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In Memoriam

David James

Traditional Musician, 1946-2018

Irish dancers on the first Saturday in June at the Detroit International Feis the past 11 years (2007 through 2017) would have seen a seasoned musician with a long pony-tail and a working man's cap playing away on the fiddle – that was David.  Those who attended the instrumental and vocal competitions the evening before saw another side of him – full of anecdotes on Irish music, musicianship and his love of performing.  In the competitions in those year over which he presided, David was appreciated as much for his genuine character as for his deep knowledge of the tradition. 


He was first recommended by Jimmy Thornton of the Chicago musicians association as our music adjudicator.  When we first met, I found him lively, entertaining and wearing his politics on his cap (literally.) He was also very gracious. What I learned later was that he was rich in musical talent.


David was born in Atlanta, Georgia and moved to South Bend, Indiana as a student at Notre Dame University and graduated with a degree in political science. He remained politically active all his life in South Bend supporting social justice.  As a child he was musically inclined, as they were wont to say, took lessons and played piano and later guitar.  After college he went on to pick up the fiddle, hammered dulcimer, 5-string banjo, Irish bouzouki, concertina, bodhran and harmonica. 


He was known as a three-time solo All-Ireland Championship winner at the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann on the hammered dulcimer with masterful performances.  However, he had an interest in protest songs, bluegrass and traditional folk music, toured as a bass player with a string band and founded an Irish band in South Bend.  He also released two albums which included some of his own compositions.


David had an abiding love of traditional songs and was able to sing a large repertoire.  One evening after a Feis a group of us were sitting around a table in a lounge talking about music, he played a slip jig on the fiddle. I said it sounded familiar since I knew it as a Gaelic children's song, Nead na Lachan.  He coaxed me into singing it (from youthful memory) and proceeded to tape record my rusty rendition; it seemed he always wanted to learn new things. In 2009 at an age some would be thinking more about retirement, he completed a master’s degree at Indiana University and received an academic achievement prize for it.


David received many awards and much recognition for his musicianship, performed in many festivals and taught in many workshops and classes.  He was particularly good with the children at our Feis, giving them much encouragement and getting the best out of each.  No competitor ever left without a medal, but the real prize was the experience of the tradition he nurtured with them.  He will be missed.


Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.

Seán Kilcoin

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