Mark Wilson (Editor of Rounder North American Traditions series):
These two autobiographical statements comprise the majority of the notes to Rounder CD 7044 The Dusky Meadow by Donald MacLellan, violin, and Doug MacPhee, piano, forthcoming in the spring, 2003 (see http://www.Rounder/Rounder/NAT for release details). Donald is one of the greatest living exponents of traditional Scottish fiddling, having grown up in one of Cape Breton's most celebrated musical families. He is also one of the region's pioneer recording artists, beginning with some excellent 78s on Celtic in the early 'fifties and continuing through several LP issues in the 1960s, both individually and with his sisters Theresa and Marie as The MacLellan Trio (a CD compilation of these recordings is available from Breton Books and Music). As to Donald's richly idiomatic music, I believe it can best speak for itself, but the great Kenloch violinist Morgan MacQuarrie offered a pithy comment that nicely sums it all up. I had remarked upon the degree to which Donald's playing epitomizes the deepest and finest traditions of Inverness County violin music. To which Morgan replied, "Oh, you just can't get any Scotchier than Donald MacLellan - it's impossible."
His accompanist, Doug MacPhee, has toured often and is widely known as one of the true virtuosos of the Cape Breton mode of piano playing, a style that he very much helped create. Doug has recently assembled an excellent retrospective collection of the five LP recordings of solo piano he has made (available from Cranford Publications (http://www.cranfordpub.com) or Doug himself at 681 Sharpes Lane, New Waterford, NS B1H 4H1). He has also served as accompanist to many of Cape Breton's greatest fiddlers and will appear in that role with John MacDonald on a forthcoming Musical Traditions release.
Although Doug now lives in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, he spent nine years in Toronto where he and Donald played together frequently. The reader can scarcely overlook the intense devotion that has motivated the team to carry their inherited arts to very high levels of accomplishment, sustained by virtually no other social props except the warm companionship of friends. Doug's simple statement, "we were all trying to perfect our music", speaks volumes, not only for Donald and himself, but for Donald's dad Ronald and Doug's mother Margaret, for Sandy MacLean and Little Jack MacDonald, for the genial Dan R MacDonald, and for all the thousands of other amateur musicians whose names are now forgotten. If ever a narrative provided a stiff corrective to faulty stereotypes with respect to ‘traditional musicians’, the illuminating remarks of these two remarkable artists provide it. They also illustrate the striking paradox that the Cape Bretoners' heartbreaking exiles to far away cities and towns, rather than diluting their ancestral legacy, strengthened it, at least temporarily. The better jobs and freer access to transportation sparked a remarkable emigrant reaffirmation of their native music in the 1950s and 1960s, as these Nova Scotians away from home sought to recreate those "memories of things that were very pleasant", to borrow Donald's words.
Mark Wilson - 13.10.02
a Waddin' O't
So we were pretty self sufficient except that buying fiddle strings was a big item. I’ve seen fiddles going with no strings on them for days. A string would have to get awfully bad before you took it out - it'd have to break first. Rust would be falling on top of the violin. Strings used to cost fifty cents - you'd have to work half the day on the railroad to earn that.
For light, we had candlelight made from coal oil and old lamps. That’s what you had - and the moonlight. Yes, the moonlight and the moonshine. I went all over the place on a bicycle in those days. It was rough coming home from a dance late at night: rough roads with some of them big potholes that you could drop into. I’ve traveled as far as twenty miles away to get to a dance and if you traveled during the day light hours to get there, you could follow the road and you’d have an idea of where the pot holes were - it provided kind of a memory thing for you on the way back. Fortunately, I never had too many problems that way.
My parents spoke Gaelic, but I didn’t, although I learned a little bit through hearing them trying to hide things from me. That’s the old thing that people used to do when they didn’t want you to understand what they were saying: they’d talk Gaelic. Most folks were a little shy of speaking Gaelic in outside places where they were apart from their own group. I think the people that were speaking it thought it was a backward language and that nobody else should hear it, only the local parents or kids in the house. And there were lots of people that married where one couldn’t speak the language and so the other'd have to go to the neighbors to talk if they wanted to speak it. So it was lost there as well. Now they’re trying to revive it by teaching it in the schools but the students will separate from that class and not speak another word until they come back to the class a year later. But the way, it was years ago, to those that spoke it in the family, it was a natural way of speaking and it wasn’t bookish like some of what you hear today. So it’s something you feel that’s disappearing, although we hope it doesn’t.
I picked up a lot of Gaelic after I came to Toronto. There was a fellow from Scotland named Norman MacIver and we worked together on a church building for over three years. And he would call any of the tools or anything that was to be done in Gaelic. And I had to know what he was talking about or I wouldn’t get anywhere!
When I was a boy, there were dances with just mouth music. Sometimes they’d just jig the tunes - or what they call ‘mouth music’ - just diddling the melodies vocally. There was a fellow from River Denys who used to come around selling clothes - he'd measure you for a suit in the country, you know. He was a caller as well and often times when he’d arrive somebody would say, "Well, it's a good time to put on a dance", for he’d prompt the dances and mouth the music too. There’s words to a lot of the tunes and the calling was sort of like a song: it had tones that came from the song and, when you were dancing, you'd know what they were doing. All the old timers were good at that. And sometimes you'd hear them more or less drumming with knitting needles across the strings of the fiddle - it was a time element they were supplying. There were also a lot of good pipers around and they used to eliminate the drone when they played at dances. Jack MacDonald was a great player - ‘Jack the Piper,’ they called him. In more recent years, Sandy Boyd came over here from Scotland and he was a terrific piper too, although I only heard him once.
