Johnny Duhan

TrackAlbum
MollyTo The Light
Girls In My MemoryTo The Light
The VoyageThe Voyage
When You GoFlame
My Father Was A SailorFlame
The River ReturningFlame
In Our Father's NameThe Voyage
Aoibheann & AlannaThe Voyage
Just Another TownJust Another Town
Slant Of LightWinter

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Although Johnny Duhan is one of the finest songwriters to have come out of Ireland over the last forty or so years, even there he is essentially a cult artist. Outside of Ireland, he remains largely unknown and if his name is recognised, this tends to be as a result of other people’s versions of his songs. Among the best known of these are Christy Moore’s excellent version of The Voyage and The Dubliners’ cover of one of his better known but lesser songs, the anthemic Don’t Give Up Till lt’s Over. This is a shame because, at his best, Duhan is a very good songwriter indeed, and he remains among the select group of genuinely excellent lyricists to have come out of Ireland.

Duhan’s career in the Irish music business began in his teens when he was the lead singer and frontman for one of the better Irish beat groups/showbands, Granny’s Intentions. He formed the group with a number of his school friends in his native Limerick in 1965. Like most of their contemporaries, the band began by playing cover versions of songs that were then in the English and American charts. However, their interest in soul music distinguished them from other rival groups and they regularly included covers of songs such as Dancing In The Street and Move On Up in their live performances. Although Duhan’s solo work was to move far away from these early influences, his voice has retained a distinctively soulful quality which continues to reflect them. After building up a sizeable live following both in their native Limerick and subsequently in Dublin, the band made the move to London in 1967 to attempt to ‘make it’ on a much larger stage.

There, they played some of the better known venues of the era, including the Marquee Club, and they also began to write their own songs. The best of these combined the band’s early soul influences with ones derived from folk, country and contemporary psychedelic music. These songs also demonstrated Duhan’s potential as a songwriter and they helped to secure the band a contract with the English record label Deram, a subsidiary of Decca. Unfortunately for the group, however, the recordings they made with that label (four singles and one album, Honest lnjun, which was released in 1969) were to achieve little commercial success outside Ireland. By this point Duhan’s own songwriting was also moving in a more folk oriented and acoustic direction and this was to lead to increasing clashes within the group on its future musical direction. Eventually, this friction led to Duhan’s leaving the band in 1971 with the remainder of its members also going their separate ways the following year.

Following the break-up of Granny’s Intentions, Duhan withdrew temporarily from the music business and he also spent some time farming in East Galway where he still lives. Eventually, however, he made a tentative return to it, becoming involved in a number of short-lived bands, none of which made any real impact. Throughout this period he continued sending demos of his own material to record labels in England and in 1980 this led to his being signed by the Arista label there. It was at this point that he recorded his first self-titled solo album, although, in line with his general lack of good fortune up to that point, a change of management at the label led to its being shelved before it was even released. Eventually, in 1982, the record was issued as an Ireland-only release by Phillips.

This marked the beginnings of what was to become a complicated and convoluted recording history on Duhan’s part. For example, his first three albums, Johnny Duhan, Current Affairs and The Family Album, were all released as either Ireland-only or on very limited release in both England and Ireland. This means that they are all extremely rare today and difficult to find. To further complicate matters, Duhan has also re-recorded many of the better songs from these albums on his later releases. In consequence, as these later versions are more easily accessible and as the simpler arrangements and less fussy production style on them are more suitable to the emotional candour and directness which are a key strength of Duhan’s work, I have chosen these later recordings over the earlier ones. Just to add another layer of complication here, in recent times Duhan has re-released a number of those later CDs with added tracks. As a result, accurately tracking his discography is by now a task that requires real dedication among those who delight in such arcane activities.

My first selection here, Molly, was originally released on Duhan’s debut solo album and is, perhaps, his most accomplished love song. It also demonstrates his flair for melody. This version comes from Duhan’s excellent 2008 album To The Light. This later recording brings out the influence of Irish traditional music on the song in a much more obvious way than his earlier version. My second selection, Girls ln My Memory, also originally appeared on the same album and is one of his catchiest songs. By this point, Duhan had also begun gigging again in Ireland and the better songs on his records were attracting cover versions from more prominent artists like Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The Voyage originally appeared on the third album, The Family Album, and it remains one of the best songs about marriage and the realities of ‘mature’ love (as it were) that I have ever heard. As a result of Christy Moore’s fine cover version, it has also become a staple song at Irish weddings in recent years and, as a result, is now probably Johnny Duhan’s best known song.

