Don Messer & His Islanders Vol. 1, Apex AL 500 (10 Inch LP)
Tracks: Big John McNeil / The Dusty Miller's Reel;
Don Messer's Breakdown* / Johnny Wagoner's Breakdown; Levantine's Barrel
Reel; Little Burnt Potato Jig; The Dawn Waltz; White River Stomp; The Country
Waltz; Anne Marie Reel
Down East Dancin’ - Vol 1, Apex AL 1600
Tracks: Maple Leaf Two-step; Television Reel; Honeymoon Waltz; Dominion Reel; Great Eastern Reel; Atkin’s Polka; Fiddlin’ Phil; Johnny Hamten’s Breakdown; Stoneboat Jig; Lightning Hornpipe; CNE Breakdown; Rainbow Square Dance (with vocal)
Down East Dancin’ With Don Messer and His Islanders - Vol 2, Apex AL-1602
Tracks: Lord Alexander’s Reel; Country Waltz;
Silver and Gold Two-step; Snow Deer; Fireman’s Reel;
Chinese Breakdown; Anne Marie Reel; Skipping Mouse Polka; Whitewater Jig; Uncle Henry’s Reel; Dawn
Waltz; Swamplake Breakdown
Don Messer, the roly-poly and good natured musical director of the ever-popular Islanders, was, there’s no denying it, a child prodigy. Yet this proved to be a boon rather than a handicap, as can be attested to by all the persons associated with him. Don was somewhat of an accomplished violinist at the tender age of six years. At the grand ripe old age of seven, attended by his father, he played at his first and most outstanding engagement, a barn dance. This was time turning point in young Don’s life; from then on, his services were in constant and ever welcome demand for local barn dances, country fairs, family get-togethers, and whenever old time music was required.
With such a beginning it might be assumed that young “Don” in his maturity was somewhat of a genius. It was far from this. All that young Don could do was play the violin in such a manner that almost everyone understood the music. Through his formative years he combined the further study of the fiddle and after completing High School education at 16 years of age, he left his native province, New Brunswick, and moved to Boston, Mass. While there he took up the further study of the violin and folk music under the guidance of the noted Professor Davis.
About five years later, and with considerable more knowledge of the violin and folk music, Don returned to Saint John, New Brunswick, where radio was the up and coming thing. It was not long before he was approached by the Radio Commission to organize and establish something new and different in the way of an old time radio program. This he did by establishing an “Old Time” network program, which eventually became known as the “Backwoods Trio” of violin, guitar and bass. This became so popular that the network finally made it a daily feature over their entire set-up of coast to coast stations. This, of course, was only the beginning for Don and the ever popular Islanders.
It was not long before the Backwoods Trio gained country-wide popularity for their versatility in
producing just the kind of music that people wanted to hear. Some few months later, Don decided to enlarge the group and give it more instrumental background, thereby adding the full body of complete old time dance orchestra, and at the same time he changed the name of the group to the “New Brunswick Lumberjacks”.
The Lumberjacks, under the guidance of the ever-popular Don, continued with success and popularity, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1939 that Don got his first and real break to do the things he wanted to. This break came in the form of a request from Radio Station CFCY at Charlottetown, PEI, to come and assist in organizing a musical aggregation suitable for the presentation of real old time dance music. Don immediately accepted the offer and formed what is now known from coast to coast as the ever-popular Don Messer And His Islanders.
The appearance of Don and the boys on the Charlottetown station was a big success, so much, in fact, that they became in demand for all types of country fairs, dances and the now popular three-a-week broadcasting schedule over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
When Don is not busy at the Radio Studio, he is generally at home composing a new tune that will set all Canada to cutting another rug in the old time way. Just real down home music from the “Friendly Maritimes.”
Canadian Music Sales
Down East Dancin’ - Volume 3, AL 1604
Tracks: Blue Mountain Rag; Golden Wedding
Reel; Red River Waltz; Caladonia Jig; Three Men On A
Horse; Satellite Reel; The Hush-A-By Waltz; Royal Princess Two-step; Caravan Jig; Eastern Star
Waltz; Joys of Quebec; Dew Drop Waltz
TV Favourites, Apex AL 1606
Tracks: Nobody’s Business; Victor Roy Breakdown;
Road To The Isles; Sputnik Breakdown; The Harbor
Waltz; The Caribou Reel; The Blue Mountain Waltz; Red Wing; Hillbilly Calypso; Heather on the Hill;
What’s the Matter with Father; Little Black Hen
Tracks: Big John McNeil - Dusty Miller’s
Reel; Don Messer’s Breakdown* - Johnny Wagoner’s
Breakdown; Levantine’s Barrel; Little Burnt Potato; White River Stomp; Vail’s Breakdown; Soldier’s Joy;
Flowers of Edinburgh; Norwegian Waltz; Alley Crocker reel; St Anne’s Reel; Blue Mountain Hornpipe
Tracks: Souris Lighthouse; Mouth of the
Tobique; Rustic Jig; Flannigan’s Polka; Flop Eared Mule;
Medley of Londonderry & London Hornpipes; Mackilmoyles Reel; Ragtime Annie - Lord MacDonald’s
Reel; Favourite Polka; By The Fireside; Rambler’s Hornpipe; Angus Campbell; Victory Breakdown;
Tracks: Roll Away Hornpipe; Rippling Water
Jig; Silver And Gold Two Step; Little Rubber Dollie;
Billy Wilson’s Clog; Atlantic Polka; 1st Change; 2nd Change; 3rd Change; 4th Change; Highland Hornpipe;
Half Penny Reel; Hil Lilly
Tracks: Operator’s Reel - Ploughboy; The
