As important as the Sligo Masters and the New York Sligo tradition were to the evolution of Irish music not only in America but also back in Ireland due to the serendipitous advancement of the recording technique in the United States in the early 20th Century, there were also many contributors outside of Sligo. And one of the more successful and prolific Irish musicians came to New York in 1904 from Drumkeeran, County Leitrim at the age of 24 and his name was John McKenna and unlike his fiddling Sligo contemporaries he played the flute. For the past 19 years his contributions have been lionized at an annual festival in his name in June in his home place Drumkeeran and this past year they launched one of the most important CD releases of this year or any year appropriately at it. Entitled “The Music and Life of John McKenna: The Buck from the Mountain” the publication also received launches at three of the most prestigious Summer Schools and Festivals in Ireland, The Willie Clancy Summer School, Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshambo in Leitrim and Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in County Sligo with a Dublin launch coming next weekend at the famed Cobblestone Pub in Smithfield.
This is an extraordinary work for two very important reasons. First it contains 44 completely remastered tracks that comprise the entire commercial recordings that this legendary flute player from Leitrim made in New York which made him one of the most popular of the Irish recording artists whose inclusion in the early recording history around New York was very significant. The historical time frame was very important for both the American Irish and those left behind in the nascent “New Republic” because the music and the sentiments conveyed in it produced very strong ties that bind to this day.
The music is brisk and lively as played principally by McKenna who also displayed a mastery of his own instrument. Many of the tracks would have great appeal to the modern day listener or fellow musician so its availability is now in this two-disk format will yield dividends for generations to come. His recordings have already influenced many of Ireland’s finest flute players in Matt Molloy, Patsy Hanly and Conal O’Grada whose were aware of his work from an early age especially with Molloy and Hanly being from nearby Roscommon. They are over two hours of fascinating listening in the collection which was painstakingly produced by the veteran musicologist and broadcaster Harry Bradshaw and music collector Alan Morrisroe amongst others. Some of the tracks retain the hiss and scratchiness of the early recording era because clean originals were hard to find and others have a crispness and vitality that would leave you to believe that McKenna were he around today might have even more success than he did in his own era.
The audio treasures contained in the collection are savoring enough but the second aspect making this a must-have item for any serious Irish music fan is the 104-page booklet accompanying the project initiated by the John McKenna Society formed to laud the iconic musician. The task of compiling all the information in this fact-filled and entertaining companion piece was given to Sean Gilrane who spent two years working on it. Like some of Bradshaw’s earlier work on Michael Coleman and James Morrison, the historical context is invaluable in drawing a better understanding of why traditional Irish music persevered through some very tough times both at home in Ireland and even in the United States where the Great Depression and two World Wars did not exactly produce the best of times in the 20th Century. When we know more about these musical masters whose technical proficiency was without question, we are still inspired by their ability to touch the heart of all those who carried a fondness for the Ould Sod through its native music.
Gilrane’s narrative and notes tell the John McKenna tale very well and with marvelous detail about his life which had its share of ups and downs like so many Irish immigrants who still found this the “Land of Opportunity” that most likely never would have materialized had they remained at home in Ireland.
The dual collection makes for a wonderful gift for anyone who wants to learn more about Irish music and the fascinating folks who make it and more about their own cultural past. For now the only outlet I am aware of is the John McKenna Society itself and full details can be found at www.johnmckenna.ie.