My father, Ronald MacLellan was a blacksmith, and a fiddler. In the summer he did carpenter work as well, framing houses and barns and that kind of stuff. So he would work in the forges in the day and play the fiddle at night. When the occasion arose, he’d go to a dance to play. He was pretty popular in those days, as there wasn’t too many fiddlers around that area. There was always music at our house as a rule. You could go there and there'd always be somebody, whether it'd be myself or my brother. My dad was always there to entertain, of course. Lots of people would come for miles to hear him play - he was quite a player. He often played dance music and he and my mother, Mary Ann MacDonald, used to play together at dances quite a bit. In the first years she used to play the old organs that they had years ago. Their old bellows was always leaking and my mother would probably be only one person around that could play it during the whole day or evening. Well, you'd get awful tired doing that, you know. So they used to get young people, one on either side, to pump the pedals, so that my mother could sit back and play without needing to pump as well. To have an organ was an exceptional thing in the country at that time; in that whole area there'd probably be one of them spaced maybe ten miles apart. Pianos were practically non-existent. But then as pianos started coming in different halls and homes - the first one near us was at the Dowling family's not too far from us up on West Bay Road - that kind of drew her attention to them. So we got a piano at home and she started playing on that. She had to get used to it because there's a difference between the way the piano and the organ are played.
My dad played most everything: marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs and stuff like that. He was a very exacting player - one note and he’d criticize you. If you’d changed anything - one note from a piece of music - he’d know that right off the bat. He’d tell you, "Oh, you missed one" and he'd tell you what finger you should have used, too. He could tell it that way. The majority of the old time players played by ear and they seemed to get along with the playing pretty well, but my dad was one of the few who could read music. There was a fellow down in Highland Village named Vince MacLellan and he was a professor of music. My dad started off with a mail course but then, as he got more into it, apart from corresponding, he went down to MacLellan a lot of times. He took some lessons there, too, I think
My dad was very selective with tunes. He would look through a lot of books and mark the ones he wanted to come back to refer to. He was also very strict about how a tune should be played. He was a man who would say, "A violin is not a tool, it's an instrument and you have to use it as such". He'd point out the things you were doing wrong and make sure you corrected them yourself and to always take your time. He wouldn't let you do too much playing; he'd want you to first get your position and do just the things that were natural in different numbers - grace notes, slurs and all that kind of stuff. He was wonderful at that - he had a terrific bow arm himself. His playing was very much the same as mine except that he was better than I am. He could use the bow both ways, up or down, making a cut - you know, the three little notes. A cut coming down - I could never do that. Angus Allan Gillis and Sandy MacLean could do a bit of that, but they weren't like my dad. One thing that he would sometimes do that I've never seen anyone else do is to cut a few hairs off the bow and put them under the strings. He'd leave them attached at the tip of the bow and wrap his finger around them at the bottom so that they came under the G and E string like a drone. So when he played on the backside of the fiddle a bit, he'd get the drone from the E but when he shifted, vice versa, to the other side he'd get the G. He would leave the violin in natural tuning and he could play any tune that way. It was terrific - you’d swear it was the bagpipe.
Different fiddlers I’ve heard over the years - some that come to mind are Dan Hughie MacEachern, Dan R MacDonald, Bill Lamey, Donald Angus Beaton - those four had stated that they thought Big Ronald MacLellan was the best fiddler they’ve ever heard. I’ve heard that many times over the years. He was a moody type and sometimes would play very nonchalant, like he didn't care at the time but then when he really wanted to play, you'd just have to sit and listen - you couldn't do anything else. Dan Hughie MacEachern, the fellow that wrote the music books, told me that my dad was up visiting at his house and a lot of people had come by to hear him play, but he wasn't in the mood very much. So they all moved away and he took up the violin after that. And Mrs MacEachern was telling everybody afterward, "Everything got so quiet that even the fire went out in the stove." He was like the rest of us, I suppose; he'd get in a mood when he'd like to play and he could really play - he was quite the player.
My older brother Joe (they called him ‘Baby Joe’ because he was so delicate) was a tremendously gifted player. One day my dad started him off with a tune and by the next day Joe could play more than half of it, just to start. Just came onto it like that, Joe did. Oh, he was a wonderful player and according to most he was the best of the MacLellans. Once my mother whispered to us as Joe was playing some slow airs, "What music can there be in heaven when we have this music on earth?" He won quite a few contests when he was just a teenager. But he came down with tuberculosis when he was just sixteen and he was in hospital in Antigonish for about two years. When you caught that years ago, it was pretty bad for there was no cure at all. Poor Joe killed himself playing the fiddle in those old dance halls and schoolhouses. The last thing he told me, he said, "Never play in those places even if they offer you fifty dollars. You’re better off not to do it because it’ll end your life like it has mine." You see, in those little school houses out in the country, folks would bring in the dust on their shoes. They wouldn’t scrub the floor that much before a dance - perhaps they’d just sweep it with a little sawdust and that was it. Those old floors were all dried up and shrunken and the dust would fall in the joints. So you didn’t need to dance very long before you’d see that big cloud of dust coming around. And the killer was right there, for that tuberculosis was very contagious. I remember them burning books and other things in the house because of the germs. My brother said you’d come out of a dance covered in dust and it’d take you days to get your lungs clean.
By this time I was living in Sydney, so I wasn't able to hear Joe very much at the end, but I was up in Antigonish one time with a bunch of furs. I was visiting Alex MacInnis - ‘Alec the barber,’ we called him. His brother was a barber as well and both were interested in violins. They had a piano in the back room in the barbershop. We used to play music there and the passers by would be standing outside the door listening to music with no work going on. I used to say to Alex, "I'd better get out of here because you're going to lose your business." Well, at this time Joe had been in the hospital down there for a year and a half. Alex used to hear all the good fiddlers that came through there - Angus Chisholm, Angus Allan Gillis and all them. "You fellers are all good players", he once said, "but I think the little fellow up on the hill can put you all away when it comes to playing the real stuff." My brother Joe was just twenty when he died - that was in March of 1935.
