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ClassicsOnline Home » DON MESSER'S VIOLIN
The biographical facts are pretty well-known. Donald Messer
was born in 1909 and began life in the tiny community of Tweedside, New Brunswick
in Canada. The phrase “in Canada” may seem unnecessary, but I remember his feelings
as being strongly “on guard for Thee” when it came to the country of his birth.
I know it coloured his music choices. He regularly played the original tunes
of Canadian composers like Andy DeJarlis, Graham Townsend and Ward Allen. CBC
Television was where I met him. It was 1955 and after directing an Islanders
guest appearance on “Gazette” at our Halifax station CBHT, I asked my boss,
program director Carl MacCall, to let me do a series featuring Don Messer and
his Islanders. Beginning in 1956, I met with Mr. Messer three times a week over
a period of years that ran until 1969. In that time we would put together some
400 half-hour programs that were cited recently in the press as among the best
Canadian television programs of the twentieth century. Certainly the show had
a loyal following. The kuffuffel that followed the series cancellation made
every news media at the time and at great length. I still hear about it. As
a brand new television producer, his continuing radio experience was just the
broadcasting help I needed and he was generous in sharing it with me and the
television crews who worked with us to telecast his show each week. We always
called him “Mr. Messer.”
It still is Mr. Messer’s Music
Throughout its history, this music has had a purpose far beyond
just listening. It’s dance music. For seventeen consecutive years
(!) on television, the Buchta Dancers made that elegantly clear. They set a
standard for the square dance form that has yet to be exceeded. There’s no other
name for the sound that Don Messer made. It was uniquely and solely his. In
the fiddling competitions in this country, there is a separate classification
of judging with his name on it. I am told he had some exposure to classical
music when he lived for a while in the 1920’s with his aunt in Boston. Evidently,
one of her friends or roomers was a player with the Boston Symphony and took
time to coach the talented lad from New Brunswick. Folk tale ? It persists.
He read music well and in my hearing was comfortable discussing music theories
and techniques with anyone. He practiced daily. His Backwoods Trio, which consisted
of Julius “Duke” Neilsen (Bass), the ebullient and loveable Charlie Chamberlain
(vocals and guitar) and himself, was the unique group around which he eventually
built the Islanders in 1939. The music, somehow, was always him and “that violin”.
It is the one that his loving wife, Naomi, bought for him. What a gift for the
gifted! This is the instrument that you are hearing on this CD. It is
the sound I remember from the television years and one of the many reasons
I love this recording. Over time I have heard some fine fiddlers playing what
was called “Don Messer Music”. My reaction was always the same. The sound was
not quite right, the technique is not quite Mr. Messer. It was always “Close,
but no cigar”.
What’s that man doing with Don Messer’s Violin?
He’s doing very well as this CD shows. He was going
to be one of Canada’s all-time great hockey players. Somehow, he became one
of Canada’s great old-time violin players. He is Francis J. Leahy. He
received a B.Sc. from Guelph University in 1985. That was the same year he won
The Varsity Hockey award. But somewhere in Nova Scotia there was a violin waiting
for him. He had his Grade 9 Violin Certificate from the Royal Conservatory along
with the highest marks in Ontario Grade eight exam. He attained his Level two
Music Theory Certificate, too. He wanted to be a hockey star. But there was
the violin. First there was his own, then that famous one that appeared on radio
and television in the talented hands of a man known as Don Messer. Frank was
born to a physician father who loved the violin, played it and was an avid Don
Messer’s Jubilee viewer and listener. I suspect there is a difference. His
mother raised five other children. His home town is Teeswater, Ontario.
His own family is Lisa and a perfect group of three girls and three boys,
all under nine years of age, His performing has had him working solo
and with classical violinist Ed Minevich in a series of fifty performances
with Symphonies, 500 concerts and 1,000 school presentations (Master Clash)
in the US and Canada. His current performing has led to a three-year
commitment at the Summerside Jubilee Festival in Summerside, Prince Edward Island,
with a stage play called, you guessed it, “Don Messer’s Violin”. It’s scheduled
to open July 8, 2000.
What’s happening to Mr. Messer’s Music, Now?
I might get an argument from some of those of us who knew Mr.
Messer from the television days, but I am willing to believe this to be true:
I believe that Don Messer would love this recording. He never got to front a
string section like Frank Leahy has here. I believe he would have loved it as
Frank seems to. He never got to play those little jazz and Latin licks except
when Gunter Buchta’s dancers needed some variety in their presentation. You’d
have to listen hard to the TV to get them all. In private, at rehearsals and
off camera, I have heard him play a wide variety of music. His daughter Dawn
told me that his personal collection includes some 10,000 pieces of sheet music
which she and her sisters have generously donated to the Nova Scotia Archives.
More gifts! Whenever I asked him to play some of “that other stuff ” for the
television show he would always reply, “That’s not what our audience wants.”
He was, as usual, right about his viewers and listeners. Still the “Messer Music”
was, and is, much more than just what was heard on television and radio. You
don’t have to believe me. Just play The Royal Princess Two-Step. That’s
Mr. Messer’s music all right. Did you know he played Bossa Nova? A few of us
know he could, and Frank Leahy proves that it sounds just right on Don
Messer’s violin. The tunes are, somehow, exactly the same.
Any difference is the arrangement and accompaniment to “that violin”.
