As you may be aware by now The Music and Life of John McKenna: 'The Buck from the Mountain' is being most warmly received from different corners of the world. As well as great airplay and radio interviews, we have received 9 very positive reviews from
1) The Irish Echo
2) The Irish Times
3) Irish Music Magazine
4) The Living Tradition magazine
5) Dave Ferman
6) Folk Roundabout Magazine
7) Irish World
8) Irish Voice
The archetypal Irish fluter of the 1920’s and 30’s, John McKenna emigrated from County Leitrim and recorded forty–four selections of Irish music in New York between 1922 and 1937. All these recordings have been carefully cleaned and remastered by the John McKenna Society on a double CD with an accompanying 104–page book. The quality of these old recordings is generally excellent, and McKenna’s iconic reputation is richly deserved. It’s a great achievement, and a gift for current and future generations, to have the whole of John McKenna’s recorded music gathered together. While some of these recordings were previously available on cassette, this release is the first complete collection and the finest quality remastering of McKenna’s 78’s. The clarity of tone on The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue or the showpiece reel Colonel Frazer is exceptional even by the standards of today’s players and instruments.
John McKenna was born in 1880 and spent his youth in an area richly endowed with flute music. At the age of 24 he set sail for New York, and in five years he had qualified as an electrician and had also gained American citizenship. He promptly returned to Leitrim to marry, and took his new bride back to New York. A recording career followed, making John McKenna a household name in Irish America and throughout Ireland. As well as sixteen solo cuts, McKenna recorded duets with fiddlers Barney Conlon and the great James Morrison, fellow fluter Eddie Meehan, and many with Michael Gaffney on banjo. There’s the occasional whistle or vocal performance here too, and even a quartet of Meehan and McKenna with Larry Redican on fiddle and pianist Frank Fallon. Numerous pianists appear on these recordings, some of them anonymous now: every track had to have a vamper in those days. John McKenna made one more trip home, in 1938, and was welcomed as a great musician in both Leitrim and Dublin. McKenna returned to New York, but made no more recordings: he died in 1947.
Not all this music has been equally well preserved. Some selections show the crackles and hiss of well–loved and oft–played records, with no pristine copies surviving. Others are in remarkably fine condition, but bear the hallmarks of many Irish discs from the early 20th century, such as inexperienced piano accompaniment, or exceptionally fast playing because of the very limited duration of 78rpm recordings. Some pieces may even have been speeded up by errors in the recording process: The Gallant Boys of Tipperary for instance is reproduced at a speed which would leave the most sprightly set dancers standing, probably because the music was accidentally accelerated back in 1928. On other tracks, the playing is as measured as you could wish. The John McKenna Society has deliberately left tempos unchanged from the original 78rpm discs. The mix of sound quality and tempos makes this collection better for dipping into than extended listening, and at well over two hours it’s a marathon task to take it all in. There’s so much to learn here, from both the music and the accompanying book which includes McKenna’s history and an analysis of his music. Subtitled The Buck from the Mountain, this release joins other authoritative collections of music from the Irish American recording boom as a landmark archive and a true representation of one of the great players of that era.
Traditional music recordings from the early 20th century were largely dominated by renowned Sligo fiddle players Michael Coleman and James Morrison. Leitrim flute player John McKenna, with his feisty, rhythmic and yet sweet-toned style, was what might be termed an “able dealer” in the musical sense. His duets with Morrison are a marvel, characterised by a shared appetite for musical agility and zesty pace on jigs and polkas. Their collaborations were intensely evocative and yet somehow timeless. This definitive collection includes some deliciously rare remastered recordings, along with a meticulously researched booklet that catalogues McKenna’s life and picaresque times in both Leitrim and his adopted home of New York. The Buck from the Mountain is enriching addition to the archives and a lure to flute players and trad completists alike with an ear for the pure drop. johnmckenna.ie
The first 25 years of recorded traditional music was an incredibly interesting time. Back then, punter and virtuoso players alike had the opportunity to commit their music to 78rpm disc for posterity (sometimes even together on the same track) and record companies like New Republic, Gennett, Columbia and Victor, would in turn do their best sell their product as far and as wide as possible. The music contained on those interwar discs was very often timeless and at its best sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first issued.
