In Search of ‘Maritime Music’

By Greg Marquis

Bass player Bruce Palmer (1946-2004) was a Nova Scotian who like many ambitious young musicians ended up in 1960s Toronto where he performed with Robbie Lane & the Disciples, Jack London & the Sparrows and the Mynah Birds. In the latter group he met guitarist Neil Young. After the Mynah Birds disbanded Palmer travelled with Young to Los Angeles where they met up with Stephen Stills and formed, with two other musicians, the folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield.  The group released three albums and scored a hit in 1967 with “What It’s Worth,” inspired by the 1966 Sunset Strip riots. Palmer ran afoul of the law because of drugs and was kicked out of Buffalo Springfield before it broke up in 1968.[1] The Liverpool-born musician grew up in the early years of rock n’ roll, the same music that inspired local favourites such as The Lincolns of Truro, who played at countless dances in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.[2]    

Another restless young Maritime musician who ended up in 1960s Toronto (and later performed in the United States) was Norma Gallant (1945-2016) from New Brunswick, another bass player who performed under the name Norma Gale. Raised in the village of Pinsec, the young Acadian was playing guitar and singing country and rock n’ roll music at an early age. She appeared on The Bunkhouse Boys show on Moncton’s CKCW television station and performed with the country group Val Surette and the Nitehawks and Roger Cormier’s Brunswick Playboys, a rock group. Despite a folk tradition among older Acadians and the appeal of fiddle music, young Acadians in 1950s and 1960s New Brunswick, like their anglophone counterparts, were drawn to pop, country and rock n’ roll. And Acadian musicians like Gallant found themselves performing in English at jamborees, dances and on local radio and television. After a stint playing nightclubs in Montreal, Gallant moved to Toronto where she joined the house band at the iconic Horseshoe Tavern, which was not only a refuge for transplanted Maritimers and Newfoundlanders, but also Canada’s premiere county and western performance space. She was probably the only full-time female bass player in 1960s Toronto.  At the Horseshoe she played for, and socialized with, up and coming Canadian artists but also well-known Nashville singers such as Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Bill Anderson and Dottie West. Contacts in the music business eventually drew Gallant to the United States where she performed at many venues. In 1967 and 1968 she sang twice at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Gallant also took part in a three-month tour of American military bases in the United States, the Philippines, South Vietnam, Greenland and Labrador and recorded two albums. Like fellow bassist Bruce Palmer, she later returned to Ontario and then, because of health reasons, retired to Moncton.  There was nothing ‘traditional’ about Palmer and Gallant; each were fixated on popular (and related) music genres invented and centred in the United States: rock n’ roll and country.[3]

Academic historians of the Maritime region have been slow to tackle the topic of popular music, largely leaving the field to folklorists and ethnomusicologists.[4] This is unfortunate because music, rightly or wrongfully (mostly wrongly) has been regarded as both a marker of regional culture or identity and a way for people in other parts of Canada to frame a ‘traditional’ region. Even a superficial examination of the sources reveals that ‘Maritime music’ has been more of an illusion than an actual genre, the occasional assertions of songwriters, singers, promoters, record companies, broadcasters and critics notwithstanding. Two of the earliest commercial successes from the region, Wilf Carter and Hank Snow, became North American county and western stars not because of regional or provincial culture, but by contributing to a quintessential American genre based on touring jamboree shows, recordings, barn dance radio programs and Hollywood-produced singing cowboy movies. Snow eventually became an American citizen and later defended ‘traditional’ country music against a more pop-oriented sound. There is no doubt that country music developed a large following in the Maritimes, but this owed as much to radio, recordings, touring acts from the United States, movies and later television than any innate regional attributes.      

In the 1960s both entertainment journalists and the CBC, which broadcast the Halifax-based television program, described Don Messer’s Jubilee as the leading exponent of Maritime or “down east” music. Messer (whose fiddle style was termed “down east” by folklorists) thought of his jigs and reels as “folk music.” Prior to television, Don Messer and His Islanders had been featured on the national CBC radio network. Critics and fans also described his popular weekly show as featuring country music. Although the program appealed to an older, small town and rural demographic (the main reason why it was cancelled in 1969), Don Messer’s Jubilee was actually a blend of old-time dance tunes, pop and gospel standards, Irish ditties, and modern county, folk and pop hits. When the show was ended after a successful ten-year run which followed an even longer period on national radio, the decision within the Maritimes was viewed as a blow to the region, not just middle-aged fans of old-time music.

