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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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