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MARTIN J MCGUINNESS - Geordie Hanna: The Man And The Songs 

MARTIN J MCGUINNESS - Geordie Hanna: The Man And The Songs 
Geordie Hanna Traditional Singing Society ISBN: 9781527286733 

Published by the Geordie Hanna Traditional Singing Society and partly researched by its membership, this absorbing volume does exactly what it says on the cover; it tells you about the man and gives a comprehensive songbook, complete with musical notations. Your £20 also gets you a CD re-issue of Geordie Hanna Sings from 1978. This is not a biography as such, more a series of impressions and illustrations of the character of a giant of the song world whose influence and memory remain undimmed through Ireland and beyond. For those of us who never had the good fortune to meet him in person, the recollections and vignettes of his relations and friends, gathered over the 34 years since his death, illuminate the immensely strong personality of a singer and human being who continues to evoke respect wherever singers meet.

This book sets Geordie firmly in his native Tyrone, on the South East banks of Lough Neagh; indeed, the character of the home area that shaped him comes over very strongly through the author’s descriptions and the comments of Geordie’s friends. It’s not a strict chronological account of his life (and it’s none the worse for that), but it does give the reader a very full and intimate perspective on the man and of his impact on the world of traditional song. Geordie had been surrounded by singing all his life, and like some others, had a voracious appetite for good songs and kept gathering more as he went through life. He was winning competitions in the 1960s, but the seismic shift occurred when he attended the 1976 Buncrana Fleadh. The impression he made kept many other singers in the same bar that he was singing in through the four days of the event – no one wanted to miss any of it, and the recollections of several well-regarded singers who were present bear testimony to the impact his singing made. Within a very short time, other singers, such as Paddy Tunney and Seamus Mac Mathuna, were beating a path to his door, and he was being asked to sing throughout Ireland and beyond the Atlantic – although he was always wanting to get back to his beloved Lough Neagh. This love was reflected in his singing, with many songs about his native surroundings.

The songs (just under 50 of them) cover Geordie’s repertoire and have been notated from many sources. Every song has been given a notation exactly as Geordie sang it. The subject matter covers everything imaginable, and songs for which Geordie’s source is known are credited. There are songs of emigration, revolution, love, songs brought back from America by returning relations, the odd political song and even one learned from a Planxty LP. So there’s plenty to get your teeth into if you’re looking for additions to your own repertoire. There are intriguing variants of some widely distributed traditional songs and, of course, many which Geordie himself was responsible for popularising.

The hardback book itself is well written and eminently readable (and has already received an enthusiastic welcome from early purchasers), while the list of acknowledgements reveals the thorough nature of the research that went into this 250-page work. Aside from the support of Geordie’s family and local community, a large number of singers from around Ireland have been consulted, as well as the folklorists who were also drawn to the Loughside. There are a couple of maps to set the scene, and many photographs interspersed in the text (a good number of which brought back memories of friends past and present).

In many ways, I’m surprised that this book hasn’t been attempted before, but I think time has lent a balanced and thoughtful eye to this assessment, and Geordie’s nephew Martin J McGuinness deserves to stand alongside Robin Morton, Paddy Tunney, Hugh Shields and Len Graham among those who’ve documented the song tradition in the northern part of Ireland and thereby increased our appreciation of an extraordinarily rich and diverse tradition.

John Waltham


This review appeared in Issue 141 of The Living Tradition magazine