Seán Keane

TrackAlbum
Home Away From HomeAll Heart No Roses
BundlinAll Heart No Roses
HomeTurn A Phrase
Galway To GracelandTurn A Phrase
Green Among The GoldTurn A Phrase
No Stranger To The RainNo Stranger
May Morning DewNo Stranger
KilkellyPortrait: The Best Of ...
ShenandoahThe Irish Scattering
One More HourNew Day Dawning
Bonus Track
Isle Of Hope, Isle Of TearsThe Man That I Am

Seán Keane photo

Seán Keane – photo: Brian Blauser (2014)

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Seán Keane playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Along with Iarla Ó Lionáird, Seán Keane is probably the greatest contemporary Irish male folk singer. Both men come from families with a deep engagement with traditional music there. For example, Iarla’s great-aunt, Elizabeth Cronin, was one of the best-known singers in the Muskerry area of West Cork. In Keane’s case his two aunts, Rita and Sarah, were both noted singers while his sister, Dolores, is among the finest Irish female vocalists of recent times (the three of them can be seen singing together here and for comparison’s sake here is Sean’s version of the same song). Seán’s talent for singing was noted at a very early age and he won numerous fleadh cheoil {‘festival of music’) medals as a young boy. Although he started off singing in the sean-nós style (it is an unaccompanied and highly ornate form of singing which places extraordinary technical demands on those who sing in that way), he has not adhered to it strictly in his recorded work. Nonetheless, it helped to shape the way in which he sings. Of the selections here, The May Morning Dew – although it is accompanied – is probably the closest to the form. Here is another example of Seán singing in the sean-nós style. This song was also recorded by the great Joe Heaney and comes close to matching his classic version.

Seán Keane’s extended family was the lynchpin around which the music of his local area (Caherlistrane near the town of Tuam in North-East Galway) revolved. As well as being fine singers, his mother and his aunts were also noted song-collectors. Indeed, the core of their repertoire formed the bedrock for a good deal of both Seán and Dolores’ work.

Along with his aunts, Keane’s parents were also musicians who ran their own very popular céilí band, in which almost all the family participated. As Keane himself has said, he grew up “in a house of music” where singing was almost as natural as breathing. At a relatively young age he had also mastered several musical instruments including the flute, tin whistle, harmonica and uilleann pipes. Despite this obvious musical talent, however, it was not until quite late in his life – in relative terms – that Seán settled on pursuing music as a full-time career. Before doing so, he had dabbled in a few different areas and these included a stint working on building sites in London. This period may explain his affinity with Ewan MacColl’s great song about Irish labourers, Tunnel Tigers, which he recorded to good effect on his classic Turn A Phrase album.

He also was a member of several short-lived groups including Shegui, Shaskeen, Reel Union and Arcady. In between times, he also worked as a welder and had a brief career as an actor with the Druid Theatre in Galway and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

As a result of this rather stop-start career progress, Seán was over thirty when he recorded his first solo album, All Heart No Roses in 1993. Like almost all his subsequent records, it was made with a group of trusted collaborators. These included his sister Dolores and her then husband, John Faulkner, on backing vocals. Other contributors to the record included noted local musicians like the late great Alec Finn on bouzouki and Nollaig Casey on fiddle. The album was produced by Arty McGlynn, a superb guitarist in his own right. This marked the beginning of a long and very productive musical partnership between the two men. From his first note on the record, what was immediately apparent was Keane’s absolute mastery as a singer. He had a lovely relaxed unaffected vocal style, which conveyed a warmth and immediacy which very few other singers could match. Indeed, the ease of his style sometimes made it difficult to see the technical brilliance which underpinned it.

The album also introduced themes which were to be central to Seán Keane’s work from that point on. A central one was the subject of emigration and the subsequent experiences of the Irish ‘diaspora’ as it has come to be known. It could be argued that no other Irish artist has explored this topic with the type of sensitivity and depth which Keane has displayed At times these songs could be light-hearted as is the case with my first two selections here – Home Away From Home and Bundlin – while, as we shall see later in the piece, they could also deal with far more disturbing and tragic issues. Of the two songs, Home Away From Home presents a scenario with which most long-term emigrants will be familiar, while Bundlin gives a rose-coloured view of Irish emigration to Australia, It has also, according to some wits, become my theme tune here:

Seán Keane’s next album, Turn A Phrase, is probably the finest of his career. As with All Heart it covered a wide range of musical genres, including traditional folk, country, and covers of songs by folk-influenced songwriters like Mick Hanley and Richard Thompson. From the outset of his career, Keane was keen (I know – it is a bad pun) to avoid being stereotyped as a purely traditional singer. Unlike, say Ó Lionáird, who has remained more or less within the singing tradition from which he sprang – albeit within a wide span of experimentation about the way in which it is presented – Seán has sung in a range of musical styles.

However, he has done so while preserving his own individuality as a singer. Another way of putting this would be to say that he has adapted songs from outside his own specific tradition to his own very personal style, An example would be my next choice, Home. It began life as a country song that was a hit for Joe Diffie. Keane’s interpretation is very different – no one could mistake him for a ‘Nashville cat’ – and reflects the key importance of family in his own life.

