Don Messer - The Man Behind the Music

Fall 2009 CSANews Issue 72  |  Posted date : Sep 22, 2009.Back to list

Don Messer - The Man Behind the Music
By Johanna Bertin
(Gooselane, $19.95, 280 pages)

Canadians of a certain age will have family memories of Don Messer's Jubilee weekly on television. Our daughters danced for their grandparents to the theme, Goin' to the Barn Dance Tonight. In this book, author Johanna Bertin reveals The Man Behind the Music: Don Messer. Using extensive research, Bertin shares photographs, anecdotes and family recollections to portray Don's early days, the years of radio and touring, and then the transition to the spectacularly successful television show.

Occasionally, Bertin goes overboard with the extensive research, and there are patches of irrelevant minutiae.

Don Messer was born in Tweedside, N.B. on May 9, 1909, the youngest of 11 children, to a family with a strong Presbyterian, Anglo-Scottish heritage. Fiddling was a central and important part of that heritage and Don started early, breaking into his brother's violin case when he was just five years old. By the time he was seven, Don was playing for crowds at Frolics. Don's mother died when he was 11. This was particularly heartbreaking for Don because they had been very close. His mother had whistled Celtic tunes so that he could play them on his fiddle.

Young people in that era were expected to be self-supporting. At 16, Don left the family farm to head to Boston, where he received formal classical training and learned to read and transcribe music. It was here that he started the collection of Celtic and folk music that he continued to amass all of his life.

In Boston, Don worked at several jobs, but this unassuming, hard-working young lad finally became a manager at Woolworths. This managerial training stood him in good stead as a bandleader ("as a bandleader, he was as much a Woolworths manager as he was a musician, he was Mr. Messer, the quiet boss.").

Don returned to New Brunswick in 1929. By the time he was 20, Don was a bandleader recruiting musicians to play on the radio in St. John. Three of Messer's early recruits stayed with him for the next 39 years; Charlie Chamerberlain, Duke Neilsen and Ned Landry. The New Brunswick Lumberjacks never got rich, but they did keep eating during the depression. Bertin paints a vivid picture of those hard scrabble days.

Throughout the book, alternate chapters are devoted to family anecdotes. Don married Naomi, a pretty nurse, in 1934. It was a true lifelong love match. They had three daughters and one son (who may or may not have been legally adopted). Don was always a devoted and doting family man and often acted as a buffer between Naomi (who had a short fuse) and the girls. They certainly had their hard times. A baby daughter died of whooping cough, Naomi had bouts of depression and tuberculosis and Don developed heart trouble and diabetes. Bertin presents poignant memories of a very close family with all of the foibles and small scandals of regular folks - teenage rebellion, controversial marriages and finally, beloved grandchildren.

In 1939, Don moved his family and his band, now Don Messer and His Islanders to Charlottetown to be on CFCY, which gave them network radio exposure. They spent the war years touring and entertaining the troops at Somerset. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Islanders toured Canada seven times by car and station wagon, building a real national fan base for their music and their professionalism.

Marg Osburne joined the Islanders in 1947. Bertin devotes separate chapters at the end of the book to Marg, Charlie, The Buchta Dancers and fan trivia.

In September 1959, Don Messer's Jubilee debuted on CBC television. The show was super popular, winning top spot in the ratings two years in a row, even beating out Hockey Night in Canada and the Ed Sullivan Show. Don took nothing for granted. He had already suffered the vagaries of CBC management for 20 years in radio. CBC offered no long-term security, but it did provide a platform for Don to share the music he loved with the nation. This came to an abrupt end on April 14, 1969, when Don was handed a curt telegram saying that Don Messer's Jubilee was being replaced. Don was shattered. His fans were outraged. The CBC received hundreds of phone calls, thousands of letters and there were protests on Parliament Hill. Because of this outpouring, in June, Don Messer's Jubilee was picked up by CHCH-TV in Hamilton and distributed nationally for three seasons.

In March 1973, Don was preparing shows for his final season on CHCH when he died of his fourth heart attack. Don Messer left a legacy of warm memories and many firsts. He was one of the first artists to be a recording star, a star of radio and TV and a live-concert star all at once. "He was far more than just a fiddle player from Tweedside."