This great early Irish flute player from the '20s and '30s was for many years known only to specialist collectors, his original 78s sought after like wads of moss off the Blarney Stone. Beginning in the late '90s, compact disc reissues begin to surface on labels such as Topic, once again making these wonderful recordings available on a scale similar to the old days, when the release of each new John McKenna disc was a local event, and a man would "sell his last cow" before going without one, as one old-timer recalled. McKenna was one of many Irish musicians who found the only possibility of a real career as a performer upon leaving their native land for the United States. Particularly in the aforementioned Roaring Twenties, traditional players found ravingly enthusiastic, hooting and hollering audiences in the beer halls and dance parlors across America, as well as opportunities for both recording and broadcasting. In comparison, Dublin didn't even have one recording studio of its own in the '20s. The opportunities in America represented more than just the chance to earn some coins entertaining drunks, as some sourpuss purists have complained. In reality, it went way beyond it. Through the powerful medium of recordings, artists are able to make statements that can have a lasting impact in a variety of one ways, one of them the possible shaping of musical traditions. McKenna was a master traditional player and through his recordings was able to establish the flute as a major instrument in Irish music.
He was known for the driving, extroverted pace in his playing and has had a stylistic impact that spread far into the present and future of Irish music. The contemporary Irish group De Danann made much use of McKenna's influence on their Star-Spangled Molly album, while flutist Frankie Gavin has released an entire McKenna tribute album, Up and Away. Other musicians to whom the McKenna influence is fast and thick include Willie Clancy, Charlie Lennon, Seamas MacMathuna, and Mick O'Connor. McKenna was the honcho of flute players among musicians lumped together under the stylistic label of Sligo, the name of an Irish county. Most of the Sligo musicians hailed from there or from quite nearby. McKenna was in fact the only flute player to make a major impact on the fiddle-dominated musical movement whose main stars were Michael Coleman and James Morrison. McKenna's Sligo hometown was in a section known for its rocky topography. It was not coincidentally also a coal mining area and it was in the local mines where McKenna found his first employment, something he has in common with many old-time Appalachian musicians. His fiddle first started attracting attention in this dark and dusty setting, as he liked pulling it out to entertain people with a tune or two. An extraordinary amount of musical activity was taking place all around him as he grew up, much of it confined to an area outlined by the distance a man, particularly a hung-over musician, could walk in the course of a day, or about a dozen square miles. The main form of indoor musical entertainment was the house dance in these isolated regions. It would be a night of music and dancing in a private house. These sessions would go on all night and allow musicians ample time to teach each other new tunes. McKenna literally absorbed hundreds of tunes in these settings, learning from flute players such as Hughie Byrne and Jamesy McKenna.
McKenna set out for America shortly after getting married in October 1909. In July 1920, McKenna went to work for the New York Fire Department, which was the job he was holding when he made his first recordings in 1921. On a few of his early releases, he was even billed as Fire Patrolman John McKenna. But the company might have done that even if he hadn't worked for the fire department, because it was actually a style of promotion of that era. There were sides released by Irish artists known as Fireman Barney Conlon, John Griffin, the Fifth Avenue Busman, and Patrolman Frank Quinn. When his wife died, McKenna raised nine children as a single parent and the additional income he was earning from royalties from his recordings became extremely helpful.
His recording career spanned a period of 16 years, from 1921 to 1937. During that time he, recorded 60 sides for the American companies New Republic, Vocalion, Gennett, O'Byrne-DeWitt, Columbia, and Decca. Fans of his playing can take delight in the fact that advances in recording technology tended to keep pace with the development of his playing technique, so that by the time records really were starting to sound fantastic, so was McKenna. And although many flute players run out of breath and begin to pant in between runs like a jogged-out Herbie Mann, McKenna continued to record with great power until he was nearly 60 years old. His duets with James Morrison perhaps represent the cream of the crop, featuring Morrison on both fiddle and tin whistle. McKenna's memory is actively nurtured by the John McKenna Traditional Society. In 1980, the centenary of his birth, this community organization unveiled a memorial in his honor at his birthplace, Tarmon. Each year, there is a music festival held at the monument with special emphasis on the Sligo flute-playing style which is still thriving, no wee thanks to McKenna.