PHOTO: Cedric Puddy
James Keelaghan: Storyteller and folk music champion
Joins Loreena to sing Wild Mountain Thyme
Singer/songwriter James Keelaghan is a gifted storyteller. His love of history and his deep affinity for Celtic and Anglo folk traditions give those stories wings.
“That’s the music that really speaks to me. That’s my heart music,” says the veteran Canadian folk artist. As for the stories themselves, they tend to be inspired by social and justice issues, historical wrongdoings, sometimes the landscape and other times love and personal relationships. “I’m always trying to find the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” he confides.
During his roughly 40 years as a performing artist he’s made an indelible mark on the musical folk landscape. He’s released 13 albums, the latest of which, Second Hand, has just – at the time this story was being written – been nominated for Canada’s highest music award, the Juno, for Traditional Roots Album of the Year. He’s already won one Juno, a Canadian Folk Music Award, received five other Juno nominations and four other Folk Music Awards nominations. He’s performed in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Ireland, the U.S and across Canada.
“Keelaghan has been an artisan carefully crafting and burnishing narratives, melodies, memories and inspirations into something sublime,” wrote freelance journalist Rob Weir in Sing Out!, a folk music magazine started in 1950.
James is also someone who thrives on bringing people together through music – and not just with his own audiences. Since 2012 he’s been the artistic director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario, the last folk festival of the summer season. And that is how he ended up on Loreena’s new album, The Road Back Home, to be officially released March 8th.
PRE-ORDER: The Road Back Home
James and Loreena have known each other since the early Winnipeg Folk Festival days. He recalls they first met in the late 1980s, “before The Visit, before Loreena really blew up”. Likely they chatted backstage in Winnipeg and later crossed paths in different times and places as musicians often do. James had been after Loreena to perform at Summerfolk for years and last summer he got his wish. Winding back to her earliest roots, Loreena became the headline artist at the 2023 Summerfolk Festival and when she pulled up on site that Friday in August, James was there to greet her.
“Now, I would very much like you to join me on Wild Mountain Thyme,” he remembers her saying, pretty much straight away. And so, for the first time they stood together, not backstage but on stage, singing that evening what would later become the last song on Loreena’s new album, a field recording from her performances at three local folk festivals that summer. You can hear his deep, rich voice on the album and on Loreena’s YouTube channel.
“I want to acknowledge Loreena’s generosity as a human being,” says James. “Performing up there with her that night was one of the top five memories of my entire musical career. It was so stunning to be a part of it.”
Says Loreena, “I’m so grateful James agreed to join us that night at Summerfolk. I mean there wasn’t much time between when I asked him and when we actually went on stage! Now, when I listen to our rendering of Wild Mountain Thyme, I’m mesmerized by his deep, rich voice which comes up through the age from where we began in Winnipeg. I only wished I had asked him to sing more.”
James grew up in Calgary, Alberta with six siblings and an Irish father and an English mother who bought him his first guitar at age 14. Over the ensuing decades, he built a successful career, often as a solo artist, other times in collaboration with what he calls “a variety of crackerjack companions”. He describes his musical voyage as having two forks: his journey as a writer and his journey as a performing artist. “The writer part means telling a lot of stories from history and the lives of people around me. It never ends, this journey.” And then there’s the other side of putting those stories to music and performing them for others. “That’s the journey of trying to expand the ripples and see what it’s like to take those stories into different places. I like to think it’s the universality in the human experience that carries them.”
By way of example he recalls a performance he gave at a concert hall in Denmark. James confided to the artistic director he wondered if his songs and stories would translate for the audience. He then played Kiri’s Piano, a song about a Japanese-Canadian family interned during the Second World War and the role the mother’s piano plays in her quest for dignity. When James finished performing there was silence from the Danish audience. Slowly the applause began, which then grew into the synchronized clapping Europeans often use to express appreciation. It lasted for two solid minutes. “What happened?” James asked the artistic director afterwards, who told him, “You’re singing these people’s lives back to them.” The Danes were occupied by Germany during the Second World War and historically knew what being denied and controlled felt like. A story translated. A ripple expanded.
One of his driving philosophies is “never stop accumulating”, by which he means never stop accumulating the stories, the words, the turns of phrase, the chord progressions, the lines – things he often tucks away in a notebook for later use. “The key to spontaneity is having the tools available.”
When James isn’t busy collecting ideas, taking his shows on the road, planning the next Summerfolk, or writing a new song, you might find him guiding small groups around Ireland with Inishfree Irish Music Tours. He’s hosted six now. The 10-day trips are described as being “for people who don’t like tours but who love music and travel.” And they’re billed as being led by some of the best folk singers/songwriters in Canada, the U.S. and beyond. His next tour, in September, is already full with a waiting list.
When asked what he would like people to know about him that they might not already know, there’s little hesitation from this man who seems to know himself well. “Regardless of the severity of some of my stories I’m actually quite a funny guy, but I cannot to save my life – I cannot write a humorous song.”
It’s a safe bet his fans will forgive him for that.
|Written by Diane Sewell, a career journalist for more than 30 years. In addition to working with Loreena for 20 years, she has also written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and assorted consumer magazines. She is also the author of several commissioned books.