Over the years, this era’s music has been carefully and lovingly curated for occasional reissue, allowing modern listeners the briefest of glimpses into this beautiful and bygone era. What few realize, however, is that such reissue projects are rarely comprehensive. They typically paint a very limited picture not only of what individual musicians did, but because a small number of tracks and artists seem to become perennial “favorites,” they become pars pro toto for the era in general. When this happens, it leaves listeners with a skewed perspective on how richly faceted and diverse the music of that time really was.
A spate of recent recordings is changing this. I wrote last year about the brilliant set of accordion player P.J. Conlon’s recordings, which gave great new perspective on his life and work. This week, I have the great privilege to discuss “The Music and Life of John McKenna: The Buck From The Mountain,” a magnificent two-disc reissue that’s just been released through the John McKenna Society.
Born in County Leitrim in 1880, John McKenna was a flute player who was widely considered the first “superstar” of the Irish flute. He traveled to New York City in 1904, returned to Leitrim in 1909 to be married,and settled back in New York the same year, where he worked as a firemanuntil his death in 1947.
McKenna recorded 44 sides in New York between about 1922 and 1934, all of which are represented here. His virtuosity is apparent throughout. His playing on solo tracks like “Clancy’s Dream,” “Roscommon Reels,” “Buck From The Mountain” and “Gallant Boys of Tipperary” is marvelous and has a very characteristic strength and flow. His duet work is equally brilliant. “Highland Skip / […]” with the legendary fiddler James Morrison is spellbinding, as are some of the tracks with banjoist Michael Gaffney. (I’m particularly fond of “Dever the Dancer / […]” and “Ballroom Favorite.”)“Tripping to the Well” with flute player Eddie Meehan is wonderful as well, as are group tracks that feature Meehan and fiddler Larry Redican.
One of the charms of this set are the slightly “off” tracks. For example, “Sailor on the Rock /…” and “Reels of ‘Mullinvate,’” both feature some dodgy lilting and there’s a tuning clash between flute and James Morrison’s whistle on “The Boy in the Gap.” Some may find this grating, but they represent the era in its reality. You wouldn’t leave tracks like this off a set purporting to be “comprehensive,” but it would be wrong – misleading, even, from a historical point of view – to gloss over them when listening.
The restoration work on the music is wonderful. Part of this is due to Alan Morrisroe, who did a yeoman’s job of finding the best discs available to work with. Great credit is also due to Harry Bradshaw, who once again (as he has done with so many other projects) took great care and did a sensitive, informed job of remastering the original material. What a difference his finely tuned ear makes.
The set comes with an extraordinary, lavishly illustrated 104-page booklet. Short tributes by Matt Molloy and Conal Ó Gráda accompany Seán Gilrane’s comprehensively researched and well written biographical essay, discography, musical analysis and discussion of McKenna’s reception and lasting influence. Gilrane seems to have left no stone unturned, nor any McKenna aficionado left unconsulted. It is an absolutely brilliant companion to the music.
(BTW, those interested in exploring McKenna’s playing style a bit further will want to visit Harry Bradley’s “Errant Elbow” blog [errantelbows.podbean.com], where he is currently parsing the nuances of McKenna’s playing. Bradley’s voice is also represented in the set’s booklet.)
Ultimately, this is an important and immensely satisfying historical document that is sensitively wrought and brilliantly presented. As far as traditional reissue projects go, there are few out there of such a high caliber. “The Music and Life of John McKenna” is an absolute must-have for libraries, but also for musicians and Irish music lovers with a taste for history.
If you are right now in or will traveling to Ireland in July or Augusta, keep in mind launches will happen at the Willie Clancy Summer School on Sunday, July 6, at the Joe Mooney Summer School on July 23rd and at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann on August 16. For details about these launches and information about ordering this fantastic CD set, visit www.johnmckenna.ie.
In 1978, The John McKenna Society was founded with the intention of preserving the musical legacy of this great Leitrim flute player. Over the years they have done this through several different projects, but this release, a double CD of the complete discography of McKenna, re-mastered and presented with a book of extensive biographical and musical notes, sees the Society complete a very special two-year venture, commemorating this remarkable man.