Old Man And The Old Woman; Liverpool Hornpipe; Mississippi
Sawyer; Honest John; Lamplighter’s Hornpipe; Fisher’s Hornpipe; Tuggerman’s Jig; Money Musk;
Newlywed’s Reel; Way Down Yonder; Whalen’s Breakdown
Tracks: Cotton Eyed Joe; Woodchopper’s Breakdown;
Jimmy’s Favourite Jig; Montreal Reel; Dill
Pickles; Durang’s Hornpipe; Bride of the Wind Jig; Logger’s Breakdown; Tina’s Reel; Silvery Bell; Dry
River Waltz; Balken Hills
Tracks: Abegweit Reel; Hi Lo Schottische;
Exibition (sp) Special; Spud Island Breakdown; York
Country Hornpipe; Uncle Jim; Swamplake Breakdown; Parkdale Jig; Kiley’s Reel; Free and Easy; Kerry
Mills Barn Dance; Haste To The Wedding
Tracks: Liberty Two-step; Charlottetown’s
Centennial Breakdown*; Anoy’s Jig; Smash The Window;
First Western Change; Bowing The Strings; Happy Time Schottische; Sicilian Tarantella; Globe
Trotter’s Jig; Railroad Hornpipe; Parry Sound Reel; Pete’s Breakdown
Tracks: Honey Harbour Two-step; Whistlin’
Rufus; Miss Supertest’s Victory Reel; Ford’s Schottische;
Abbie’s Favourite Jig; Jerome’s Farewell to Gibralter; Carrick Jig; Roman Teller’s Waltz; The Prairie
Reel; The Zenda Waltz; The Veteran’s Reel; New Spanish Two-step
Tracks: The Sleeping Giant Two Step; The Bedford Waltz; The southern Fiddler; The Pedistal Clog; Waltz of the Roses; The Silver Star Breakdown*; Bonnie Lass of Headlake; The Halifax Polka; The Silver Waves Waltz; The Maple Sugar Two-Step; Archie Menzies; The MacDonald March
I should like to draw your attention today to a sensational and experimental series of television programs which, it appears, has been on the air for some considerable time but only just now reached my notice. This is because I have been trying a new idea called "reading" which has kept me from being abreast of the latest television trends. The program in question goes by the name of Don Messer's Islanders and originates in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city not hitherto associated with anything more avant garde than the artistic packaging of cod-fish balls.
At fist glance, Don Messer's Islanders may strike the casual viewer as nothing more than a bucolic little musicale, yet the perceptive critic will soon discover that it breaks new ground in several directions, notably in its use of a cast of real people.
By real people I mean people made of human flesh as opposed to those glittering, glamorous, beautiful, superbly-posed, make-believe shadows we normally associate with Televisionland.
As a further definition, real people are people who do not show 64 perfect, smiling teeth when they talk or sing, who are not gifted with a jaunty or indestructible insouciance or who are incapable of laughing uproariously and infectiously at things which are not terribly funny. Real people are people like you and me and Don Messer's Islanders who have broken the barrier in bringing them to the small screen. Messer, himself, who is the leader of the ensemble and chief fiddler, is hardly ever seen close-up, but is a comforting figure in the background. He works industriously at his fiddle, a conscientious appearing man who, the viewer is apt to reflect, is probably secretary of the local musicians' union.
He is not the flower of the musical world. No candelabra light him. We do not see giant close-ups of his fingers madly dancing on the strings. He is just Brother Don, a real good fiddler. He is, in short, believable which is, as they say, a television first.
The real stars of the program, however, and thos mainly responsible for the strangely three-dimensional effect upon the viewer, are Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osborne. Charlie is a big, stout man and Marg is a big, stout woman. Though you may never have seen them before you get the feeling instantly that you know them. You know that Charlie will be pretty good at Irish songs and that, after he's sung them, he'll come out to the truck with you for a nip. You know that Marg is the best dam'd cook in these parts. Charlie never says to Marg, "That was just terrific Marg." Marg never says to Charlie, "That was wonderful, as usual, Charlie." They just stand up and sing and get off.
Charlie sings easily without closing his eyes or holding his right hand half clenched in front of him. Marg sings without looking as if she were in agony or ecstasy. They are not the world's best singers, but they are television's only genuine singers. They alone hold the distinction in the medium of being able to do a duet on a hymn without making it seem sacrilegious.
The entire concept and carrying out of Don Messer's Islanders is done in this honest, refreshing manner. For example, the program is presented direct and "live" from a Halifax television studio. It is not meant to look like a South Pacific stroll or a Fifth Avenue apartment or a farm yard. It is a TV studio and looks like a TV studio and no monkey business. There are some dancers on the program. They never perform any erotic or symbolic or story-telling dances. They just dosy-do and twirl around with the girls petticoats hardly every getting above their knees, and somehow they look as if it was all pretty good clean fun, a concept of dancing bold in its originality.
There are no fancy costumes. Charlie wears a string tie for comic effect and Marg wears a corsage (I like to think that Brother Don gives it to her before the show) but the costume budget would come at the most, to eight or nine dollars. I suppose you could say that the program is not a historic showcase of great talent, but it is to television what Grandma Moses is to art and so strangely wholesome that you just have to see it to believe it.
