Don Messer

Don Messer

Don Messer

Don Messer, a Canadian country music icon, was born Donald Charles Frederick Messer on May 9, 1909, in Tweedside. He was one of eleven children in a family that lived on a farm during the war years. Don started learning to play the violin at the age of five and played at local concerts and events as he grew older.

Don Messer family

Don Meser
Don Messer

Both of Don’s parents had musical talent, but it took them 11 attempts to produce a child who was interested in carrying on the musical tradition. Don’s passion for music was so strong that by the age of seven, he was already playing his fiddle at square dances. Some biographies claim that he began performing professionally as early as five years old. As a young man, Don had accumulated a vast repertoire of reels, jigs, breakdowns, and other fiddle pieces from playing at countless square dances, country dances, weddings, and parties.

At 16, Don went to the United States, specifically Boston, but returned to New Brunswick a few years later. In March of 1929, he participated in the first of what would become many radio broadcasts throughout his career. By 1934, Don had formed his first band, the New Brunswick Lumberjacks, which toured not only in the Maritime provinces but also in New York and Maine. As the group’s success grew, more personnel were added, but eventually, Don felt things had become too unwieldy.

Don Messer Backwoods Trio
From the photo collection of Sheila Embleton Greer – Don Messer and his backwoods Trio

In 1938, he started anew with a smaller group called Don Messer and the Backwoods Breakdown. The band, along with their families, relocated to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where they were based for the next 27 years. With the change in location came a new name for the group: Don Messer and His Islanders, which is how most fans of old-time country music in Canada remember them.

Don Messers Jubilee

Don Messer, as the leader of his band, initially earned the highest salary at $12.50 per week. The band members included Rae Simmons (clarinet and saxophone), Cecil McEachern (fiddle, bass, and guitar), drummer Warren MacCrae, and the original rhythm section of Duke Nielson and Charlie Chamberlain. In 1947, they added vocalist Marg Osborne, bringing a female touch to the group’s sound, which became a hallmark of the Islanders’ performances. Waldo Munro, a versatile musician who played trombone and piano, later joined the group.

Marg Osbourne and Charlie Chamberlain
Marg Osbourne and Charlie Chamberlain

By 1958, the Don Messer Jubilee Show was being broadcast nationally on CBC, turning Messer into a sensation who received heaps of fan mail daily. Numerous recordings of the band were released and later re-released on CD through the CBC transcription series and labels such as MCA and Rodeo. Messer became Canada’s most famous fiddler, but his status as a folk music artist was controversial. Although he popularized many forms of folk fiddle music, some critics argued that he contributed to the erosion of various local folk fiddling styles, as his widespread popularity led to many copycats. Fiddlers aimed to sound like Messer rather than preserving their own regional traditions.

After Messer’s death from a heart attack in 1973, his band became even more of a Canadian institution. His violin was passed down to fiddler Frank Leahy, who created the stage show Don Messer’s Violin as a tribute. Numerous fiddlers mastered Messer’s repertoire and toured with shows recreating the Islanders’ sound. Messer also became the subject of a documentary film, “His Land and Music,” produced by the National Film Board. In 1998, he posthumously received the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award for Canadian performing artists. In 2001, the Centennial Commission’s Performing Arts program selected the Messer band, which continued in his memory, as a special Ambassador of Canadian culture, resulting in a tour of over 70 performances from Labrador to British Columbia. A giant fiddle monument, dedicated to Messer, stands in Harvey Station.

Don Messer's BIG Fiddle
Don Messer’s BIG Fiddle in Harvey

Don Messer’s Jubilee was a television folk musical variety show produced at station CBHT in Halifax, Nova Scotia and broadcast by CBC Television nationwide from 1957 until 1969. 

The weekly half-hour program, named after band leader and fiddler Don Messer, featured Messer and his band “Don Messer and His Islanders” as well as a guest performer. The show followed a consistent format, starting with the tune “Goin’ to the Barndance Tonight,” followed by fiddle tunes from Messer, songs by “Islanders” such as Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain, numbers by the Buchta Dancers, a guest performance, and a closing hymn. The program ended with “Till We Meet Again (1918 song).”

Initially, the series began on November 7, 1957, as a regional program limited to CBC’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick stations. However, on August 7, 1959, CBC stations across Canada aired the show as a summer replacement for Country Hoedown’s Friday evening time slot. That fall, Don Messer’s Jubilee became a regular season CBC series starting on September 28, 1959. The show aired on Monday nights until its final 1968-1969 season when it returned to the Friday evening time slot.

During the mid-1960s, Don Messer’s Jubilee was the #1 show in Canada, even garnering higher ratings than the imported CBS variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show. The guest performance slot provided national exposure for numerous Canadian folk musicians, such as Stompin’ Tom Connors, Catherine McKinnon, Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bud Spencer.

The show’s cancellation by the public broadcaster in 1969 sparked a nationwide protest, including questions raised by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The last CBC broadcast aired on June 20, 1969. Independent TV station CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ontario, picked up the show for about four years and distributed it to stations throughout Canada in syndication. The show ultimately ended after Messer’s death in 1973.

Don Messer Memorial

Click here to read more about famous New Brunswickers. 

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3 thoughts on “Don Messer

  1. I grew up in New Brunswick but left in 1984. Enjoyed reading this and will follow.

  2. I was too young to hear him play.but he was a cousin to my Dad (Lester A. Messer). Also I had a teacher who would ask if I was related to Don

  3. I loved this story about Don Messer! I grew up with the radio program and wouldn’t have missed listening to it for the world! Then the TV show was an added plus!
    Well done!

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