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A Songwriter Who's Attuned to History


James Keelaghan and history walk hand in hand like strolling lovers. Historical references abound in the Canadian folk singer-songwriter-guitarist's canon, with subject matter ranging from Canada's Riel Rebellion of 1870 ("Red River Rising") and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II ("Kiri's Piano"), to the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana ("Cold Missouri Waters") and the last goodbyes of sailors aboard a doomed ship ("Captain Torres").

During a recent phone interview from his Calgary home, Keelaghan said that history has become his framework for understanding the world. He recently discovered, though, that time was passing him by as his world was unraveling.

"My own life just smacked me right in the face," said Keelaghan, 40, who performs tonight at the Downtown Community Center in Anaheim. "I was going through a whole bunch of turmoil, like a divorce and the life-threatening heart attack of my father. Plus, by being on the road for 300 days a year, I was losing touch with my friends and family."

This tumultuous emotional period became the foundation for last year's "Road" (Jericho Beach/HighTone Records), Keelaghan's most personal recording to date. Shifting away from the historical perspective that shaped his five previous solo albums, this 12-song collection tackles more personal portraits of love and loss, survival and renewal. It was a necessary, if not altogether easy, transition for Keelaghan.

"I didn't know if I should be writing about all of this--I've never done it before," he added. "But eventually, I figured it was time to deal with these issues, and in the forum I'm best suited to deal with it. Basically, I ended up treating myself as a character within my own life, kind of like I treated other individuals in my songs as historical characters. Then it became easier for me to share such intimate feelings."

Fatherhood is a recurring theme on "Road" as Keelaghan covers Ewan MacColl's "My Old Man" and dedicates "Love What a Road" to his dad. The song Keelaghan feels the closest to, though, is the disc-closing "Who Dies?," which closes with this verse: "Friends and relations and all we hold dear / Will one day pass to the other side / So we'd better embrace them as long as they're here."

"My dad is a gruff Irish fellow from Monaghan, and there's this long tradition of wake songs over there," Keelaghan said. "I just wanted to write his so he could hear it before he goes. . . . He's had two years to enjoy it so far."


Whether writing about history, politics or oneself, Keelaghan strives to take inward experiences and giving them a broader appeal.

Referring to "Cold Missouri Waters" and its firefighting leader who lived with the blame for the 13 men who died, he said, "There are these incredibly intimate moments that have to become a part of other people's lives in order for them to ring true. I think that's what we [songwriters] are all trying to accomplish."

Each summer for the past four years, Keelaghan has hosted and produced "Songlines," a Canadian national radio series featuring on-air performances and interviews with songwriters including Victoria Williams, Billy Bragg and Steve Forbert. From the experience, Keelaghan says he's learned to expect the unexpected.

"I was really surprised by some of the song choices," he said. "For instance, because of its sweet, sentimental virtues, Victoria Williams chose to play 'Edelweiss' [from "Sound of Music"], something I was totally unprepared for on a couple of levels. First, just hearing her sing that one, and secondly, it was weird because I played Capt. Von Trapp in a high school play."

Keelaghan frequently plays festivals and theaters in his homeland, where he has amassed three Juno award nominations (winning one for Best Roots Traditional Recording (solo) with 1993's "My Skies"). Although he's been pretty much a well-kept secret in the U.S.--particularly on the West Coast--he's hopeful that will change.

"I'm going to tour more in your neck of the woods," he said. "Let's face it--I'm in search of perpetual summer. I've just spent a lot of time in Australia, where I've been doing summer since February, really."

Wherever he chooses to thaw during his later years, history will no doubt play a part.

"As long as I can remember, studying past lives and events is just something you do," said Keelaghan, who finished just three courses short of a history degree at the University of Calgary. "It's as natural to me as breathing, and it's through the veil of history that I absorb my intellectual vitamins."

James Keelaghan performs tonight at the Downtown Community Center, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim. Orange County's Kerry Getz opens at 7:30 p.m. Adults, $9-$10; children younger than 18 admitted free with paying adult. (949) 646-1964. Presented by the Living Tradition Folk Music Series.

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