Jack Scott, The Sun
October 11, 1960
Tracks: Fiddle Strings; Torrie's Waltz; Prairie Schottische; Messer's Jubilee Jig; The Crystal Waltz/ The Great Atlantic Breakdown; The Concert Reel; The Jessica Waltz; Grandfather's Reel; Triangle Jig; The Black Velvet Waltz; East Hill Breakdown
featuring Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain
Tracks: Golden Wedding Reel; The Wreck of
the John B (vocal by MO); Tuggerman’s Jig; Liberty
Two-Step; Jack The Sailor (vocal by CC); Vail’s Breakdown; Hi Lo Schottische; Dawn Waltz; The Rose
Upon The Bible (vocal by MO); Belfast - Cock-o-the-North; Flanigan’s Polka; Gypsy Hornpipe.
This special album of Don Messer old-time favourites, respresentative of Don’s 26 years on Apex
Records, was produced exclusively for Canada Packers Limited, makers of Domestic Shortening.
Don Messer, violin; other musians not listed
Tracks: The Griffin's Hornpipe; St. Michael's Jig; David's Waltz; Jim's Polka; Gerald's Waltz; Juggler's Reel; Leprechaun's Jig; White Rapid's Breakdown; The House Party Jig; Sweetheart Waltz; Little Black Mustache; Bill in the Low Ground
Don Messer, violin; the Islanders: everything else
Tracks: Buffalo Gals; Poor Girl's Waltz; Sitting Bull Reel; Dale's Beat; House Party Jig; Humming Burd Waltz; Holiday Reel; Inverness Gathering; Joe Harrison's Favourite Jig; French Minuet; Slim Pine Reel; Varsovaina Waltz
Tracks: The Bluebell Waltz; Ste. Adele Reel;
Pictou Island Reel; Silver Wedding Waltz; Social Basket Two Step; Minstrel's
Fancy; Souvenir Waltz; Beaver Lake Jig; The Scan Waltz; Ice On The Road;
The Avon Breakdown; Wit Bishop's Reel
A day in the life of Don Messer as the troupe tours the country is perhaps the busiest yet most rewarding to him. He is meeting the people who have voted his show to the top rating. He is entertaining HIS class of people, many of whom have followed his career through three decades. This is the part of his life he enjoys most, away from split second timing and torturing flood lights of a television studio. Although his personal appearance shows start on time he is able to relax somewhat and include an extra reel or breakdown or play another Hymn or Sacred number on the most requested portion.
A Don Messer day on tour includes much more than the show in an Arena, Stadium or Ball Park. It means an early morning start - often on the road before 8 A.M. by special chartered bus enroute to the next stop several hundred miles distance. This day will mean radio and television interviews. Perhaps a guest of honour at a service club dinner. Often a street parade in convertible cars sharing the spotlight with others of the cast as he does on TV.
These and many more are screened by the tour manager to ensure ample time for schedules set up by hard working sponsors to promote the evening show and raise funds for community purposes. then after the show a reception or gathering. Yes, a long day, a busy day for a man devoted to his work. A man who is thankful to you for your devotion. A man destined to continue bringing you the kind of entertainment most requested coast to coast.
(Reprinted from "A Day in The Life of Don Messer")
Tracks: Expo '67 two step; New Centennial Waltz; Grand Valley Waltz; Saskatoon Breakdown; Canadian Lancers; Saskatchewan Jig; Alberta Polka and others
Tracks: Donnegal Jig; Wind That Turns the Mill; The Shannon Waltz; The Barren Rocks of Aden; Crooked River Polka; Mother's Day Waltz; The Pemmican Reel; The Buchta Dancers Jig; and others
Tracks: Fairy Toddler Jig; Reginald's Waltz; Prime Minister Trudeau's Reel; Journeyman's Jig; Rainy River Waltz; Mactaquac Reel*; Andy's Centennial Two-Step; Val-Jay's Jig; The Rainy Reel*; Good Neighbour Waltz; Out The Buckhorn Way; Wheel Barrow Jig
The album is further evidence that Don Messer is the most popular artists on Canadian recordings, and it's got something for everyone - from "Prime Minister Trudeau's Reel" on down, through the lively jigs, two-steps and waltzes which have brought enjoyment to so many Canadians weekly on 'Don Messer Jubilee'.
This is dance music in the 'Down East' tradition - the tradition of the early settlers, and the kind of dance music that never loses its down to earth appeal. Through it Don has made a country-full of friends and neighbours, both by his 'live' summertime sppearances and his CBC-TV show.
Here's his latest helping of that tradition. Enjoy it, neighbour!
Tracks: Prime Minister Trudeau's Reel; Silver
Wedding Waltz; Pictou Island Reel; The Great Atlantic Breakdown; Beaver
Lake Jig; Prairie Schottische; French Reel Waltz; White Rapids Breakdown;
Back To The Sugar Camp; Montreal Reel; Parry Sound Reel
The songs in this recording represent just a small part of the Don Messer story, which has spanned beyond three decades, many thousands of land miles, and many millions of air waves. But they are really the essence of his work; they are popular pieces of Canadian country music - pieces of Canadian Gold. John Durocher, Andy De Jarlis, Matilda Murdoch and Ward Allen, as well as Don Messer, are some of the Canadian Composers represented here; others of a past era wrote (or sometimes only played) the rest of these songs, but never left their names. Unlike the weighing of gold, we don't try to appreciate the value of music which measures itself in such actively human enjoyment. We just go on enjoying it. So does Don Messer.
