- The Music and Life of John McKenna: ‘The Buck from the Mountain’
The Music and Life of John McKenna: ‘The Buck from the Mountain’ is a two-disc box set compiling the complete commercial recordings of preeminent Irish flute player John McKenna (1880–1947). Accompanying the CDs is a 106-page [End Page 96] booklet edited by Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw with graphic design from Fiachra O’Torna. The 44 tracks, originally recorded on 78 rpm records, are evenly divided across two discs, providing over 2 hours of delightful listening. Harry Bradshaw diligently remastered each track from the original records. The 78s were donated by private collectors Alan Morrisroe (Ireland), Emmett Gill (Ireland), Gerry Clark (Ireland), Richard Nevins (United States), Phillipe Varlet (United States), and Reg Hall (UK). The foundational research presented in the booklet is credited to Jackie Small and Harry Bradshaw, two of Ireland’s foremost scholars on traditional music. In 1983, they presented much of this research on the RTE broadcast The Long Note: A Tribute to McKenna and in the liner notes of a cassette album entitled John McKenna: His Original Recordings, released by the John McKenna Society in 1986. Additional researchers include Seán Gilrane, Loraine Sweeney, Mick Mulvey, Shane Meehan, Daithí Gormley, and Gregory Daly. Further information, documents, and images were provided by the family and community of John McKenna, and particularly by his great-granddaughter Pamela Corillo.
The booklet accompanying the CDs would be inadequately described as liner notes. It is one of the most extensive and thorough pieces of literature ever to be presented alongside an album of traditional Irish music. It starts as a biography describing McKenna’s early life in Leitrim, where he learned to play in a musical landscape “riddled with flute players” (p. 15). There are census reports, family photos, and a family tree extending back to 1795. Also included are cheerful stories about his youth, collected in the 1980s through interviews with McKenna’s contemporaries. One tells of the young “buck” playing the flute for his colleagues in the nearby coal mine, and another details his brother’s unique ability to step dance while balancing a pint of water on his head. The story then moves to McKenna’s journey to New York City, where throughout his life, he worked as an electrician, a driller, a fireman, and a machinist. Fascinating tales about McKenna’s musical escapades include accounts of him playing with such musical legends as fiddlers Michael Coleman, Hughie Gillespie, John Joe Gardiner, and Frank O’Higgins; uilleann piper Michael Gallagher; and accordion player Sunny Brogan. The booklet also contains in-depth analysis of McKenna’s technique and ornamentation, multiple transcriptions of his music, and photographs of the original records. Testimonials from top players of today, such as Conal O’Grada, Patsy Hanly, and Mick Woods, help demonstrate the lasting influence of McKenna’s recordings. A meticulously assembled booklet, it will serve as a useful resource for current and future Irish music enthusiasts, as it contains information previously unknown to the community at large.
John McKenna recorded his music in New York City from 1922 to 1937, within a period in music history often referred to as “the golden era.” The new media platform of radio was thriving and, with it, the commercial record industry. Though recording technology was in its infancy, music recorded during these years remains some of the most influential and definitive throughout many genres, including traditional Irish music. With the large influx of Irish immigrants during these years and the growing Irish American population, traditional Irish music was in relatively high demand. Countless records were sold throughout the United States, many eventually making their way back to Ireland. McKenna’s records were as popular as any in traditional music. Although the flute had been commonly played in Ireland for generations, McKenna—alongside Galway’s Tom Morrison—is largely credited with popularizing the instrument. Having recorded more than any other Irish flute player during this period, McKenna’s recordings set the standard for Irish...