Jack O’Donnell has mined many memories over the years as musical director with the Men of the Deeps.
The latest one came Sept. 12 when the long-time Antigonish resident was honoured with the inaugural Katharine McLennan Award, which was established to “recognize the exceptional contributions of an individual who has, through community, life, and volunteer work, made a significant and lasting difference in the area(s) of arts, culture or historical preservation of Cape Breton Island.”
“I was really surprised because I don’t live in Cape Breton and this is for someone who has contributed to the culture of Cape Breton,” O’Donnell, professor emeritus with the StFX music department, said.
“Before I gave my speech, I mentioned to them that I am really a Cape Bretoner at heart,” he added.
He said he mentioned that when he became a Canadian citizen in 1975, the Portland, Maine native waited until a court session in Port Hawkesbury before he took his citizenship oath.
“I told them I wanted to cross the Causeway to become a Cape Bretoner first,” he noted with a laugh.
He agreed he has a ‘deep connection’ to Cape Breton.
“I live at Mahoney’s Beach and when I get up every morning I watch the sun rise over Judique,” he quipped.
O’Donnell came to StFX in the 1950s as a student. He returned in 1962 to join the university’s music department.
For decades, he has spent “almost every Sunday” in Cape Breton, travelling to Glace Bay for Men of the Deeps rehearsals.
“I tell you – my car knows the way,” he said with a laugh, noting now his wife [Judy] does most of the driving.
“For years and years, I would drive myself,” O’Donnell added.
When asked about how he became involved with the coal miners’ choir, O’Donnell said, with a laugh, he would try to “abbreviate” the story.
He said Nina Cohen of Glace Bay, whom he described as a “respected Cape Breton activist,” contacted him. She was one of those who spearheaded” the building of the Glace Bay Miners’ Museum (now Cape Breton Miners’ Museum).
“She did it to perpetuate the memories of the miners and the work that they had done,” O’Donnell said.
Cohen invited him to attend a rehearsal of the newly formed choir. He added she and noted Nova Scotia folklorist Dr. Helen Creighton encouraged him to take over as choir conductor.
“They talked me into taking the group to Expo ’67, which I thought was a one-time thing,” he said.
After those performances, he said he left for England, where he studied and obtained graduate degrees.
A few years later, O’Donnell said the group was “still going.”
By then, the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO) had been formed, a federal Crown corporation, which oversaw the region’s mining industry.
Ann Terry MacLellan, a Cape Breton broadcasting legend and great friend of O’Donnell, was then corporate affairs manager with DEVCO.
She told him the DEVCO wanted the group to start performing more songs about coal mining and the history of the industry in Cape Breton.
“She asked if I would be interested in coming back [to the group] and researching the songs and conducting the group,” he recalled.
That was in 1973.
“I did it and I have been going ever since,” O’Donnell noted.
O’Donnell agreed Working Man could be described as the signature song for the group.
“We can’t do a concert without singing Working Man; they would crucify us,” he said with a laugh.
Nevertheless, when asked about the special songs the choir performs, O’Donnell said “there are so many.”
He noted Their Lights Will Shine, which chronicles the Westray Mine disaster, written by Ron MacDonald of New Glasgow, certainly tops the list.
And, he added, there are some poems penned by Al Provost, who was a bass with the group, which are special.
“He wrote poetry – very sophisticated poetry. One of my books is named after the last line in one of his poems – And Now the Fields are Green.
That poem, O’Donnell added, is called Who are They, which one of the members recited at the recent McLennan award presentation ceremony.
“It was very moving,” he noted.
Along with those, O’Donnell said Rise Again is always a “big hit,” noting people rise to their feet when the group sings it.
When asked about the group’s appeal, O’Donnell agreed there is a ‘deep connection’ with its audiences.
“The reason for that is they are just ‘regular guys.’
“They are not great singers; they come off with a nice sound because we work at it, but they are not a professional choir,” he added.
O’Donnell said the “charm is their charisma.”
“They are so casual about it.
“The sing with their coveralls, their mining helmets, with their hands in their belts,” he added.
“Yes, I am, and no,” O’Donnell offered, when asked if the ongoing global appeal of the group surprises him.
“They are so natural. One guy has got to do a solo and he will go back into the group and they will pat him on the back sort of thing.
“Most choirs don’t do that,” O’Donnell quipped.
Nevertheless, he said audiences “really identify” with that quality.
And, when the Men of the Deep finish their concerts, O’Donnell said, “We don’t just leave the stage.”
Members go into the audience and mingle with fans, he added.
“I am very pleased with the response that we get,” O’Donnell noted.
They have performed near and far – everywhere from Kosovo to China, with a weeklong stint of sold out concerts in Las Vegas on their resume.
When the group travelled to China, O’Donnell said the government would only allow them to sing 21 of 36 songs.
Prior to the trip, he sent along a song book to Chinese authorities. When they arrived in Beijing, he added government officials arrived at his hotel on the first night and told him what pieces couldn’t be performed.
“Because, anything about God, love or drinking was not allowed; not that we had any rowdy songs,” he noted.
“We couldn’t do Dark as a Dungeon because it has a verse that says, ‘when I look from the door of my heavenly home,’” he added as another prohibited song.
O’Donnell noted those restrictions “never bothered us.”
“Every once in a while I would sneak one in. They didn’t know what we were singing about anyway,” he quipped.
“I had a translator on stage who would tell the audience what we were singing about, but sometimes we would just segue into another song.
“The guys got big charges out of that. It was quite an experience,” O’Donnell added.
Of course, the group is probably most famous for their many tours with late Cape Breton songbird Rita MacNeil.
“There’s a big map at the miners’ museum with pins that indicate where we have been,” he noted.
“I am getting tired of the travel – back and forth every week. Fortunately, my wife drives me, which is a big help,” O’Donnell said, describing it as a “big commitment,” when asked about his future with the group.
“I am finding that I don’t have enough time. I am lucky if I can give them one of two new songs a year because it takes time to arrange them.
“You just can’t go into a store and buy a coal mining song for four parts,” he added.
O’Donnell noted he has a website where people can find such stuff –
“That gives a lot of information on the songs and things like that,” he said, adding choirs from “around the world” order his arrangements.
“I have sent arrangements of Rita’s (MacNeil) Working Man to Australia, to places in Asia, and all over the place,” O’Donnell added.
O’Donnell said he would like to have time for arranging, along with writing about the choir.
“There’s so much to say about what has happened in the last 50 years,” O’Donnell said, noting the Men of the Deep will celebrate their golden anniversary in 2016.
“I want to record it,” he added.
O’Donnell said having talented assistant director Stephen Muise doing “more and more” will enable him to focus more on those other areas.
“He is a young fellow whose father is in the group. Stephen grew up with the group. As a little boy, he used to come to all the concerts,” he said.
“If anything happens to me, he can take over on the spot. He is aware of the history of the group because he grew up with it. It is exactly what I am glad to have because I know it won’t die with me.”
As for his recent honour, he said it was special to share it with his family and Men of the Deep members.
“That’s the point I would like to get across – this is an award given to me, but I share it with the group.
“I wouldn’t have it, if it wasn’t for the group,” he added.
O’Donnell said he mentioned those thoughts during his acceptance speech, which he said he thought the group members appreciated.
Near the end of their concert after the ceremony, O’Donnell said Men of the Deep president Shane MacLeod “interrupted me” and spoke.
“He gave their feelings and it was beautiful,” he added, with tears welling in his eyes.
“It was an unforgettable moment,” O’Donnell noted.
For more about the Men of the Deeps, visit