Tracks: Golden Boy Two-step; West 15th Jig;
Western Waltz; Manitoba Special; Wayne’s Old Waltz;
Red River Gumbo; Apple Blossom Waltz; Countess of Dufferin Polka; Wishing Well Two-step; Crossing
On The Ferry
Andy DeJarlis is one of Canada’s most prolific fiddle tune composers. His pieces have been played by every important Canadian fiddler and are liberally sprinkled throughout Don Messer’s many recordings, broadcasts and live performances.
Andy was born in Woodridge, Manitoba, in 1916, and took up the fiddle at age fifteen. he won his first fiddling contest when he was 17, and that year moved on to Winnipeg, where his career was to flourish. Countless broadcasts and personal appearances followed, along with more contests, nineteen of which he was to win.
Through it all, Andy was composing tunes to fit what became known as his ‘Red River Fiddling Style’. The first book of his original tunes, ‘Canadian Fiddle Tunes from the Red River Valley’, was so successful that it prompted the publishing of a second volume.
Although he now has over 200 tunes to his credit, he still finds the time and energy to give his
neighbours. His generosity of spirit brought him the City of Winnipeg’s “Community Service Award”, in 1968. His abundance of talent brings to Andy, and to you, this tribute from Don Messer.
Note: All Tunes by Andy DeJarlis
The Down East Music Of Don Messer
And His Islanders, MCA Coral
CB35002 - 1973
Tracks: On The Road To Boston; Centennial
Waltz*; Bailey’s Breakdown; The Happy Acres
Two-Step**; The Citadel Waltz; Down Home Rag; Fred Wilson’s Clog; The Gladstone Waltz; Don
Tremaine’s Jig; Sherri’s Waltz; Champion Hornpipe; Grandmother’s Reel
**by Cecil MacEachern, member of the Islanders
Tracks: The Great Atlantic Breakdown; Maple
Leaf Two-step; Blue Mountain Rag; Red River Waltz;
Road To The Isles; Red Wing; Atlantic Polka: changes 1 through 4; Highland Hornpipe; Hill Lilly; Big
John MacNeils - The Dusty Miller’s Reel; Rustic Jig; Flop Eared Mule; Mother’s Reel; The Dawn Waltz;
Bowing The Strings; Woodchopper’s Breakdown; Lamplighter’s Hornpipe; Backwoodsman Reel; The
Centennial Waltz*; The Shannon Waltz
The Very Best of Don Messer is just what this album set features, his big hits of the past assembled in one package, a souvenir for all who remember this great man and a must for all collectors of Canadian Country music.
MCA are proud to have been exclusively associated with Don Messer in his long recording career that spanned more than thirty years. Ask your dealer for details of other Don Messer albums and tapes available on MCA and Apex.
Don Messer And His Islanders, Banff Rodeo SBS 5266
Don Messer, fiddle; Charlie Chamberlain,
guitar & vocal; Marg Osburne, vocal; Cecil MacEachern,
lead guitar and fiddle; Waldo Monro, piano; Rae Simmons, clarinet; Duke Neilsen, bass; Warren
(NB: Although the liner notes credit both Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne with vocals, there are no songs sung on this album - ed.)
Tracks: Anniversary Schottische; Poor Girls
Waltz; Plaza Polka; Westphalia Waltz; Lamplighter
Hornpipe; Buckwheat Batter; Hannigan’s Hornpipe; Interlake Waltz; Riley’s Favourite Reel; Pilot Mound
Waltz; Grant Lambs Breakdown; The Girl I Left Behind
The music of Don Messer and His Islanders affects the homes of many thousands of Canadians who have listened in the early days to his popular radio program and personal appearances trans Canada. Many memories of courtship and more carefree days must be evoked from those living through this era, when the strains of Don Messer’s fiddle comes haunting over the airwaves.
In later years a new generation has grown to love Canada’s ‘King of The Fiddle’ through the medium of CBC’s Top Rated TV show - Don Messer’s Jubilee.
From the days when the group was known as the New Brunswick Lumberjacks, to the simple and
house-hold name of Don Messer and his Islanders constitutes a period of over 30 years of public
devotion to bringing the music of rural Canada, of old time favourites long forgotten, to the busy minds of a people building a bigger and better Canada.
Many things have contributed to the success of Don Messer and one has been the faithful service of many of his musicians who have shared in his ever increasing popularity. Some of the artists listed below have spent many years as part of the Messer family and are outstanding and well known performers in their own right.
Additional Information from the CD version, Rodeo Records SBSCD 5266
The Don Messer Show was a regional program which was first broadcast in 1956. Two years later the show went coast to coast on the CBC network, and became Don Messer's Jubilee. For nine years the show was a mainstay on the network, and introduced the nation to the talents of Graham Townsend, Johnny Mooring, Marg Osburne, Charlie Chamberlain, and many, many more who went on to become household names. A number of the original artists on Rodeo Records were drawn from this vast pool, especially on the Banff label.
The late 50s, into the 1960s, saw a popular resurgence in traditional folk music in Canada and the United States. The easy going, down home format of Don Messer's Jubilee made Don Messer a father figure of the Canadian entertainment industry: the host of our weekly national kitchen party. Although it ended in 1969, it created a legacy of Canadian musical history, and spawned the summer replacement 'Singalong Jubilee' (1961-1972) where we first were introduced to Anne Murray.
