John McKenna was an influential Irish flute player. Born in 1880 in Tarmon, Co Leitrim, he worked in the Arigna coal mines before emigrating to the States in 1911, where he settled in New York. He made 60 recordings (78s) between 1921 and 1937, including several duets with violinist James Morrisson. He was among the first to make recordings of Irish traditional music, with James Morrisson (fiddle), Patsy Tuohy (uilleann pipes) and other emigrant musicians, at the time of Francis O’Neill’s book “The Dance Music of Ireland.
The music of John McKenna is powerful and rhythmic; with short phrases and and rhythmic articulation and ornamentation (glottal stops and breaks) his style is very different from the modern one, of long legato phrases and fingered ornaments. He established the flute as an instrument of importance in traditional music, with an enormous influence on succeeding generations of flute players, and brought tunes from County Leitrim into the standard repertoire: The Sailor on the Rock, The Sailor’s Bonnet or The Boy in the Gap.
John McKenna (and other musicians of the period) recorded a lot of polkas, suggesting that these tunes were more widespread in the early 20th century than today, where they are more confined to the southwest of the country, Cork and Kerry. “Up and Away”, one McKenna’s polkas, lends its title to the flute album of Frankie Gavin (De Danann) himself one of McKenna’s many disciples.