A musician and teacher who served for 50 years as director of the well-known Cape Breton choir Men of the Deeps is being remembered for preserving the culture of coal miners through song. John (Jack) O’Donnell died Thursday in Antigonish, N.S., surrounded by family. He was 83.
Former miners who sang for him say while O’Donnell was trained in piano and Gregorian chant, he was also a down-to-earth leader who gained a passion for collecting and arranging songs about the lives of the soot-covered men who made their living underground.
Longtime choir member Stan (Nipper) MacLeod, 66, said many of the choir’s members had sung in church and around campfires, but O’Donnell taught them to sing in four-part harmonies that captivated audiences around the world.
They performed in their coveralls, workboots and hard hats with traditional miner’s lamps, in venues that have ranged from community centres to Massey Hall in Toronto.
“He had some hard work to do when he got ahold of a bunch of miners,” said MacLeod. “When he came on board, it was just somebody’s idea. Jack made it happen. He did all the hard work.”