My brother died in the spring and my dad died on Christmas Day that very same year. He had gone visiting at Ronald Allan MacDonald's place down in Mull River - we used to call him ‘the Baron'. My dad took very sick with pneumonia. There was no such thing as antibiotics at that time and, out there in the country, you had just whatever was in the house for medicine. They used to say that with pneumonia that if you could pass through a certain amount of time, you had a chance to survive. My dad got through that period and felt good that next day, so they let him get out of bed. He came out into the kitchen and he dropped off there. So that’s the way my dad died: he went visiting and that was the end of it. He was fifty-seven years old. Oh, it was certainly a sad time for my family.
As I said, lots of fiddlers would come to visit my dad and he'd do the same. Gordon MacQuarrie was like that. He worked on a farm with an uncle of his along the Victoria line up in Glendale. But poor Gordon would get lonesome every once in a while and so he’d leave for awhile. He’d be scattered here and there all over the place, visiting fiddlers and friends. He'd probably be gone for two or three weeks at a time. Gordon would walk the sixteen miles down to be with my dad and they’d stay together for three or four days, playing, talking about tunes and all that kind of thing. And my dad would do the same - he was sort of a rambling person himself. He'd walk to Gordon's place and stay for awhile. Gordon was quite a nice player himself and very knowledgeable, pretty well up on everything. He put together the first collection of Cape Breton compositions in The Cape Breton Collection; Joe Beaton down in Boston got him to do it. There are a half dozen tunes of my father's in it, every one of them are outstanding, beautiful tunes. And lots of others; Ronald Allan ‘the Baron’'s, Joe Kennedy's, Vincent MacLellan's and some of Dan R MacDonald's first pieces - all nice compositions. Gordon made a lot of very good tunes himself. In our day the tunes in that book weren't very popular because some of them were hard to play and so the players didn't bother with them. But now they have started to emphasize them more and play them the way they are supposed to be played
Anyway, Gordon was quite a poet as well. I don’t know where it ever got to but he wrote a lot of it and it was good. After my father died, he wrote this tribute:
When I was eleven, I needed to go to school, so I stayed with a cousin, James MacDonald of West Bay Road - they called him ‘Jimmy Ranald’ - for close to three years. I was separated from home by eight to ten miles but, since I'd have to walk that mostly, I didn't get home too often. When I was at the MacDonald's, I got a fiddle that my dad used to play on from Mrs Jim Lamey. I didn't play much at home. When I was starting out, the first time my dad heard me play, he said, "For God’s sake, put that thing away - you'll never make a fiddler." I guess he was making a comparison with my brother Joe. And, of course, all the old fiddlers were inclined to insist that no one was to touch their instruments. He used to have his violin mostly on a table in the living room but if you went near it, well, you’d know it; you’d have a hot backside. But I could still learn things from watching him just the same.
Those Scottish tunes he'd play so sweet
You'd think 'twas Orpheus come again;
And you make us smile and greet,
So gay or sad the lilting strain.
His melodies would bring to mind
Far distant glens and rippling streams.
Though gone himself, he left behind
His strains - we hear them in our dreams.
He's gone to join that noble throng,
Cape Breton's talent gone before
Who lift their music and their song,
Though they themselves are seen no more.
Though gone, he still with us will stray,
Although he in his grave does lie.
The melodies he used to play
And left behind will never die.
After I left the MacDonalds, I didn't stay at home too long - about a year. My dad wanted me to work in the forges with him, but when you get one of those heavy horses leaning against you, he can always put you under his feet, so I thought that was a little much for me. So I worked on the railroad for a little time around home but I didn't like that. It was such a low-paying job you could hardly exist on it. They were paying just twenty seven cents an hour. So I figured, "If I’ll get out here, I’ll probably have it a little easier." So I left home when I was quite young, sixteen years old, and went into Sydney, although I then spent about a year in Halifax. Then I moved back to Sydney and took my apprenticeship with the Chappell Brothers in carpentry. I followed on through on that and stayed there until I went into the service in 1942.
Before I left home, though, I played my first dance when I was fourteen. So I guess I didn’t follow my brother’s advice that well, but things were beginning to clean up a little a bit by the time I got to playing. I used to go on bicycle and travel ten or twelve miles to play at a dance and then ride back home at two o’clock in the morning. Big pay too - three dollars if you were lucky, for sometimes when you'd get there, they’d say, "Well we didn’t make much money tonight, how about we lower your fee a little bit?" "Well," I would answer, "how much lower do you think you can go and still give me anything at all? Three dollars is all I’m getting, so less than three won’t be very much." I'd wear my tires out getting there - and I'd wear out my feet peddling the bicycle.
In those days, unless you played in one of the bigger places, you usually played by yourself: no piano players, guitar players or nothing. You went there and you sat with the fiddle and played and that was it. Sound systems weren't heard of then and so half of the time when they’d get really going in those dance halls, you couldn’t hear the music twenty feet away. But as long as there was somebody there calling the sets and where the others could see that somebody was doing the right thing, the rest’d follow and they’d get along somehow. On occasion two fiddlers would play together for greater volume but if it was a matter of getting paid to play, the organizers wouldn’t hire two, because it cost too much money. You see, they’d put on those dances for some purpose, like for paying teachers to teach during the year or something else in the schools. Of course, like the rest of us, the teachers never got very much pay back then.