This album features some of the songs performed on Don Messer's show with his group The Islanders. These recording are old and noisy and do no meet today's stringent digital recording standards, yet they faithfully represent an early era in Canadian recording history - a past which Rodeo Records is proud to be a part of.
Tracks: Messer’s Jubilee Jig; The Black
Velvet Waltz; Atlantic Polka*; Rippling Water Jig; Silver And
Gold Two-step*; The Ranger’s Waltz; Messer’s Cross Canada Jig; Soldier’s Joy; St Anne’s Reel; Don
Messer’s Breakdown* - Johnny Wagoner’s Breakdown; Little Burnt Potato; Red Wing; The Buchta
Dancers Polka; Flannigan’s Polka*; Favourite Polka: By The Fireside*
March 21, 1960 marked Don Messer’s 26th year in broadcasting. He passed away in 1972, after 38 years of combined broadcasting in radio and television.(Note: there were two versions of this album released by K-Tel. This, the first, featured the typical
Produced by Alan Guettel and David Pritchard
Tracks: Side 1: Barn Dance -- The Voice
of Don Messer - Backwoods Trio: The Wind That Shakes The
Barley; Patronella*; Rock Valley - Buffalo Gals; Barndance Medley: Fireman’s Reel - Lamplighter’s
Hornpipe - Soldier’s Joy; Don Messer’s Breakdown* - Big John MacNeil; Rubber Dolly; Quarterdeck*;
White River Stomp*; I’m Alone Because I love You; Vails Breakdown - Liverpool Hornpipe*; It’s No
Secret; Royal Princess Two Step - Ice On The Road; Smile The While; Side 2: Studio Party --
Introduction; Studio Theme; Alley Crocker Reel; Goofus; Violetta Hornpipe*; Kerry Mills Barndance;
Somebody’s Thinking of You Tonight; Big Angus Campbell*; Peek-A-Boo Waltz; The Roll Away
Hornpipe*; Bugle Call Rag; Red Wing; Dusty Miller’s Reel*; Life On The Ocean Wave; Smile The While
If you were born during the post-war baby boom and grew up in the 1950s and 60s, you probably remember Don Messer’s TV show as something the parents wanted to watch when the kids wanted rock n’ roll or some slick Yankee detective program.
The parents, you might remember, always won.
Today, you are a grownup - and part of the main target audience that the music and broadcasting
business wants to reach. They don’t offer much Messer, or much of any old-time music for that matter.
And so, music like Messer’s is hardly available to the thousands of older folks who want to hear the old-time favourites.
But worse, most younger Canadians have no ideal what this music is, where it came from, or why it created Canada’s most successful entertainment group ever - although by far not the wealthiest - Don Messer and His Islanders.
This record album offers something for both kinds of Canadians.
Side One is a heritage-conscious collection of some of the Messer classics - some of his biggest selling records - some rarely heard, unreleased cuts of tunes closely associated with The Islanders during the band’s heyday.
Side two recreates the spirited moments of The Islanders’ early radio shows - when “Don and all the lads” were regular house-party guests in millions of homes. Often ganging around one radio mike. The Islanders broadcast the warm feeling of a bunch of good pals having fun together. Most of the announcing on Side Two is done by L. A. MacDonald, the original radio voice of The Islanders back in the war years. By the mid ‘40s, clarinet player Rae Simmons ably doubled on mike duty - right up to when the band began broadcasting from Halifax in the TV years.
For 30 years - three times a week on network radio, and later on the weekly TV show “And now it’s time for the Down East music of Don Messer and His Islanders!” was the opening cue for 16 bars of Fireman’s Reel kicking right into The Islanders’ theme, Going To The Barndance.
Farmers came in from the fields, housewives made dinner preparations accordingly, and working people arrived home from their jobs just in time to hear the supper hour radio shows during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
When the program moved to the CBC-TV network in the mid-’50s, it often had more viewers in Canada than the mighty Ed Sullivan Show.
To become an institution that important to Canadians, The Islanders had to offer something special: their specialty was zippy, simple performances of audience favourites, whisked across the airwaves in an easy manner that brought smiles and toe-tapping fun to their fans.
What’s the best way to kill a real down homer? Nail his shoes to the floor and play Don Messer
The Islanders carved out a musical niche on the foundations of old-time tunes - and faithfully delivered the same loved arrangements to Canadians right up till Marg and Charlie sang Smile The While together for the last time in 1971.
Messer’s show was knocked of CBC-TV in 1969 (causing the greatest mass expression of public outrage in the corporation’s oft-stormy history); a subsequently syndicated version was silenced at Messer’s death in 1972.
Charlie Chamberlain, the Singing Islander, died a short time before Messer. Marg Osburne, The
Girl From The Singing Hills, passed away in 1977.
When CBC-TV celebrated its silver anniversary in 1977 with a gala Sunday-night TV special, only a brief moment was set aside for The Islanders, with no original footage or music included in the show.
Canadian radio stations are required to air Canadian music, and they often claim to offer listeners hits from the golden past. How often do you hear one of The Islanders’ big-selling records on the air?
These days, we hear Messer’s music, and the voices of Charlie and Marg, only in rare nostalgic moments - generally geared to inspire tears rather than the fun that was this music’s real trademark.
