Bluegrass Memoirs: Canada’s First Bluegrass Festival (Part 2)

[Editor’s note: Read part one of Neil’s Memoir on the First Canadian Bluegrass Festival here.]

On Wednesday, August 2, 1972, after an overnight ferry trip, I arrived in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. A four-hour drive brought me to Fred and Audrey Isenor’s mobile home in Lantz, 50 km (30 miles) north of Halifax. It was a little after 7 p.m. and they already had company, including gospel singer Lloyd Boyd, known as “The Radio Ranger”, and Charlie Fullerton, a dobro player and bassist whose sound system had to be used at the Jamboree.

Fred’s other friends came that night – men and women active in the local country music scene who shared his interest in bluegrass. I was the center of attention, the imported expert on the eve of Nova Scotia’s first bluegrass event. In my journal I noted:

Immediately, I was asked about my knowledge of instruments, mostly D-series 45-style Martins, but some other stuff as well. Fred’s F-5 came out, my F-4 and Mastertone watched.

Owning a pre-war Gibson or Martin was a mark of serious interest in bluegrass. The large and sophisticated Martin D-45 was the top of this luthier’s line. Only 90 examples were made from the early 1930s to 1942; these belonged to famous country stars, including bluegrass great Red Smiley. In the late 1960s, Martin resumed manufacturing the D-45. Lloyd had one.

I noticed another visitor:

Carl Dalrymple, a C&W bassist and guitarist about to go on tour with his sister-in-law [Joyce Seamone] which has a number one Canadian country hit, “Testing, One, Two, Three”, came [by]. He is also a D-45 owner.

Carl’s then three-year-old son Gary, already introduced to bluegrass by his father, became one of the second generation of Festival-fed musicians born out of the upcoming Friday Jamboree. In 1993, Gary, a mandolinist, joined The Spinney Brothers, one of Nova Scotia’s most popular bands. I was honored to have them performed during my 2014 IBMA induction Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

By the early 1970s, Maritime bluegrass had been embraced by young working-class rural country musicians who formed much of the “scattered” Canadian bluegrass community that Vic Mullen had told me about. This night at the Isenors was my introduction to a new world of friends and musical acquaintances.

As the evening progressed, the focus shifted from instruments to musical creation. We blocked; I noted:

We played a lot of gospel, few bluegrass standards, I made requests for Peggy [Warner, a budding banjo picker]. The tempos were generally slow.

It wasn’t like the bluegrass jams I had experienced in the 1960s working and hanging out at Bean Blossom. In a way, it was a step back in time for me. During my college years, fifteen years before, I had first discovered bluegrass through recordings. It was a distant thing.

Then I moved to Indiana, met Monroe at Bean Blossom. By the time I moved to Canada, the festival movement had attracted new audiences. Young people in the mid-60s had embraced folk music; which attracted some of them to bluegrass – the beginning of a process of gentrification which I wrote about in Bluegrass Generation (pp.240-42). In 1972, this had not yet happened in Atlantic Canada.

The next afternoon, Thursday 3rd, Fred took me to Halifax. Knowing that I was a folklore teacher, he wanted to show me a new store in town, the Halifax Folk Center. He introduced me to the owners, the Dorwards, who I noted:

Looked at my F4 (need fret wire, if they need to do fret work). I have the J&J instrumental LP. Lots of blues records. Fred and Tom Dorward, the owner, get along well.

I don’t remember talking much about the Jamboree. Months later, Fred told me that while promoting the event, they failed to connect with students at Halifax University who were interested in folk music. Dorward would play a role in this at the Festival, which grew out of the Jamboree. Then I noted:

…we went to CBC to see how to place ads, then to an electronics distributor for a mic.

Later I added to this note:

…a local fiddler who was scheduled to play at the festival on Friday — Russ Topple — had unexpectedly gone to the US (Wheeling) so when we stopped by CBC… Fred put my name on the ad as a picker of visiting banjo. Everyone knows I worked with Monroe, most think that means as a banjo picker. Lots of questions about the banjo (“old Mastertone”) etc.

After supper we went to farmer John Moxom in the countryside at Hardwoodlands, the site of the festival, about 14 km (8.7 mi) east of Lantz, to help Charlie Fullerton set up his PA system. . I noted:

Farmer JM built a covered outdoor stage the size and dimensions of the Roanoke one. On 4 posts 6′ high; 18’x10′ floor with covered sides (except the last 4′ in the front). Roof slopes from 10′ in the front to 7′ in the back. Rough steps from the left rear corner. We end up installing speakers on Fred’s Chrysler 66 roof next to the stage for the separation. See map of the festival website on the following page.

A hand-drawn map of the layout of Canada’s first bluegrass festival. Excerpt from Rosenberg’s personal diaries.

The evening ended with a rehearsal at Don and Joyce Peck, Fred’s sidekicks. I noted:

Charlie replaced on bass Fred’s partner (at his Lantz music store, Country Music Sales), Bruce Beeler, who works as a conductor on the CN RR.

