Don Messer | Bowing Down Home

Don Messer dominated fiddle-music broadcasting on PEI from 1939 to 1958, when he moved to Halifax to establish the television show that became known as Don Messer's Jubilee. Over the course of his career he became a household name in Canada, and shaped the repertoires and performing styles of fiddlers across North America.

Messer was born in 1909 in southwestern New Brunswick. He took up the fiddle at the age of 5, and learned his first tunes from local fiddlers; he acquired some formal training in his late teens while living with an aunt in Boston. In the late 1930s, his band Don Messer's Lumberjacks signed with CBC affiliate CHSJ of St. John, New Brunswick to do a show called Backwoods Breakdown. When Messer was hired by CFCY in 1939 and moved to Charlottetown, his band became known as Don Messer and the Islanders.

Within a month Messer’s show was picked up by the CBC National Radio Network, where it was to continue for almost twenty years. From the late 1940s through the early 70s, the band toured Canada more than twenty times. From 1942 through the late 1960s, they recorded approximately three hundred selections for several labels.

During the 1940s and 50s, Messer’s band played extensively for old-time dances throughout the Island; one favorite venue was the Sportin’ Club in Charlottetown, later renamed the Rollaway. Two stories from that period about Messer and the band are told by Billy MacInnis, Sr and Lowell Huestis.

Messer created a fiddle style to operate within a band context. As he put it, "I play the melody and let the accompaniment fill in the details." To this end, he generally played a relatively straight, unadorned melody line with great precision and assurance, but with little ornamentation, rhythmic nuance, or expressiveness. Providing such musical subtleties became the role of other instruments in the ensemble.

Although Messer's band was considered entertaining by most Islanders, and they borrowed freely from his repertoire, his own playing style had very limited local influence. Messer's ensemble-oriented approach lacked many of the important qualities that Islanders valued in their fiddling. Most significantly, they felt his fiddling lacked liveliness: the bowing accents, bite, and drive that made Islanders want to get up on the dance floor.