One of the refreshing things about Seán is that he has never lost his strong East Galway accent and this – combined with the rich timbre of his voice – gives it a strongly distinctive character.

My next choice, From Galway To Graceland, seems to me to be a song that Seán was born to sing. Although it was written by Richard Thompson, Keane makes the song very much his own and his version is good enough to bear comparison with the original.

By contrast, Green Among The Gold is another of Seán’s ‘emigrant’ songs, centring on the Irish experience in Australia.

The next pick, No Stranger To The Rain, comes from his third solo album, No Stranger, first released in 1998. It was originally recorded by the country singer, Keith Whitley, who had a number one country hit with it in America and Canada in 1989. One way of describing Seán’s version would be to say that to me it sounds much more like East Galway rain than the Nashville variety.

My other selection from No Stranger, May Morning Dew, is entirely different in character. It shows Keane’s consummate mastery as a singer of folk songs. A live version of the song can be seen here – unfortunately whoever filmed missed the first few lines but the quality of the singing here is simply stunning.

Like several of my other choices, Kilkelly is a song about the consequences of emigration. It is cleverly constructed through the framing device of a series of letters from a father back home to a son overseas. This enables the narrator to present a picture of Irish history from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It also means that the song conveys some of the human costs which the massive flow of people entailed – from the West of the country particularly – both for those who left and for those left behind. As always, Sean’s interpretation goes to the heart of the song’s message.

The next choice, Shenandoah, is one of the great American folk songs. Its beautiful melody means that it has been covered by a wide variety of artists, including ones of the stature of Paul Robeson, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen. It is a testament to Keane’s excellence as a singer that his version bears comparison with the very best of these.

My last pick, One More Hour, has a particularly poignant quality as it reflects the personal tragedy that Seán suffered in July 2010. Early in that month, his wife, Virginia, who had been a lynchpin in his musical career up to that point, died from cancer. The song is a duet with Áine Morgan who was undergoing treatment for cancer herself at the time it was recorded. The two singers complement each other beautifully and Sean sings with an emotional directness which is even more powerful than is usually the case:

Listening again to the songs I chose for this piece I was struck by the magnificence of Seán’s singing. Few singers can match that combination of technical skill with a real emotional warmth and directness which he achieves with such apparent effortlessness.

 

Bonus Track

I mentioned Seán’s sister, Dolores – who is a superb singer in her own right – earlier in the piece. When they sing together, the effect is usually stunning. This is the case with my bonus selection:

Again, this is another emigration song which deals with the history of Ellis Island, the immigrant inspection station which Irish emigrants passed through before entering the United States. Keane tells more about the story behind the song at the start of this live performance.

And finally, here’s Seán singing Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears along with members of The Chieftains at Matt Molloy’s in Westport, Co. Mayo in 2001.

 

 

Seán Keane official website

Seán Keane facebook

Seán Keane streamed birthday bash 23rd August 2020
– live concert with Fergus Feely and Pat Coyne

Irish Independent feature (November 2016)

BlueRidge Country interview (September 2014)

Irish Times feature (October 1999)

irishphiladelphia.com interview (September 2014)

The Living Tradition feature (August 2000)

Seán Keane biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Here are just some of Andrew’s other posts on Irish musicians on this site:
Willie Clancy, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, Johnny Duhan, Séamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Horslips, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Seán Ó Riada, Planxty

TopperPost #899

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Sep 1, 2020

    The rich vein that Irish music produces is enhanced by the wonderful vocals of Sean – this is a great list which I’ve had on repeat since it was posted. I didn’t know much about Sean either, so I’ve managed to fill in some much-neglected holes in my knowledge.

  2. Colin Duncan
    Nov 24, 2020

    Thanks, Andrew – another great article on Irish singing. I’ve spent part of the afternoon playing Sean. Although I’ve listened to some of Dolores’ music, I never knew Sean existed. I found this great album of 45 songs after reading your beautifully written article – a fine recording of Like I Used To Do just finished and now a really outstanding version of the Beatles’ Blackbird is playing. Cheering up this miserable, no light, pissing rain, total lockdown in the Glasgow area. At least I don’t have to work. Sean’s singing is effortlesss. Genuine thanks for extending my knowledge of Irish music big time and thanks, Merric, for providing the excellent platform of Toppermost.
    P.S. The song that has just come on begins with ‘I’m no stranger to the rain’ – I can empathise with him. Outstanding guitar work too. Thank you, Andrew.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 25, 2020

    David & Colin, thanks for the kind words.
    Colin – Yes, Seán is such a fine singer and he always makes it sounds so natural, effortless and unaffected. And having grown up in the West of Ireland, I am no stranger to the rain either. There is a nice clip here of Sean talking about how he came to work with George Martin.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Nov 25, 2020

    Thank you, Andrew. I played One More Hour this morning, a hauntingly beautiful song, beautifully sung. As you’ll know now, I’m interested in Scottish and Irish singing and love Celtic Connections. Have you been? A great highlight was hearing Maura O’Connell as you know from my Toppermost. I try to keep up and here are two great singers, one from Ireland and one from Scotland with two outstanding songs from the brilliant, Dundee songwriter, Ron Lindsay:
    Chanel McGuinness from Ireland has a fragile, beautiful voice.
    And the beautiful, what a voice, Pauline Alexander from Scotland.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