- Paul F. Wells
(b Tents, Tarmon, County Leitrim, Ireland, Jan 6, 1880; d New York, NY, Nov 26, 1947). American Traditional Irish flute player and recording artist. In the 1920s, when record companies began exploring and exploiting the markets of various immigrant communities, the Irish American market was dominated by fiddle players from County Sligo. Flutist John McKenna, an emigrant from neighboring County Leitrim, was virtually the only exponent of his instrument to have a significant impact.
McKenna was born in an area with a strong musical tradition, one in which the flute figured prominently. He married in 1909 and immigrated to New York shortly thereafter. In 1920 he began working for the New York Fire Department; when he made his first recordings in 1921 he was billed as “Fire Patrolman [or Fireman] John McKenna.” He recorded 60 sides between 1921 and 1937, for a variety of labels including New Republic, Gennett, Columbia, and Decca. In addition to solo work he partnered with various other musicians, including fiddlers Barney Conlon and James Morrison, banjo-mandolinist Michael Gaffney, and fellow flute player Eddie Meehan. The recordings with Morrison are particularly admired. McKenna had a strong, highly rhythmic, somewhat breathy style. His frequent use of short phrases gave his music a great deal of lift. His recordings of some tunes, such as the reels “Lucky in Love” and “Colonel Frazer,” and the polka “Up and Away,” have established these pieces as standards within the Irish repertoire....