We learned a lot of pipe tunes because that’s what came out first in the music, there were a lot of pipers around. We used to learn the marches and other pipe tunes. They were quite easy to play because there is no such thing as a flat key in them. A lot of those violin keys you can’t play on the pipes, so you’d have to follow what was in the pipe music on the violin. There were several different sets of violin tuning that they used in those days. There was one fellow up on West Bay Road - Donald Angus MacDonald - who used to bring the E down a little bit: he'd do anything to get a different sound. Then with others the D didn’t change so much, but the G changed in two ways, it went up and down. The last tunes I heard my brother Joe play, he took the low G down to an F. One of the tunes he played that way was in the key of F - Dr Keith. But the main tuning other than natural they used was ‘high bass’ where'd you'd bring the G and D strings up a note. Dan Hughie MacEachern used to do a lot of that. I did it quite a bit myself when I was east, but in this part of the country they don't appreciate that too much, so in the last years I got out of the habit of doing it. Then you lose track of the tunes and everything, so I've kind of set it aside. I still like to do it a little if I can.
When I started, I was getting the tunes by ear and often people would ask, "What book did you get that from?" I would answer, "I wouldn’t know one book from another; I was just playing the tunes as I heard them." Apparently my versions were quite correct, so they thought I was reading the music at the time. I started learning to read with my brother before he went away to the hospital and then I went up to Gordon MacQuarrie's. He drew me the scales and advised me to keep my eyes open and to follow the dots and grace notes. And practice!
After I started playing, my father heard me once. I was living in Sydney but I was home visiting and was playing at the MacKay's farm down in Glendale. My father came by and sat outside. He asked Mr Angus MacKay (that's Alex Francis' father), "Who is playing the violin?" but Mr MacKay didn’t tell him right away. He said, "You listen to this fellow, he’s a good player." So my father got quite a surprise when he saw who it was. And he was interested in me after that.
My sister Theresa is quite a bit younger than me. But I’m the one that got her started playing the violin, she’ll tell you that herself. She used to listen to me quite a bit and I promised her a wristwatch if she'd try a tune. So she got interested in playing and I taught her along for quite a ways, until she got better than I was, and then I quit. When I went in the service I never carried a violin at all and I was in there almost three years, but Theresa kept on playing. Sister Marie played a Hawaiian guitar when she first started because a lot of the halls didn't have a piano or an organ, although she played the old organ at home. And they used to play a lot through the country down there. Later when Marie moved to Sydney, she bought a piano.
In Sydney at that time if you didn't play like Tena Campbell, they wouldn't listen to you, so I decided to get a violin and get into it. Tena played on a show they called The Saturday Night that would have Gaelic singers and storytellers and all that kind of thing. There was nobody else playing at that time on the radio. Tena just played the simple tunes, jigs and reels and stuff like that, mainly on open strings. She didn't read music or anything like that, she just had her own little style. But she had a wonderful sounding violin on the radio. She was so small, you'd get her sitting on a chair and her feet wouldn't touch the floor. So she'd have to sit out at the edge of her chair.
A lot of the old time players would rest their violin on their chests balanced on their wrists. In the old paintings, Niel Gow played like that - the fiddle was held way down low. Well, Mary Hughie MacDonald was a lot like that, too - she was a terrific player but I've never seen her with a violin under her chin yet. And when she sat down, it was the same way. But I found that position awkward because you bump against the fiddle before you can move your hand. So the way my sister Theresa and I hold the violin came from my brother Joe. My dad held it the same way. It’s a good habit to get into, you know, for it’s the beginning of a lot of things you can do on the instrument. And when I started playing in Sydney, I went down to see Professor Jim MacDonald for a quite a while too. He taught me scales and the usage of fingers and positions. Finally he said to me, "I’ve taught you all I can teach you. I can’t teach you the Scottish style that they use here. So you should now pick a violin player that you think is the best you've heard and, if you want to follow him, do what he does."
One of the first persons I ran into in Sydney was Joe MacInnis. I'd met him before because he knew my dad quite well and, of course, I knew him to see him. He was a wonderful, wonderful man - just one of those people who love music. He played a little himself, but he was very fond of music and he would travel miles and miles to hear other players. Anywhere where there's music Joe'd be there. So he'd be only be too glad to have someone into his house to listen or play a little tune. Nearly every weekend there'd be music at his house on Campbell Street. You didn't have to be a good player; he'd still sit down and listen. Bill Lamey would come there a lot and get the benefit of the books that Joe was getting at that time, for Joe was a great man for collecting. He was one of the ones who started getting the collections over from Scotland.
You see, down in the country we didn't have many books at all - I guess we couldn't afford them in the first place. In those days, things were very dear: you didn’t have all the money and when you got hold of a little bit, you didn’t spend it on music books, no. Around the house we had some highland bagpipe music, The Scottish Violinist by Scott Skinner and the Kerr's collections - I think there were four books - and they were quite good. My dad had a Peter Milne collection, a small one, but it disappeared somewhere. Those were the books that I had growing up until I guess I was twenty-five or so. A Thousand Fiddle Tunes came in a little bit after. But old books like the Skye Collection I didn't see until years and years later. My goodness, if you had two pages of the Skye, you thought you had gold, thirty-five years or forty years ago. Of course, there were a few musicians here and there that owned some of the old collections, but - I wouldn't say they were being mean - but we can just say they kind of kept them to themselves.
