There are many performers who, until Covid-19 arrived, travelled the length and breadth of the UK and further afield to bring us live music which we now miss so much. They do this mostly on the margin of making any decent living from performing and go many extra miles in the process.
There are far fewer performers who have followed that path for 50 years and maintained high standards of songwriting and performance for that length of time in a folk world which has changed so much in five decades.
The folk club count has declined significantly in the UK in that time, with arts centres, folk concert promoters and an increasing number of festivals partly filling the gap. Some artists have sought a wider market across the Channel.
For Kieran Halpin, who has died aged 65, that continental European scene provided a more vibrant and sustainable lifestyle, so in latter years we saw less of him here. One of his last gigs was at Croydon Folk Club in February 2020. Such gigs gave him the opportunity to visit family and friends here and in Scotland, especially his two daughters.
Kieran was born in County Louth in the Republic of Ireland, the youngest of four brothers, and was performing in Dublin bars at the age of 15. He first came to the UK at the age of 20 and did gigs wherever he could, then moved on to do the same in the Netherlands and Germany before returning to Dublin, all the while paying his dues and honing his craft.
His career was peppered with a number of collaborations, the first of which, from 1979 to 82, was with the Newcastle fiddler and singer Tom McConville. They made two fine albums, Port Of Call and The Streets Of Everywhere, and headlined the 1981 Cambridge Folk Festival.
Later collaborators included Maart Allcock, the pianist Anth Kaley, the late US guitarist Chris Jones, percussionist Yogi Jockusch, the accordionist and producer Manfred Leuchter and more recently the Austrian guitarist and singer Christoph Schellhorn.
A total of 22 albums resulted – a tally all the more remarkable when one considers that almost every track, and I have counted at least 200, was written by Kieran. He was not a man for covers or throwaway songs to fill an album.
And it is the songwriting which particularly stands out for me in that so many of Kieran’s songs have been sung and recorded by artists of quality. To name just a few of the notables: Dolores Keane; the Dutch country and pop singer Ilse DeLange, who took All The Answers to a national audience; the late great song interpreter John Wright and his band; Niamh Parsons; and Kieran’s longtime friend, the late Vin Garbutt.
Kieran’s songs, with strong melodies and covering almost every conceivable subject, lend themselves to the amateur performers among us who cherish evocative and concise songs endowed with real-life meaning. His three songbooks, transcribed by Allcock, contain 137 of his songs for those of you who play and sing.
As a performer, whether on a festival stage or in a small folk club, he ranged from strident arm-straight strumming reminiscent of a “Kiero the Hero” rock star (epithet courtesy of Pat Garbutt) to soft delicate fingerpicking, fully exploiting the tones of his cherished Rob Armstrong guitars. His natural Irish wit and warm humanity shone through on stage, as it did in private situations, and once you experienced it you were drawn back again and again to hear the old favourites and the new songs he was so proud of sharing.
Many people know Kieran’s songs without linking them to him or even knowing of his wider work. He has left us with so much more than A Box Of Words And Tunes – a turn-of-the-millennium album which is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with his songs.
During lockdown Kieran added to his substantial presence on YouTube with three Looking Back retrospective concerts which feature some of his less well-known songs and are well worth viewing. The April 2020 interview with Daithi Rua, Raving With Rua RWR #25, available on YouTube or via www.theruaroom.com, is a good insight into Kieran and his work.
His sudden death in southern Germany came as a shock to the many who knew him intimately and to those, like me, who had him as a house guest for the odd night or two as he travelled through.
Long discussions over a glass or two of red late into the night and the privilege of hearing a new song before its public airing – in my case Ben Parkinson’s Friends – are now cherished memories of a true troubadour.
Kieran Halpin, born 4 June 1955; died 5 October 2020. This article appeared in Folk London 311, February-March 2021