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The Washington Times-Washington Weekender
May 24, 2001

McDermott Marks Memorial Day

By Lisa Rauschart
Special to The Washington Times

There's an engaging quality to John McDermott that comes through even on the telephone. Perhaps that's because the Irish-Canadian tenor, who performs as part of the National Memorial Day Concert this Sunday, is relatively new to fame. He was ``discovered'' in 1989, singing at an office party with businessman Conrad Black in the audience, and made his concert debut in 1993. Since then he has toured with the Irish Tenors with whom he made two albums and has released eight albums of his own, including 1999's ``Remembrance,'' a tribute to veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam.

``Personally, I think every day should be Memorial Day,'' he says.  ``We don't do enough to honor our veterans or our senior citizens.'' 

This year's concert on the Mall features tributes to the World War II
generation and to veterans of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. It also offers an early commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Catch it in person on the west lawn of the Capitol, or tune in to PBS stations for the live broadcast at 8 p.m.

Such an event is a substantial undertaking, with musical performances, dramatic readings and archival footage. Hosted by Ossie Davis, this year's roster of performers includes, along with Mr. McDermott, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, country star Travis Tritt, entertainer Tom Wopat, actors Charles Durning, Tom Bosley and John Schneider, and the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the Cincinnati Pops' Erich Kunzel.

Performers are expected to check their egos at the door. That doesn't seem to be a problem for Mr. McDermott. The event is significant enough that he will happily rearrange his schedule for a chance to sing just one song.  The song is ``The Wall,'' written by Vietnam veteran Tim Murphy, a sort of lyrical musing on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  ``It is a memorial like few others,'' says Mr. McDermott, who often sings whole concerts at the Vietnam memorial. ``There's a sense that there's more than just the names on the granite. You truly do get the feeling that people you once knew are alive and well and waiting at the wall.''

Last year was a rough one for Mr. McDermott, who lost his mother, a brother and a sister within 10 months. The experience, he says, has strengthened his resolve to pare down his own life to the essentials.

``It really made me take a step back and reflect on where I was,'' he says. ``I got rid of a lot of the dead weight and focused on family.'' For Mr. McDermott, family has always been his strength and his inspiration.

The ninth of 12 children, he remembers the family was so large that they had to eat dinner in shifts. But musically and emotionally, they were always together.  His parents, of Irish heritage, emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1965, when Mr. McDermott was 10 years old.  Almost immediately, his mother and father, Hope and Peter McDermott, began inviting the neighbors over for musical evenings.

``We were swamped by the end,'' Mr. McDermott remembers. ``Every Friday and Saturday night, there would be people from door to door. Everyone just sat around the basement wall and sang.''

In fact, he credits his parents for his strong interest and appreciation for all things musical and the courage, at age 38, to quit his job as a circulation manager for the Toronto Sun and try out a singing career.

``My dad was an amazing singer,'' he says. ``Now, I draw on my father's talent.''

In performance, Mr. McDermott often tells a brief story about the song before singing. That's something he learned from his father, who always provided a context - historical, personal or musical - before the singing started.

So when Mr. McDermott sings ``Danny Boy,'' it is likely that he'll relate the story of how he put together a collection of his mother and father's favorite songs for their 50th wedding anniversary in 1991. He was not a famous singer then, not even a rising star. But someone heard the album, he was invited to sing at a party, and suddenly Mr. McDermott found himself one of the most sought-after traditional singers in the United States and Canada.

Recently, Mr. McDermott has moved away from simply reinventing traditional music to including the works of contemporary singer-songwriters. His latest album, ``A Day to Myself,'' released in February, reflects this shift.

``I'd like to incorporate more contemporary songs that reflect veterans' and seniors' concerns,'' he says. ``That's why a song like `The Wall' is so important to me.''

And it is important for a sense of what his own family went through.

There was his great-grandfather, who served aboard the USS North Carolina during the Civil War. His uncle Mick Griffin, his mother's brother, was captured by the Japanese in Burma and died during a forced death march. A cousin died at Changan prison. His father was a tail gunner for the Royal Air Force.

``There was always an unspoken admiration and respect for veterans,'' Mr. McDermott says. ``You didn't think twice about supporting them.''

The legacy of war has, of course, been many things to many people, as evidenced by the diversity of the National Memorial Day Concert.  For Mr. McDermott, the legacy has had much to do with how a nation treats its veterans.

While no official records are kept on the number of homeless veterans in this country, the Veterans Administration estimates that more than 275,000 veterans are homeless each night. That means that at least one in every four homeless men has at one time served his country in uniform.

In response, Mr. McDermott frequently entertains at veterans and senior citizens' centers.  He has formed a nonprofit foundation, the Hope McDermott Fund, named for his mother, and has established two programs for veterans.  One, the Hope McDermott Day Program Center, is attached to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston. The other, a transitional residence called McDermott House, is in the District, on Ontario Street NW in the Adams Morgan-Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

``We want to integrate homeless veterans back into the social structure,'' Mr. McDermott says. ``Once you give someone recognition that they simply exist, that's half the battle.''

Don't expect just a pretty melody from this Irish tenor. When Mr. McDermott sings, he is doing more than merely carrying a tune. He is, as the poet says, bringing a message of love and remembrance.