john C. (jack) o'donnell

John C. O'Donnell was Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Department of Music at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. He retired from active teaching in September 2000, and passed away on 25 October 2018. Professor O'Donnell held degrees in music from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and the University of London (England) Kings College.

For almost 50 years "Jack" O'Donnell was involved as musical director of Cape Breton's acclaimed coal miners' choir, The Men of the Deeps. Under his leadership the choir produced four long-play record albums and five compact disks. Under the leadership of assistant director Stephen Muise, the choir released a 50th year anniversary compact disk, Coal to Gold,in 2016. Throughout its 50 year history, the choir has performed live and on television throughout much of North America.

Throughout its long history, the choir has toured extensively throughout North America earning a reputation for preserving in song the rich folklore of the mining communities of Nova Scotia. In 1976 O'Donnell was responsible for arranging a concert tour of the People's Republic of China. This marked the first time for a Canadian cultural ensemble to visit mainland China following the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1972. And in 1999, at the request of the Canadian Government, the choir accompanied British actress Vanessa Redgrave to Kosovo in the former republic of Yugoslavia where they joined many renowned world entertainers in welcoming back to their homeland the displaced refugees of that troubled province. A particular highlight of the new millennium came in 2008 when the choir performed at the week-long Mine Expo celebrations on The Strip in Las Vegas.

Professor O'Donnell has published widely on the subject of coal mining songs in Canada and in 1992 completed an anthology of such songs, And Now The Fields Are Green: A Collection of Coal Mining Songs in Canada (Sydney, Nova Scotia. University College of Cape Breton Press, 1992). His most recent publication documents his fifty-year experience with the choir: The Men of the Deeps: A Journey With North America’s Only Coal Miners Chorus, (Sydney, Cape Breton University Press. 2016)

His numerous award and commendation include the following:

  • In 1983 his accomplishments were honoured by the Federal Government when he was made a member of the Order of Canada;
  • In 1992 his work was recognized again with the conferring of the "Commemorative Medal" marking the 125th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada;
  • In recognition of his contributions to the cultural mosaic of Cape Breton Island, Cape Breton University awarded him the honorary degree Doctor of Letters at its convocation in May 1993. (The university bestowed the same honour on the entire choir in May 2000);
  • In 2002 he was honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal;
  • In 2012 he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal;
  • In 2013, as part of Fortress Louisbourg's 300th Anniversary Celebrations, he received the innaugural Katharine McLennan Award granted in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the preservation of arts and culture in Cape Breton;
  • In 2016 the East Coast Music Association awarded him the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award; and
  • In 2016 he was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from his alma mater, St Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.


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