out from his bedroom to where the adults were sharing their stories and songs in the traditional Irish language. Usually, his eavesdropping went unnoticed, unless, he said, "I had the misfortune to start humming something I heard." He started singing at age 5, but his shyness kept him from singing in public until he was 20.

Heaney went to school in Carna to learn English. When he was 16 years old, he won a scholarship to attend school in Dublin. Several years later, some friends persuaded him to enter a national singing competition in Dublin. He won first and second prizes. This was the beginning of his lifelong career singing Irish songs. Most of his repertoire (estimated to exceed 500 songs) was learned while growing up in Carna. He credited his cousin, his father and his grandmother as the strongest influences on his developing a distinctive singing style.

In 1949, Heaney became involved in London's flourishing folk music scene. He worked as a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none" in London to support himself. His work ranged from shoveling concrete on building sites to teaching Irish music to adults. He was married for six years until his wife died of tuberculosis. While in London, he recorded for the Topic and Gael-linn labels and performed in several London pubs. He quickly established himself as one of the great Irish folk singers of all time.

Heaney came to America in 1965 at the invitation of the Newport Folk Festival. After singing at Newport, he decided to move to America and settled in New York City. To support himself, he took a job as a doorman at an upscale building in Manhattan. In time, one of the residents, Merv Griffin, discovered that Heaney was a singer and asked him to perform the traditional songs of his childhood on his show on Saint Patrick's Day. This television appearance introduced Heaney to a large American audience and established him as an important figure in the Irish community in New York. Over the next fifteen years, Heaney performed across North America at festivals and performed and taught for several years at Wesleyan University.

Heaney was a master of sean-nós or "old-style" singing. Sean-nós singing was developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Ireland when the British confiscated all Irish musical instruments in an attempt to destroy Irish cultural unity. Throughout the countryside, the Irish kept their culture alive through a cappella singing and storytelling. The poetic meter of each song's lyrics determines the rhythm of sean-nós singing. Intricate melodic embellishments and ornamentation characterize the songs. Because of the rhythmic and melodic variability, instruments or other singers never accompany sean-nós songs. All of these characteristics draw attention to the story being told through the song. Although sean-nós songs are traditionally sung in Gaelic, the Irish language, many of Heaney's performances were in English.

In 1982, Heaney moved to Seattle, where he was a visiting artist at the University of Washington. While affiliated with the university, he taught traditional music and Irish language and folklore. Over the years, Heaney visited Ireland several times but never returned to his native country to live. He felt his singing and traditions were more appreciated in the United States than in Ireland.

Bibliography
Moloney, Michael. "Joe Heaney: Cultural Ambassador." New York Folklore Newsletter (July 1984) 5: 2.
Williams, Sean, and Lillis O Laoire. Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song Man. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.)

Discography
Heaney, Joe. Come All Ye Gallant Irishmen. Philo PH-2004.
______. Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic and English. Topic 12T 91.
______. O Mo Dhuchas. Gael-linn CEF 051. In Gaelic.
______. Seosamh OhEanai. Gael-linn CEF 028. In Gaelic.
Heaney, Joe, and Gabe O'Sullivan. Joe and Gabe. Green Linnet 1018. Mostly in English, some Gaelic.

Watch

Joe Heaney, 'Red-Haired Mary' and 'Bonnie Bunch of Roses,' video, courtesy University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives

Listen

Joe Heaney, 'My Love She's Off in America/Off to California,' Say A Song: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest, Irish Songs in the Old Style (Sean Nós), 1996, Northwest Folklife and University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives NWARCD 001
http://music.washington.edu/creative-work/say-song-joe-heaney-pacific-northwest

Joe Heaney, 'Wife Of A Bold Tenant Farmer,' Say A Song: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest, Irish Songs in the Old Style (Sean Nós), 1996, Northwest Folklife and University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives NWARCD 001
http://music.washington.edu/creative-work/say-song-joe-heaney-pacific-northwest

Joe Heaney, 'Red Is The Rose,' Say A Song: Joe Heaney in the Pacific Northwest, Irish Songs in the Old Style (Sean Nós), 1996, Northwest Folklife and University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives NWARCD 001
http://music.washington.edu/creative-work/say-song-joe-heaney-pacific-northwest

Joe Heaney talks about when and how his songs are performed, Recorded live at the 1982 Festival of American Folklife in a program honoring the National Heritage Fellows, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Joe Heaney explains the meaning of his singing, Recorded live at the 1982 Festival of American Folklife in a program honoring the National Heritage Fellows, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Joe Heaney, 'My Little Dark Rose,' recorded live at the 1982 Festival of American Folklife in a program honoring the National Heritage Fellows, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Joe Heaney explains how he creates his songs, recorded live at the 1982 Festival of American Folklife in a program honoring the National Heritage Fellows, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Joe Heaney, 'Morrisey and the Russian Sailor,' recorded live at the 1982 Festival of American Folklife in a program honoring the National Heritage Fellows, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts