Harp Guitar Performer John Doan Brings Celtic Music and Mysteries to Newtown

When he was a teen-ager, John Doan says he was “suspicious something might be wrong with me.” There weren’t many two-neck guitar players in garage bands, but Doan was one of them. But his affection for unusual musical instruments didn’t stop there.

Always on the lookout for something new, Doan was studying guitar in college when he happened on a lute. Not too long afterward, he was playing it. And not long after that he had an encounter with a bizarre-looking instrument called the harp-guitar—a guitar, yes, with six strings on one side, but with an extended body that plays host to any number of fixed, fretless harp strings.

His reaction was perhaps predictable:

“I thought … wouldn’t that be cool? I ended up getting an old Gibson harp guitar sometime maybe around 1979. I had it repaired. I’ve been at this thing now, 30 years or so. It goes places that guitar goes … but then it goes beyond.”

Doan, now a professor of music at Willamette University in Oregon, taught himself to play the harp guitar. Along the way he also acquired other weird and wonderful musical instruments, including a three-necked affair called the harpolyre and another strange critter called the banjuerine. (They’re both so weird and strange, my spell-check thinks I misspelled them.) But the real star of our story is the harp guitar; Doan is considered an expert on its history and one of its foremost practitioners.

It’s an instrument that lends its ethereal, bell-like tones to many forms of music—including Celtic/New Age. In fact, a recent Doan recording, “Eire: Isle of the Saints (A Celtic Odyssey),” on the Hearts of Space label, is highly acclaimed. It’s a Billboard Magazine critic’s choice.

On Sunday, Doan is bringing his 20-string harp guitar and his Celtic music to Newtown’s Temperance House in a multimedia show called “A Celtic Pilgrimage” that blends tunes with story-telling. It’s based on Doan’s travels to the Emerald Isle.

Doan first visited Ireland in the ‘80s—roughing it, hitchhiking, sleeping under the stars. One night, he says, he yearned for a real bed and a shower, and he scraped together enough cash for a stay in a bed and breakfast. The two aged “aunties” who ran the place kept him well entertained, he said, and they told him that when he went back to the States they should look up their nephew Billy, who also lived in the Pacific Northwest. “Tell him he should visit us,” they said.

When he got back home, he called the phone number he’d been given and starting chatting up Billy, who turned out to Billy Oskay, the fiddler and producer of Nightnoise.

Over the years, the two became friends, and Oskay became a fan of the Doan’s harp guitar. In the ‘90s, Oskay asked Doan to contribute an Irish-sounding piece for the first Celtic Twilight album from Hearts of Space. By the time Celtic Twilight 2 came along, Doan had composed more Celtic music. Some bright soul suggested an entire album of Celtic harp guitar. Doan was sold.

“I said I’d like to go to Ireland and make musical pictures,” he recalls. “I had already written a bunch of stuff. Billy said go for it.

“Well, I had just read ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization.’ It’s about how Ireland became a sanctuary for saints and scholars during the Dark Ages. That’s the very time of Saint Patrick. I thought I would follow in the footsteps of Saint Patrick.”

Doan focused on pilgrimage places—places where the separation between heaven and earth is believed to be thinner than in other places.

“I went to these places and started improvising,” he says. “I took my tape recorder with me. This place opened up to me. As an artist I could translate it into music; it was timeless. I captured these stories that I think are the underpinning of the Irish mystique. It was just so moving to go to these places and have them be places that were still filled with beauty, charm and resolve.”

Those stories are precisely the ones Doan plans to share with his Newtown audience. You can add to your Irish cultural education and hear a rare performance at the same time. (Here’s a preview on YouTube:

The show begins at 7 p.m. at the well-known restaurant, at 5 South State Street.

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