By singer Gerry Dignan’s calendar, we are approaching what he calls the Irish period of the year. Dignan strives to keep traditional Celtic songs alive. He is an advocate of the complete range of Irish music from ballads to fast Irish “mouth music.”
Interest in honoring Ireland is avid in America at this time of year. Look at the presence of Kelly green and the shamrocks in public places. Saint Patrick is as American as Saint Valentine. New Brunswick’s State Theater hosts the Chieftains and their traditional Irish music on Sunday, March 14; McCarter Theater presents the group on Tuesday, March 16.
The 55-member Voices Chorale opens the Irish season with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” two concerts where Dignan is the featured soloist. Lyn Ransom, founder and music director of Voices, conducts. Performances take place Friday, March 5, in the Pennington Presbyterian Church on Main Street and Sunday, March 7, in the Anchor Presbyterian Church, Wrightstown, Pennsylvania. The format for the concerts includes pieces sung by Voices Chorale alone, by Dignan alone, and by Voices and Dignan together.
Instrumental accompaniment will incorporate traditional Irish instruments, including the bodrhan (drum), the penny whistle, spoons, flute, and fiddle. The pieces programmed by the chorale include “Toora Loora Loora,” “Molly Malone,” and works by contemporary Irish composer David Mooney. Dignan sings selections from his Celtic CD, “Heart’s Desire,” which consists of Irish songs of love.
“I sang in the bass section of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and I sing with the tenors in my Gospel choir,” says Dignan. “I will admit, I hear many tenor notes better than I reach them, but something about my voice makes people think I’m an Irish tenor, which is fine with me because, yes, those Irish tenors do have something magical.”
In addition to appearing at Voices’ Irish concerts, Dignan sings in two “Families Singing for Families” concerts at Music Together’s International Headquarters in Hopewell on Saturday, March 6, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The performances benefit victims of the Haitian earthquake. Music Together is an internationally recognized early childhood music and movement program for children below the age of six and their adult caregivers. Dignan is the “Uncle Gerry” who appears on the CDs shared by the worldwide Music Together family (“Uncorking that Joyful Noise,” U.S. 1, March 26, 2003).
Real-life connections explain why Dignan is the focus of both the Irish-oriented concerts and the family concerts. The link is Ken Guilmartin, founder of Music Together, who sings with Voices. Dignan and Guilmartin met at the Jean Houston Mystery School in Greenkill, New York, where both men were involved in a year-long course devoted to the development of human potential.
“I really believe in the mission of Music Together,” Dignan says in a telephone interview from his home in suburban Chicago. “It’s a way to bring families together and a way to try and make the world a better place. It also enhances brain development and musical development. Too many people today are unable to create music because things are not set up for them to make music. As Ken says, ‘There’s more music than ever before, but we only allow designated music makers to make music.’ Music Together creates music making that will last a lifetime.”
Dignan’s approach to making music is essentially spiritual and mystical. He looks to music for answers to life’s most profound questions. “I can’t get into all these things about mysticism in my Irish concert,” he says. “I just want to impart to the audience the joy I know in my life, the joy that I know is real. I want them to go home feeling touched.
“I want to tickle the audience with humor, to include surprises, and to expose listeners to the tenderness of the Celtic spirit. There’s something haunting about the Celtic spirit. It’s an other-worldly experience. Therein comes the spirit again.”
Born in 1954, Dignan says, “My life was influenced by my own seeking, by my own life experiences. From life experiences things become real.” He grew up on the south side of Chicago. “It was very segregated. There were black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. We were afraid of violence. There were a lot of nice people, but we were all the victims of racism.
“I come from a very happy family,” Dignan continues. “Mainly, we sang together. There were three sisters and two brothers. The family was musical. We sang in the car, on the way to church, and while doing dishes.” Dignan’s father was assistant to the president of the Railway Employees Union of the A.F. of L./C.I.O. His mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“I was the musician in the family,” Dignan says. “I studied some piano and some guitar. My dad was a great singer. He was an Irish tenor. Though I am very grateful for what I have been given, I always wished I could get to some of those notes that Dad could soar to with ease!
