Balladeer who got to the heart of the song

Jim McCann: October 26th, 1944 - March 5th, 2015

Jim McCann in 1966: Photograph: Michael O’Reilly

Jim McCann in 1966: Photograph: Michael O’Reilly

 

“Strange how potent cheap music is,” Noël Coward observed.

The career of Jim McCann, a folksinger who performed as a solo artist and a sometime member of the Irish folk group the Dubliners, was a good example of what the suave playwright meant.

McCann might have bristled a bit over the word cheap, but he knew what Coward meant when he went on to say that work is more fun than fun.

McCann, who died last week aged 70, is probably best known for his rendering of Grace, a song about a tragic marriage.

Grace Gifford married her fiancé, Joseph Mary Plunkett, in prison hours before his death by firing squad for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

The song is a simple enough ballad, written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara. In other hands it could have been rendered as a schmaltzy come-all-ye, but Jim McCann’s strong clear voice and simple guitar backing conveys the story to the listener, who continues to hear it long after the singer has left the stage. It featured in the Irish charts for 36 weeks.

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The Sea Around UsDominic Behan

The Ludlows, along with the Dubliners and later the Wolfe Tones, were riding the crest of a revival of interest in traditional Irish music which brought them into the ballrooms and mainstream popular music charts. Later McCann would intermittently join the Dubliners, initially when singer and founder member Ciaran Bourke became ill.

From 1975 onwards McCann’s career ran on twin tracks, sometimes as a solo artist, but with stints in the Dubliners. He found the long tours away from home tough.

More to his liking was the five months he spent in 1973 in the Dublin cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, playing the part of St Peter, alongside his new friend Luke Kelly and with another friend, Phil Coulter, as musical director. He also played in comedienne Maureen Potter’s seasonal show “Gaels of Laughter” in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.

He attended Terenure College in south Dublin and initially intended to become a doctor. Doing a student job in Birmingham in 1964 to pay his way through University College, Dublin, he began singing in the city’s many folk clubs and pubs, and this became his life’s work.

His early influence had been skiffle, Lonnie Donegan (My Old Man’s A Dustman) being a favourite. He was also enthused by two innovating American rockers, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, both of whom had already died in tragic accidents.

During the 1980s and 1990s, McCann made several TV specials including “Festival Folk”, “My Ireland” and “McCann and McTell” featuring his lifelong friend Ralph McTell, another solo artist in the same genre, who had a major hit with Streets of London.

Cancer diagnosis

Thorughout his long career his repertoire included tender ballads like Love’s Old Sweet Song and Easy And Slow.

He had a very special way of singing the traditional song Carrickfergus. The sense of longing – “The sea is wide and I can’t swim over it” – sends a shiver down the listener’s spine.

He was equally at home with rousing drinking and rebel songs, and was valued by his fellow musicians for his good spirits and sense of fun.

Jim McCann is survived by his widow, Phyl (née Doyle), and his brothers Tommy, Shane, Brian and Paul and sister Laura Mascola. Another sister, Gwen McDermott, predeceased him.