Local musician John Doan thinks modern music has lost its magic. Not because musicians are less talented, but because people have fallen out of relationship with each other in this age of technology. He wants to bring some of that back in the music he plays through the stories he tells and his role as an entertainer.
“I consider myself a bard for the 21st century,” he said.
Doan, 60, performed at Corban during Arts Week on Feb. 10. His instrument of choice, a 20-string harp guitar, filled the Psalm Center with graceful melodies reminiscent of Celtic legends, on which he based his newest album “A Celtic Pilgrimage.”
A Salem resident for the last 38 years, Doan’s musical awards include an Emmy nomination for “Best Entertainment Special of the Year,” a “Best Celtic Album of the Year” and “Salem’s Favorite and Best Musician Award” from the Statesman Journal in Salem, among others. He has recorded nine albums, not including the collaborations he has done with musicians such as Burl Ives, Ricki Lee Jones and Mason Williams.
Doan’s love for the harp guitar started while he was majoring in guitar performance at California State University, Northridge. He started playing the only lute the university had, and he loved the unique tone and sound, while also appreciating the ancient musical tradition of the instrument.
“I really enjoyed vicariously expanding my life experience to 500 years ago,” he said.
He soon began collecting harp guitars from estate sales after the instrument sparked his interest. Even now, Doan continues to collect instruments and has more than 100. Harp guitars are unique because they include not only the typical fretted six-string guitar, but also unfretted strings that resemble a harp’s in tone and quality.
“I am, I guess, the first person in modern times to take an interest in the harp guitar,” he said. “I’ve contributed to making the instrument fashionable again.”
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Doan moved to Oregon, where he taught at Western Oregon University and earned his master’s degree. Western Oregon, Oregon State and Willamette universities, as well as Linfield College are just some of the places where he has taught, and he has also studied under master players in Paris and Holland. Currently, he is an associate professor of music at Willamette.
While he loves teaching, Doan attributes much of his success in the musical world to his performances. At a typical concert, a performer walks on-stage and immediately starts playing. But not John Doan. Doan greets his audience as they enter and walks around meeting people before he begins. He did this at his concert at Corban as well.
The Irish tradition is “bottom up, not top down,” he said, and that is why he would rather be interacting with his audience before ascending the stage and performing.
His album, “A Celtic Pilgrimage,” includes songs based on Celtic legends and stories, which Doan tells before he plays them at his concerts. He said this gives a fuller perspective on the fundamental, existential human experiences, and he is passionate about communicating the deeper truths of his music through stories. Everything about his performances, from the set to the conversations he has with the audience, is intentional about creating something bigger than the music, something that resonates with everyone.
“I really loved how he was such a welcoming performer,” said Corban junior Katharine Hormann, who attended Doan’s concert. “He invited everyone in and told us stories of his life. It was magical the way he described how he would compose a song,” she added.
One of the stories Doan told was about Jacob’s Pillow, otherwise known as the Stone of Destiny. Fabled to have arrived in Ireland with an early people called the Tuatha Dé Danann or the tribe of Dan, this stone believed to be the one the patriarch Jacob slept on. “Resting Upon Jacob’s Pillow” was the song Doan wrote after he lay on the stone and listened.
“Being a person of faith, I make music that reflects my own stirring,” he said.
Doan’s creative process comes in many forms. Some of it involves travel. His six or seven journeys to Ireland have led to many of his recordings and Celtic songs. Sometimes, however, a song will just pop into his head. He talked about hearing a melody on his guitar while he slept all night, “a piece of style that I’d never heard.” The next day he recorded it and had it scored by noon.
“It’s the job of the artist to respond when inspiration presents itself,” he said. He compared this to the young Samuel in the Bible, who responded to God’s voice in the night with “Yes Lord.” “Living creatively is living more fully.”
This is evident as Doan works hard to create his unique sound through the harp guitar, and he does it for the sake of the music, not for fame. His philosophy is that music should help create relationships, not divide them. Doan, while concerned with the way the music industry promotes mechanical production and the individualism of headphones and iPods, is more than happy teaching his students the wonders of the harp guitar and the beauty that he finds in its simplicity and grace.
To find out more about John Doan and listen to his music, visit his website, http://www.johndoan.com/.