“My brother, Mike, had cystic fibrosis. I shared a room with him and realized the temporary nature of life. I heard his coughing episodes and wondered for how long we could ride bikes together. He was my first teacher.
“My mother was diagnosed with scleroderma when I was in high school. We were a family with two fatal diseases. Mike died in 1974 at 22; I was 19 and a sophomore in college. A few years later my mother died. I was in despair and angry.
“I sat down and talked to God. I asked, ‘How could you do this? My mother was such a beautiful person.’ I asked God to stop my heart from beating. Then my grief was replaced by comfort but I was still angry. I said to God, ‘Now you take my despair away. Am I nothing?’ But one day I sat down in a chair, and I became aware that my life was not coming to an end. I realized that my life should be lived with a sense of celebration. It was like Paul getting knocked off the horse. Kaboom! It compelled me to do the work that I do. Love is real. It’s the most real thing of all. I realized that through songs and dance I can create moments in which people can connect to love.”
Dignan teaches Spanish for grades four through eight in a public school in Orland Park, Illinois. “I use lots of folk songs and rhymes,” he says. “I make up rhymes to learn the names of foods in Spanish. It’s all rap and rhythm.”
He fits his overtly musical career around his full-time teaching commitments. “I sing on weekends,” he says. He is the cantor of his church in Chicago, a multicultural Catholic congregation, where he has been a member of the gospel choir for more than 25 years.
Dignan intensified his Irish connections as a by-product of studying in Barcelona during the academic year 1974-’75, when he was a college junior. “I knew that my grandmother had one sister in Ireland, and I had to go,” Dignan says. He met his paternal grandmother’s sister, Ellen Quinn, in the summer of 1975. “Aunt Ellen was born in the 1890s and had memories of Ireland and its stories and songs from before the arrival of technology. She lived in an old cottage with no running water. We would sit in the cottage, and she would tell stories about ghosts, fairies, and banshees. She taught me songs. Hers was the one branch of the family that stayed in Ireland. Her seven siblings had migrated to Chicago, and her father arranged a marriage for her in Ireland, so someone would be there for him when he got old.”
On his maternal side, Dignan’s family came to Chicago in the 1840s, during the Great Famine.
Dignan met his wife, Denise, in the choir of their high school, in 1969. “Music brought us together,” he says. They married in 1983 and live in Plainfield, a southwest suburb of Chicago. “We have travelled life together,” Dignan says.
The two have done presentations for various groups: the United Nations, the Jean Houston Social Artistry Seminars, and Music Together, among others. They have appeared in spiritual communities in the United States, Ireland, and Scotland. Their performance, “The Mystic Path in Song,” uses the model of early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underhill’s eight stages of spiritual journey. “It’s primarily a musical experience,” Dignan says. “Music gets beyond the thinking mind. It moves you into what is most present.”
Dignan’s appearance with Voices depends on trust in the power of music. “I’m practicing at home; they’re in New Jersey,” he says. “We will have one rehearsal, and that will be with only part of the chorus. It takes place on Friday, when some of them are at work. You don’t control the music; you let it control you.”
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Voices Chorale, Pennington Presbyterian Church, 13 South Main Street, Pennington. Friday, March 5, 8 p.m.; and Anchor Presbyterian Church, 980 Durham Road, Wrightstown, PA. Sunday, March 7, 3 p.m. A salute to the Irish spirit with harp and fiddle features lullabies, ballads, jigs, and laments. Gerry Dignan is the featured soloist. $18. 609-637-9383 or www.voiceschorale.org.
The Chieftains, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, March 14, 3 p.m. Traditional Irish music with Paddy Moloney on iulleann pipes and tin whistle, Kevin Conneff on bodhran, and Matt Molloy on flute. $32 to $62. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.
Also, Tuesday, March 16, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. $47 to $58. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.