John Paul O’Connor

John O’Connor began his involvement in the labor movement right out of high school when he went to work in the factories of Waterloo, Iowa. An interest in folk music and Woody Guthrie led to a 40-year career as a folk singer and a cultural educator, performing in concerts, coffeehouses, schools and colleges, union education programs and political action events.

In 1983, while living in Seattle, John sent a batch of his songs off to Flying Fish Records cold and–almost unheard of at the time –landed a contract to make an album of his powerful original songs. Songs For Our Times came out in 1984 and was named one of the best albums of the year by the Washington Post and several folk publications and radio stations. The good reviews were too numerous to count. Geoffrey Himes in his Washington Post review wrote, “Mister Slow It Down is the best hitchhiking song since Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee. O’Connor’s Missy and Me is the best song about old age since John Prine’s Hello in There.”

John recorded three albums with Flying Fish, one of them with the political quartet, ‘Shays Rebellion’, and a CD on the Chroma label. He also recorded a CD produced in conjunction with Collector Records called “We Ain’t Gonna Give It Back”, which is regarded by many as one of the best collections of original songs on the American labor movement. The late Joe Glazer said of John, “He writes the best songs about labor you are likely to hear.” His most recent CD, “Rare Songs”, on his own Hegel Creek label features 14 of his songs accompanied by some of New York City’s finest musicians. The self produced album includes brass and reed instruments, a rarity for folk recordings.  John McCutcheon called the album “… a welcome return of one of our best and most humane songwriters. Songs of joy, love, and promise”.

Thirty five years later John is still stalwart in his focus of fighting for the working class and inspiring them with his music and their music. His powerful songs have always, as Tony Harrah of the Guardian said, “mixed seamlessly with the old songs.” John’s songs have been recorded by numerous singers from around the English-speaking world.

In 2009, the French singer, Renaud, adapted John’s song, North by North to the French language, calling it Vagabonds and recording it as the title track of his new CD. The song went to number one on the French charts.

In 1993, the first union for traveling musicians on the acoustic music circuit was chartered as a local of the American Federation of Musicians, due in large part to John’s efforts and imagination. There are few on today’s folk music scene that have not heard of the work of Local 1000, the North American Traveling Musicians Union.

O’Connor began sending out his emotionally-charged poems in 1999 to the world of literary journals. Since then he has seen his work published in dozens of lit magazines, such as Indiana Review, Cold Mountain, Rattle, Sycamore Review, St. Ann’s Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature, MARGIE, DoubleTake and Baltimore Review.  He has won the Associated Writer’s Program’s Prague Prize and his poetry has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. His collection of poems, Half the Truth, won the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry in 2015 and is available from Snake Nation Press (

Reviews of John O’Connor’s music and recordings:

“One of the best albums of the year [Songs for Our Times].” — Geoffrey Himes, Washington Post

“John is one of those rare songwriters that paints honest, non-romanticized pictures of people’s lives. Like Woody Guthrie or Utah Phillips, he uses deceptively simple language to take us into the complex lives of workers in many parts of the world.” — John McCutcheon

“[O’Connor’s] songs instantly become like old friends, showing complete mastery of the songwriter’s art—truly outstanding. John O’Connor deserves to be numbered with the all-time greats of contemporary folk music.” — Tony May, Southern Rag

” . . . reminiscent of Phil Ochs, but O’Connor has shaped his own acute observations of the working class into songs that beg to be sung along to . . . biting, intense . . . ” — Craig Harris, Black Sheep Review

” . . . songwriting . . . right out of the same well that slaked Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.” — James Tarbox, St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch

“When it comes to songs for and about real working people today, John O’Connor is as good as they come.” — Si Kahn

Reviews of John Paul O’Connor’s collection of poetry, Half the Truth:

In the spirit of James Wright and Philip Levine but with a style, grace and humor all his own, John O’Connor revisits and reinvents the working man’s American lyric of failure and redemption, beauty and honesty. Written in the “real 4/4 time of the ever-vanishing now,” Half the Truth is a song of the poet “learning how to live.” These poems are a “drink from the night’s jar;” I invite you to drink deeply. – Rachel Zucker

John O’Connor is a terrific poet. The America he paints in Half the Truth is as unnerving and real as sand in your teeth-the mill, the exit ramp, the father with an “awkward touch.” These poems find power in what’s overlooked: “the smallest smudge of ochre/hiding in the obscurity of the canvas’ texture” becomes a speaker who will “teach you now/how to build with stone,” children “write their words in anthracite.” O’Connor knows how to braid the essential detail, the individual, and the epoch: Eugene V. Debs dreams while there are “new stars called satellites/moving like tiny sperms toward the moon.” Half the Truth is a stunning book. – D. Nurkse

%d bloggers like this: