Passing of a Great Chicago Player

By Paul Keating

As the year 2004 drew to a close another Irish music master in the U.S. was laid to rest out in his adopted and beloved city of Chicago. On January 30, St. Juliana’s Church on the North Side was filled with mourners alongside the Irish-flag draped coffin of Joe Shannon, another Irish immigrant who realized his American dream.

Fittingly, the Catholic liturgy included the hymn “Our Lady of Knock” for the Mayo native. There were also airs from fellow musicians and friends like Liz Carroll, who played Daithi Sproule’s “The Crow in the Sun,” and piper Jim McGuire, who rendered “Taimse im Choladh” (I Am Asleep).

A week shy of his 89th birthday, the remains of uilleann piper Shannon from Treenabontry near Kiltimaugh were going in the ground, but not before leaving behind a rich legacy in Irish American history.

Joseph G. Shannon emigrated with his family to Chicago in 1929, when he was 10. He attracted the notice of the legendary Chief Francis O’Neill, a fellow piper and music historian, who came backstage at a Chicago World Fair concert to meet him.

O’Neill likened Shannon to Patsy Touhey, another left-handed piper with whom Shannon was enamored from his earlier recordings. More importantly, Shannon formed a lifelong musical and personal friendship at the World Fair with the outstanding native Chicago fiddler Johnny McGreevy, who predeceased him in 1990.

The friendship yielded a recording made in Joe’s kitchen called Noonday Feast which is out of print. The pair later traveled together as retirees to the Milwaukee Irish Fest and the Willie Clancy Summer School and became part of the heart and soul of Irish music in the Windy City.

For many years music was on the back burner as Shannon was the embodiment of the Irish immigrant who worked hard through Chicago stockyards, railways and eventually the civil service, with almost three decades in the Chicago Fire Department. He raised a large family of 13 children with a firm but supportive hand.

His participation as one of Chicago’s finest musicians at the 1976 bicentennial celebration organized by the Smithsonian Institute (along with Liz Carroll and Johnny McGreevy) helped raise the spotlight on the man who had already been seen as a hero in Chicago.

He received national acclaim as a 1983 National Heritage Award winner. He was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a folk artist who influenced other young musicians, most notably Liz Carroll, Jimmy Keane and also John Williams, who exemplify the Chicago scene today.

He traveled with that threesome to the Eigse Na Laoi Festival at Cork University in 1991 to represent Irish music in America where he recorded From a Distant Shore: Irish Traditional Music from Donegal, England, America and Cape Breton Island on Nimbus Records.

Rounder Records also features him on “Irish Traditional Music from Chicago” originally released in 1978 but released as a CD in 2001.

Like many a traditional musician in the old country or abroad, his best work was probably done in the kitchen. Fiddler Liz Carroll, who was also a National Heritage Fellow in 1994, remembered fondly by phone, “You would emerge from his house and kitchen sessions higher than a kite because he was so much fun to be with, because of his tunes and his stories.

“He wasn’t just a musician who played tunes learned from old recordings but one who was a brilliant musician who liked to share tunes with one or two musicians in that kitchen.”

The kitchen became a piping pilgrimage for many a touring or resident Chicago musician, and each got the same personal welcome and cuppa tea.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Jim McGuire, the piper and protégé of Joe Shannon, for sharing so much rich detail on him, much of it outlined in an article for Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Piper’s Club) which a year ago proclaimed Shannon a patron which is their lifetime achievement award.

How timely that award appears now as it validates the impact of the Mayo man, whose music and stories will live on beyond the Lake Michigan shores and the time he spent there.

Irish-American Uilleann Piper - Chicago, Illinois

An Píobaire, Na Píobairí Uilleann, Volume 02, Issue 18, November 1983

Joe Shannon is one of the last representatives of the "American" style of playing the uilleann pipes.

'The bagpipe is one of the oldest types of musical instruments. A distinctively Irish version of the bagpipe, known as the union or uilleann pipe, emerged in Ireland in the early 18th century. These pipes were distinguished by a chanter with a range of two octaves and the use of a bellows instead of a blowpipe to inflate the bag. The elaborately ornamented style of playing the uilleann pipes requires great skill and dexterity.

Joe Shannon was born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1920. His family emigrated to Chicago in 1926, where he has lived ever since. Joe Shannon became interested in the pipes in his early teens. By then, the once great tradition of playing the uilleann pipes had almost completely died out in Chicago. One of the last remaining pipers was hisuncle, Ed Mullaney, who gave him rudimentary instruction on this most difficult of traditional Irish instruments. Joe Shannon also listened avidly to the early recordings of famed uilleann pipers Patsy Tuohey and Tom Ennis, and from them he acquired the articulation, phrasing anddrive that is characteristic of early 20th century Irish-American piping.

The virtuosity of Joe Shannon's piping is a dazzling source of wonderment to everyone- who hears his music. He has kept alive a fragile musical tradition during a period when it might have been lost. The depth of his knowledge and his dedication to Irish traditional music can hardly be equalled.

U.S. Honour For Irish Piper

An Píobaire, Na Píobairí Uilleann, Volume 02, Issue 18, November 1983

Joe Shannon, Chicago, was among the sixteen master traditional artists honoured by the award of a National Heritage Fellowship. This scheme of awards, operated by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, recognises outstanding and lifelong .contributions to American folk culture. Fellows are selected by a review panel nominated from among artists of proven excellence, authenticity and influence within a particular field and they receive a Fellowship certificate and a cash award of $5,000.

Joe Shannon is known to all pipers who have been to Chicago - Their accounts of their visit to that city invariably recall meeting up with him, playing music with him, examining his unique set of Taylor pipes and enjoying his hospitality. It is a great pleasure to record this signal honour to an Irish piper and the instrument. The official citation for the award will interest readers.

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