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Margeson on the music November 2012 - John McDermott My Gentle Harp A Tribute

John McDermott

Tenor, John McDermott has just released his 27th album, My Gentle Harp-A Tribute to Thomas Moore. That total of albums is somewhat staggering, and this is John’s best. For the few not aware, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) was, perhaps, the great Irish songwriter of all time. It is tempting to turn this into an article on Thomas Moore; so many and so great were his achievements. He was one of the most famous of the English Romanticists. In short, his stunning achievements put him on the mountaintop forever. And, now comes John McDermott with his personal tribute to “The Man” as John describes him. Tribute it is.
The quickest of background on John: He was born in Glasgow, and moved to Ontario when he was 10. He was one of 12 children. In today’s world, that number amazes—as it should. But, just a few years ago, that many children in a family was fairly common. We won’t go into the sociology of all that here. To understand John, this album and his life, remember that his family is at the epicenter of everything he has done. And the pinpoint center of it all was his parents. Was it his Father’s naturally gorgeous voice? Well, John states, “To a major degree, when you hear me sing, you are hearing my Father. He had a wonderful, natural and almost magical voice.”
Having 12 children in a family could be an overwhelming challenge to most, but apparently not to the McDermott’s. “ We arrived in Willowdale, Ontario, which is a suburb of Toronto. We really didn’t know anyone. My Dad did have lots of friends in Canada and the United States. That is why we moved here. But, he didn’t know anyone in that town. Career-wise, he was a glazier, so there was plenty of work!”
At this point, many immigrants’ stories became one of isolation and loneliness, even in a family so large. Not the McDermotts. “The first week we were in Canada, Dad went door to door to every neighbor around and invited them all to a party at our place. Nobody came. So, he stayed at it. The next week, a few dropped by, then a few more, then a few more weeks, and the place was full to the rafters! Our house party became the place to be for great music and fun. Everyone brought a song, a story, a poem—something, and it went on for years! It was grand!! And, of course, we knew everyone.”
` You immediately get the fact that the McDermotts were not ones to sit around and watch the grass grow. And, so it goes in John’s career. With his family’s support, he decided to make music his life and career. Skipping ahead, having built a highly successful solo career (one does not record 27 albums if no one is buying them!) John founded The Celtic Tenors in 1998. Originally consisting of himself, Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan, it was hugely popular at the time and the group franchise continues with many other singers over the years. John left it in 2000 when his Mom passed. More on that later. There is so much more to tell, but we are here to tell you about this latest album.
There are a few, major traditions in Irish and Celtic music. There are the musicians playing the uilleann pipes, wooden flutes, button boxes and bodhran, for instance. And, there is the tenor. Popularly thought of as “Irish” tenors, the tradition is therefore that of Irishness. That is incorrect. Better called, The Celtic Tenor. Scotland, Wales and England all share with Ireland a vast history of great singers, many of whom were tenors. Within the tenor tradition, there are two basic types. First is the full stage tenor. Think John McCormick or more recently, Ronan Tynan. Then there are the more reserved or reflective tenors, such as John. Both types are wonderful, but there is such an immediate and accessible style in John’s work. “I think and hope this is my best album yet. I love Moore as a man, and as a songwriter. Magic. The lyrics are so intimate and powerful, it is they I wanted to really stress here. We have some wonderful musicians along, but we kept it all basic, and easy.”
Moore was a staggeringly successful man in his day, but after all was said and over, he had a very sad life. He and his beloved wife, Bessie had five children. Moore was known to adore his wife and children and had every parent’s worst nightmare come true when he was preceded in death by all of his children, and then Bessie. In fact, Moore’s most famous song may well be The Last Rose of Summer. It was written to his wife, and is John’s favorite song of all—and no surprise—it was John’s father’s favorite, as well. Including it on the album was automatic.
There is a very personal connection to Moore here. John lost his treasured Dad, Peter in 1995. When his Mom, Hope passed in 2000, she was tragically joined by John’s sister, Alice and brother, Michael. It was so shattering for him that he was extremely close to giving up the singing altogether. “They were gone, and I didn’t feel like singing again. How could I? After a while, I thought to myself that I had received my voice as a gift from my father, and I should use it. It is certainly what he would want.” On he went. It is a good place to note that John still places one of his Dad’s favorite canes on the stage with him for every performance. His Mom was a great collector of scarves, and now there is the cane on stage, with one of her scarves tied around it. Every time. “I try to make every show just like the parties we used to host. Lots of song and story and really great fun. And, I know my Mom and Dad are with me every time, so his cane and her scarf should be there!”
There are 13 beautiful songs on the album. And, make no mistake, it is his best. Mission accomplished. But, when you talk to John, you get the idea that the story is really just getting started. There is The Hope McDermott Chronic Care unit, which is part of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, named for John, and his charitable works. He is, obviously, extremely active on behalf of Veterans of the Armed Services in both Canada and The United States. That is all central to The John McDermott House in Washington DC, a transitional home for homeless veterans opened in 1999. His work there and elsewhere earned him The Congressional Medal of Honor Society Bob Hope Award in October 2001. That respect and admiration for veterans was another gift from his father, and that is one of the biggest recognitions you can receive from American veterans’ organizations. The list goes on and on and on…
I was warned before writing this about John McDermott. A musician told me, “Look, he is the nicest and most natural guy in the business, and he is totally real, right down to his socks. He is the deal.” He is. You talk to him and listen to this album. You will abandon all objectivity, too.
God granted him a wonderful family, continued today with his wife and three Portuguese Water Dogs. Three? The McDermotts live large. Three?
But, for now, for right here, there is this album. It is, quite simply, just about perfect. Christmas is thundering down on us, and I know what some of my friends are going to get as stocking stuffers. You can get his album in a lot of places, just check it out, and there is also his site, This music goes on, as does John. As do his parents and family. Oh, he is the real deal all right, and it is hard to imagine who is prouder of him right now, his parents or Thomas Moore.

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