Truly, throughout a career that now spans almost four decades, the Juno and Canadian Folk Music Award winner has created a repertoire of incalculable importance – a unique body of work, either inspired by or drawn from the folk tradition. Ten solo albums flush with enduring lyrical relevance. Take the beautiful but heartbreaking ballad, Jenny Bryce, for example. From any point of view, it’s indistinguishable from the numerous traditional tracks covered on his disc A Few Simple Verses.
What’s more, various other originals from the Keelaghan cannon must surely enter the domain of traditional folklore. Most notably, Small Rebellions (highlighting the 1931 slaughter of peaceful striking miners in Bienfait, SK); Hillcrest Mine (a prelude to the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history); Kiri’s Piano (a triumph over adversity amidst the shameful, racist treatment of Japanese-Canadians during WW II); Cold Missouri Waters (a harrowing portrait of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in the mountains of Montana) …
A relentless musical spirit, Keelaghan has surrounded himself with a variety of crackerjack companions down through the years that have largely included the late, innovative, free-spirited fiddler and composer, Oliver Schroer, the exuberant, Chilean, Latino-fusionist guitarist, Oscar Lopez (with whom Keelaghan made two albums under the banner of Compadres), or the ubiquitous, former Spirit of the West anchor and multi-instrumentalist, Hugh MacMillan. Scrupulous audiences from Alberta to Australia bared witness to the sum of these resourceful parts.
There have been several mouth-watering collaborations in the writing department, too. Celebrated names in the folk world such as Karrine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Catherine MacLellan, David Francey, Lynn Miles, Dave Gunning, Cara Luft and J.D. Edwards … all contributed to notable Keelaghan releases.
“I love co-writing,” he says, “it’s the spark that gets me motivated – the fresh approach to a lyric or a different way of forming a melody for a song is so stimulating. Besides, it’s also a great impetus to finish the damn song.”
James Keelaghan grew up in a bungalow in northwest Calgary, AB, with six siblings, an Irish father, and an English mum. His brother Bob would develop into a noteworthy guitarist with the excellent, but now defunct, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir. From his father, Jim, James developed a love of history. The family record collection provided further inspiration. Traditional folk LPs by the likes of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Séan Ó Riada, and Harry Belafonte certainly caught young Keelaghan’s ear. He still cites Belafonte At Carnegie Hall as a recording that changed his life at age six!
Incidentally, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy would live in Calgary in the mid-‘70s where they recorded a weekly TV show that James and his father routinely attended.
“They were stunning performers,” says James. “I can still hear aspects of Tommy Makem’s sound in my voice. He was a fabulous singer, fabulous.”
And so, another link in a storied musical chain was forged. James Keelaghan, as they say, is “a man you don’t meet every day.”