44 tracks with a total running time of well over two hours, the CDs bring together for the first time all of McKenna’s commercial recordings from the 1920s and 30s, made during his years living in New York. They have been lovingly re-mastered by Harry Bradshaw, and although the evidence of the limitations of the recording process at that time is evident, and some tracks fare better than others, they have been brought into the 21st century for us with precision and care. The tracks are, in the main, McKenna’s flute, accompanied by piano, with various other instruments (such as James Morrison’s fiddle and Michael Gaffney’s banjo), but contain some lilting and even a song.
The accompanying book is an essential part of the release. It has been finished to the highest quality and contains 104 pages of notes to accompany the CDs. It contains a fascinating account of McKenna’s life, which gives a real insight into the man rather than being a dry, merely historical account. It also includes extensive notes on the music played – a technical discussion of McKenna’s style and that of his accompanists, details of the tunes themselves and their previous ‘sightings’ and a section on John’s legacy and the influence he had on Irish music in general. These are accompanied by some great old photos, mainly sourced from the McKenna family themselves.
This is a very important historical release and a large team of people have had a hand in making it happen, but special mention must go to Sean Gilrane whose comprehensive research over the past few years has made this project come to fruition.
I think Roscommon flute player, Patsy Hanly, sums it up well when writing about John McKenna’s influence: “One cannot but feel the excitement and exuberance in the music of McKenna. This is the music of his own native place, coming directly from the heart, as he played in a place which, in the 1920s and 30s, was so far from home. This was not of the finely honed type of music where the technicality was the main goal, but a style which evolved naturally among the many flute and fiddle players of his own locality, and echoed among his native Whinny Hills, a place where hearty flute playing is still treasured.” www.johnmckenna.ie
There is a story in the booklet that accompanies this two-CD, 44-track compilation of influential, astoundingly talented flute player John McKenna that perfectly illustrates just how important he was to the Irish musical community in the 1920s and 1930s.
The story goes that when a 78-rpm recording of his found its way back to his home place in County Leitrim, all work would be set aside for the day as people would come from miles around to crowd into the house where the phonograph was and listen, over and over and over, to his latest release.
Part of this, of course, was community pride in a homeboy that made it to America and found success there, as so many Irish immigrants were trying to do, but part of it – a large part of it – was because McKenna was setting the standard for how traditional Irish flute should be played.
McKenna’s recordings were absorbed by flute players all across Ireland – he was the equivalent, in this way, to the enormous influence on fiddlers by Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran, an influence that would be carried down the years and the decades and which can still clearly be heard in the playing of men such as Matt Molloy, Kevin Crawford and Harry Bradley.
All of which is to say that this two-CD set, subtitled The Buck From the Mountain after a hornpipe of the same name, is one of the most important archival trad Irish releases in years. Buck collects everything McKenna released in his recording career, which stretched from 1922 to 1937 and found him moving from small labels to such major ones as Decca and Columbia.
In addition, the accompanying 104-page booklet gives a brief biography, quotes friends and family members, and offers a discussion of his style – including transcriptions of a few tunes – as well as a complete discography. Released by the Leitrim-based John McKenna Society – which puts on an annual music festival in his honor – it is a seminal work of loving musical scholarship, the last word in documenting the career of a profoundly important musician. Beyond that, it’s just wonderful music.
Listening to McKenna now, at the remove of 92 years since he first recorded, what impresses most about him is, well, there’s nothing that doesn’t impress. McKenna had it all: astounding breath control; a deep, earthy tone on the low notes; and an unerring ability to arrange the same sort of tunes (reels, jigs, hornpipes and more) into wonderful sets, the tunes flowing into each other with a sense of majesty, playfulness and fullness.