Burying the significance of the Messer legacy is as typically Canadian as the Messer phenomenon itself. Maybe that’s why it has been so easily forgotten.
Messer, though he hardly ever spoke a word on the air, quietly represented to older Canadians
everything they held dear about a way of life they knew before the upheavals of the Depression, World War II and a decade of Americanizing prosperity that followed: ideals like family ties, patriotism, religion, regional pride and old country traditions. As well, Messer’s music came from every region of Canada, and echoed cultures of countries from which many older Canadians had emigrated.
To younger people, Messer’s predictable, often repetitious, performances of this traditional music
symbolized everything was corny and old fashioned about the old times and the old country.
In a real way, they were right.
Messer’s popularity persisted all those years, ironically, because the man and his music were in fact anachronistic - out of place in a world of slick record production and star-studded TV variety.
Just the fact of the Islanders hanging in there so long - and, true to Canadianism, Messer and The
Islanders were survivors - obscured in the end the musical and cultural impact the group originally created as it won the affection of coast-to-coast audiences, who were already faithful to The Islanders by the late ‘40s.
The music that created that impact is the music recorded on this album.
Most of the cuts on this LP were originally recorded by methods and equipment that would be laughed at today.
Messer classics - Big John MacNeil, Dusty Miller’s Reel and Don Messer’s Breakdown - were originally recorded in 1941 on radio transcription discs - like soft 78 rpm records, cut like today’s direct-to-disc recordings only without the fancy electronic stuff.
The band simply knocked these off in the radio studio, and Messer sent them in to Compo Records which created masters from them that pressed out hundreds of thousands of brittle 78s over the years.
Even when later released on LP’s, these Messer favourites were made from tape recordings of these same early masters.
Many have been lost forever, and recordings of many other Messer performances exist now only on scratchy records in private collections.
Even though The Islanders played more than 2,000 radio broadcasts for the CBC, the network’s radio archives has only one example of an Islanders’ performance: A three-minute recording of Going To The Barndance (included on this LP) cut for the first broadcast of CBC’s short wave service in 1945.
The great loss is that much of the music that made heroes of The Islanders - on radio and in the
dancehalls - was never recorded, especially the hot stuff and pop standards.
Messer, true to the character, hardly participated in the ‘modern music’ the band played - that’s why his bowing on Goofus on this LP is a special treat. Rae Simmons blew the hot clarinet, Duke Nielsen often picking up the trombone and Harold McRae a trumpet when the band played dances.
In these years, when the band was coming on strong, each Islander made $5 per network broadcast, plus a few dollars for each night at the dancehall. With incomes like that, there was no way that stardom would spoil the lads. None of them, except Messer, ever made much money.
Messer lived those times, and the harder times of the Depression - when the young bandleader sold fish door-to-door in Saint John while keeping his band on the radio - right up to his death. He was pathologically frugal, often at the expense of the band.
Rae Simmons, who also doubled as engineer in some of the early recording sessions (“Why not, he got me for nothing!”) recalls how hard it was to persuade Messer to record with two microphones. In the late years Messer often booked the band for less than unknown local rock bands were getting.
Messer was also a shy man, strange for a leader of a popular group. He often slipped out during the home waltz (last dance) that closed The Islanders appearance on the road, to avoid meeting the fans.
But that shyness was accepted as part of an all-round real-people image - part of the character of each of The Islanders, and a big part of the group’s appeal to the average fan.
Rae handled the patter with a warm voice as friendly as the voice of the shopkeeper down the street; Marg was the sweetheart of the airwaves and even her lisp was endearing; everyone knew that Charlie’s red nose was not from a perennial cold but, as with the goodtime Charlie in anybody’s town, nobody seemed to mind, especially when he crooned a hymn during one of the program’s quiet times.
People who knew Marg spoke of her only in simple expressions of unqualified praise, like “She was the nicest and most friendly person I ever met,” or “God never made a more likable person.”
Charlie on the other hand was a character. Everybody who ever met him has at least one Charlie story to tell. And Charlie’s own story is a real part of where the Islanders came from.
The Singing Islander was a lumberjack back in the early Depression years - remembered by his
workmates in the New Brunswick bush for singing his heart out, while he boiled the lice out of their clothes for an extra 25 cents a week. Once, Charlie was strumming his guitar and singing on the train to Saint John, when a friend of Messer took note and suggested he get in touch with the young bandleader, who happened to be looking for a vocalist to play a radio spot.
Charlie got the job and, with bass player Duke Nielsen, (who remained with Messer to the end), formed The Backwoods Trio.
By the late 1930s Messer’s audience had grown, and so had his group - now renamed The New Brunswick Lumberjacks - which often performed with 15 or more members.
This band, which Messer toured around the Maritimes and New England, sounded a lot like George Wade and His Cornhuskers, Canada’s first network-radio old-time band. Wade’s Cornhuskers often boasted four fiddles: Jean Carignan, today the grand master of Quebec traditional fiddlers, was one; Bill Lorrie and Francis Cormier fiddled and also doubled as a saxophone trio. They regularly packed Toronto’s Palais Royale in the early ‘30s.
Messer, like Wade, couldn’t keep his big band together during the lean years of the Depression; The Lumberjacks broke up when Messer headed for Prince Edward Island and a radio job at
Charlottetown’s CFCY in 1940, Charlie and Duke went with him.
