Don Messer (1909-1973)

Don Messer
Don Messer (photo courtesy CBC Still Photo Collection)

Year Born: 1909

Year Died: 1973

Don Messer was born in Tweedside, N.B. on May 9, 1909.When he died in Vancouver on March 26th 1973, he left behind a unique Canadian legacy of memorable music for radio, television and records, along with a record-breaking string of spectacularly successful public appearances across his native land.Don’s first venture into playing music came as a five year old, when he tried a few scratchy notes on his brother’s violin. He gradually got the hang of the thing and was making his first public appearances at local shows when he was seven.

His family’s Anglo-Scottish heritage would influence his choices of music, which tended to favour Celtic tunes that his mother had whistled to him.

The need to make a living took Don to Boston in 1925, when he was sixteen.  There he worked in several retail jobs, but at the same time took classical music lessons. When he returned to Canada in 1929, he was so proficient at reading, writing and playing his music that he was able to form a group that got to perform on radio on CFBO Saint John NB. This was when Charlie Chamberlain first joined the group.  Three of that group – Charlie, Duke Neilsen and Ned Landry – would still be with him 39 years later.

In 1934, the band – now the New Brunswick Lumberjacks – began a series of broadcasts from CHSJ Saint John. Then in 1939, Don Messer and his group – now known as Don Messer and his Islanders – began broadcasting from Charlottetown, which gave them national network radio coverage via CKFY. During the war years, they covered thousands of miles entertaining the troops as they criss-crossed the country seven times in the 1940s and 50s.

By 1944, the band was being heard three times a week on CBC radio; by 1947, singer Marg Osburne had been added to the line-up. Along with Charlie Chamberlain and Don Messer, she became the third in the band’s most famous triumvirate.

It was in 1956 that the Islanders began appearing on television, via CBHT-TV Halifax.  What started out as The Don Messer Show became a national series on August 7th 1959 as Don Messer’s Jubilee in the fall of that year.  

When the CBC cancelled the show in 1969 amid major protests from its wide national audience, a syndicated version of the show began production at CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ontario, gained a wide national audience of its own, and was still running when Don Messer died in 1973.

The band’s broadcasts had made them famous enough to tour, and between 1949 and 1969 they had made eighteen tours, including a three months/61 locations Centennial tour in 1967.

Don Messer’s contributions to Canadian music earned him many honours and Awards.  He was inducted posthumously into the CCMA Hall of Honor in 1985, and – with Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne – into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.  The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is the repository for one of his fiddles.  In 1971 the National Film Board produced a documentary feature, Don Messer: His Land and his Music.

The Canadian Encyclopedia published a quote from Don Messer in CBC Times as saying that his music “…was not Western or cowboy music. Our tunes have been around for two or three hundred years.  They’re folk tunes passed from generation to generation.”

Written by Pip Wedge

Sources include:

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Don Messer – The Man Behind the Music

Johanna Bertin : Gooselane.