One of the CBC’s justifications for cancelling Messer’s program was that its slot would be filled by another Halifax-produced show, Sing Along Jubilee, previously Messer’s summer replacement. It featured a cast of young singers inspired by the 1960s folk revival, a number of whom, such as Catherine MacKinnon, Anne Murray, Ken Tobias, Brian Ahern and Gene McLellan, would go on to successful careers in music. For several years national television viewers, who previously had been exposed to “down east” fiddling, square dancing and step dancing via Don Messer, were treated to clean cut folkies playing guitars and banjos and singing in harmony.    

In subsequent years, other alleged ambassadors of Maritime music were John Allen Cameron, Rita McNeil and the Rankin Family. Cameron and the Rankins were from Cape Breton, and their music was associated with a Scottish/Celtic folk sensibility at a time when Scottish fiddling was experiencing a revival in Nova Scotia, The later Rankins made a successful transition to a wider audience and a pop sound.  Cameron, like a number of performers from Newfoundland and Labrador such as accordionist/vocalist Harry Hibbs, also had a substantial following in Ontario, especially among regional expatriates. In the 1970s and early 80s he hosted two national television shows. Like Acadian singer Edith Butler (another alumnus of Sing Along Jubilee), Cameron, in Canada’s first decade of official multiculturalism, represented ‘Maritime music’ to the rest of the nation and the outside world. And that image was within a traditional folk frame.[5]

The history of pop music in the Maritimes is largely undocumented and knowledge of the rock n’roll era risks being lost with the passing of the pre- and early Baby Boomers who played and danced and listened to the music. Nostalgia for the era has produced autobiographies and a few publications by non-academics, and recently a Facebook group has been attempting to preserve the visual record of regional rock and other groups and performers.[6] In the 1970s, the Celtic-influenced folk sound was an important trend among Maritime musicians, but with the lower minimum legal drinking age, Baby Boomers were flocking to bars and dances to be entertained by blues and rock performers such as Dutch Mason, Sam Moon, Matt Minglewood, Doris Mason and Ritchie Oakley. These remained regional acts, in contrast with April Wine, which signed a record deal and released its first album in 1971. The following year the group’s second album produces two hit singles. Thanks in part to CRTC Canadian content regulations imposed in 1971, and steady touring, April Wine was one of the top Canadian rock groups of the decade. It ended up releasing two dozen albums and more than 30 single records and is still a staple of Classic Rock radio. Yet there is nothing in its sound or lyrics that identifies April Wine as a Maritime band and, unlike the Guess Who in the late 60s and early 70s, neither has it been portrayed as “archetypically national.”[7] 

The 1970s obviously was a vibrant era for live music, notably rock, in the Maritimes. The challenge for documenting and analyzing the history of pop, rock, folk and country music in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island will be going beyond ‘fan nonfiction’ and applying academic theories and methodologies to advance knowledge of an important component of regional culture. Fortunately, there are models that point the way. [8]       


Greg Marquis is a Professor of History at UNBSJ, and the author of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Year Canada was Cool (Lorimer, 2020).


Sources

[1] John Einarson, What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield (Copper Square Publishing, 2004).

[2] A.J.B. Johnston, Kings of Friday Night: The Lincolns (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2020).

[3] Interview with Norma Gale, June 17, 2009. For the importance of the Horseshoe Tavern first for county music and then rock, see David McPherson and Jim Cuddy, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern (Toronto: Dundurn, 2017).

[4] Since 1971, Acadiensis had published four articles on the topic, plus two related articles on the history of broadcasting.

[5] For Acadian music, and the popularity of bluegrass among Acadian musicians, see: Acadian Music, Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington: https://jsis.washington.edu/canada/music-collection/acadian-music/.

[6] Tom Connors, Stompin’ Tom Before the Fame (Toronto: Viking Canada,1995); Tom Connors, Stompin’ Tom and the Connors Tome (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2000); Ernest Dick, Remembering Sing Along Jubilee (Halifax: Formac, 2004); Anne Murray and Michael Posner, All of Me (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009); Johanna Bertin, Don Messer: The Man Behind the Music (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009); Lise Abut, Edith Butler la Fille de Paquetteville (Editions de l’Homme, 2014); Myles Goodwin, Just Between You And Me: A Memoir (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2016); Jason Murray, A Distorted Revolution: How Eric’s Trip Changed Music, Moncton, and Me (Halifax: Nimbus, 2017); Charlie Rhindress, Stompin’ Tom Connors. The myth and the man — an unauthorized biography (Halifax: Formac, 2019); “History of Maritime Bands.” Facebook.

[7] Ryan Edwardson, Canuck Rock: A History of Canadian Popular Music (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 137.

[8] See for example, Sean Mills, “Democracy in Music: Louis Metcalf’s International Band and Montreal Jazz History,” The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 100 (3) (September 2019): 351-73. 



About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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