On April 6, musician John McGann passed away unexpectedly, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. He was known in the Irish, bluegrass and jazz worlds locally and abroad, and taught at the Berklee College of Music. The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge will host a special tribute to McGann on April 10.
Hear a tribute to McGann from this week's A Celtic Sojourn
What Brian O'Donovan had to say about John McGann....
I first met John at a party at Johnny Cunningham’s flat in Newton in the late '80s, and knew him subsequently as one of the best accompanists of trad. music in the area, and just a great guy to be around. But it wasn’t until my daughter Aoife enrolled as the New England Conservatory and immersed herself in the burgeoning young roots music scene here that I became aware of John’s almost absurd range of musical talents.
Since that time, what I often refer to as a "genius cluster" of young musicians has been drawn to Boston, initially by the masters of tradition who were here: Seamus Connolly, Matt Glaser, Hankus Netsky, Berklee itself, Ran Blake, Club Passim, broadening attitudes at the conservatories, to name just a small few. Often understated and in the background but omnipresent: John McGann.
His virtuosity on so many instruments, his encyclopedic knowledge of so many genres (and sub-genres), his ability to teach and draw young people in, and what I will remember most — his generosity of spirit — became a crucial part of what in the future will be written about as a truly special period and a special place, indeed, for music; Irish, Appalachian, Cape Breton, bluegrass, jazz and everything in between.
There is a hole in the heart of Boston music.
John's educational philosophy in action ...
And John on stage, playing a 10-string fanned-fret mandolin
BOSTON — It’s a green week here at WGBH, where we’ve enjoyed a visit from The Chieftains and we're gearing up for performances from the likes of Susan McKeown, The Bee Eaters, Jeremy Kittel and more great musicians at this year’s A St. Patrick’s Day Sojourn. (Performances are on March 17 in New Bedford and March 24 in Cambridge. Get tickets and info.)
Despite a very busy schedule, Brian O’Donovan, host of the weekly radio show A Celtic Sojourn, took a minute to talk with us about his work.
Q: You’ve done live Celtic Sojourn events now for almost a decade. Who is your primary audience? Is it Boston's Irish community?
O’Donovan: We’ve been doing A Christmas Celtic Sojourn longer than we’ve done the St. Patrick’s Day events, downtown at the Cutler Majestic Theater, and that show has been called one of the biggest Jewish-Christmas events in town! Seriously, this music connects with all kinds of people. Of course the local Irish community values the Sojourn events highly, but we get notes and emails from all kinds of people telling us how much they love the broadcasts and the live performances. I even received a note once from an African-American living in Tokyo. He thanked me for the Celtic Sojourn podcast and told me, “The music reminds me of home.”
We don’t just deliver the traditional Irish tunes. We make a point of bringing up new, unheard-of artists, and our audience gets that. They trust us when we tell them, “Here’s someone you’ll really love.” You don’t have to have a Celtic heritage to enjoy really good music.
Q: During the Chieftain’s performance this week in WGBH’s Fraser Studio, you told them you were listening to rock-n-roll in the 60s, but when you heard the tune “Trip to Sligo” on their third album, you were convinced you had been introduced to your own music. How is it different from rock?
Listen to Trip to Sligo
It’s not so different, really. The Chieftains are in part responsible for making traditional Irish music appealing to young people 50 years ago. They took a very structured form of folk music and refreshed it with a young perspective. For those of us looking to England and America for our music, the new stuff the Chieftains were doing introduced us back to the rich music all around us in Ireland. They do the same thing today, introducing new generations to Irish music by blending their style with collaborators like The Low Anthem and Bon Iver.
Q: You complimented Don Cuddy for a recent articleon the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn by saying, “He really gets what we are trying to achieve at WGBH.” What do you mean?
Of course we want our Celtic Sojourn broadcasts and events to entertain, but our audience is smart and educated. They want more from us. As I said before, they trust us to give them more. They want to learn about musicians I’ve discovered, but they’ve never heard of. They want to know the context of the music—like what it means that a tune is Celtic, but not necessarily Irish. They even appreciate it when we explain the language and the meaning behind some of the lyrics. There was a tune the Chieftains played—School Days Over—and when I introduced it with Paddy Moloney, the way we explained that the song is about child labor, when children had to leave school and enter the mines to make a living, well, I know the audience really values context like that. They appreciate that kind of richness.
Listen to School Days Over
As Chieftain’s leader Paddy Moloney would shout at the end of a good session: “Mighty!”
Annie Shreffler Annie Shreffler is a digital features producer, writer and photographer for WGBH.org. She obtained an M.A. in Journalism from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and kicked off her second career as a digital projects producer for The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC New York Public Radio.