From Just Another Town in 1991 onwards, Duhan’s albums were released on his own label, Bell Records, and this meant that he had far greater artistic control over the way in which they were produced and over the final contents of those records than he had had with his previous releases. In consequence, the pared back sound on those albums was to bring his strengths both as a singer and as a lyricist to the fore. The songwriting on them was also more consistent than it had been on his previous records, which had contained numerous excellent songs but were also somewhat patchy. On Flame, which was first released in 1996, Duhan also expanded on and deepened the autobiographical element which had underlain, but not been as apparent, in his earlier work.

One of the striking features of Flame was the way in which he used the songs on it to explore themes and subjects which were pervasive in Irish society but which had rarely been explored by songwriters there up to that point. These included such topics as his own and his mother’s struggles with depression, family problems of various types such as those which had marked his own upbringing, the poverty and bleakness which had characterised much of Irish life in the period in which he grew up, and his own gradual disillusionment with what he came to see as the false promises and essential emptiness of the rock and roll lifestyle.

While this subject matter could sometimes be dark, Johnny Duhan’s work was also deeply concerned with the search for redemption and for some kind of seldom achieved transcendence. This was, in part at least, a product of his re-embracing of the Catholic faith that he had abandoned in his teenage years. However, there was nothing preachy or sanctimonious about his songwriting and he often related his religious convictions to his overcoming of the various personal struggles he had faced in his earlier life. His sympathies were also always with those whom the Church had claimed to represent – the poor, the marginalised and the outcast – rather than with its institutions, which had often either rejected or betrayed them. Duhan’s songs also have a stoical quality and an acceptance of suffering as a necessary and, indeed, often beneficial part of life which is highly unusual in modern songwriting.

The centrepiece of Flame is a series of songs which deal with his father’s final illness and death. They also explore his childhood memories of him and the influence that he had on his later life. Taken together, this group of songs rank alongside the very best work that has been done by any Irish songwriter in recent times and I have selected three of them, My Father Was A Sailor, When You Go and The River Returning, one of Duhan’s most beautiful songs, for inclusion here.

My final selections come from the excellent series of albums that he has made since Flame. Of these, ln Our Father’s Name from his 2005 album, The Voyage, is a heartfelt plea for reconciliation within a divided family, while Aoibheann and Alanna is a charming and poetic tribute to his young twin daughters. My last two choices are Duhan’s classic song Just Another Town which evokes in beautiful detail the Limerick in which he grew up (although anyone who grew up in provincial Ireland will know variants of the characters described so wonderfully in it) and Slant Of Light, his excellent setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson. This last song appears on his most recent album, Winter, released late last year, which is yet another fine album from this excellent but hugely underrated songwriter.

Finally, a plug for Johnny Duhan’s autobiography, There Is A Time, which was published in 2001 and gives both an interesting insight into his early development as a songwriter and is a very good account of his quest for the big time in Ireland in the 1960s.

 

Johnny Duhan’s website

Irish Rock – Johnny Duhan

Granny’s Intentions

Johnny Duhan biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #276

3 Comments

  1. John O'Regan
    Jun 16, 2014

    Excellent article on Johnny Duhan and well deserved feature on his work. One or two things I would like to mention firstly Girls in my Memory was not on his second album Current Affairs, rather it was on his debut album Johnny Duhan. Secondly Just Another Town issued in 1991 was the first album Johnny released on his own Bell Records imprint and not Flame as mentioned above. Otherwise this is an excellent article and a worthy resume of a very talented artist’s work to date.

  2. John Breen
    Jun 16, 2014

    You certainly know how to put pen to paper. Thumbs up Johnny, great stuff altogether.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 16, 2014

    Thanks for these comments. And John (O’R) – Many thanks for these corrections. I did say his recording history was complicated and the re-releases made it difficult at times to keep track. Would also be good if some label was to release the first two albums on CD…

    (We are indebted to John O’Regan and the points that he has made have now been absorbed into the post, many thanks … Ed.)

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