In PEI, Messer hired Rae Simmons, Bill Leblanc (who plays drums on several cuts on this LP) and pianist Jackie Doyle - all former members of a group called George Chappel and His Merry Islanders.
Don Messer and His Islanders were born.
Drummer Warren McRae joined The Islanders in 1942, Cecil McEachern and Marg in 1947, and Waldo “Thumbs” Munro replaced Jackie Doyle (who plays piano on most of the cuts on this LP) in 1951.
That accounts for everyone in the group which remained otherwise intact for decades.
Don Messer himself learned to fiddle as a child, playing for dances around Nova Scotia when he was 6 years old. His family had a special chair built for him, so his feet could tap the beat on the floor while he fiddled. He had hopes of becoming a concert violinist, even studying in Boston.
This mix of formal and informal training gave him the musical tools to create what became his mark on popular music. A precise, but pleasantly rough, formalization of the vast and varied repertoire of old-time fiddle tunes.
It was, as well, an all-Canadian fiddle style that Messer crafted - not really just Down East (though even in the Maritimes there’s no one definitive way of playing any particular tune). And being all-Canadian, Messer’s sound was perfect for the CBC network audiences.
But, in a way, the homogeneous style that made his sound so appealing also created problems that led to the failure to grow or develop. The sound of The Islanders remained steadfastly unchanged for the second half of the group’s life.
In just about every region there were fiddlers who played the tunes that were popular locally better than Messer did. As well, some fiddle fans resented Messer’s alterations to their favourite tunes. But both of those things are to be expected.
The chief problem with Messer’s style was that because it was drawn from so many sources, it really came from nowhere in particular. Once his style was established, Messer himself was unmotivated to develop it, and so it eventually became quite static.
But that doesn’t take away from the great contribution Messer made in creating his style, and the role he played in keeping old-time music in the mainstream of Canadian culture for so many years - pre-folk boom years when it was otherwise almost totally eclipsed. In the US, for example, no counterpart to Don Messer ever emerged. And there has been no Messer successor in Canada yet.
None of the Messer musicians continued to play much, after the Islanders broke up. In fact, true to their real-folks characters, the surviving Islanders now live much as they would have, had they not spent 30 years in Canada’s most successful band.
Rae Simmons is approaching retirement from his job as a maintenance man and porter at a Charlottetown motel. Formerly he was a technician at CFCY. Waldo Munro drives a taxicab in Halifax. Duke Nielsen has a bird sanctuary and trout farm in PEI where he still referees the occasional wrestling match. Cecil McEachern is a file clerk.
Rae jokingly says that if Charlie were still alive he would probably have gone back to the bush.
Whether the Messer legacy is myth or memory to you, the producers of this album hope it retains the charm that made Don Messer and His Islanders an authentic Canadian cultural giant.
We thank the Nova Scotia Archives, the National Archives, Don Messer’s Family, MCA Records and Graham Townsend - all of whom played a part in keeping this music alive.
The Voice of Don Messer - The Backwoods Trio: The Wind That Shakes The Barley: We’ve introduced this cut with a few words by Don Messer, recalling the formation of his original group - The Backwoods Trio - with Charlie Chamberlain and Duke Nielsen back in 1933. That’s followed by an authentic on-air introduction to The Backwoods Breakdown, the Trio’s regular Saint John, New Brunswick, radio show of the late ‘30s. The “Ned” mentioned is Ned Landry, later to become a top fiddler himself, who played mouth harp with the trio here. Messer never recorded this tune with The Islanders.
Partonella: Here is one of the first recordings Messer ever made, originally on the old Mellotone label. This three-fiddle sound tracked in 1939 is by Messer’s big band, The New Brunswick Lumberjacks. The Lumberjacks, which sounded a lot like George Wade and His Cornhuskers (Canada’s original network-radio fiddle band, a big influence on Messer) broke up when Messer moved to PEI in 1940. This cut is taken directly from the soft-plastic radio-transcription disc on which Messer originally recorded this tune at Saint John’s CHSJ. The tune, never on any of Messer’s LP’s, has rarely been heard until now.
Rock Valley - Buffalo Gals: These tunes presented here as a medley, were never released on record before. Messer cut these with his original Islanders in 1940 at CFCY in Charlottetown. Fiddle historians can note that the arrangements of Rock Valley is almost note for note the same as George Wade recorded it in the early ‘30s. But already you can hear the bright sound that was soon to make Messer stand out among Canadian fiddlers.
Barndance Medley: Fireman’s Reel - Lamplighter’s Hornpipe - Soldier’s Joy: This was The Islanders’ theme song for 30 years, but was never released on record. In fact, in the thousands of times it was performed to open a Messer radio or TV show or a live dance, the Islanders rarely played the entire arrangement. This complete performance survives on disc only because it was tracked to open the first broadcast over CBC Shortwave Service - which was beamed out to Canadian troops around the world in 1945. Charlie sings at his best here, and even calls out eight bars of a square dance. The arrangement is really a medley: it opens with Fireman’s reel, the bridge is Lamplighter’s Hornpipe, and the closing is Soldier’s Joy.
Don Messer’s Breakdown - Big John MacNeil: These were two of Don Messer’s biggest selling recordings ever, in fact, Big John MacNeil - a centuries old Scottish tune - probably was the biggest selling Canadian record of the entire 1940s. They were both recorded (in medleys with other tunes originally) in the same CFCY studio session in April, 1942, and were the first big hits of The Islanders, by this time signed to Compo Records’ Apex label. Both of these tunes were re-released often on Messer’s LP’s of the ‘50s and ‘60s, though never re-recorded by The Islanders.
