In his teens Townsend began to perform on tour and on CBC TV with Don Messer and made his first records for Rodeo. Having placed third in the open class of the Canadian Open Old Time Fiddlers Contest at the age of 11, he won the event in 1963 and annually 1968-70 before retiring from competition. He later appeared on many occasions as a guest artist on CBC broadcasts of the contest. In 1963 he made the first of many tours sponsored by the CBC in conjunction with the federal departments of Defense or External Affairs. He performed in Germany, France, and Italy (1963, 1964), Cyprus (1967), England and Jersey (1981), Australia (1982, in a command performance for Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane; 1983; and for Expo 88), and East Germany (1984). He also travelled frequently to the Canadian north under the network's auspices. He toured in 1984 in Scotland, and appeared four times 1985-91 at the Shetland [Islands] Folk Festival. Several tours were with his second wife, Eleanor, whom he married in 1973.
He played in the California- and Toronto-produced 1964 show Star Route, which ran for 36 weeks. Townsend lived 1964-7 in Ottawa where he succeeded Ward Allen in the Happy Wanderers on CFRA radio and CJOH-TV. Based again in Toronto until 1991, and thereafter in Barrie, Ont, he continued to appear on TV with Messer, and as a frequent guest on the Family Brown, Tommy Hunter, and Ronnie Prophet shows and on CBC Halifax TV's 'Up Home Tonight'. In 1991 he became a regular on MC [Mid-Canada] TV's 'That Country Feeling,' produced in Sudbury, Ont. Townsend performed at Canadian and US fairs and fiddling events, toured in 1984 in Scotland, and appeared four times 1985-91 at the Shetland [Islands] Folk Festival. He also appeared with Wilf Carter on several Canadian tours, including the singer's last in 1991. Townsend performed with a Don Messer Tribute show (1997-8), and at various festivals until shortly before his death from cancer.
Townsend studied Canada's fiddling traditions closely and can be heard playing in a variety of regional and ethnic styles on Classics of Irish, Scottish, and French Canadian Fiddling (1976, Rounder 7007) and The Great Canadian Fiddle (1977, Springwater S-6). He made some 40 albums by 1991 for Banff (eg, I Like Don Messer, SBS-5306, among nine others), Point (including Old Time Fiddle Favorites of Ward Allen, PS-328, and Harvest Home, PS-357, the latter with members of Messers' Islanders), Caprice, Marathon, Rounder, Audat, Condor, and Goodtime. In 1990 Silver Eagle issued Townsend's first CD, 100 Fiddle Hits - 35th Anniversary Album (SED-10962). Graham Townsend - Still Going Strong (Holborne/Rodeo 8044) followed in 1997, and Country Licks and All that Jazz in 1997 (Margaree Sound 6397201, recorded in 1982).
Townsend recorded some 200 of his 400 fiddle tunes. His best-known pieces include Royal Princess Two Step, Rocking Chair Jake, Debbie's Waltz, Maytime Swing, Black Jack Whiskey, My Dungannon Sweetheart, Swinging in the 80s, and Ice on the Road. His compositions have been recorded by Natalie MacMaster and April Verch. Townsend also recorded as a mandolinist (Mandolin Favorites, Cheyenne 89003) and as a pianist (accompanying the fiddler Joe Loutchan of Whitehorse on Fiddler on the Loose, a CBC Northern Services broadcast LP). He appeared as fiddler on recordings by Carroll Baker, Stompin' Tom Conners, Dolly Parton, Fred Penner, Raffi, Sharon, Lois & Bram, Sneezy Waters, and others.
Townsend helped establish the Ontario Old Time Fiddlers Association. He was inducted into the US Fiddlers Hall of Fame at Oceola, NY, in 1982, the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, and the Canadian National Fiddling Hall of Fame in 1998. He was nominated for a Juno award for instrumental artist of the year in 1991, received a 1993 Porcupine Award (jointly with Eleanor), and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Canadian Grandmasters Fiddling Championships in 1998.
Author Betty Nygaard King
Cormier, Sam. Record jacket notes for Le Violin/The Fiddler, Rounder 7002 (1975)
Delaney, Larry. 'Graham Townsend: the man with the magic bow,' CMN, vol 10, Mar 1990
Macgowan, James. "Lives lived: Eleanor Reed Townsend," Globe and Mail, 4 Feb 1999
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championship
The website for Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championship. A great resource for fans of Canadian fiddle music.
This article profiles the musical careers of the popular Townsend family. From the website for the Canadian Folk Music Bulletin.