Donald Charles Frederick Messer, fiddler, band leader, radio broadcaster (born 9 May 1909 in Tweedside, NB; died 26 March 1973 in Halifax, NS). Don Messer was an icon of Canadian folk music.
Donald Charles Frederick Messer, fiddler, band leader, radio broadcaster (born 9 May 1909 in Tweedside, NB; died 26 March 1973 in Halifax, NS). Don Messer was an icon of Canadian folk music. He had many popular radio programs from the 1930s through the 1950s, and his CBC Television series Don Messer’s Jubilee (1959–69) — distinguished by Messer’s down-east fiddle style and the toe-tapping “old-time” music of Don Messer and His Islanders — was one of the most popular and enduring Canadian television programs of the 1960s. Messer was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Hall of Honor and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
The youngest of 11 children, Don Messer was born in Tweedside, NB, and began playing the violin at age five. He 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 studying with Henry Davis and Edith Hurter for three years in Boston (his only formal training), he began his radio career in 1929 on CFBO Saint John. A local merchant subsequently sponsored regular radio programs by Messer's small band.
In 1934, Messer and his band began a radio show for the CRBC (the early incarnation of the CBC), broadcasting from CHSJ Saint John under the name the New Brunswick Lumberjacks. Charlie Chamberlain, Messer's long-time bilingual 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 (harmonica), Julius “Duke” Nielsen (bass, banjo) and Eldon Rathburn (piano). Messer led a smaller group, the Backwoods Breakdown, in his personal appearances throughout the Maritimes and the Northeastern US.
Don Messer and His Islanders
After joining CFCY Charlottetown as music director in September 1939, Messer formed the Islanders, which consisted of Chamberlain, Nielsen, Jackie Doyle (piano), Ray Simmons (clarinet, and later announcer, replacing Art MacDonald) and Bill LeBlanc (drums). By 1944, the group was heard nationally three times a week on the CBC.
The band’s personnel changed over the years, but included such long-time members as drummer Warren MacRae (who joined in 1942), pianist Waldo Munro (1951) and guitarist-fiddler Cecil McEachern (1951). Other instrumentalists, including Vic Mullen (banjo) and Ray Calder (organ), played with the Islanders for short periods. Singer Marg Osburne joined in 1947 and became one of the best-known members of the Islanders.
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. Don Messer and his Islanders recorded 35 records (78s) for Apex from 1942 to 1952, including such popular titles as Rippling Water Jig, Woodchoppers Breakdown, Cotton Eyed Joe, Don Messer's Breakdown, Highlevel Hornpipe and Spud Island Breakdown. Roughly 30 LPs have since been issued or reissued by Apex, MCA, Rodeo and Rodeo's affiliate labels.
Don Messer's Jubilee
Once the Islanders’ radio program was established as one of the most popular in Canada, Messer and the band began to perform outside the Maritimes, making their first tour of Ontario in 1949. In 1956, the group began to appear regularly on CHBY-TV in Halifax. A nationally broadcast CBC-TV series, The Don Messer Show, began on 7 August 1959 as a summer replacement series for the country and western music show Country Hoedown. The Don Messer Show was immediately popular and continued in the fall as Don Messer's Jubilee.
The half-hour program, which featured lively fiddle tunes and traditional music and dancing, was rigidly structured. Each episode began with “Goin' to the Barndance Tonight,” included a couple of fiddle tunes by Messer, songs by 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. Messer once 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.” He rarely spoke on camera, leaving those duties to the show’s announcer.
Regular performers included the Buchta Dancers — a troupe of ballroom, folk and square 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.
The show consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally throughout its long run. In 1961 it drew higher ratings in Canada than the Ed Sullivan Show, and throughout the mid-1960s it was second only to Hockey Night in Canada. Its cancellation in 1969 in favour of programming with more youth appeal met with great protest and even raised questions in the House of Commons. A syndicated version of Don Messer's Jubilee originating from CHCH-TV Hamilton began that same year and continued until Messer's death in 1973.
Messer and the Jubilee cast were also featured in the NFB feature documentary Don Messer: His Land and His Music (1971). The compilation LP The Good Old Days was released in 1979. Excerpts from the TV series were later issued in the CBC Enterprises video, Don Messer's Jubilee (1985). In 1992, CBC-TV broadcast a 22-week series taken from Don Messer's Jubilee and Singalong Jubilee (see Catherine McKinnon, Anne Murray).
Messer was credited by folklorists Dorothy and Homer Hogan (in their liner notes for Graham Townsend's LP The Great Canadian Fiddle) with synthesizing 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.
The straightforward, no-frills formula and down-home sincerity of Don Messer`s Jubilee set the standard for the Canadian music variety program. It was emulated by Tommy Hunter, Rita MacNeil, George Fox and many others. 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 featured Catherine McKinnon in the role of Marg Osburne.
Messer’s library and papers are housed at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and one of his fiddles is held at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN. He was inducted posthumously into the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Hall of Honor in 1985 and, with Chamberlain and Osburne, into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
Inductee, Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Hall of Honor (1985)
Inductee, Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame (1989)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Lester B. Sellick, Canada's Don Messer (Kentville, NS: Kentville Publishing, 1969).