Friday, November 30, 2012

Passing the Torch

For my birthday I had received a card from one of my nephews. It contained a voucher inviting me out for an evening with him - "an Event, if you will" are the words he wrote. I felt a faint stirring of joy in my soul that one of our next generation saw the joy in hanging out with a member of the family from another generation ...

And then I thought, Maybe he's just humouring his old aunt ... whatever; I'll take it!

Then on Tuesday he, his mother, three of his aunts and his grandfather all trooped down to Knox for an evening with John McDermott, he of the eyes of Alba and the voice of heaven. 

The first time I heard of John McDermott was at Mum's and Dad's kitchen table in the south house. It was Remembrance Day, which in 2000 fell on a Saturday. We turned on the CBC to listen to Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe. John McDermott was the musical guest.

One of the most unforgettable voices I have heard filled the room, drawing us all together under a tartan blanket of horror and pain, of loss and yearning, of old love never forgotten. We mourned with him as he sang; Mum sang along to songs she had learnt from her father, my grandfather, Patrick Charles O'Halloran, whose own father went off to World War 1. 

Stuart's Dave and Morley story that day was of finding a postcard in the baseboard of a bedroom Dave was refurbishing. It was from a soldier to his wife, written during World War 1. He was going to be deployed the next day.

It would be the last letter she got from him.

If you'd like to hear the story, click here. It actually begins at 12:59 of the recording - Stuart rebroadcast it last year - but the whole podcast is very worthwhile listening, if you have time.  

When the story was over that Remembrance Saturday morning, John McDermott's voice once again filled the room with Danny Boy:

Getting us organized -
Happy Movember!
And now here we were, at the invitation and as the guests of Matthew. For everyone else in our party it was the first time they would hear John McDermott singing live; for me, who had been to four previous concerts, I couldn't wait to see their reaction to someone whom I consider - over and above his voice - a hero in his own right for the work he does with vets and the forces both in Canada and America.

We met at an aunt's place and proceeded from there down town.

As we waited for the concert to start, Matthew and his Poppa got caught up:

As they talked, we watched the star of the evening walking through the audience, smiling, chatting, pausing for pictures. People greeted him like they would an old friend - this is the response he evokes wherever he goes.

And then the concert started, with very little fanfare. 

The old church was surely created for a voice like Mr McDermott's. Although he laboured a little bit under the discomfort of a cold, the warmth and sincerity were not diminished one iota. His musical companion for the evening, Jason Fowler, who is nothing short of a guitar genius, was the perfect foil for him. And when John left the stage, Jason commanded it. His fingers blurred on the strings as he shared his new instrumental composition, "Cambridge to Coventry."

There was also a very special guest, Michael P Smith, who has written a song that John McDermott has recorded. But there was something very poignant about seeing and hearing the composer himself singing "The Dutchman." It ripped my heart out to witness again the simple day-to-day love Margaret has for her faltering Dutchman, to hear Mr Smith singing most tenderly, "Margaret comes to take him home again through unforgiving streets that trip him though she holds his arm ... He sees her for a moment, calls her name ... Long ago I used to be a young man, and dear Margaret remembers that for me ..."

Just before the intermission Mr McDermott and Jason sang "How deep the Father's love for us" - one of Dad's favourites.

During the intermission ("We'll take a 10-minute intermission and be back in 20 minutes") Mr McDermott greeted people and patiently signed autographs and posed for pictures. The 20 minutes stretched slightly but no one minded.

The second half was Christmas songs. "Christmas in the trenches" was included, of course. As he sang it was easy to picture the courageous lone brave German soldier setting out across no-man's land with nothing but a white flag that Christmas evening of 1914.

The evening ended too soon. They left the stage, but came back in response to the audience's applause. 

He took his seat, lovingly ran his hand over the scarf, the cap and cane that had belonged to his parents and which are present with him on stages wherever he goes; and then Jason played the opening notes of "And the band played Waltzing Matilda."

Sometimes it doesn't make it easier knowing how the story's going to end. He sang it in a way that made it seem to me like it were the first time I had heard it, as if I didn't play the album this song is recorded on every month while I go about my work. Jason's guitar wept quietly as the old men marched past, once again answering the call. When it came to the last line, it was almost like an echo; the last two words, "with me," were nothing but a whisper from a ghost-man who had given all that he could.

We made our way slowly into the cold night air and waited not impatiently for the light to change colours. As we walked across the street I looked over and saw Matthew's arm gently resting across his grandfather's shoulders.

My heart was very full as I drove off that night. I was moved by the music and the beautiful setting; I was grateful for the wonderful evening we had spent together; and I was overwhelmed that it was a gift from my nephew Matthew, this young man of such talent and such promise and of such heart.

I knew then that the practice of Events would be in good hands with the next generation.


("And the band played Waltzing Matilda" was the one McDermott song Matthew had heard before we went to the concert. He bought the tickets because he remembered listening to this song at his Poppa's home. What a wonderful gift that it was the encore! The added subtitles in this video version are not always accurate; but they detract not at all from the story.)


  1. We LOVE John McDermott!:). Sounds like a wonderful evening and it always makes me smile to see pictures of your dad and your family. I pray that our family is as close as yours when ours are grown, with children, unless the Lord returns before then. We'll look forward to spending eternity with them and all our adopted family!

  2. It really was a sweet evening together.

  3. What an absolute joy to read! Thanks, God, for Matthew and music!


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