James Keelaghan—Folk Art Master

Musician, poet, writer and artist shares his story

STORY BY: JEFF STITES

As the calendar pages have turned, for almost a quarter of a century now, this poet laureate of the folk and roots music world has gone about his work with a combination of passion, intent, intensity, and curiosity. Fusing his insatiable appetite for finding the next unique storyline Keelaghan also forges his pieces with brilliantly defined craftsmanship and a monogrammed artistic vision, making him one of the most distinctive and readily identifiable voices of not only the Canadian scene, but as a member of the international singer-songwriter community.

Armed with a songbook that has enlightened and enthralled, and been embraced, by audiences around the world, Keelaghan’s life as an artist is one that is a perpetual journey on so many levels. Most importantly it’s a journey that has invited fans of literate and layered songwriting to be a part of his artistic expeditions, some that weave their way through marvelously etched stories of a historical nature with underlying universal themes, and others that mine the depths of the soul and the emotional trials of human relations. ¨His masterful storytelling, over the course of nine recordings, has been part of the bedrock of his success, earning Keelaghan his share of nominations and awards, and acclaim from Australia to Scandinavia. T

he necessity to write has always been a double-edged sword.” “I’ve always had the urge to write. Some things weren’t being said in the way I wanted to say them. Then there are the different sides of what I write about. The narrative writing, the historical material, as well as the personal, where you have to take responsibility for what you are saying,” says the Calgary native who has been calling Winnipeg home for the past few years. A disciplined visionary, Keelaghan’s aces have long been a love of language, and history, as he earned a history degree years ago, his skills as a thespian that he acquired at an early age, that explain his ability to make an immediate connection with audiences in a live setting, and an ear for a memorable melody, and harmonies that make those melodies glisten. “I’m good for 80 or so books a year, mostly history, non-fiction, but inspiration can come in many forms, I’m always on the lookout for a good story or idea. My sister told me the story that became Kiri’s Piano. It was such an image,” says Keelaghan that visits a dark chapter in Canadian history, Japanese internment camps in the Second World War.â’¨ â’¨Not only does his deep catalogue include timeless originals like Fires of Calais, Cold Missouri Waters, Jenny Bryce, Hillcrest Mine, and Kiri’s Piano.

Keelaghan is also a possessive interpreter of outside material, a fine example being his gripping take on Gordon Lightfoot’s epic Canadian Railroad Trilogy on the Lightfoot Tribute disc Beautiful. There are a number of illustrations of his interpretive skills on his 2006 recording A Few Simple Verses. The closing tune on that spellbinding set, My Blood written with Jez Lowe, is one of many examples in Keelaghan’s career, where he has invited collaboration into his creative process. “I was at the Celtic Colors Festival in 2008 and the producers locked six of us in a house for a week, and the company included Dave Gunning, David Francey, and Rose Cousins, it was an amazing experience. We had to come up with enough material for a show at the end of it.“To go along with a lifelong accumulation of influences, there have been these opportunities to work with equals, whether if be Oliver Schroer, Hugh McMillan, or Oscar Lopez. The sparks of collaboration, batting melodies back and forth, whatever, have produced some wonderful results,” says the artist who ties it all together with a powerful voice, delivery, and a commanding presence where he finds a balance between examining the lighter and heavier sides of life. For Keelaghan staying at the top of his game comes down to a very clear rule, “never stop accumulating.” “I want my audiences to know that I am open enough to try new things and push their bounds.” It was Dave Marsh, the award-winning American music critic and historian who not so long ago stated that James Keelaghan is “Canada’s finest songwriter,” and those few but powerful words of praise say it all about an artist who continues to set the bar at a lofty height.

KEELAGHAN’S ABIDING PASSION A few years ago I went to my high school reunion. I wasn’t feeling a lot of terror about it. I am successful musician. I have Juno awards and nominations, I felt, as an alumni, I had done my alma mater proud. I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen since graduation. I knew that she was respected in her field, well traveled, successful. I asked what she had been doing since high school and she ran down the list of degrees and foreign postings and the like. She asked what I had been up to. I gave the condensed version. I was a writer and performer, I sang, played guitar. She nodded slowly up and down… “So, you are still doing what you were doing, when you were a teenager then?” Well, I guess, ya…sorta. I’m not playing as many stairwells now as I did back then, but it’s still pretty fun. She made it sound like I was in a rut. So just in case you think that all I do is play and sing… Since 2011, I’ve been the Artistic director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario. The job has given me a new passion for programming. I have to book the artists and program 6 daytime and two nighttime stages. The walls of my office end up looking like this (see photo below). I was born in Calgary but have lived in Toronto, Winnipeg and now, a charming little town called Perth in Eastern Ontario. I’m trying to stay at home more these days, as I have a couple of boys at home, aged 6 and 10. I want to spend as much time with them as I can before I become the enemy. If you know my music, you know that I love history. I studied at the University of Calgary, though I never actually completed my degree. I concentrated on the history of science, under the tutelage of the dear, departed Dr. Margaret Osler and was influenced and inspired by Dr. Shel Silverman, one of the great storytellers of our time. While I read a lot of history on a lot of different topics, my areas of specialty remain science and World War One, especially the battle of the frontiers, 1st Marne and Verdun.

• I prefer Irish Whiskey to Scotch, but never developed the drinking gene so I am good for about 1 shot on any given day.

• I am omnivorous. My favorite meal is breakfast. Followed by lunch and then dinner.

• I’m more comfortable on the plains than in the mountains.

• I once met Harry Belafonte in an elevator in Saskatoon.

• I am a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. I was added to the college on the same year as Margaret Atwood and had the pleasure of singing her a song on her birthday athlete annual fellows dinner.

You can catch this amazing show as part of Listen Up Brunswick. Sunday, April 9, Doors open 7pm / Show 7:30pm, Tickets are $20. For more information check out the website: www.keelaghan.com or www.listenupbrunswickcounty.com

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