After dinner the following day (Friday 4e), Fred and I returned to his home after visiting several of his musician friends, to find the County Line Bluegrass Boys had arrived. They would play at the Jamboree that night. They were from Lunenburg County, on the south shore of Nova Scotia. I noted:

The mandolin player and the banjo player (Mel Sarty) are the central figures of the group. Have learned entirely from recordings. … They do a lot of four-part singing.

Vic Mullen, Nova Scotia’s best-known bluegrass musician, was the master of ceremonies that night at the Jamboree. The audience was mostly in cars, parked in front of the stage. The applause took the form of horns and flashing lights. Three groups from Nova Scotia made their appearance.

The Pecks with Fred and Bruce on bass opened. Vic and I helped add a bluegrass touch to their sound with fiddle and banjo. A number of other singers and pickers joined us for guest appearances. Next came the County Line Bluegrass Boys.

The Boutilier brothers closed the show. They came from a family of musicians; their grandfather was a longtime fiddler well known in the area, and the two older brothers, Bill and Larry, began their professional careers with their father, also a noted fiddler. They were inducted into the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

In the early 1960s, they sang duets between brothers and appeared with Vic Mullen on banjo. With Mullen’s help, they made four LPs (all had “Bluegrass” in their titles) on the Rodeo label between 1963 and 1967, by which time a third brother, Larry, had replaced Vic on banjo. The brothers had retired several years previously, but came out of retirement specifically for the Jamboree.

When Fred and Vic reviewed the results of the Jamboree, they decided to try another one the following year. This time they would advertise it as “The Second Annual BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL at Hardwoodlands, Nova Scotia on July 27, 1973”. The Boutiliers and the Country Line Bluegrass Boys reappear; more widely advertised, it was successful and attracted enough bluegrass enthusiasts that in 1974 Fred and Vic incorporated Tom Dorward into their planning and began work on a two-day event.

Bluegrass Memoirs: Canada's First Bluegrass Festival (Part 2)

John Moxom, Neil Rosenberg, Vic Mullen and Fred Isenor in Hardwoodlands, NS, July 1973

Over the next five years, I traveled to the Festival every year from Newfoundland to help Fred and the gang, hosting instrumental workshops, hosting and appearing with our St. John’s-based band, Twisted stove pipe.

As the Festival takes off, young musicians appear. Eventually, a fourth generation of Boutiliers got involved. In the 1980s, these young pickers added Vic Mullen to their band and, with his encouragement, resumed his old band name, calling themselves the Birch Mountain Bluegrass Band. In 2001, 2002 and 2004, they won the East Coast Music Association’s “Bluegrass Album of the Year” award.

Another second generation group developed from the County Line Bluegrass Boys. In 1973 banjoist Mel Sarty’s brother Gordon joined as bassist and in the 1980s he and his three daughters started a new band, Exit 13. Singer, songwriter and banjoist Elaine Sarty led the group. They won the ECMA “Bluegrass Album of the Year” award in 1997 and 1998. Here’s a profile of the band that appeared in the ’90s on CBC’s national prime-time show, “On The Road Again.”

This, of course, was all to come! I knew nothing of the future of the Jamboree bluegrass festival when I left the Isenor house on Saturday August 5th, 1972, continuing my research journey. Head west on the Trans Canada, a half-day drive brought me to Woodstock, New Brunswick, near the Maine border. There I visited a student and her family who had invited me to attend Don Messer’s Jubilee at Old House Weekthe annual Woodstock Fair.

The event took place in a large building in Connell Park, the site of the fair. It had three parts: the Jubilee concert, a violin competition and a dance.

The violin competition, judged by Messer, was won by McBrogan, a fiddler from Chipman, NB. Here is a sample of his violin, very much in the Don Messer style, from his 1984 album:

Finally, the chairs were cleared and Messer and the Jubilee Orchestra performed for the dancers. Although Messer continued on the violin, several of the other musicians switched to wind instruments. The music was mostly a sentimental cover of popular big band era songs they had played for dancers during their salad days in the 40s and 50s.

After the dance, I introduced myself to Mac Brogan, told him I was interested in researching early and country music in Canada, and asked him if he would talk to me for a bit for an interview. He agreed and gave me his address. It would be over a year before I had time to do the interview, but that, along with my conversations with Fred and Vic, marked the start of what was to become a decade of studying the links between country and folk music in the Maritimes. .

Monday 7e I was off again, heading for New England, en route to the bluegrass scenes of the south.

Rosenberg is an author, scholar, historian, banjo player, Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame inductee, and co-chair of the IBMA Foundation’s Arnold Shultz Fund.

Photo of Neil V. Rosenberg by Terri Thomson Rosenberg, all other photos by Neil V. Rosenberg.

Edited by Justin Hiltner

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