The Folk Singers

The poet delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (the ‘something’ that makes Ireland magically special and unique for him) here elegizing a rural music genre eclipsed by modernism. Note that after 1957 Heaney lived independently in Belfast accommodation initially as an undergraduate student; this piece has a city provenance.

The poet regrets the technological changes overtaking the ‘live’ folk-music beloved of his nation. He weaves the ‘new’ vocabulary of commercialised sound-production (‘turn-tables’ and ‘grooves’) into a lament.

A wistful country boy in the city listens to music on a turn-table. He sums up his discomfort: vinyl records that enable him to play and replay the same track of well-known lyrics as he pleases (Re-turning time-turned words) have replaced ‘the real thing’ by fitting each weathered song/ To a new grooved harmony. Musicians now clutching record deals pluck slick strings that unbalance vulnerable emotions (swing/ A sad heart’s equilibrium).

In the rural Ulster communities of his previous life inhibited affection (Numb passion) grew as slowly as the oyster takes to produce its treasure (pearled in the shy/ Shell of a country love), a gauche, fragile affair (strung on a frail tune).

Studio-engineered sound (sharp now) hurts Heaney; to him this Johnny-come-lately music claims to be what it isn’t (strikes a pose/ Like any rustic new to the bright town).

Country-born traditional folksongs have become pre-packed tales, gift-wrapped to sell in their tens of thousands in suburbia. To the poet this is a debased music ‘tarted up’ to appeal (pale love/ Rouged for the streets).

Heaney barely veils his sense of loss: no further need to memorize the words (Humming); just to absorb each catchy tune repairs the pain of shallow love (Solders all broken hearts).

Where once the victims of unrequited love might have considered suicide (Death’s edge), new guitar effects have anaesthetized intensity of feeling (blunts on the narcotic strumming).

  • folk: a musical genre relating to the culture of a community or nation;

  • re-turning: re-shaping;

  • time-turned: set by tradition over time;
    weathered: worn by long exposure (to conditions/ the ear);
    new-grooved: period gramophone records had an indented groove upon which sounds were captured;

  • pluck: pick instrumental strings with finger or plectrum;

  • slick: referring to the skill of the instrumentalist

  • swing: both ‘the rhythm of the music’ and its influence on the listener’s emotions;
    equilibrium: balance

  • numb: without physical sensation, desensitized;

  • pearled: reference to the bluish-grey colouring of gems produced by the oyster;

  • shell (multiple intention): the outer case of an oyster shell; the state of shyness, introversion (come out of one’s shell; something as yet incomplete;

  • strung: neat conflation of notions – string of an instrument; string of pearls; casual in the sense of ‘string along’;

  • frail: weak, delicate;

  • tune: melody;

  • strike a pose: create an impression using body-language;like any rustic: Heaney is effectively reiterating his own recent situation; that of a country boy who came up to university and felt the need to find his way and create an impression ;

  • rustic: reference the simplicity and charm typical of the country;

  • pre-packed: ready-packaged prior to sale;

  • rouged: heavy with make-up (implied vulgarity);

  • humming: singing with closed lips;

  • solder: join with solder, make whole;

  • blunt: lose its sharpness;

  • strumming: playing with a hand-sweep across the strings (compared unfavourably with the skill of plucking);

  • Progress in music technology in the 1950s and 60s had brought both popular and traditional music within reach of a huge and increasingly suburban audience (vinyl proved more durable than Bakelite records of the 40’s); the age of the CD came much later and the i-pod later still;

  • The sounds produced from the grooves of the revolving record passed via a sharp needle or diamond head along a moving arm into the amplification system of the record-player; the whole apparatus was fraught with difficulties; any clumsiness might result in scratching the record permanently or damaging the arm itself; Heaney offers vocabulary familiar amongst listeners;

  • 3 five-line stanzas based around 6 and 7 syllables; free verse save Humming/ strumming in the final three lines;

  • the overtones of the vocabulary contrast rural and suburban life: weathered/ sad/ numb/ shy/ death’s edge/broken heart as opposed to sharp/ pose/ bright town/ narcotic;

  • music is used as a metaphor for sentimentality verging on depression;

  • the title provides the first example of words opening different lines of enquiry: folk music is a genre in its own right; before recording it was performed and passed from generation to generation live; it is traditionally heavy in the kind of ballads provoked by emotions and relationships. This is picked up and reproduced for a hugely wider audience, but, Heaney suggests, the feelings lack the intensity of the real thing

  • similarly pre-packed, ever self-repeating, without the improvisations open to live musicians;

  • similarly swing: a popular music rhythm generating body movement or an influence, as in swing opinion;

  • similarly strings/ strung: guitars have strings; pearls are strung together to form necklaces;

  • similarly fitting: adapting to, accepting change; placing a record around the central nub of a turn-table; appropriate

  • alliteration: shy/ shell/ pre-packed;

  • assonant effects: [uː] new/ grooved;  [ʌ] country love/ strung/ rustic/ humming/ blunts/ strumming [e] Death’s edge;

  • neat interweave of ass and all: [ɪ][s] slick strings/ swing/ equilibrium;

  • oxymoron: numb passion

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;

  • the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;

  • the first lines, for example, weave together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant[s], nasal [n] and palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ‘-ing’;

  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:

  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur

  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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