Donald Charles Frederick "Don" Messer (May 9, 1909 – March 26, 1973) was a Canadian musician and defining icon of folk music during the 1960s.
Born in Tweedside, New Brunswick, Messer began playing the violin at age five, learning fiddle tunes with Irish and Scottish influences. As a young boy, Messer would play concerts in the local area and later throughout southwestern New Brunswick.
During the 1920s, Messer moved to Boston, Massachusetts for three years where he received his only formal instruction in music. Upon his return to the Maritimes, he began his radio career on CFBO in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1929 when he joined the station staff. Messer had organized a small studio band of musicians by that point and in 1934, they began a regular radio show for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (forerunner to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or CBC), broadcasting from CHSJ in Saint John under the name the New Brunswick Lumberjacks. Messer also began to make personal appearances throughout the Maritimes and New England using a smaller group named the "Backwoods Breakdown".
Messer left Saint John in 1939 and moved to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island where he joined CFCY as music director. Here he formed the "Islanders" and by 1944 the group was airing a show nationally on CBC radio. The show established itself as the most popular on Canadian radio during the 1940s-1960s and Don Messer and His Islanders began to tour outside of the Maritimes.
In 1956, Messer's music group began to make regular television appearances on CBHT-TV in Halifax, Nova Scotia. CBC television began a summer series called The Don Messer Show on August 7, 1959, which continued into the fall as Don Messer's Jubilee, produced out of Halifax. Continuing as Don Messer's Jubilee throughout the 1960s, the show won a wide audience and reportedly became the second-most watched television show in Canada during the decade (next to Hockey Night in Canada).
Don Messer's Jubilee was cancelled by CBC television in 1969, raising a national protest among viewers and fans and even raising questions from the floor of the House of Commons. Messer and his band continued Don Messer's Jubilee in syndication on CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ontario following the 1969 CBC cancellation until Messer's death four years later.
Messer's television show became the subject of the National Film Board feature Don Messer: His Land and His Music in 1971 and CBC produced a commemorative video of the show in 1985.
Don Messer's Jubilee was also notable in that the half-hour television show had a regular guest performer time slot, giving rise to many important Canadian folk singers through their national exposure, including Stompin' Tom Connors and Catherine McKinnon, and fiddler Graham Townsend among many others.
Messer died in Halifax and his library and papers are held by the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. One of his fiddles is now located at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, although ironically, he always claimed that his folk music was neither country, nor western - the Irish and Scottish-influenced fiddle tunes having pre-dated the country/western genre by several hundred years.
Messer was inducted posthumously into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Honour in 1985 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Messer's legacy is considerable, having been given the opportunity to exploit radio and television media in their infancy. As a result, historians have claimed "Don Messer and His Islanders" to be the most popular musical performers in Canada during the mid-20th century.
Don Messer's estate has attempted to protect his name and image and his music by giving sole license to contemporary Canadian folk musician Frank Leahy, who also owns and performs with one of Messer's fiddles. A fiddle purchased by Messer in 1930 for $150 sold at an auction on July 23, 2006 for $11,750 to a resident of St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
- Province of Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management: Don Messer
- The Canadian Encyclopedia: Don Messer and the Islanders
- CBC Archives: The world of Don Messer's Jubilee[dead link]
- CBC Life and Times: Don Messer
- Don Messer's violin: Frank Leahy official tribute
- "Early Don Messer fiddle sells for almost $12,000". Canadian Press via CTV News. 24 July 2006.
- Sit Down, Shut Up, Don Messer's On!..., summary of 2001 documentary on Messer