Johny Duhan is the only songwriter we’re aware of who has written a full-scale autobiography in song. Highlights features samples from the four collections that make up this lifework. The opening songs, from Just Another Town, draw on seminal boyhood experiences of growing up in Limerick while the selection from To the Light goes to the heart of his quest for romantic love in the 60s. Songs from The Voyage focus on marital aspirations through the prism of family history, and the final quartet of songs from Flame give fresh expression to a faith that has sustained Johnny over almost a half century of his calling.
If there is a more resilient yet under-the-radar Irish singer-songwriter than Johnny Duhan then we have yet to meet them.
To say that he has soldiered on in the face of general indifference is an understatement, yet his body of work is substantial, infused as it is with equal measures of integrity, a kind of spiritual succour, and a reflective quality that is without equal.
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The Burning Word
“Truly a beautiful piece of work. It achieves an engagement with faith and God that will not "lose" the doubter or the sceptic, but will draw them to itself, reassuring them by the depth and quality of its music and poetry. I identify very strongly with the songs, and at no time feel the sense of creeping unease that afflicts me at some stage while listening to most Christian-inspired music. I think this is because Johnny comes to the music from a position in the world, in life, in culture, and seeks to comprehend the Mysterious Otherness by means of that language, rather than accepting the "given' language of religion and simply utilizing that as a code to summon
up beliefs assumed to be held in common with his audience. There is therefore something primary, if not primal, about the album. It speaks to the human being who comes to these questions with nothing but a flimsy raft of openness resting on an ocean of doubt and fear.”
“The songs branch out like veins beneath the skin and intersect at some point right under the heart. There is loss here, as well as love, tenderness, friendship, and an affecting, contemplative disclosure that other singer-songwriters, young and old, would burn their rhyming dictionaries for.”
Album of the week, Irish Times
The songs from Johnny’s new collection reflect on the struggles of ageing, drawing on winter as a metaphor for the grey season that my generation are now heading into. Ageing is painful – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – and the pain intensifies the older we get, not just in physical but in emotional terms, as old friends, acquaintances and even perceived enemies begin to drop away to illness and death. There are compensations – the fear of failure that can cripple youth diminishes and an acceptance of our limitations and weaknesses grow into a kind of mild confidence and even wisdom, if we’re open to it.
Putting together this album was a bit like a winter chore I do most mornings of taking out the ashes and building a fire for the evening ahead. Not pleasant work but when it’s done and the family are gathered around the hearth on a frosty night the heart knows the value of the achievement.
Just Another Town
“Just Another Town is an artistic achievement of the highest order, comparable to the work of the best writers in literature. Johnny Duhan’s portrait of the songwriter as a young boy in the Limerick of the early 60s resonates in the deepest soundings of the heart and mind. The past is made vividly present. We are there with him in the street from the bright morning to the moon rising over the city at night. Experiences and themes unfolding over years are telescoped into one day; the boy’s growing awareness of home, neighbourhood and wider environs expand to include the world beyond the town that will finally take the man away.
As we listen to Duhan’s backwards glance at his younger self our flickering memories are stirred and faces of half-forgotten people lean towards us and our own conflicted and mysterious childhoods are found.
The chipped inkwell that Johnny dipped his pen into in national school all those years ago has transmuted popular song into high art.”
To The Light
Johnny didn't know who Don Quixote was when he set out from Limerick with his band in search of fame and the girl. Years later, having experienced enough of those lures to render himself completely confused, he read of the bewildered knight's quest to win glory and love by helping the downtrodden of Spain and saw himself in that story.
The songs on this album have the energy and snap of a young man's self-belief. Johnny nails his colours to his lance (guitar) in My Gravity: "I sing for the lonely souls". Accosted on his way to a party by a tramp with a tale of lost love, Johnny later finds himself in that role in The Beggar, pleading with his girl not to walk out on him. The Night You Left Me deals with the aftermath of the same affair, while Johnny starts to shoulder the weight of failure in Don't Give Up Till It's Over, a song that seems destined to become an anthem of hope.
Johnny owns up to the element of calculation in a singer's performance in The Spider but returns to lost love with Our Last Drive, wondering did she drive into the poor part of town on their last date because she foresaw a bleak future with him. In the heart-felt There Is A Time, Johnny can no longer cling to the illusion that prompted his original quest. "There is a time in life, it seems, for believing in dreams. For me it's gone."
But the story doesn't end there. Johnny's eyes are still drawn to the stars in To The Light. This final song powerfully expresses his belief that life is a voyage with a meaning and grandeur that is transcendent.
Life is an ocean, love is a boat;
In troubled waters it keeps us afloat
When we started the voyage there was just me and you,
Now look around us, we have our own crew.
The Voyage travels to the heart of marriage and family life, encompassing the aspirations and struggles of several generations of the one strain. Birth is a recurring theme, with bells and chimes capturing the joyful mystery while the apprehension of bringing new life into a troubled world is marked by sombre tones. Commitment within marriage is deeply expressed but the task of maintaining the bond is given due weight. The album contains definitive versions of Johnny’s songs previously recorded by Christy Moore, Dolores Keane, Mary Black and Francie Conway, as well as a greater number of recently penned songs on themes of tension, reconciliation, and joy within the family circle. Throughout, Johnny’s voyage is laced with the optimism and humour of a sea shanty that carries us all the way to the 'shores of the heart'.
Over stumps, stones, mould and boulders,
Over rock-ledges and -shelves
We struggled on and upwards
And rose above ourselves.
In The Afterbirth opens FLAME with a heraldic oboe ushering in the paradox of the pain and euphoria of birth - "Creation's mystery come down through history, it's trail upon the earth in the afterbirth". The Blight follows with a plague of the spirit that is relieved when the victim realises that he is not alone. Struggle lies at the heart of Flame. The title song chronicles the frailty of the life force and shows how a spark is found in a personal relationship. Face the Night and After The Dream assert in contrasting ways that reality faced squarely can be more wonderful than the stuff of dreams. Captain and On The Water chart a reckless career that leads to near defeat before youthful courage is recalled and faith restored. Another source of strength is contemplated in My Father Was A Sailor. And The Beacon describes a mountain-climb led by spirited young children. As the climb progresses the climbers reflect on the heritage that inspired the first pilgrims to make the ascent. All obstacles are overcome and a high, crystal clear place is reached where the beacon stands radiant. Finally, When You Go confronts the ultimate challenge and offers the hope of spiritual release to a higher place when the struggle is over.