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Midway through the conversation with John Williams, he becomes introspective. He recalls introducing musician friends of his father to a rare copy of the O’Neill collection of traditional Irish music, an out-of-print anthology that had been given to him as a gift. The men select a title they recognize and Williams sight reads the melody on the piano accordion. As the mournful wail pours out, the men wept. It was then that Williams realized the powerful connection of music. He was 12 years old.

Today, John Williams is a five-time All-Ireland Champion master accordionist and highly regarded among a select group of musicians playing tradition Irish music. He has performed in rooms, large and small throughout Chicago, the United States and Ireland. His original music and instrumentals can be heard in the 2002 Tom Hanks film, Road to Perdition and he recently performed with Prairie Home Companion to a sold-out Symphony Hall with host Chris Thile.

John Williams joined the conversation on February 26th just prior to a community session with a dozen musicians at the Celtic Knot in Evanston to talk about growing up in a musical family and how his music has served as a bridge to the past for the next generation.

There’s something about Irish music …

“Irish music is very unique in that you can have people of all ages playing alongside each other at different skill levels as well. There is something about the music that accommodates merely adequate musicians and virtuosic mastermind musicians. It is a strong and flexible type of music that can be played conversationally in many different ways.”

The relationship between Irish dance and music …

“Playing for dancers is almost at the bedrock of where this music evolved from and it is not only that the music is provided for dancing, the dancing also affects, infects and cultivates the musicians. Back in the villages on the west coast of Ireland, there might be really good dancers in the village but maybe only one, two or three good musicians. The dancers would have to bring the musicians up to snuff through the combination of body movements, footwork and how they can light up a place with energy. The musicians get the message ‘Boy we better get on the train or we’ll be left behind.’”

The importance of playing in Ireland …

“All of the feel for the music rubs off on you. You gain more repertoire …  you gain the humor in the music. There is kind of a joviality in the light side of this music and there is a depth and a darkness on the deeper side of the music that you come in touch with … You really get a feel for the fabric that weaves its way through life at the village level.  It is an honor when someone asks you to play at a marriage or a funeral because these are life passage events.”

The legendary Irish musicians John Williams and Jimmy Keane close their March 4th show -- A Mighty Squeeze -- at Chief O'Neill's Pub & Restaurant in Chicago with "The Chicago Reel" in celebration of Chicago's 180th birthday. Katie Grennan step dances.


CELTIC KNOT PUBLIC HOUSE Sunday Afternoon Session
GALWAY ARMS Sunday Evening Session

Chief James O’Neill Collection of Irish Traditional music of the 18th and 19th centuries can be found at The University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries

John Williams and step-dancer Katie Grennan join Chris Thile and the band (Rich Dworsky, Chris Eldridge, Brittany Haas, Sarah Jarosz, Paul Kowert, and Ted Poor) for "Within A Mile Of Dublin," "Seany Dorris' Reel," and "PJ's Pecurious Pachelbel Special" on our January 14, 2017 broadcast

John's website:

Katie's website:

(Courtesy Prairie Home Companion)


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