I wasn’t quite like my brother Joe, but once I got to reading music, I could pick it up a tune pretty quick. In those days, if you ran through a tune three or four times, you’d remember it. To learn three or four tunes in a weekend, oh yes, I’ve done that many times. But since the books were scarce down there, you had travel miles and wait on somebody to be kind enough to let you look at some music. One time I walked all the way to Mull River to get a little book with four tunes in it that Ronald Allan ‘the Baron’ had. There were only a few like my dad and brother and Gordon MacQuarrie would could read music well back then. I think that's the way that some of the tunes got mixed up because one fiddler would play it and the next one would pick it up differently. And they would argue, "Well, that’s not the way, you’re not playing that right" - and who was right? They wouldn't know because neither one of them read music.
Anyway, Joe MacInnis started sending money over to Scotland to Murdoch Henderson who taught music there. He used to go out in the countryside teaching and whenever he'd see one of those books, he'd buy it and send it over to Joe MacInnis or Joe MacLean. Soon everybody would be at their houses looking through the books and copying the tunes. Dan R MacDonald was another great one for that - he brought a lot of stuff from over there, too. There were a good many collections that came out from Scotland in 1946 and thereabouts. I got a lot of books myself in the 'fifties through Bernie MacIsaac’s music store in Antigonish. I made some records for him and he'd pay me off with the music books. So I left him the commission that whenever he got a book in that I wanted, he should keep it for me. I got quite a number from him - good ones too.
Joe MacInnis always had a car and he used to drive up to Inverness from Sydney. At that time the Margarees used to have the outdoor picnics once a year and they were a big, big thing similar to the Broad Cove concert today. Only then there'd be very few cars in the field: mostly horses and wagons, bicycles and people walking. I went with Joe a few times and met a lot of good musicians there.
A little while later Bill Lamey moved up to Sydney from River Denys and we met over at Joe MacInniss's. We started a half hour radio show at 7 o’clock in the morning on CJCB in 1940, sponsored by Eastern Bakeries where Bill worked. We were in there over two years the first time and then we went back again later. Christina MacEachern from New Waterford was our pianist at first and then Lila Hashem came from up Inverness a bit later. On occasion Joe MacLean or some other musician would play with us as well. The Carpenter's Union used to run a dance at what they called ‘The Carpenter's Hall’ and I played there for two and a half or three years before I went into the service in 1942. There was another fellow there named Charlie MacLellan who played and Bill and I often teamed up; we played at Nelga Beach, too. We used to go out into the country - we'd go out from Sydney to St Peters or even Port Hawkesbury. After I came out of the service, Joe MacLean used to come up to the house and we had a lot of music. He played quite a bit around Sydney and different places in those years. Cars were coming in, so that made it possible to get out and go. So I did a lot of playing in that time.
After the service, I studied drafting at the vocational school over in North Sydney for a period of time. That has helped me along the way because I could always take over some job that needed a little extra experience. I stayed in Sydney about a year after I was discharged, but jobs weren’t plentiful down there in that time. You might go two or three months when you wouldn’t even be able to pay the dues to the Carpenter's Union. When you did get a job, half your wages went for dues. So one day someone asked me if I’d take a transfer to this company in Toronto and I said, "Sure, I’ll go there, yes." That was in 1947 and I've never looked back. Toronto’s been good to me, because here you’d go out everyday. So I’ve been very, very lucky here because I got along well with most of the companies I worked with. I generally got jobs that lasted three to five years. I built schools, houses, churches, everything and did some finish work too.
When I first came to Ontario, if you didn’t play like Don Messer, they didn’t want you any place playing. So at first there was only the odd place that we would go where there would be people from Scotland or where somebody had come up from Cape Breton. But quite a number of families moved this way after the war and they'd do anything they could do to keep thing always on the move like they do down east where there's something going all of the time as a rule. As time went on, we all got acquainted and we began to have our little get-togethers. We used to congregate here and there on Sundays and play music all evening. I got involved with the Gaelic Society and other Scottish clubs and did a lot of playing there. We used to have nice parties in the Royal Oak Hotel and go with the haggis and everything. Of course, they’d run Scottish dances as well, so I played at quite a number of those. And there'd be a lot of little parties in the homes. The Scottish people love fish, so you'd go there and have a beautiful meal of herring and spend an evening entertaining if you could sing or dance or play an instrument. There was an event called the Mod Ontario where I won the violin championship two years in a row, after which they made me a judge. For a year or so, I ran a dance in partnership with Angus MacKinnon, but it was hard to get a hall because some of the Cape Bretoners could be a little bit rough at times and the owners didn’t appreciate that very much. And, frankly, it got tiring and a little boring. But they kept having other dances, so I'd go there and play for them and I'd make more money doing that than sharing the profits from running one myself. So I played a lot of dances in Ottawa, Sudbury, Hamilton, Brantford, St Catherine's, Windsor, Detroit, Boston and different places like that. Back in Cape Breton, musical things had picked up quite a bit after the war, so I missed a lot of what they call ‘the gravy part’ of the music by being in Ontario.
But I would make it home nearly every summer. In the first years after I moved away, we just took what holidays the unions could get and so they might shut up for ten days. You had to subtract your traveling time out of that because it took you two days to get there which didn’t give you much time down home. At that time the roads weren’t paved all the way, so you’d be running into construction work and that kind of stuff. Later on, I was able to organize my work in such a way that I'd get somebody looking after a certain aspect of the job and I could say, "Well, I’m going away for certain time now and you’d be able to handle this from here on in." When I’d come back and I'd do the same for him. I put a trailer on a piece of land down in Riverside and we’d stay there probably a month.
