On Friday, May 2, 1969, Strathroy Mayor Larry Condon proclaimed “Don Messer Day” in town.
So who was Don Messer, you may ask, if that was not your era?
“Don Messer’s Jubilee” was a musical variety show produced for television in Halifax, Nova Scotia and broadcast nationwide by CBC from 1957 until 1969.
Each week “Don Messer and His Islanders” treated their huge following to a half-hour folk music variety show.
Don, born in New Brunswick in 1909, was the band leader who played old-time fiddle tunes – toe-tapping reels and swinging waltzes – that so many people danced to on Saturday nights.
The opening tune, “Goin’ to the Barn Dance Tonight”, would be followed by more of Don’s down-east style fiddle. The rest of the show consisted of Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain, regular singers with the band, as well as the Buchta Dancers, plus a featured guest and a closing hymn.
Some of the guests included Stompin’ Tom Connors, Catherine McKinnon, Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot.
The show was second only to “Hockey Night in Canada” as the most popular TV show in the country.
In April 1969, the CBC announced it was cancelling “Don Messer’s Jubilee”. Fans were outraged and there were lots of protests and petitions. The subject was even raised in the House of Commons in Ottawa.
In Strathroy, at the local coffee shop, several downtown businessmen discussed the situation. The group included John Robinson of John Robinson’s Men’s Wear and Ken Campbell, publisher of the Strathroy Age Dispatch. The pair decided to approach Mayor Condon to discuss this national tragedy and suggest the town do something. The mayor’s reply: “Who is Don Messer?”
However, as my dad Ken Campbell told the story to me, what started as a fun coffee shop idea took on a life of its own. Mayor Condon stood on the steps of the town hall in front of TV cameras and proclaimed “Don Messer Day” in Strathroy. The town received national news coverage and even a telegram from Don Messer himself.
Square dancers from Colborne Street Public School, accompanied by local fiddlers, entertained the crowd which had gathered for the announcement. Citizens were invited to a protest rally to be held on Saturday evening at Our Lady Immaculate School. There they could sign the protest petition and enjoy an evening of free round and square dancing. Interested fiddlers and callers were asked to register at the door and take part in the program. Music for the evening was supplied by Reg Freer and his orchestra.
The auditorium was filled to capacity with loyal Messer fans wearing stickers reading “I want Messer” and “Down with the CBC”.
Residents of Strathmere Lodge even asked that the petition be brought to the Lodge. In all, well over 500 people signed the petition, which was sent to the CBC in Toronto.
I’m sure the protest had some effect, as an article published in the June 19, 1969 edition of The Age Dispatch shared the news that arrangements had been completed to telecast Don Messer’s Jubilee on CHCH-TV Hamilton. It was broadcast every Saturday at 4:30 p.m., beginning that September and continuing until Don’s death in 1973.
Don Messer and members of his show visited Strathroy in June 1971. They were welcomed by the wail of the town fire siren and a throng of local people.
After being greeted by Mayor Jack Eakins, Don signed the town’s guest book and presented Mayor Eakins with a silver wall plaque with a montage of the show’s stars, and an autographed copy of his biography, “Canada’s Don Messer”.
Don, Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain were driven around town in open convertibles. Later they played music for the residents at Strathmere Lodge and held an evening concert and dance at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre.
In 1989, Don, along with Marg and Charlie, were inducted into the Canadian Country Music hall of Fame. Messer’s library and papers are now held by the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and one of his fiddles is in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
If you want to relive some memories of this Canadian folk music icon, or if you’re curious about Don Messer and His Islanders, check out this YouTube video:
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