As a recipient of the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 ECMA gala concert in Sydney last weekend, Jack O'Donnell is reflecting on a connection with the legendary folklorist that began in 1966.
"It was 50 years ago this month," he said, recalling how Creighton encouraged him when he was a professor in the music department at St. Francis Xavier University to collect coal mining songs from Cape Breton.
Moreover, she wanted him to become the director of a singing group composed of miners and former miners.
The singing group was the brainchild of Nina Cohen of Glace Bay. She had proposed the formation of such a chorus, which would showcase Cape Breton's mining history at Expo '67 in Montreal during Canada's centennial year.
Limited experience in folk
O'Donnell, who first came to St. F.X. as a philosophy student from Portland, Maine, with the idea of becoming a priest, soon discovered he was more interested in pursuing music as a career.
But his experience in the folk field was severely limited. He recalled a newspaper article about him at the time in which the writer penned the following: "O'Donnell knew more about teaching piano and Gregorian chant than he knew about coal-mining songs."
But he took on the Men of the Deeps as a one-time project — or so everyone thought.
Now 50 years — and tens of thousands of kilometres later — with tours of the U.S., Canada, Kosovo and China under their miners' belts, the group has become an iconic symbol of Cape Breton's mining heritage.
For O'Donnell, the lifetime achievement award is that much more special, given it bears Creighton's name.
"She stayed in contact. I used to visit her. And she used to come down and talk to my classes in folk music at St. F.X.," he said.
"She was a great support for me and the Men of the Deeps until she died in 1989."
At 80 years of age, O'Donnell is making the transition to the next chapter of his life. He has been immersed in writing a book about his 50 years with the Men of the Deeps, which he hopes will be published later this year.
While he and the publisher have not yet settled on a name, he notes there are important phrases that will make their way into the book.
'Let a song pierce the sky'
One is "the very audacity of it all," which was the headline of a newspaper article back in 1967. The author wrote about what he saw as an impossible task: pulling a bunch of coal miners together to form a chorus for the national and international stage.
But the article's author was obviously sold on the idea, added O'Donnell, as he concluded the piece with the poetic words: "From out of the deeps, let a song pierce the sky."
'I feel good'
O'Donnell's health has limited his appearances with the group in recent years. Plagued by skin cancer for much of his life, he had major surgery on his forehead in January of this year, which was a success.
"I feel good," he enthuses. Still, he has decided to turn the full-time directing of the group over to his assistant, Stephen Muise.
While not officially retiring from Men of the Deeps, O'Donnell has no plans to rehearse with them or go on any future tours.
He plans to continue arranging songs for the chorus, and taking part in planning strategy for the future.
O'Donnell is thrilled with the recent CD that highlights the Men of the Deeps' music over 50 years.
One place he absolutely plans to be is the Cape Breton Miners' Museum in Glace Bay in November, when that facility celebrates its 50th anniversary.
It has a special place in his heart since it has been home to Men of the Deeps rehearsals for much of the past half century.