Jack Coen

When midnight comes good people homeward tread
Seek now your blanket and your feather bed
 Home is the rover, his journey's over]
Yield up the night time to old John O' Dreams
Yield up the night time to old John O' Dreams

--Bill Caddick
The popular song “John O’ Dreams” in the Irish music scene conjures many vivid images that complement the Easter message of life after death that for people of the Christian faith restores hope and light after death’s dark passage. 

For those in the Irish traditional music scene we imagine one almighty session or ceili in the sky where the voices or instruments are never stilled or packed away. 

Sadly and remarkably, three trailblazing musicians have now joined that circle in the sky this past week, and we note their passing here.

As Easter Sunday approached, the seminal Galway flute player Jack Coen, 86, went onto his eternal reward and another great chapter in the New York Irish traditional music scene was closed.

Coen was born in East Galway in the parish of Woodford in 1925 and was reared in a large musical family.  Like so many others he immigrated to New York in 1949 to make a living, marry and raise a family, and when the opportunities arose he picked up his whistle and flute and shared tunes with his fellow émigrés in the New York community in the 1950s and 1960s. 

That New York scene was still dominated by the fiddle players of the Sligo persuasion dating back to Michael Coleman and James Morrison of an earlier era, and then Paddy Killoran, Lad O’Beirne, Larry Redican, Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds.

Coen was in the vanguard of the burgeoning Galway contingent that included his brother Charlie, Mike Rafferty, Martin Mulhaire, Pete Kelly, Sean McGlynn and Joe Madden in the 1960s that would dominate thereafter.

That transition was built around men who carried the music from the old country with great heart and skill which even allowed for a couple of Sligo flute players like Mike Flynn and Mike Preston and Tipperary-born Paddy O’Brien into their tight-knit and fiercely devoted coterie.

Coen was a member of the famed New York Ceili Band which proudly competed in the All-Ireland in 1960 in Boyle, Co. Roscommon and won a gold medal for a trio with Larry Redican and Paddy O’Brien that year.

Coen’s role in the New York Irish music scene evolved beyond being just a musician from the other side, and the National Endowment of the Arts recognized him as a National Heritage Fellow in 1991 for his tradition-bearing presence. 

Dr. Mick Moloney recognized Coen’s special fervor for the traditional music of East Galway carefully carried with him first as part of the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life

Bicentennial celebration in 1976, and the Green Fields of America ensemble that arose out of it.

In 1976 he released The Branch Line recording with his younger brother Father Charlie (now a monsignor) which remains a strong repository of their music.

Coen’s role since that time has been predominantly as a teacher and seed sower for playing Irish traditional music in an unhurried and sensitive fashion, as well as preserving certain tunes from his locality or the manner in which other tunes could be set in his manner of playing.

His love of the sound of the old wooden flute was also fostered by his teaching many students locally in New York and at the various music camps he visited over the years. 

Jack Coen profoundly touched the lives of many students over the years, none more so than his most famous protégée, Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies.  Condolences to his wife Julia and family, and we will have more to say about the legacy of Jack Coen in a future column.

John McGann (left) and Joe Derrane at NYU's Skirball Center. (Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos)
On the past Saturday the awful and shocking news of the passing of Boston musician John McGann made its way around the Internet.  Only 52, the loss of the multi-talented musician and teacher left “a hole in the heart of Boston music” as Brian O’Donovan proclaimed on his Saturday afternoon broadcast of Celtic Sojourn on Boston’s public radio outlet WGBH. 

McGann was born in Morristown, New Jersey and he had Irish roots in Mayo and Waterford. His career and musical education brought him to Beantown, where his mastery of stringed instruments like the guitar and mandolin carried across many genres of roots music with bluegrass his specialty. 

That may have eased his way into the Celtic cousins of Appalachian, Cape Breton and Irish which all had a firm foothold in his adopted city of Boston, and he was no stranger around jazz musicians as well. 

No mere accompanist or sideman was McGann, whose approach to innovation and performance was to let the music express itself and communicate through the heart of the musicians.

He was well-placed as a professor of strings at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, teaching guitar and mandolin techniques as part of its educational role preparing students for careers in music and the business of music in the contemporary world. 

The director of its American Roots Program, fiddler Matt Glaser, who was a member of the Wayfaring Strangers group with McGann, remembered him fondly.

“John was beyond category and beyond compare like a garden of musical and human gifts. The garden is gone,” he said.

Added another Berklee colleague, Donegal fiddler Oisin Mcauley, “He was the most optimistic, experimental and uplifting musician any player could hope to work or study with and he had a wicked sense of humor. To say he will be missed is a massive understatement.”

Maybe so but the number of seeds planted by John McGann will outlast his all too short time with us.

Along with countless musicians he creatively worked with over the years at Berklee and in recording studios or performances, his work in the Irish scene will be gratefully remembered by people like John Whelan, Seamus Connolly and Joe Derrane.

He performed with Connolly and Derrane in the group the Boston Edge, and those two masters formed a great friendship and appreciation for McGann’s contributions to their music. 

In fact, McGann’s close ties to the legendary Derrane were most in evidence for the venerable box player’s last two recordings, The Man Behind the Box and Grove Lane on the Mapleshade label.

Condolences to his wife Sharon and their daughter Hannah.

Barney McKenna
In Ireland, the last of the original Dubliners troupe, banjoman Barney McKenna will be laid to rest in Trim, Co. Meath where the native Dubliner’s family hailed from.

McKenna passed away at the age of 72 last Thursday and despite suffering diabetes, he remained an active member of the popular group which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 

Recruited by Ronnie Drew back in 1962 out of O’Donaghue’s Pub, McKenna joined Luke Kelly and Ciaran Bourke, who added fiddler John Sheahan in 1964, to round out the devilish quintet that was one of Ireland’s top musical groups for decades and later included Sean Cannon, Jim McCann and Paddy Reilly among others.

At a Dublin concert in January kicking off the anniversary year that I was fortunate to attend, McKenna stood out singing a solo “I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me” as well as his classic banjo riffs throughout the historic Christ Church Cathedral show as part of the Temple Bar Trad Festival.
The Dubliners went off on a 12-gig tour of Britain in March as well.

McKenna’s banjo playing not only gave the colorful Dubliners an instrumental heft, but also “single-handedly redefined the role of the banjo in Irish traditional music where the style of picking he pioneered was virtuosic in a very gentle, subtle understated style which had a beautiful swing… He would influence a whole generation of banjo players including myself and we fellow banjo players always viewed him as our charismatic leader. He was a mighty man,” wrote Dr. Mick Moloney on Facebook after McKenna’s demise. 

McKenna was also an avid fisherman, and his last performance was ironically singing at a memorial service in Dublin for an old friend last Wednesday.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Jack Coen interview from 1960:

John McGann performing at Berklee in 2008:

Barney McKenna on the banjo: