Jack O’Donnell took group on as a one-time project, still with them 50 years later
As a recipient of the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 ECMA gala concert in Sydney last weekend, Jack O’Donnell is reflecting on a connection with the legendary folklorist that began in 1966.
“It was 50 years ago this month,” he said, recalling how Creighton encouraged him when he was a professor in the music department at St. Francis Xavier University to collect coal mining songs from Cape Breton. Moreover, she wanted him to become the director of a singing group composed of miners and former miners.
The singing group was the brainchild of Nina Cohen of Glace Bay. She had proposed the formation of such a chorus, which would showcase Cape Breton’s mining history at Expo ’67 in Montreal during Canada’s centennial year.
Limited experience in folk
O’Donnell, who first came to St. F.X. as a philosophy student from Portland, Maine, with the idea of becoming a priest, soon discovered he was more interested in pursuing music as a career.
But his experience in the folk field was severely limited. He recalled a newspaper article about him at the time in which the writer penned the following: “O’Donnell knew more about teaching piano and Gregorian chant than he knew about coal-mining songs.”
But he took on the Men of the Deeps as a one-time project — or so everyone thought.
Now 50 years — and tens of thousands of kilometres later — with tours of the U.S., Canada, Kosovo and China under their miners’ belts, the group has become an iconic symbol of Cape Breton’s mining heritage.
For O’Donnell, the lifetime achievement award is that much more special, given it bears Creighton’s name.
“She stayed in contact. I used to visit her. And she used to come down and talk to my classes in folk music at St. F.X.,” he said.
“She was a great support for me and the Men of the Deeps until she died in 1989.”
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