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Celebrating Barney McCaffrey

Ottawa Valley singing storyteller has changed many lives, including mine.

Dateline: Tuesday, January 03, 2012

by Ish Theilheimer

WILNO,ON, January 4, 2012: It would be impossible to count the number of people whose lives were changed by Barney McCaffrey, now fighting for his life after a New Year's Day stroke, but they must number in the thousands. He changed my life, very greatly.

Like me, Barney was born in New York City, but we didn't meet until the 1970s as back-to-the-landers in the hills of the upper Ottawa Valley, near the tiny villages of Killaloe and Wilno. We got there by very different paths for many of the same reasons.

Born in 1934, Barney was a gifted child (rated a genius in school) with a stage mother. Besides receiving lots of early instruction in piano, singing and tap-dancing, he also read and studied voraciously.


People in the Valley have come to regard Barney as part leprechaun, part Santa Claus, and part guru.

Barney is a devout Catholic, but a special kind, inspired by the progressive, social justice-oriented Catholic Worker movement. This is the connection that brought him and his young family in the 1960s to the Ottawa Valley. They came here to meet former Catholic Worker activists Catherine and Eddie Dougherty, who had established what was then a kind of commune called Madonna House in Comberemere, about 50 km from Killaloe.

Before arriving the Ottawa Valley, Barney was a world traveler. His first son Blaise was born in Maryland, and his second, Ammon, was born in Peru, where he and his young wife Pat were working with and learning from poor rural people. (Twins Daniel and Gabriel arrived later, in Canada.) Barney joined the US Navy in the 1950s, and saw a lot of the world in that way. And as a young musician, he traveled everywhere he could with his accordion, eventually picking up songs in 42 languages.

Whatever he was before he reached the Ottawa Valley, his presence here cannot be overstated. Over the years he became well known as a performer, teacher, social activist and a zealous disciple of "living simply that others might simply live." He also became the area's most accomplished collector of local history, which often worked its way into songs about local people and events patterned on the unique folk music styles of the Valley.

One of Renfrew County's earliest back-to-the-landers, Barney moved his family (including four sons) to an abandoned farm near Wilno in the early 1970s. There they have lived without electricity and running water — to demonstrate the virtues and benefits of a simple, subsistence lifestyle in a self-sufficient community. Later came solar panels, cell phones and a laptop, but the concept and motivation never changed.

For all his strengths and talents, however, Barney has never been good at the kind of practical skills needed in farming. Raising healthy animals and productive gardens has never come as easily to him as collecting and telling stories, writing songs, artistic photography, calligraphy, and, of course, philosophy, which was always at the root of all his work. He has stuck with it, however, to make a point.

Indeed, Barney has always maintained contempt for most products of industrialism: cars, electronic gadgets, and machines of every sort. He has run innumerable old clunkers into the ground as he traversed the Valley. He is hard on accordions too.

People in the Valley have come to regard Barney as part leprechaun, part Santa Claus, and part guru. He can hold forth joyously on nearly any subject, from Virgil to solar panels to education.

For his part, Barney reveres the ordinary people of the Ottawa Valley. From his first days here, he sought out their stories and wisdom, which he spun into songs and myths. Environmental awareness and frugalilty are constant themes, both in what he says and how he lives. "You vote every time you plug in your toaster," he told me in the 1970s.

We met in 1974, when my young family rented an abandoned farm about 10 km from the McCaffrey's. Together with the late Clark Guettel, a third back-to-the-lander with New York City roots, we formed The Wilno Express, a musical group specializing in original songs about the Valley — and earning enough money to stay alive. Together, we travelled to what seemed like hundreds of gigs in bars, restaurants and community halls. We philosophized down thousands of kilometres of highway in all kinds of weather.

At that time, many "old-timers" with pioneer and lumber camp experience were still active and very much alive. From them, we heard many of the old stories, which, again, often found their ways into songs. We put out two albums together and helped launch a renaissance of interest in traditional Ottawa Valley music.

There were more places offering entertainment and, frankly, more drinking in those days, and a bar musician who could work a room could cobble together a meager living. And could Barney ever work a room! He'd find things to talk about with people at every table, find out where their families came from, tell them about their cultural heritage, and usually sing a song or two in their languages.

Being poor has never worried Barney. He reveled in it and celebrated the generosity of poor people in helping one another. If neighbours were in need, he was always there to help. And when his own house burned in 2004, the community raised $60,000 and built a new one for him.

Barney called his farm Mustard Seed Circus Farm, and there were signs along the half-kilometre driveway like "Work and pray to make the desert bloom" and "Come in peace and fun." He certainly did what he urged. No one who knew him will ever forget Barney or see the world in the same way as they did before him, least of all me.

Barney died near midnight on Thursday, January 5. Your contributions to help the family are needed. In lieu of flowers, etc. a donation can be made for the McCaffrey Family of Wilno through The Sisters of St. Joseph of Pembroke, Canada. Please make your cheque payable to "Sisters of St. Joseph, Pembroke" and forward to Sister Rosenda Brady, csj, 2-386 John Street, R.R. 1, Barrys Bay, ON KOJ 1BO. Any donation of $15.00 or more, an official tax receipt. The photos above are of our classic band, The Wilno Express, featuring Barney, Clark Guettel and me, in 1979 and at the Wilno Tavern in 2001.

Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine,, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.


Tom Lips Thanks for sharing these memories of a wonderful man. I only met Barney a handful of times (I had the honour of performing with him on one occasion at ... View > 05-Jan-12
Mara Wolf. Barney and Clark, forming a new heavenly band? Rock and roll old friends, you are not to be forgotten. View > 05-Jan-12
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