Don Messer: Pioneering Fiddler From the Maritimes Part 3
By Tim Woodbridge
1939 found Don Messer in something of a quandary. Despite the successes chronicled in Part 2 and continuing, it must have seemed that he was constantly required to justify himself to distant CBC executives. In 1936 the network had reduced the proportion of musical programming from 70% to 50%. In 1938, following a change in administration, the network required all performers to re-audition. What was probably the final straw came when Messer’s request to be included in the lineup of programs from a proposed CBC studio in Halifax received no response until the spring of 1939 when he was essentially left hanging. With no immediate prospects, Messer and his family returned to Tweedside for the summer.
At this juncture, Messer received a telephone call from L. A. “Art” McDonald, the program director at CFCY in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) . Messer had met McDonald years earlier in Boston and the two had become friends. McDonald offered Messer a job as music director and orchestra leader.
Messer’s acceptance in September of 1939 marked a turning point in his career. CFCY, “The Friendly Voice Of The Maritimes”, had a broadcast area covering Atlantic Canada, the Gaspe Peninsula and the Eastern seaboard of the United States. As a CBC affiliate, CFCY would offer Messer renewed access to the rest of Canada and Northern portions of much of the United States once his program went prime time.
Messer first need was to organize a band. Guitarist/vocalist Charlie Chamberlain had come to P.E.I. with him, later followed by bassist Duke Nielsen. At the time of Messer’s arrival, George Chappelle and His Merry Islanders were regulars on CFCY. Chappelle and McDonald did not get along well, and with the likelihood of Canada’s entry into World War II, a number of Chapelle’s musicians enlisted. From those left, Messer was able to hire Rae Simmons (clarinet/saxophone); Bill LeBlanc, (drums, replaced by Warren MacRae in 1942) and Jackie Doyle, piano. On November 11, 1939 the new band, as Don Messer and His Islanders, made the first of a series of radio broadcasts, which would extend over nearly twenty years. In 1942, Messer and the Islanders began a string of recordings that would eventually run to more than 200 (mostly instrumental) sides, the great majority of which would remain in print for the rest of his career.
We have a dual selection for this installment: Big John McNeil/The Dusty Miller’s Reel and Don Messer’s Breakdown/ Wagoner’s Breakdown (a/k/a Johnny Wagoner), recorded 4/8/42 and originally issued as the two sides of Apex 26222. I believe this disc is what Messer biographer, Johanna Bertin had in mind when she credited Messer with being the first Canadian to have a million selling record (Don Messer: The Man Behind The Music; Goose Lane Editions, 2009)
Peter Milne, an itinerant Scotsman who served as something of a mentor to the then young J. Scott Skinner, wrote the first tune, as John McNeil’s Reel. The second is the Canadian title for Miller’s Reel, attributed to Zeke Backus in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection and M.M. Coles 1000 Fiddle Tunes. Both tunes have long since entered tradition.
The second selection features a rare Messer original and the Canadian version of Texas (or fill in a state) Wagoner. The latter is notable for the IV chord in the third and fourth measures of the B part, the suggestion of a third part and the characteristic Down East bowing figure used throughout.
Both these dubs are taken from later reissues.
about the author
When I was about six, my family moved from New York City to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In short order I found live hillbilly music on station WNOX in Knoxville and the recorded variety on one of the area’s early FM stations in Lenoir City. I was hooked. Starting with a $10.00 guitar, I tried my hand at a variety of stringed instruments over the years, including the fiddle. Back in the 60’s I was introduced to the fiddle traditions of Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes, and to their many talented practitioners.