More than that, Frank plays with the same energy and intensity that the best
original versions always had. What a great shame it is that so many artists
of the past did not have the recording technology of today available
when they made records. This CD underlines that fact again to me, because
not only is the technology available, but also an artist like Frank is available
to us to record these great tunes. Listen to the change that takes place
in the very first Barndance Medley, as the 1946 radio theme music
gives over to the current treatment by Frank. Along with another of Canada’s
finest musicians, Tom Szczesniak, he has arranged each tune in such a
way to make them feel that the listener was hearing a continuum of an
approach to violin music that began with Mr. Messer in the 1930’s. Howard
Cable who graced our black and white CBC television screens, as a distinguished
arranger and conductor, is here with an arrangement of the White River
Stomp. You’ll see Moe Kaufman’s name on this album. You’ll hear Moe
Kaufman play that smooth flute solo on the Royal Princess Two-Step.
Longtime folk artists and producers Paul Mills and Bill Garrett made their
considerable production contribution and the result is obviously a labour
of love and humour. I sense, too, their collective delight in being connected
to Mr. Messer’s legacy. The Circle is Unbroken
Barndance Medley (Robinson, Trad., arrangement: Paul
The first track you hear on this CD is an old 1945 recording
of Don Messer and the Islanders with Charlie Chamberlain singing the band’s
theme song. Through modern studio techniques, Frank Leahy and the band join
in. The same fiddle is being used, of course, but the performances by Don and
Frank are separated by over fifty years!
The French Reel Waltz (Trad., arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
The title is, of course, a contradiction in terms, however
the melody sure makes for a great jazz tune! As you can hear, another musical
hero of Frank’s is the late jazz violinist Stephan Grapelli.
Messer’s Licks (Szczesniak, Leahy arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
The famous “shave and a haircut” phrase at the end of most
of Don Messer’s breakdowns was one of his most endearing trademarks. It became
the recurring motif for this original composition by Frank Leahy and Tom Szczesniak.
The Girl I Left Behind Me (Trad., arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
This very old traditional tune is usually played as a reel,
but it works beautifully as a slow air. This melody is also quoted in the Barndance
medley, which starts this record.
The Devil’s Dream (Trad., arrangement: Eric Robertson)
In the right setting, some traditional fiddle tunes can sound
as if they were composed in the Baroque era. The Devil’s Dream is just such
Kerry Mills Barndance (Trad., arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
The modern swing band sound of this arrangement might have
been the way Don Messer would have liked to have played this tune today. It’s
an exciting dance number and was one of the Islanders’ most requested hits.
Hushabye Waltz (Trad., arrangement: Eric Robertson)
Another Don Messer hit, this arrangement is a bit slower and
dreamier than the original Islanders treatment. Eric Robertson’s arrangement,
at times, brings Stephen Foster to mind.
Rippling Water Jig (Hachey Bros. & Mary Lou, Banff
Music, arrangement: Paul Mills)
Perhaps one of Messer’s best-known hits, this tune is arranged
in pure Islanders’ style.
Royal Princess Two-Step (Graham Townsend, Manitou Music,
Broadland Music, Ltd., arrangement: Michael Francis)
Fiddle player Graham Townsend was an early protégé of Don Messer.
Graham toured with Don and benefited from the encouragement and support of his
mentor. This beautiful melody fits perfectly into the bossa nova treatment used
White RiverStomp (Messer, Gordon V. Thompson
Music, arrangement: Howard Cable)
The big band era was a major influence on Don Messer and, in
fact, he had a 17 piece big band at one point. This is how “ White River Stomp”
might have sounded with this group back in the late thirties or early forties.
Redwing (Chattaway, Mills, P.D., arrangement: Paul Mills)
This was one of Messer’s most popular tunes and a mainstay of the Islanders’
repertoire. Some people may remember it as a union solidarity song called “The
Union Maid”. The treatment here explores some of the jazz sounds to which Messer
was exposed in his earlier years. This tune really swings and the dixieland
sections of the arrangement are what you might have heard during the lighter
moments of an Islanders’ rehearsal.
My Lady Lisa (Frank Leahy, arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
Written for “Lady Lisa” and played by Frank as she came up
the aisle on their wedding day.
Blue MountainRag (Trad., arrangement: Paul Mills)
When Messer played for dances in the thirties, this tune was
often requested and Don and the band played it as a polka.
Downhome Rag (Sweatman, arrangement: Howard Cable)
Another tune that sounds great in a big band setting. Howard
Cable’s authentic touch with the arrangement puts the listener back in the zoot
Road To The Isles (Trad., arrangement: Tom Szczesniak,
One of the best-known Scottish tunes around, many will have
heard this melody played on the Highland pipes. Road To The Isles was a favourite
with Don’s fans. It’s a great fiddle tune that is humable, whistleable, and
Smile The While (Trad., arrangement: Tom Szczesniak)
This is the tune that always closed Messer’s TV show. As the
show closed, it would usually be sung by Marg Osborne and Charlie Chamberlain.
It’s a melody that soars beautifully in Tom Szczesniak’s orchestral arrangement.
Barndance Reprise (Arrangement: Tom Szczesniak, Paul
A touching orchestral reprise of the classic opening theme
closes this collection of Don Messer favourites.
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DON MESSER'S VIOLIN