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McDermott bringing great melodies to Red Deer

You have to hand it to those 16th-century monks — they sure knew how to churn out some durable tunes.

Canadian tenor John McDermott has recorded hymns spanning from the 1500s to the 20th century for his next album of devotional music. He figures some of the earliest hymns were likely written by “everyday people,” such as monks who had a good ear for a melody.

“Of course, music crosses all barriers,” said McDermott, who will perform a mixed program of traditional songs with a few hymns thrown in on Friday, April 4, at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.

But the survival of these old, old songs shows their strains are still capable of stirring people’s emotions and their lyrics continue to hold universal relevance, added the singer who innately understands this appeal.

After all, the one-time newspaper circulation representative was catapulted into an unexpected singing career by performing exactly the kind of songs that touch people’s hearts.

“When I was growing up, there were 12 kids in my family and we all had our own song. Mine was Danny Boy and I’d be asked to sing it at parties and get-togethers,” McDermott recalled.

In 1992, he recorded two versions of Danny Boy on a 13-track disc he made for his parents’ anniversary.

Somebody sent the CD to EMI records and the disc became the only Canadian recording released by that company on its classical Angel label.

After former CBC host, the late Peter Gzowski, played some tracks from it on his radio show, sales were sent spiralling, and McDermott became an international singing sensation.

The Scottish-born resident of Parry Sound, Ont., has since released nearly two dozen albums of standards — love songs, folk songs, Celtic songs, patriotic songs, duets, Christmas songs, and hymns. And he still sings Danny Boy at every concert: “I can’t get away without doing it and I’ve never gotten tired of it.”

The song consists of a few, simple verses and it never repeats, said McDermott, yet it’s so beloved, “it’ll be sung 300 years from now . . . not like (something) by Britney Spears.”

Folks who attend his Red Deer concert will have a chance to be entered into a draw to win a trip for two to Canadian battlefields in Normandy, accompanied by retired General Rick Hillier and Canadian historians.

Guests on the tour will get to hear about strategic failures and successes on both sides of the World Wars and learn what lessons were gained from these historic events.

McDermott noted fans can also enter into a draw on the website of his charitable foundation, McDermott House Canada, which seeks to improve the lives of veterans, members of the military, first responders and hospice patients.

With ancestors who fought several wars, McDermott feels a special kinship with soldiers.

He has performed at events such as D-Day commemorations in France in 1995. And his foundation has launched many initiatives to raise money for outreach centres, transitional homes and hospices for veterans.

McDermott said his father was a Second World War tail gunner, who survived the conflict.

But his mother’s brother died in Changi, the infamous prisoner of war camp in Burma depicted in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

And his two cousins fought in Vietnam — one died there and the other committed suicide some years after returning to so-called regular life.

“I think we all owe it to our veterans to pay attention to them” and appreciate their sacrifices, he said.

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