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Frank Harte

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Biography

Frank Harte's family ran a typical Irish pub close to the banks of the Liffey river, and the young boy's introduction to Irish singing was hearing a wandering balladeer who was selling song sheets at a fair in Boyle. From this early inspiration, Harte became a great promoter of the Dublin street ballad. His importance on the Irish music scene cannot be denied, except perhaps amongst the ranks of Irish instrumentalists, who might approve of Harte's preference for these ballads to be performed unaccompanied. His own singing is certainly up to this challenge. While some might find his Dublin accent a bit heavy, or feel that the words he sings are coming out his nose, perhaps these listeners should move onto another style of music where they would feel comfortable, such as singing cowboys. Harte's reputation, however, has also been built on his activities as a collector of songs and the tales behind the songs as well. He has put together a larder of nearly 16,000 recordings, a task that was only accomplished due to his early start as a song hunter. These activities began almost immediately after his initial exposure to this rich style of music, and he frequently would be observed buying ballads from street singers. The song material evolved from all walks of life and the mixture of Catholics and Protestants in the community. There was also massive input from the ranks of ex-soldiers — the Dublin Fusiliers who had come back from the first World War — with their tragic songs about soldiers leaving their sweethearts behind to go off to battle. Harte was also drawn to old music hall tradition and Victorian ditties fraught with melodrama, such as "She Was Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage." The type of songcraft he was researching was a world apart from the business practices of so-called professional songwriters who guard their creations with copyright laws and sue each other when someone's riff sounds familiar. The ballad singers and other musicians Harte dealt with were always pleased to pass their songs along, feeling that these ballads were really the property of the people whose courageous and often sad lives were described in the lyrics, and not to whomever happened to be doing the singing. He was fond of poet Brendan Kennelly to clarify this point: "All songs are living ghosts/And long for a living voice."

Two other important points about Irish music were at the crux of Harte's philosophy. First, Irish music should take no side in the heartbreaking hostilities between the country's religious groups. Secondly, traditional singers had to develop a different philosophy than professional entertainers in terms of how they relate to an audience. Harte felt that the traditional singer, unlike the latter type of vocalist, had absolutely no responsibility to entertain or please the crowd that might be listening, because the singer's real purpose is simply to perform the song, the act of the performance being a justification in itself. Harte recorded several albums and made numerous television appearances, entertaining many despite or perhaps even because of this attitude. For many years these activities were not enough to support him, however, and he also trained and worked as an architect as well as taking over his father's pub, The Tap. Harte has maintained his presence as a regular at singers' sessions in Ireland and also performs in clubs, seminars and festivals throughout Europe and North America. He has also been quite active as a teacher of traditional Irish music in both the United States and Canada. One of his most frequent collaborators is the Irish performer Donal Lunny. The pair have collaborated on several superb recordings. My Name Is Napoleon Bonaparte represents a good example of Harte's work, assembled carefully over several years as the partners compiled more songs than anyone might think existed about the French dictator and warmonger, so many in fact that it took two compact discs to fit them all in. In 2000, Harte was invited to take part in special performances for the new millennium held at the prestigious Kennedy Center.

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Born:

14 May 1933 in Chapelizod, County Dublin, Irelan

Genre
Years Active:

'60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Followers