Messer, who began playing the violin at five, learned fiddle tunes from local players - his uncle Jim Messer, Bowman Little, Charlie Bell, and others - and Scottish and Irish songs from his mother. At seven he was performing at barn dances, weddings, and other social gatherings in the area. After living for three years in Boston, where his studies with Henry Davis and Edith Hurter constituted his only formal instruction in music, he began his radio career in 1929 on CFBO, Saint John, NB. A local merchant subsequently sponsored regular programs by Messer's small band.
In 1934 the band began a radio show for the CRBC, broadcasting from CHSJ (Saint John) under the name the New Brunswick Lumberjacks. Charlie Chamberlain (b Bathurst, NB, 14 Jul 1911, d there 16 Jul 1972), Messer's long-time vocalist and the only band member who had worked in lumber camps, joined at this time. The studio band grew to as many as 19 performers (including Chamberlain, Ned Landry playing harmonica, the bassist-banjoist Julius 'Duke' Nielsen, Maunsell O'Neil providing continuity in the persona of an Acadian lumberjack dubbed 'Joe LeBlanc,' and Eldon Rathburn, piano). Messer led a smaller group, the Backwoods Breakdown, in his personal appearances throughout the Maritimes and the northeastern USA.
On joining CFCY, Charlottetown, as music director in September 1939, Messer formed the Islanders - Chamberlain, Nielsen, Jackie Doyle (piano), Ray Simmons (clarinet and, later, also announcer, replacing Art MacDonald), and Bill LeBlanc (drums). By 1944 the group was heard nationally thrice weekly on the CBC.
Personnel changed over the years, but included such long-time members as the drummer Warren MacRae (who joined in 1942), the pianist Waldo Munro (1951), and the guitarist-fiddler Cecil McEachern (1951). Other instrumentalists, including the banjoist Vic Mullen and the organist Ray Calder, played with the Islanders for shorter periods. The singer Marg Osburne (b Moncton, NB, 1926, d Rocklyn, Ont, 16 Jul 1977) joined in 1947 and became (with Messer and Chamberlain) the artist most commonly identified with the Islanders.
Once the show was established as one of the most popular on Canadian radio, Messer and the Islanders began to appear outside the Maritimes, making their first tour of Ontario in 1949. They had made 18 tours by 1969, including a centennial trip in 1967 that lasted three months and covered 61 centres.
In 1956 the group began to appear regularly on CHBY-TV, Halifax. A nationally broadcast CBC TV summer series 'The Don Messer Show,' begun 7 Aug 1959, continued in the fall as 'Don Messer's Jubilee'. The show won a wide audience, and its cancellation in 1969 brought many complaints from viewers and raised questions in the House of Commons. However, a syndicated version of 'Don Messer's Jubilee' originating from CHCH-TV, Hamilton, Ont, began that same year and continued until Messer's death.
Messer and the 'Jubilee' cast were also seen in the NFB feature Don Messer: His Land and His Music (1971) and excerpts from the TV series were later issued in a CBC Enterprises video, Don Messer's Jubilee, in 1985. The show itself, a half-hour program, was rigidly structured, beginning with 'Goin' to the Barndance Tonight' and including a couple of fiddle tunes by Messer, songs from Osburne, Chamberlain (who favoured Irish material), and a guest performer, a closing hymn sung by Osburne and Chamberlain, and 'Till We Meet Again' played under the final credits.
Regular performers added during the TV era included the Buchta Dancers, led by Gunter and Irma Buchta, and the Scottish accordionist-singer Johnny Forrest who joined in 1966. Frequent guest performers included 'Stompin' Tom' Connors, Myrna Lorrie, Catherine McKinnon, Fred McKenna, and Graham Townsend. With the demise of 'Don Messer's Jubilee' Marg Osburne began a nightclub career - she enjoyed particular success in western Canada - and was host in 1977 for CBC TV's 'That Maritime Feeling'. Of her post-Messer recordings for Marathon (record label), 'Blues Comin' Round' was popular in 1974.
Messer insisted that his music was 'not Western or cowboy music. Our tunes have been around for two or three hundred years. They're folk tunes passed from generation to generation' (CBC Times 11-17 Apr 1964). Besides traditional hornpipes, jigs, and reels, the Islanders played many tunes by Messer, as well as pieces by Al Cherny, Andy DeJarlis, Jim Magill, Graham Townsend, and others. Messer recorded some 35 78s 1942-52 for Apex - popular titles included Rippling Water Jig, Woodchoppers Breakdown, Cotton Eyed Joe, Don Messer's Breakdown, Highlevel Hornpipe, and Spud Island Breakdown - and has had some 30 LPs issued or reissued by Apex, MCA, Rodeo, and Rodeo's affiliate labels. The compliation LP The Good Old Days (MCA TVLP-79052) was issued in 1979 to some 100,000 advance orders. Folios of Messer's own compositions were published by Thompson: Original Old Tyme Music (1942), 'Way Down Fiddlin' Tunes (1948), Canadian Hoedowns (1952), and Barndance Breakdowns (1954). A fifth was published by Canadian Music Sales in 1967.
Messer has been credited (by folklorists Dorothy and Homer Hogan in their liner notes for Graham Townsend's LP The Great Canadian Fiddle) with a synthesis of the many and varied fiddle traditions in Canada, influencing other fiddlers with a style 'as clean, straight-ahead and neat as a well-tended farm' and marked by its 'down-to-earth simplicity'. Recordings dedicated to Messer by Townsend, Bill Guest, and Reg Hill attest to his stature among Canadian fiddlers. His library and papers were deposited at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and one of his fiddles was placed in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. He was inducted posthumously into the CCMA Hall of Honor in 1985 and, with Chamberlain and Osburne, into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
A musical, Don Messer's Jubilee, described as a 'fan letter' by its composer, John Gray, was premiered in 1985 by the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and subsequently toured in Canada. In 1989 a Theatre Plus production in Toronto found Catherine McKinnon in the role of Marg Osburne.
Author Richard Green
MacDonald, David. 'The breakdown boys from Spud Island,' Maclean's, 15 Oct 1953, repr Radio Guide, Nov 1986
Russell, Franklin. 'This band won't believe it's famous,' Star Weekly, 23 Jan 1960
McCall Newman, Christina. 'What makes the Messer show go?' Chatelaine, Jan 1961
Dexter, Susan. 'Everybody here loves Charlie Chamberlain,' Maclean's, 18 Sep 1965
MacLeod, Stewart. 'Good grief, it's Charlie Chamberlain,' Weekend Magazine, 5 Nov 1966
Hillen, Ernest. 'The death of Don Messer's Jubilee,' Weekend Magazine, 21 Jun 1969
Sellick, Lester B. Canada's Don Messer (Kentville, NS, 1969)
Brown, Dick. 'Marg Osburne's home on the range,' Canadian Magazine, 19 Jul 1975
Guettel, Alan. 'Rookie producer "finds" Messer,' Toronto Star, 4 Jan 1980
Wagner, Vit. 'Musical about Don Messer fondly recalls "a gentler time",' Toronto Star, 28 Jul 1989
Links to Other Sites
The World of Don Messer's Jubilee
View a video clip featuring maritime fiddler Don Messer and his group The Islanders in a CBC Halifax program.
A virtual exhibit devoted to Don Messer, renowned fiddler, music director, music writer, and entertainer. From the Nova Scotia Archives.
Entertainer-fiddler Don Messer seen through television equipment during production of the Don Messer and His Islanders show. From the Statistics Canada website.