What impresses most, perhaps, is how modern McKenna often sounds – the music made by men like Coleman and Morrison is legendary, and rightly so, but it sounds, at least to these ears, antique, somehow older than this. With McKenna, yeah, you hear the hiss and crackle of these ancient 78s, but his actual playing has a vitality that makes it seem fresh and alive, even now. One of the reasons is that, while a lot of McKenna’s music was recorded with only a (sometimes anonymous) piano player for accompaniment, he also often varied his approach. He recorded as part of a flute duet with Eddie Meehan, as part of a quartet, as part of a trio with a piano and banjo player Michael Gaffney, and more. He would, at times, arrange tunes so that the flute and the fiddle (and now and again flute and the wonderfully percussive banjo) would trade off, one going silent while the other stepped in, as if the two instruments were answering each other. He played tin whistle – including in tandem with Morrison in February 1929, the only time the County Sligo master recorded on the instrument – and he lilted. And he sounded great in any and all of these settings.
He could play blindingly fast, but he also varied his tempos quite a bit – and his rendition of the ballad The Foggy Dew (cut with Gaffney and pianist Paddy Muldoon in January 1925) is lovely: he had a big, robust voice. One wishes he had sung more. And, of course, recorded more. McKenna had a healthy career and, if we are to believe the accounts of his life here, a full life, one crammed with music and children and work and sessions and nights in the Irish dance halls of old New York, good times and hard times. It seems, all these decades later, like a life well lived – one that included one trip back to his home, in 1938, just a year after his recording career came to the end with two jigs, The Newport Lass and The Hag With the Money, as part of Eddie Meehan’s Rosaleen Quartet.
This was the same year that my great-grandfather, James Colohan, made his only visit back to his home place, a cabin just south of Ballinasloe in County Galway. He had worked his way across America in the 50-plus years between when he set off for the new world from that little cabin and the day he came back, and he knew, I would bet, just how lucky he was to be able to be able to make such a rare visit, when so many of those who went across the Atlantic Ocean never got to return to see the loved ones and the loved places that they had to leave behind.
Could they, John and James, have been on the same ship? Bumped into each other? Traded stories about the hard days of their emigration and learning how to live in their adopted home? Bought each other a whiskey or a pint?
Probably not. But it’s a nice thought, anyway. They say he was a great one for the traditional music, James Colohan was, and it’s nice to think that, all these years later, me and mine can listen to some of the same music he might have listened to all those years ago, in the crowded streets of New York, as he dreamed his dreams of better days and better lives for himself and his children and those that would come after them.
There's great interest in Irish music these days among younger people from far outside Ireland and it's crucial to the music that the roots of the music are available to anyone with the wit to listen and learn from a master flute player like John McKenna, and this amazing production is essential listening to all with an interest in the music of Ireland.
John McKenna grew up in County Leitrim, a real hotbed of Irish music to this day, where it meets the counties of Roscommon and Sligo, an area of very poor farmland which also produced master fiddle players such as James Morrison and Michael Coleman. The difference is that the music of these two master players has long been available on CD, while, apart from a 1983 cassette and a few tracks on compilations, John Mckenna's music has only been available on his original 78 records. This amazing DOUBLE CD of McKenna's entire recorded work (44 tracks) is a major event in Irish musical history. However, it's not just another set of tunes, the CDs are accompanied by a beautifully produced 100 page book about the life and times of the man, arguably the greatest traditional flute player of all time. I've often said that it's hard to appreciate traditional music without understanding the social context of which it's a part, and this booklet allows us to do just that, charting his life and times with many fascinating photographs.
John McKenna came from the townland of Tents, Tarmon, near Drumkeeran, and worked at the coalmines of the nearby Arigna Mountains. As a young 'buck' (hence the title), and like many from the area, McKenna left Ireland in 1904 and found work in New York. He returned to Ireland, but took a new wife back to New York permanently in 1909, finding work as a fireman, and enjoying the company and music of many other Irish (often previously Leitrim neighbours!) until his first 78 recording in 1922.
Those 'Roscommon Reels' are on this CD of course, and the sheer standard of playing from over ninety years ago is breathtaking, to say the least. The majority of the tracks are reels and jigs (and slipjigs) but there is a misconception that the polka was exclusive to Cork and Kerry, a theory disproved by three sets of polkas here, as well as a set of barndances- his 'Ballroom Favorite'. He recorded between 1922 and 1937, and while very popular in America, his recordings slowly crept back into Ireland with returning emigrants, and folk gathered around the gramophone when a new Mckenna 78 reached his home place. It must have been reminiscent of the days in the midwest of America when the farmer came into town for supplies, hitched his horse and said 'Gimme a sack of corn and the new Jimmie Rodgers record'. His sheer attack and rhythm was an inspiration at that time to local musicians in Leitrim and hopefully will inspire young (and older!) Irish musicians in the same way! This is the second CD produced by the voluntary John McKenna Society of Drumkeeran, and can currently be obtained only direct from them at www.johnmckenna.ie.
(the first CD is of another local musician, fiddle player Joe 'Lacky' Gallagher, recorded for Radio Eireann in the 1940s by Seamus Ennis and available from the same website)
An annual festival is held in his honour every June in Drumkeeran, a small village of only four pubs and the 2014 festival featured the launch of the CD by Matt Molloy, who cited McKenna as a major influence on his playing.
There are many modern recordings of Irish music, many of extremely high quality, but it is rare to be able to hear such music as this, re-mastered and cleaned up, but deliberately not enhanced in any way, and also to know that this is where it all came from, just ask any of the great flute players of modern times!
The Music and Life of John McKenna: ‘The Buck from the Mountain’ is a new two-CD release and book on the legendary Irish flute player John McKenna (1880-1947) from the John McKenna Society, based in Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim. Matt Molloy has called this new collection a ‘must listen’ for anyone interested in the traditional flute, and he’s not wrong – this guy was a pioneer of the instrument.
Vibrant, virtuosic, and infectiously rhythmic, the gifted music of John McKenna made him the first superstar of the Irish flute. One of the premier stars of the legendary golden age of Irish traditional music in New York in the 20s and 30s, the Leitrim-born flute-playing genius left an unsurpassed legacy that is the first major corpus of recorded Irish flute music in existence, which is for the first time presented in full in this lovingly assembled release.
McKenna’s legacy of recordings, and his style which married a sweet tone with a remarkable, rhythmic drive, made him undoubtedly one of the most influential flute players ever in Irish traditional music. For this release, his music has been meticulously re-mastered to state-of-the-art standards, ensuring a top quality listening experience which brings a clarity and immediacy to McKenna’s music never heard until now.
The new release includes the musician’s complete corpus of 44 commercial recordings, some extremely rare, as well as a substantial accompanying book containing an extensive biography, as well as an analysis of his music style and legacy together with music transcriptions of his tunes. Contributors to the accompanying book – which explains his music as well as offering up some fascinating biographical background – include many of modern-day traditional music’s top performers on the Irish flute – Matt Molloy, Mick Woods, Harry Bradley, Patsy Hanly, Lorraine Sweeney, Mick Mulvey, Gregory Daly and Conal Ó Gráda, as well as commentators like Jackie Small of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
Conal Ó Gráda in the book’s last page shares, a little technically yet warmly, why McKenna’s music spoke to him: “His playing had an immediate appeal to me, with its urgent, driving rhythm managing to be both relentless and light at the same time. I loved his use of rhythmic as well as melodic variation and I loved the bark he used on bottom D. You know – I think I just loved John McKenna.”
For more and to buy a copy, visit www.johnmckenna.ie.
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 Drumshanbo in Leitrim and Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in County Sligo, with a Dublin launch coming 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 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.
Flute player John McKenna was born in January 1880 in the townland of Tents, Tarmon in North County Leitrim. He emigrated to America in 1904, returning briefly in 1909 to marry Mary Keaveny before settling down with her in New York. In a 15 year period from 1922, McKenna recorded 44 sides of tunes as solo and duets with flute, fiddle or banjo. 18 tracks were issued on a Viva Voce Cassette in the mid 1980s and the sleeve notes from that cassette are still available on the MT website as Article MT114 and these provide a helpful historical context to this review.
Towards the end of 2014, all 44 sides were collected and published with a 100 page booklet by the John McKenna Society. The booklet follows the pattern set by collections on Coleman, Mullaly and Conlon in giving a well researched life story and more academic studies of the musician's style and repertoire as well as detailed listings of recording dates, labels, numbers and personnel. The analysis of McKenna's fluting style is backed up by a couple of detailed transcriptions that show in the finest detail how the master flute player weaved his magic around the notes. The book is generously illustrated with commercial and family photos.
What you appreciate by actually listening to the CDs, though, is what Patsy Hanly, himself one of the greats of Connacht flute playing, describes as the excitement and exuberance in the music. "This was not of the finely honed type of music where the technicality was the main goal, but a style which evolved naturally among the many flute and fiddle players of his own locality and echoed among his own Whinny Hills."
The music is presented across the two CDs in a pleasing blend of early and late sessions, mixing duets with solos, reels and jigs as well as the one song and one side including lilting that McKenna recorded.
CD 1 starts with one of the great duets with James Morrison that the pair recorded in late 1928 and early 1929. The Tailor's Thimble / The Red Haired Lass are still played as a standard pairing in Irish sessions today. The Tailor's Thimble is a tune that was undocumented before this recording so must be from McKenna's home place. The excitement generated by the attack of both players, the closeness of their setting and the punchy pace makes this the classic it remains to this day. Above all else, this is music for dancing and dancing underpins every track on both CDs.
Up to 1925, recording techniques were entirely acoustic and any sense of mixing the sound was done simply by positioning the players around the recording horn and the quality of the early sides is always limited. Billed as Fireman McKenna on his first recording session with fiddler Barney Conlon, he plays tin whistle, and on solo recordings from 1922 to 25, McKenna used a flute in F to try to project a better sound. Some of these early records are extremely rare and one or two tracks suffer from a high level of surface noise. McKenna recorded with Columbia Records in 1925 when Columbia had adopted electronic recording techniques using microphones and McKenna played a concert pitch flute on all his subsequent 78s.
McKenna had a very long personal and musical friendship with banjo and fiddle player Michael Gaffney both at his home and at dances, weddings and such and their music was very close and well rehearsed. McKenna recorded eight selections with Gaffney in 1925 and their duet playing was always exemplary. The January 1925 session includes the two tracks with vocals and lilting. The November sides are the first recorded through electronic microphone and the quality is noticeably brighter than the earlier 78s.
John McKenna's recording career was interrupted in 1926 when his wife died and he took responsibility for raising his six children. He didn't record again until 1928 when he recorded four sides in March for Columbia. In September that year he recorded the first 4 sides with fiddle maestro James Morrison. These sessions included the polkas My Love is but a Lassie / The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue which features soloing from flute and fiddle as well as well rehearsed duet playing.
Early in 1929 the pair recorded three more sides. This time Morrison plays tin whistle on two of the tracks, the other being the wonderful pairing The Tailor's Thimble / The Red Haired Lass. McKenna's contract with Columbia was concluded in 1930 with two solo sides. In 1934, McKenna was reunited with banjo player Michael Gaffney. These 1934 duets on the Decca label include some of the most commonly known and well played pairing from McKenna's repertoire and Colonel Rodgers Favourite / The Happy Days of Youth are now probably better known simply as McKenna's reels.
The Great Depression put paid to many recording careers and McKenna made his last half dozen recordings in May 1937 with flute player Eddie Meehan and as part of Meehan's Rosaleen Quartet with fiddler Larry Redican. Redican (1908-1975) was a recent immigrant, over 20 years younger than McKenna and is now best remembered as a composer of fiddle tunes.
McKenna's flute style was obviously well established at the time of his first recording and remained strong throughout his recording career. The 1930 recording on The Kid on the Mountain demonstrates a fantastic pulsed rhythm that exemplified McKenna's approach to dance music. To get a real flute player's take on the rhythm, ornamentation and other technical aspects of McKenna's music, you can do no better than look at Harry Bradley's Errant Elbow blog - http://errantelbows.podbean.com - where he has recently been dissecting and explaining in words and flute playing how McKenna put down such a significant marker in the history of recorded Irish music.
This CD is a great product of international team work, including the flute player's great granddaughter and a host of highly respected musicians and musicologists. Anybody with an interest in the history and development of Irish traditional music should own a copy. It's available from the Society's website - http://www.johnmckenna.ie/Release1 - or Custy's on-line shop - http://www.custysmusic.com