Don Messer: Pioneering Fiddler from the Maritimes: Part 4
By Tim Woodbridge
1942 found Don Messer enjoying the benefits of his relocation to Charlottetown P.E.I. As part of his arrangement with CFCY, Messer had gained a base of operations with office space and a studio at the station. His band, the Islanders had become a tight, cohesive unit that proved extremely popular on radio and personal appearances. During broadcasts, the viewing gallery was frequently packed three deep with fans trying to catch a glimpse of Messer and the Islanders.
On the road, the Islanders were crowd favorites, sometimes having to turn people away. CFCY plugged Messer’s appearances daily, ensuring generally large and enthusiastic audiences throughout the region. Somewhat surprisingly, given the dominant musical culture there, the Islanders even made a number of trips to Cape Breton.
The Islanders also made many appearances at military bases and participated in other war related activities throughout the Maritimes. A typical program would present a concert followed by an intermission and a square dance, a first for many of the servicemen. Many of their appearances broke attendance records.
By 1943 the Islanders were being heard across Canada on affiliated CBC stations. Also that year the National Film Board came to Charlottetown to film them (alas, I found no information as to what happened to the film or whether it even exists). Messer’s success may even have had an impact on the tourist industry. As he related to biographer Lester B. Sellick (Canada’s Don Messer; Kentville Publishing Co., LTD, 1969), Messer began receiving inquires from Northwestern U. S. States and elsewhere asking “where is Prince Edward Island”. In a characteristic response, he collected maps and Tourist Bureau brochures and sent them to his correspondents.
In 1945 CBC inaugurated an International Service which expanded the reach of its programming, including Messer’s broadcasts, to almost anyone with a powerful short wave receiver. As noted in Part 1 of this series, an early air check preserved the only complete version of Messer’s theme, Barndance.
This installment’s musical selection is Highland Hornpipe, Don Messer’s version of one of the most famous and widely played hornpipes in the literature. The tune is more commonly called the High Level Hornpipe after the High Level Bridge on the River Tyne, which connects Newcastle and Gateshead in Northern England. The Bridge, which opened in 1849, was one of the engineering marvels of its day, and is still in use. Messer’s title suggests he, or an earlier source learned it from Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (Mel Bay ed., 1995; p. 122) or 1000 Fiddle Tunes (p. 90).
The tune is attributed to James Hill (born ca. 1813-1818, died late 1860′s), a Scot from Dundee who lived much of his life in Gateshead. In The Lads Like Beer: The Fiddle Music Of James Hill (Random Publications, 1987), Graham Dixon provided a biographical sketch of what little is known about Hill’s life together with transcriptions of tunes attributed to him. Hill was locally popular, particularly among the working classes, and made his living playing in public houses, for dances, weddings and at the track during the racing season.
Some years after his death a writer for the Newcastle Courant remarked (with a touch of condescension) that “amongst those professional musicians who are content to perform at the merry-makings of the humbler classes, he had no superior and indeed no rival”. Among Hill’s other compositions still played today are Bees’ Wings (after a famous race horse), The Hawk (a pub), Newcastle Hornpipe, and, no doubt, others.
Hill’s tune was a standard 32 measure two part composition; however over time it has been altered by additions and variations. In 1947, when Messer recorded this cut, he interpolated 32 measures of Earl Mitton’s Breakdown. More commonly, Canadian (and American) fiddlers have used some multiple of 16 measures attributed to Quebecois fiddler Sid Plamador with one part in B flat and the other in G minor.
This cut was originally released on a 78 rpm disc; this dub is from an LP reissue.
Carl Elliot’s version, supplied to me by Tim, demonstrates the two sections attributed to Sid Plamador – Stacy Phillips.
Copyright 2010 by Tim Woodbridge, all rights reserved. Used by permission of the copyright holder.
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.