The first records I made for Celtic were 78s and by myself, six of them around 1954. Marie played piano and on one of them Peter Dominick played the drums. Bernie MacIsaac from the Celtic Music Store in Antigonish would call me up in Toronto and ask if I would make a record when I came down. He’d make the arrangements and when I was home on vacation, I'd just pop in the studio at CJCB and make a record. There was nothing to it at all, you know: a couple of hours and you had one. The fellow who owned the station didn’t like the Scottish music at all. If you saw you coming in there with the fiddle, he start asking you questions about it: "What are you going to do?" and "What's going on?" But there were a couple of other fellows there - Robbie Robertson and Charlie MacDougall - that had come from up in the country and would kind of fight to get the air time to put on Scottish music. Robbie recorded my records too, as well as those of Winston Fitzgerald and the other fellows. After the station joined the CBC, all the regular local programs would go off the air about nine o'clock and they'd hit the CBC. Well, we could take over the studio and make records then. At that time my sisters were playing around the countryside, but I was in Toronto, so I wasn’t with them at all. I think the idea of making the MacLellan Trio records was Bernie MacIsaac's idea and it came up a bit later. So he mentioned it to us and we decided to do one and it didn’t take us very long to do that first LP. There was the stipulation too that they had to be two and a half to three minutes in length because they were supposed to be used for commercial use in radio and they didn't want them too long.
Poor old Bernie was very good man and did a lot for Scottish music but never made much money from it. He’s the one that arranged for Danny Campbell, Angus Allan Gillis and Angus Chisholm to make the first records from Cape Breton back in 1935. At that time I’d come home to Riverside in the fall of the year to go trapping with an Indian friend of mine and I’d make more money in those two months than I could in the rest of the year. So I happened to be in Antigonish at the time that those guys were going to Montreal to record. They put on a concert in the hall on the main street there. Gordon MacQuarrie was supposed to go along but poor Gordon got into the liquor that day and couldn't play at all at the concert. Bernie MacIsaac had train tickets for so many, you know, and Angus Chisholm was just on his way home from Boston and had stopped in Antigonish. So Bernie grabbed him and sent him off to Montreal and poor Gordon was left behind. In that period, Bernie also arranged for Collie Boyd and Hugh MacDonald to record - they were from around that area. I used to hear Hugh play some - he was a nice player. And those records of mine: Bernie'd have them in the record store in piles long after the 78s had gone out.
Later George Taylor bought out Celtic from Bernie and we made our last records with him, a second MacLellan Trio and one by myself with Marie. You couldn't get much money from George Taylor. He was a Scotchman with a deep pocket - you could never get any money out of it. That last record I made for Celtic, Taylor told me to be sure to go to the television station in Antigonish and make it; they just had a little ordinary tape recorder there. Taylor said, "Just leave it there and I’ll pick it up." It cost me seventy-five dollars to make the tape. Well, the record came out sure enough but that’s the last I ever heard of my seventy-five bucks. There was some problem with the tape reels and those recordings ran a little too fast; instead of getting the whole note, you'd just get part of it. Later on Sheldon MacInnes and Dave MacIsaac got me and my son Ronnie to record a few selections for an LP that was put out by the College of Cape Breton.
I'd like to get in a word about some of the violinists I knew. Sandy MacLean was a very nice man and he and I got along very well. He was quite a player. I used to send him music and tapes and he'd appreciate all that you would do for him. I had met him at picnics and places like that long before but you don't hear too much from what a guy plays at a square dance if he plays anything at all. One time when I was just a boy, there was a Father Beaton who lived in Port Hawkesbury and loved the music. So he had Ronald Kennedy and Sandy come down there on that old train they called ‘the Judique Flyer’ - it was so slow, you could practically get out and pick blueberries along the way. My dad was there, my mom played the organ and Angus Chisholm was home from the states. I’ll never forget the music I heard that day, it was so good. But other than that, Sandy was getting older the first time I really hear him sit down and play. It was in the early 'fifties. I was down from Toronto and had an old Webcor tape recorder with me. Sandy filled up a whole tape for me - I was the first one he did that for. Marie played with him and it was very good.
I first met Dan R MacDonald, oh my goodness, quite a number of years ago. The first time I saw him was after he had gone to Antigonish to hear my brother play in the hospital and on the way back he came to tell us about the way he played. Through the years he would come around our place on occasion. He had no special place to go or home and you couldn't find jobs just anywhere you wanted back then. There’d be hay making jobs in the summertime and fishing jobs at other times and in the winter they’d be out lumbering. So Dan R would do all that and later on he worked in Windsor, Ontario for a while. So wherever there was anything going on, he’d try to get there and work. So he'd be a little bit like Gordon MacQuarrie, he'd be one place for a week or ten days and he'd be playing and if you wanted to go listen, you could go. He used to go the MacKay's down in Glendale quite a lot - Mrs MacKay was Dan R's aunt - and I saw him there quite a lot. He used to come stay with me for a week or so or even longer sometimes. He stayed with me for a month and a half in Toronto one time. And he used to pass his time by writing out music for me. He'd play me a tune at night and would ask, "Do like this one?" and I’d say "Well, sure." He'd say "Well, I'll write it out for you tomorrow" and when you came home, there it'd be. He filled out three manuscript books for me, both his own tunes and ones that I didn't know from all the books that he had gotten - he learned a lot of music when he was in Scotland and after the war. If you were playing somewhere, he'd have a new tune quite often. He'd either make one or get it out of a book - he was quite up on the music. And he'd keep you on your toes too, for he'd criticize you for a couple of notes here or there. "Where you'd get this?" he'd ask. "That's not the note that's there." He was pretty sharp, Dan R was. Yes, he had his own little ways and all, that but you’d overlook a lot of things that he done because he was such a nice and talented man.
