I want to share two with you. They underscore his impact on Irish music, his delight in connecting with a crowd, his life-embracing humor, his diverse artistic interests and passions, and his unrelenting altruism in helping other singers find their “voice.”
This remembrance comes from Waterford-born, Co. Cork resident singer Karan Casey, a former member of Atlantic Bridge and Solas, two bands based in the United States. An internationally celebrated vocalist with four solo albums now, Casey tells how her life changed after meeting Harte:
“So I can’t believe that my beloved Frank Harte has passed away. I am sitting here looking at pictures of himself and myself laughing and singing away together at a festival in America. I think it was the one in Wolf Trap, the Washington Irish Folk Festival. He would be very cross with me for being so full of self-pity, and he would tell me to celebrate his life because he was brilliant!
“I met Frank in America, ten or eleven years ago this summer at the Catskills Irish Arts Week up in East Durham, N.Y., and he said ‘come here to me you, young one.’ Then he quizzed me up and down about what songs I knew and what was I going to do with my life. This was just in the first half-hour! He then marched me off and bought me a double CD of Luke Kelly and told me to come back to him when I knew all the songs on it.
“I spent the rest of the week following him around and going to his classes, even when I was supposed to be teaching my own. I just took my students to Frank’s class as I figured we all needed to be beside him and to hear him.
“We went from there really. I was living in America at the time, and so I would visit him when I went home. In the beginning I didn’t speak very much (if people can believe that!) as I was too overawed by him. I was amazed at the amount of books he had in his cottage up in Dublin and how many old tapes and recordings he had. There were paintings everywhere, and most of the walls were covered with old clippings from newspapers and pictures of old singers that I had only heard of. There were also beautiful sculptures, especially the one of Jim Larkin that he was so proud of. And reel-to-reels, dozens of them that he had made himself from all the sessions that he went to, things I had never seen before.
And the books-my God, I had never seen so many books. I thought: he must be an intellectual!
“Frank always had time for me. He was always delighted to see me. He sang me such lovely songs, and I would put them on tapes. He also recommended different song collections and was forever giving out to me for not reading the songbooks enough. I would say, ‘But sure I have you,’ and he would sigh. Of course I know why he was sighing now. He was particularly fond of the Sam Henry collection and would often just browse through it, as anyone else would read a book. He was always reading poetry, and he would often ring me up and read me a poem. He was a romantic at heart and adored Yeats.
“Most of the songs that I recorded with Solas I got from Frank. He was mad about Solas and was forever teasing them, telling them all to stand back from the microphone when I was singing. His good friend Mick Moloney gave us our first gig at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and we were almost like their babies the way the pair of them would go around boasting about us.
“Sometimes Frank could be cranky, I think mostly because he knew what he had or indeed what he would always stress was what the Irish people had, and whether the songs would survive. He did ask me last year, ‘Who will sing these songs when I die if you don’t?’ I often felt frustrated as if I wasn’t doing the songs justice and also felt the burden of being a traditional singer.
“We would spend hours talking about what would become of the songs or how we were going to get them out there. When I would despair, he would remind me that I live the life people dream of living. I know he is right. I think if anyone wants to honour Frank now, they could sing a song and he would be pleased. He just simply loved songs.
“Over the last few years I became very close to Frank, and he became like a father to me. I am really blessed to have had Frank Harte in my life. He would ring me up and sing me songs late at night. He’d ask me how my head was and give out if I didn’t have a new traditional song for him since the week before. I would go up to Dublin to chat with him and to see him more than to get songs, and we would drink wine and order in Chinese food. (Frank would have Colman’s mustard with the spring rolls.) He would read me poems and sing me songs and get me to read him poetry and sing him songs, and we laughed and cried and sang some more.
“I am so glad that I did get to spend more time with Frank. It is one of the things in my life that I know I did right, times that I will always treasure the most.
“I am deeply proud to have known Frank and deeply grateful to him for all the time he gave me. I also know how lucky I am and how precious that time was. And oh, what I would do to be able to pick up the phone and talk to Frank Harte tonight.”
This second remembrance comes from Co. Clare resident Aineis Brock, wife of noted button accordionist Paul Brock. She sent me an anecdote illustrating Frank Harte’s whimsicality and craic-loving wit. It sprang from a talk Paul Brock gave on a fellow Athlone, Westmeath, musician, John McCormack (1884-1945):
“In August 2000 my husband, Paul, was delivering a lecture at the Milwaukee Irish Fest on the life and music of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack. Frank Harte was sitting in the back of the audience with Professor Mick Moloney. When the lecture was over, a small crowd of the ‘intelligentsia’ gathered, sharing associations and memories of McCormack.
“Frank Harte turned to me and announced, ‘My claim to fame is that Count McCormack actually paid to hear me sing!’ “I looked at him in amazement because I knew that the great Irish tenor was nearly sixty years dead and Frank, although he was now known far and wide as a singer of Irish ballads, could not have reached notoriety at such a tender age, especially to have reached the notice of McCormack.
“After a very calculated pause, Frank explained in his best Dublin accent that John McCormack was living very close to the school in Blackrock, County Dublin, where Frank was a student. The school was having a fund-raising concert, and Frank, then a very young boy, was in the school choir. McCormack had wandered in and paid at the door, and even though very young, Frank knew that this was a unique occasion. He sang his heart out, so technically Count John McCormack, the great Irish tenor, did pay to hear Frank Harte sing!
“Like McCormack, Frank Harte understood brilliantly how to communicate with an audience. He had an innate talent for storytelling through his songs.
“I do hope that in sixty years time somebody, when discussing the life and songs of Frank Harte, will be able to make the enviable claim that Frank paid to hear them sing. May he rest in peace.”