The Irish music community in Boston, and well beyond, joined in grieving the death late last year of Sean Gannon, a member of one of the area’s most well-loved musical families.
Gannon, a Dorchester native, died on Nov. 26 at the age of 46. He was the son of John Gannon, a Connemara native who emigrated to the US in 1959 and brought along with him his masterful accordion playing – a skill he shared not only with Sean but also with his younger son, Colm. Individually and collectively, the three Gannons became stalwarts of Boston’s Irish music scene, especially at The Burren, where over the past decade Sean and John anchored a weekly session.
On the Sunday before Christmas, John returned to The Burren session for the first time since Sean’s death, Colm along with him. “Sean was my go-to guy; he was the sounding board for me,” said Colm, who moved to Ireland in the 1990s but would join his father and brother at The Burren during his visits home. “We never butted heads. A lot of my approach to playing came from sitting around the house playing with him. Sean had this wonderful way of simplifying the complicated things; he’d compare it to something else in life that had nothing to do with music, and it would make complete sense.
“And he was the same way for a lot of other musicians, especially the younger ones who were still getting the hang of the music. He taught them to look past the notes, when to make that D note scream out, and when to pull back a bit.”
Sean was a big, burly presence at musical gatherings, his jet-black hair framing a broad face and prominent eyebrows that often conveyed the characteristic intensity with which he invested the music. But however formidable he seemed – “strong as an ox,” a friend recalls – Sean displayed a deft touch on accordion, and a disarming smile and laugh that bespoke the warmth and affection he felt for the people in his life, especially his family, and in particular his daughter Niamh.
At the same time, friends say, there was no mistaking the passion that Sean had – not simply for playing music, but for playing it the way he devoutly believed it should be played.
“His playing was lyrical, and he really poured his heart and soul into it,” said the fiddler George Keith, a frequent musical partner of Sean who became one of his closest friends. “It’s not easy to do. It’s far more common to get obsessive about technical details, and forget you’re supposed to be playing music – or to make the other common mistake that just because you think you’re playing ‘music’ you are succeeding at communicating.
“Sean was one of the relatively rare few I’ve met who could convincingly do both. He cared intensely about both getting the details right and making it musical; if either were missing, he’d be disappointed.”
“Sean was the real deal; you’d hear him play and just say to yourself, ‘He’s got it,’” said Kathleen Conneely, another close friend of many years. “He grew up around the music, was nurtured by it, and then he picked it up and taught himself – and it had that special Connemara feel to it, that style and that rhythm. You know it takes a very special person to be able to do that, especially as well as he did.”
Traditional music was practically a family trait on his father’s side, Colm noted – John’s mother and brothers were musicians, too – so for Sean to have developed a curiosity, and then a strong interest, in it as well was hardly surprising. John provided guidance rather than instruction in the conventional sense: “Sean and I learned the music naturally, through osmosis – a much older way of doing it that really isn’t done so much in Ireland anymore, and certainly not here in the US. Dad was matter-of-fact about it: ‘If you don’t get it, well, you’ll be good at something else.’”
Along with John’s insights and advice about the accordion, however, came a firm directive. “Dad would say, ‘Never play it unless you have pride in it,’” said Colm, who went on to become a full-time performing and touring musician. “Sean definitely believed that. He looked at everything, including music, quite deeply.”
“He played with so much heart and exemplified a tradition-bearer who recognized the tradition as a living one that was constantly evolving, while paying due respect to those who came before,” said Amanda Cavanaugh, who began playing with Sean while she was in her teens and came to regard him as a mentor as well as a friend. “Sean trusted his instincts when it came to music and he taught me to trust in myself as a musician – and also to have a sense of humor and not take myself too seriously, because music is meant to be enjoyable at its core. I am eternally grateful for those lessons.”
That sense of humor to which Cavanaugh refers was an important, if perhaps unlikely, component of an intense personality. For Keith, whose roots were vastly different from those of Sean, it emerged as a means to strengthen what had been a largely music-driven rapport. “He used to slag me quite a bit for being the stereotypical computer-nerd, and it took me a while to feel safe slagging him back, but when it happened one afternoon at The Burren it caught him completely off guard. I can’t remember a single thing that was said, but I do remember that every little jibe he tossed at me, I would spin right back to him even better. We got on marvelously after that.”
Sean was not a full-time musician like his brother; he had a plumbing and heating business that demanded a lot of his time and energy, and sometimes took a physical toll that made playing accordion a challenging, even painful task, according to friends. But he was steadfast in his commitment to music, they note.
“He may not have played music full time for a living,” agreed Colm, “but he still played music full time.”
Though happiest playing at sessions and other more informal gatherings, Sean did take to the concert stage, too. Cavanaugh recalled recruiting him to play with her to accompany Kieran Jordan and her dancers during the 2007 “St. Patrick’s Celtic Sojourn” show at Somerville Theater, a far larger venue than either of them were accustomed to.
“Kieran took a chance on us, and I think both Sean and I were a bit nervous as we weren’t used to playing on such a big stage,” she said, “but we really clicked with the dancers and with each other. We got to play a duo set together, and we played some tunes we learned from his father. One of them was ‘The Crosses of Annagh,’ in A major, which is an unusual setting, and to this day is one of my favorite tunes to play.”
“For Sean, music was much more than simply ‘fun’: It was joy, purpose, history, art, and elevation,” said Keith. “Music was a language he understood very well, and he loved the language’s poetry.
“There was a lot about Sean’s life that didn’t go the way he wanted it to, but music was something he could never really lose, that didn’t cost any money – once you had the instrument – and when it was good, he could put away his worries and just play his heart out.”