We had a fellow here named Little Jack MacDonald that I knew quite well. He lived here in Toronto for four or five years and we used to go visiting in the evening to different houses. I used to enjoy his playing - it was good. And there was another fellow in Detroit named Hughie MacDonald who was in the Five MacDonalds - he was a terrific player, especially in the high bass. I always liked to visit at Angus Allan Gillis' place. He was a wonderful, wonderful man and a good player, too. He'd do anything for you if he could. Gordon MacQuarrie was no slouch either. He took a correspondence course, taught himself to read music and was a very good player; very exact. Duncan MacQuarrie - there was a damn nice player, from down in Danny Campbell’s country, around Black River. Of course, there was Dan Hughie MacEachern as well. He was a good friend to my dad though my father was a grown man when Dan Hughie was only just growing up, you might say. Some of the MacKay boys were good players. And then there was Alec Michael and Big John Alec MacDonald over in Port Hood and all of those fellows. But I only got around to see them when they were like myself, a little past their playing prime, really. After I came out of the service, Joe MacLean used to come up to the house and we had a lot of music. Of course, Bill Lamey and I saw each other a lot too, often in company with Joe. I visited Bill several times in Boston after he moved there. Winston Fitzgerald would come up to play for dances in Toronto quite a lot. Winston: there's one fellow who would practice a tune often enough that he’d remember it. Some of the other fellows would come out and play a tune too soon and so they’d probably go astray in parts of it, but Winston always practiced his tunes until he had them exactly the way he wanted. He always had his own way of doing things - his own little interpretations of things, you know. He was very humorous, too; Winston was quite a guy. Angus Chisholm and I were good buddies. Of course, I was up in Ontario and he'd be down home or in Boston at other times. But he was a great player - good at hornpipes and reels and stuff like that. And a great story teller too - very witty.
Here in Toronto there was Johnny ‘Washabuckt’ MacLean who was a good dancer and a nice player, too. He played somewhat similar to Joe MacLean - he was from the same part of the country. He lived not too far from here and anytime I have some entertainment in the home, I'd always have Johnny come into play. Poor John: he died quite young. I think he'd had a heart condition for some time, but wasn't letting on. They were building a new home down in Coxheath and he got to overworking. One night he was playing the fiddle at a party and suddenly everything fell to the floor and poor John went out like a light. Another exceptionally nice man who lived in Toronto for awhile was Johnny Wilmot. His wife was very nice as well. They didn't live too far from me and we were very good friends. Doug knew him very well because Johnny used to play a lot with both Doug and his mother Margaret back in New Waterford. John did a lot of dance playing in earlier years. He had a little group and they would go here and there around the country and he also ran a weekly show on CJCB for quite awhile in Sydney. And there was ‘Nel’ MacDonald and Sandy MacIntyre - they still play around here a bit at dances and such. In fact, we had a little get together the other night over at Malcolm and Shirley MacDonald's. Shirley's a real live wire - she likes to dance and put on a party. She loves to keep the old crew together; all the old friends. We'll have a nice tea and conversation and then some music.
There was a wedding that came up in the mid 'fifties sometime. The folks who held the party came from down east and they loved the old music. Anyway, my friend Mike Campbell had gotten there a little ahead of my wife and I and he met us at the door: "My God, Donald, come in here and hear this fellow playing the piano." And who was it but Doug? At the time I didn't know him from a hole in the wall. He was just young then but he really gave us an earful of Scottish music. As I said, at that time if you didn't play like Don Messer, they thought you couldn't play, so to hear a piano player that played along our own lines, well, it sounded very, very good. At first he lived in the east end but then he moved over to my part of town and got a good job as a rate clerk in the bank. He lived maybe a mile or so from me and he used to come almost every evening when we got off work. We'd have a few tunes, going over the books, so we had a lot of practice, Doug and I.
But, you know, going back to those days, there were so many great players, I could never name them all. Back when you’re young and in your prime, there's lots of vigor and energy to go into it. When I'd go home, I'd visit old music acquaintances, dropping in here and dropping in there, and pretty soon a session will come up: "Are you going to be available on such and such a night? Come over and we’ll have some music." When Doug was living in Toronto, we'd have some big sessions. After tea, about twelve or one o’clock in the morning, we'd get in the mood and buckle down to serious playing and play to daylight, never repeating a tune. I used to go like that for hours and it wouldn’t bother me a bit - in fact, I felt great afterward. Well, I still have interest in a lot of music and I like to talk about all the different tunes. But in the last few years without somebody around to play the piano, I’ve lost some of the desire to play - I’d often rather do something else than play the violin. But it's a nice thing to be able to play music. It’s entertaining to yourself and you can give pleasure to other people as well.
So it’s a different world out there now. I feel lucky that I was able to come through one part to get to the present day which is a lot better in many ways. But talking like this, thinking of the way things were years ago, is just like opening an old book and freshening your memory of things that were very pleasant.
In 1959 Johnny Wilmot moved to Toronto from New Waterford. He used to play with my mother a lot and when I first started out, that's where I got my practices. Weekends I would go over to the Wilmot's Friday after school on the bus and they'd bring me home Sunday evening, so I'd be doing a lot of playing over there. So after Johnny moved to Toronto, I'd be over at the Wilmot's every week as well. They lived about four miles from me, so I'll call them after work and say, "Put on an extra potato for me, because I'm walking over." I didn't have a car in those days, so Johnny would drive me home after the session. Of course, Johnny played all the great Northside Irish tunes, so I learned a lot of Irish music as well.
