By Scott Rubush
John McDermott, a folksinger from Toronto, has devoted himself to the cause of helping many homeless American military veterans get their two feet back on the ground.
Before the age of stealth bombers and smart bombs, the nation's soldiers would march in unison to the beat of a drum and the sound of a flute player. While music no longer may accompany warfare, America's veterans now have the rich sound of a Canadian tenor to comfort them once they come home.
"We shouldn't turn a blind eye to those who have done their duties in war," says John McDermott, a lanky 44-year-old Canadian singer whose musical tributes to veterans have earned him a loyal following among old soldiers and music lovers alike. And for his part, McDermott certainly hasn't looked the other way on veterans' issues. Adopting America's estimated 250,000 homeless veterans as his "charity of choice," McDermott has spent the last seven years of his new career visiting shelters and giving benefit concerts to aid this cause.
For an entertainer who as recently as 1992 worked as a single-copy salesman for the Toronto Sun, McDermott has gathered one of the most loyal fan bases in Celtic and folk music. Eddie Colero, director of special-market sales at Electric and Musical Industries, or EMI, credits this loyalty to McDermott's interaction with his fans. "He'll do anything (promotionally) we ask, and he'll sing at the drop of a hat," he told Billboard magazine.
"Much of my material comes from my audience," McDermott adds. "I'll go to a show and stand in the lobby for 30 minutes afterwards, and my fans will give me all sorts of constructive criticism. This blend of fan accessibility and traditionalism has made for good business. To date, his albums have sold more than 1 million copies.
For years singing Celtic folk songs had been for McDermott more hobby than profession. "I was never a starving artist," McDermott jokes, "because I wasn't an artist." He got his break in the recording industry in 1992 when he put together an album for members of his family. "I did an album for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary," McDermott explains. "I was one of twelve children growing up, and each of the album's twelve songs was associated with one of the children in our family." The album, titled Danny Boy, later was sent to EMI Records by a friend. Finally, "I got my big break when it was played on Canadian public radio," McDermott recalls.
Since EMI picked up Danny Boy in 1992, McDermott has released six more albums, including his recent release, Remembrance. "It's a tribute to vets of all branches of the service -- Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines," McDermott tells Insight. Remembrance blends a wide range of musical styles from different periods of history. Tunes such as "Shenandoah" and a rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" spotlight the Civil War era. Songs such as "The Wall" grapple with the experience veterans have faced since the Vietnam War.
Proceeds from Remembrance will go to help fund shelters for homeless veterans in Boston, Washington and other cities. But some of McDermott's colleagues who work with veterans say that the album does much more for their cause. Quoting a music critic for the Springfield Union News in Massachusetts, Dan Walsh, the director of veterans services at a transitional housing center for veterans in Springfield says, "In truth, McDermott could probably stand on a street corner and sing the phone book and still change the way you feel about life. There are not many voices that ring as honest and as soulful as his."
Tom Lyons, executive director of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston, echoes these sentiments. While on tour, he says, McDermott visits the shelter. "When he comes in here," says Lyons, "you can see the place just light up."
For McDermott, veterans issues are a family legacy. Although he has no military record himself, his father served as a Royal Air Force tailgunner in Belgium during World War II. An uncle and several other members of his family also fought in that war. "Because of them," he says reverently of his family members, "I didn't have to serve."
Born in Scotland and later moving to Canada, McDermott's ability to work so closely with veterans of a foreign nation has impressed social workers. Says Lyons, "To see someone who is not from this country take on veterans as a cause is incredible."
McDermott gives between 25 and 30 benefit concerts each year. In addition to his work for veterans' shelters, McDermott also has raised money for the proposed World War II memorial. Balancing his charitable work with his solo career and his performances with the Irish Tenors, a trio that has earned popularity in its own right, McDermott has his hands full, observers say. "John, in his humble way, would like to do more," says Lyons. "But he does so much when he's on the road."
Lyons adds that McDermott has avoided much of the vapid, self-serving approach to charity work that some other stars have taken. "That's the kind of thing you don't see in celebrities these days," he muses. "There's no phoniness about him." Alluding to the hometown of the shelter he oversees, Lyons adds, "He's got a heart the size of Boston Harbor."