Rubber Dolly: A duet with Charlie Chamberlain, this is the first recording Marg Osburne ever made with The Islanders. The date was July, 1947. This is one of the rare early recordings where Messer gives individual Islanders solo licks, and they come through just fine. Rae Simmons’ clarinet solos are classic. When this recording was originally pressed, a flaw in the wax mold (from which the master was made) distorted the run into the bass solo. That distortion was on every pressing of this Messer favourite - one of the most requested numbers at Islander dances. The producers of this LP, with some modern electronic tinkering, have almost eliminated that distortion.
Quarterdeck: This bright tune is included because it was Messer’s first theme song - back in the New Brunswick Lumberjack days. This recording, however, was made in 1970; it was never released. Graham Townsend plays mandolin.
White River Stomp: This traditional tune must have been composed by someone who had heard ragtime music, but its source is unknown to us now. It stands out because it is unique - with a soft sway and easy swing - among Messer’s repertoire. It was recorded in the late ‘40s.
I’m Alone Because I Love You: Charlie croons a pop standard here - something he did all the time on radio and TV, but rarely on disc. This cut comes from a 1958 radio broadcast.
Vail’s Breakdown - Liverpool Hornpipe: These two old-time tunes were typical fare at Islanders’ dances. The Islanders recorded them in the late ‘40s and the same cuts were re-released many times on LP’s in later years. Liverpool Hornpipe is one of those many traditional tunes that is a simple repetition of the same theme - only about 8 seconds long in this case. But at dances, The Islanders could repeat it until the fans’ feet grew tired.
It Is No Secret: Don Tremaine introduces an inspirational duet by Charlie and Marg, of the sort that was a regular feature of the Messer broadcast. Although Marg and Charlie made many spiritual and inspirational albums, none were to The Islanders’ accompaniment: Ray Calder generally supplied a fairly syrupy organ track. With The Islanders, Marg and Charlie sound a lot more like they mean it.
Royal Princess Two Step - Ice On The Road: Messer always regarded Graham Townsend as his musical heir. Townsend, who first appeared with The Islanders in 1949 (when he was 7), wrote many tunes Messer recorded. These two Townsend tunes also feature the composer on mandolin. They were recorded in 1970.
Smile The While: Of course this is not the proper name of the song - actually the chorus from ‘Til We Meet Again’ - that closed every Messer broadcast for 30 years. He never recorded the tune, and unfortunately all that remains are incomplete versions taken from broadcast tapes.
Studio Party Notes
This side opens with clips that introduced Don Messer’s Studio Party radio show back in the early ‘40s, a Saturday night show aimed at troops as much as the general public. L A MacDonald is the pert announcer here, Charlie sings.
Alley Crocker Reel: This is another stand-out tune that’s really just a constant repetition of the same short theme - 15 seconds long in this case. This reel, a favourite at dances, was recorded in 1948.
Goofus: Messer hardly every played, never mind recorded, hot style swing. Here’s a rare performance, taken from a radio show of Messer playing something hot; Charlie throws in a mean rhythm-guitar solo and Rae Simmons shows off his slick clarinet style. Duke Nielsen slaps the upright bass. Simmons introduces the number.
Violetta Hornpipe: This tune has never appeared on any Messer record before. It’s a traditional tune, introduced here by Rae Simmons on a 1947 radio broadcast.
Somebody’s Thinking Of You Tonight: Yes, Charlie was a great radio crooner, though even back in the early ‘40s, only a few of his vocal recordings were released. This one never was, it’s taken from a 1942 broadcast.
Kerry Mills Barndance: This very spirited performance by The Islanders, never released, is one of the catchiest and best-structured of all the old-time tunes Messer played; it sure sounds like a hit. Recorded in 1942.
Big Angus Campbell: This was always a favourite among Messer fans, especially in places like Cape Breton. Unlike the familiar recorded Messer version of this tune, here he plays very much the way a Scottish fiddler might have bowed it centuries ago. Recorded in 1942, never released.
Peek-A-Boo Waltz: No early Messer show was complete without a waltz for the sick and infirm. This waltz, recorded in 1942, was never released on record before.
The Rollaway Hornpipe: The producers take historical liberties here. The Sporting Club, mentioned in the introduction here, was a large curling rink where The Islanders played regular Saturday night dances. Later its name was changed to The Rollaway Club - which gave Messer the title for one of his original hornpipes. Recorded in the late 1940s.
Bugle Call Rag: This short burst of jive is included because it’s a rare recorded moment when the boys pick up the brass, and the swing. Duke Nielsen plays trombone on a 1942 radio broadcast.
Red Wing: This familiar tune (with words it’s called Indian Maid or Union Maid too) is an old American standard that Messer liked to play at dances.
Dusty Miller’s Reel: This is a centuries old Scottish tune that Messer recorded in 1942 - and that
performance became the Canadian standard of how the tune should sound. But this version, taken from the airwaves in ‘42, is much more spirited, and closer to the traditional style of playing.
Life On The Ocean Waves: Played here as a tribute to the Navy, the rolling choruses of this number accompanied square dancers at many Islanders outings.
Smile The While: This might be the earliest surviving clip of the Islanders’ standard sign-off tune. L A MacDonald does the honours.