Near the end of my time there, the Scottish violinist Ron Gonnella spent four or five months in Toronto. I'd met Ronnie before in Boston when Herbie MacLeod had him over from Scotland in 1965. Herbie was so fond of the old country and thought that everything they did over there was great, so he became a big promoter of Ronnie's music. After I left the MacLellan's, I had a room and Ron also had one about two blocks from me. Every evening we'd meet over at the deli and have our supper and then walk the eight blocks up to Donald's or do something like that: have a tune and a cup of tea. At that time there were a lot of Cape Bretoners all around Ontario. I remember once going down Bradford with Donald, Johnnie Wilmot and Johnny ‘Washabuckt’ MacLean, and found Little Jack MacDonald was there. What an evening that was! But so far as talking about music sessions and parties go, I could talk forever on those. In those times I was always in the music and those fiddlers were never stuck for a piano player.
I boarded with Donald and Mary for about a year. You can imagine all the music sessions. Every night I'd come home and after supper, we'd get the fiddle out. We were learning a lot of tunes together and having some great, great sessions. There was a very good friend of ours living in Ontario named Hughie ‘Shorty’ MacDonald who was a household name among all the Cape Bretoners. He was a very likeable and witty fellow and was always in the middle of everything - you couldn't have a party without Hughie Shorty. He didn't play music, but he loved it and always said he was our ‘manager'. We'd be having these grueling sessions where I'd be playing for them all - Johnny, Donald and three or four more - while Hughie Shorty would just be sitting back, listening to it all and making witty comments. After three hours I'd be wanting to get a little break, so I'd start to get off the piano bench but Hughie Shorty would always say, "Oh Doug, while you're resting there, how about playing Tullochgorum?" After a big blast of music, he'd sit back with his cup of tea and say, "Oh, we're drivin' her, aren't we?"
I have always admired Donald MacLellan's music - the Gaelic in its expression, the good timing, the drive and the taste. A great flavor in the music, for Don knows how to color the strathspeys with his gracing and timings and all the other little things that he does. A cousin of Dan R MacDonald's, Donald MacDonald from Toronto used to say to me years ago, "When you're playing with Donald and he's playing something, it's like you're answering him back." In those days we were playing together so much that I knew all those twisty, kinky things he'd be putting in there - I could automatically sense what was coming next. We played a lot together, especially in those earlier years, and I thought we were a pretty great team.
But things have changed so much in music - nowadays it sometimes seems like it's the almighty dollar that's most important. In those days, if you got a compliment for your music or you learned a new tune to play, that was better than money. All the years I was in Toronto playing and when I lived in Boston, too, I didn't make any money to speak of. The odd time you might fill in for somebody at a dance but, other than that, money never came into it. I was simply interested in practicing my playing. You see, we were all trying to perfect our music. We'd watch the older players, hoping to pick up things that we'd liked and to incorporate them into our own style. We benefitted from that, because we were always trying to improve and were never satisfied with just being able to play. Donald is the same way as I am. He's a top notch player but he never tried to make any money from it. Of course, he had his priorities - his work, his family and all that - but money: it was never a consideration.
I left Toronto several times. I was never really contented away from home. I came back to Cape Breton in Christmas of 1957 hoping to find work there. Donald came down later on vacation and he took me over to Inverness County to meet the great Sandy MacLean. We had a lovely session and Lila MacIsaac, Sandy's favorite pianist up from Boston, was there as well. Sandy and Lila were considered to be the big players in that time, so that was a thrill for me. And Donald and I played several television and radio programs that same trip. But I wasn't successful in finding work, so I went back to Toronto that summer and stayed until 1962. Once again I came home for a period, searching again, but no luck, so I said to myself, "Well, I'm not going back to Toronto", so I started working on my visa to go to Boston. I'd taken a month's vacation there the year before and had stayed with Bill Lamey. The last week Bill advertized a dance to feature Donald MacLellan. So Donald motored in with Glen Shaw and we had quite the music session afterwards: Bill Lamey, Mary Jessie MacDonald, myself, Donald MacLellan. Alec Gillis from the Inverness Serenaders was there and also Alcide Aucoin - oh my goodness, there were so many players from around there that were still playing back then. It's so sad to look at it today, for they're all dead now. And after I moved to Boston, Angus Chisholm came there from Elliot Lake a week after I did. I'd known him from playing with my mother before he went away when I was a little fellow, so Angus and I became great friends. And Joe Cormier and John Campbell were there, too. There were so many musicians back then: Boston was full of old-time Inverness County players and also French players from Cheticamp. I played for Joe Martin for a couple of years at the Orange Hall. Alcide Aucoin and Henry MacPhee were playing there at the time and Eddie Irwin played the piano for the round dances while I played for the square sets.
Then I tried California for awhile, but I didn't like the smog and there was no music there. All of these different places I like to visit now because I know I don't have to stay there, but they didn't suit me at the time. And then, after a few months, my mother had to come out to Toronto to look after my sister's kids. I was a bit concerned about the situation, so I just packed up and came back to Toronto. That's the time when I stayed with Donald and Mary. But all those jobs, they didn't pay very much and sometimes I had to work as a bartender in the evening to get by. Just a young fellow trying make ends met, with things to look after back home.
I finally left Toronto in the fall of 1968, insofar as living there was concerned. I was never really happy away from Cape Breton. Toronto and Boston treated me okay, I guess, for I always had work and good friends and plenty of music - if it wasn't for the music, I wouldn't have survived - but my heart was always back home. I had concerns and responsibilities back here, because my mother was getting older and was partially blind, so that was part of it, too. One day I phoned her, "Mother, I'm coming home to die. It might take fifty more years, but I'm coming back." And I've never regretted that - the happiest time of my life was coming back. Pretty soon I got a good job at the Beaton Institute at the University and then the ceilidh shows on CBC television started after I had been back here a few years. And lots of other good things have followed on from there, so New Waterford is where I plan to stay.
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