taking our culture forward
John Kaneen

John Kaneen


The familiar voice of Manx Radio’s The Folk Show for over 30 years, a superbly talented and larger than life musician, singer and dancer, and a quiet scholar of folk song, John Kaneen was the very worthy recipient of the 2019 RBV cultural award.

John’s contribution to Manx culture and to a wider appreciation of folk music defies simple categorisation. A gifted musician, singer and dancer, he has been known for decades as a performer and as the lynchpin of the Calor Gas Ceilidh Band, which brought joy and laughter to a multitude of social gatherings, charity events, weddings and festivals. John has been a stalwart of the session scene for as long as he has been on the Island, and he has performed with Bwoie Doal, Bock Yuan Fannee, the Manx Folk Dance Society RBV, the Manx Morris Dance Group, The Railroaders Skiffle Group and countless others. Known now as a button accordionist, he also played the concertina and guitar, and featured on the Manx dance cassette for Rinkaghyn Vannin (1986). He was awarded honorary membership of the Manx Folk Dance Society RBV for musical services.

In the 1960s, together with former MLC David Callister, John ran a folk-club in Douglas, organising festivals and events, and John was also a founding member and President of the Manx Ballads and Blues Club which attracted such musicians and song-writers as Stuart Slack and Mike Williams.

In the 1960s John went to live and work in Liverpool and became friends with The Spinners folk group, and performed at many folk clubs in the Merseyside area. He returned to the Isle of Man seven years later.

The late Colin Jerry RBV recalled the time when copies were made of the Clague Collection of music at the Manx Museum, noting that John was among those who received one. Together with Colin, John edited A Garland for John Clague. A New Book of Old Songs, which reflected John’s extensive knowledge of British folk song collections, and the connections between song and tune titles within that wider context. Whereas Colin and others worked to promote songs in Manx, John retains a particular fondness for English language ballads and songs and has done much to promote them in the Island.

Hunt the Wren saw terrific numbers on St Stephen’s Day 2018, and John is one of the people who must be thanked for this revival of interest. Together with Fiona McArdle, he has organised the Douglas Hunt the Wren for long years, raising money for charities including the RNLI.

Yn Chruinnaght Inter-Celtic Festival was the backdrop for many a fine moment from John, but none more striking than his appearance as the Celtic sea-god Manannan, after which the RBV – Reih Bleeaney Vanannan – is named. In the early 1980s, fitted out in full length cloak and headdress, the towering figure of ‘Big John’ became Manannan, captured so beautifully in a photograph of him with the rather more diminutive festival founder, Mona Douglas RBV. In 2008, Yn Chruinnaght re-created the scene, with John again prepared to take on the role on the proviso that no one set him on fire!

John was also known for his interest in documenting events, setting up his recording equipment to capture concerts, sessions and other gatherings for posterity. His foresight didn’t stop there. As part of his Folk Show, John made the conscious decision to encourage young and new groups to record a session of their songs and tunes with him for broadcast. The show is enjoyed around the world, with listeners commenting on the encyclopaedic knowledge of the presenter.

John accepts the RBV this year also on behalf of his cousin, the late Professor Brian Kaneen of Canada.

Those nominating John spoke of his ‘generosity of spirit in sharing his knowledge and musicianship with groups and individuals’, his ‘unique blend of knowledge skills and accomplishments he brings to music and the history of song and dance on the Isle of Man’ and summed up his modesty by saying ‘Although huge in person and character, John Kaneen is a modest type of chap and I would doubt that he would seek to be awarded anything.’

Port St Mary Lifeboat and Hospice Isle of Man were nominated as the recipients of a donation of £250 each, and a cheque for £500 was presented to John, which he was happy to put towards recent accordion repairs.

The Reih Bleeaney Vanannan is the Isle of Man’s highest cultural honour, awarded by Culture Vannin through a panel made up of representatives from Culture Vannin, IOM Arts Council, Manx National Heritage, Yn Chruinnaght and Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh.

A short video interview with Phil Kelly RBV is available here.