Chief among the reasons why GRAMMY-winner Susan McKeown is a singer is her mother Jeannie McKeown Ryan, a profession musician in Dublin, Ireland.
"She would come home, get dinner ready, serve it on a circular table –
there were seven of us! – then would stand up and unzip her house coat.
She'd be wearing something wonderful underneath, and after putting on
makeup and perfume would go to this magical other world, to perform. It
was all very glamorous."
Jeannie was a Hammond organ demonstrator for a big music store,
conductor of church choir, and an organist accompanying theatrical and
variety shows in one of the city's main theatres. She received the
Benemerenti medal from the Pope (the highest honor a woman can receive
from the church) for long service, with over thirty years as organist
and choir mistress. Susan's grandparents met in the Dublin church choir
for which her mother became choir mistress at the age of 14. Susan's
father ran a candy factory. "He played the Willy Wonka role," she jokes.
Susan was the youngest of five and showed the most interest in music.
"I remember singing before I ever learned to talk," she says. "Later,
mam and I would sing in harmony with the songs on the radio." When Susan
was old enough to join the choir, Jeannie gave her several solos, key
moments in her musical development. She also recalls her mother's
influence on her business sense, saying, "She was confident in herself
as a woman and of her value as an artist."
Jeannie would use her maiden name of McKeown when performing and Susan
took that last name when she emigrated to the United States, eventually
having it changed legally. "I found a book at the Strand Bookstore a
week after I arrived entitled Naming Ourselves, Naming Our Children and
in reading it gave myself permission to take my mother's last name, and
in so doing pass on the tradition through the women's line."
"I am so proud of her, privileged to have had her as my mother," says
Susan, who made a 1999 album with Cathie Ryan and Robin Spielberg called
'Mothers: Celebrating Mothers & Motherhood,' featuring several
songs that remember Jeannie.
Susan is passing on the tradition as well, giving her daughter her
mother's last name, taking her on tour and fostering her growth as a
performer. "She has traveled with me all over Europe and much of the
U.S. She's forging her own way. She's already written her first album of
songs at ten years old and they've very catchy."