My parents did me a huge favour in the summer of 1984, just before I entered the seventh grade, even though they might not have realized it at the time.
On a trip to Sydney that saw me pawing through the latest selection of albums at the city’s Woolco store – and nearly leaving the store with a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” or the Cyndi Lauper breakthrough album She’s So Unusual – Mom and Dad picked up The Best of John Allan Cameron: The Man and His Music.
And even though it would be another sixteen months before I listened to that sixteen-track collection from The Godfather of Celtic Music in its entirety, it played a valuable role in my early education in Cape Breton culture and also taught me a life-changing lesson about the impact a solo performer can make on the music world – and the world in general.
By this point in time, after a decade’s worth of exposure to pop culture from outside of Nova Scotia (and, often, outside of Canada), I was just starting to discover the little nuggets of joy and laughter to be found within our own arts and entertainment community. My younger sister’s participation in Highland dancing competitions across the Maritimes had given me considerable exposure to open-air bagpipe music. I had spent over three years getting my political education from Dave Harley aka. General John Cabot Trail, and a three-night CBC-TV broadcast of the final edition of The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island had opened my eyes to the wealth of talent to be found in our backyard, and the many ways our story could be told.
So, with my Cape Breton pride finally stirred, I found myself getting increasingly intrigued about that big, bold, occasionally-nasally voice that spilled out of the family car stereo every so often, to say nothing of the stirring guitar, fiddle and bagpipe instrumentals that accompanied these heartfelt vocal performances. That led to the fateful day that I popped The Best of John Allan Cameron: The Man and His Music into my boom box, partly from boredom but mostly from curiosity.
Curiously, instead of immediately hooking me with a Gaelic song or a Celtic guitar piece, John Allan reeled me into his world with my first-ever taste of John Prine, whose slightly-ribald rib-ticklers “Spanish Pipedream” and “Please Don’t Bury Me” book-ended a Cameron cover of a song I had come to know well over the previous four years, Allister MacGillivray’s ubiquitous “Song For The Mira.” All three songs were live (and lively) cuts, buttressed by a delightful mini-monologue that recalled John Allan’s boyhood days in Glencoe Station, Inverness County. These stories included “going to social events like wakes and weddings” and his first trip to Antigonish, where “the height of my excitement” was “going into Woolworth’s and trying on gloves.” (The last word, through John Allan’s Ceilidh Trail vernacular, came out as “gluffs.”) For an encore, to set up “Please Don’t Bury Me,” he announced that, on a trip to Glace Bay, “for an interesting pastime, we went to Curry’s Funeral Home and watched the coffins warp.”
Now, it would be one thing to say that these album-opening live cuts were my first introduction to John Allan Cameron, Singer. But the energy and humour of the vocal performances and the set-up for “Please Don’t Bury Me” (which frequently joined my own personal set list during my teenage and young-adult years) set the stage for the rest of that compilation album and helped me reach my most important definition of John Allan Cameron, one that never wavered through the following three decades: Entertainer.
Here was a fellow whose recording of the traditional Celtic march “Trip To Mabou Ridge” forever changed my impression of 12-string guitars (and their players). Here was my first musical link to the Scottish Highlands, via his bagpipe medleys and his musical arrangement of the soul-stirring Robert Burns ballad “Elizabeth Lindsay Meets Ronald MacDonald.” (For that matter, here was my first indication that Ronald MacDonald could be someone other than a clown selling hamburgers.)
Here was the original Cape Breton troubadour, who introduced me to Bruce Cockburn’s “Goin’ Down The Road” (the title track to the movie soundtrack of the same name), Robbie MacNeil’s “Robbie’s Song For Jesus” (a chart hit in 1972 for Anne Murray), the pub classics “Streets Of London,” “Mary Mac,” “I’m A Rover Seldom Sober,” and “Four Marys” (a reworking of the 16th-century Scottish folk ballad “Mary Hamilton” that is now inextricably linked to John Allan), the lovely ballad “Get There By Dawn” (the title track to a 1972 John Allan release), and his iconic, rollicking recording of a song that I had previously heard during my fifth-grade religion class as a solemn Christian dirge, “Lord of the Dance.”
While John Allan Cameron is often mistakenly credited as the composer and/or lyricist for “Lord of the Dance,” it was actually written in 1963 by British songwriter Sydney Carter. He adapted the melody from “Simple Gifts,” a song devised by the American wing of a Christian sect known as the Shakers, who saw dancing as a deeply spiritual act. This online breakdown of “Lord of the Dance” includes comments from Carter which indicate that he wanted to “salute the Shakers” with his song. As for the concept that some Christian denominations frown on dancing, Carter insisted: “The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.”
With all of this in mind, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a young man from Inverness County would take to “Lord of the Dance” during the first decade of a music career that followed an abrupt departure from his final round of preparations for the Catholic priesthood. (He would later suggest that “the Bobby Orrs in Cape Breton in those days were the priests and the fiddlers.”) Only a few months away from becoming “Father John Allan,” the lanky lad received a dispensation from the Roman Catholic Church that allowed him to terminate his studies with the Order of the Oblate Fathers in Ottawa, shift to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish to take an education degree, and simultaneously pursue public music performances.
Even without the collar, though, I’d like to think that John Allan’s deep-rooted faith guided his musical choices, to the point that “Lord of the Dance” – one of the most upbeat accounts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection that you’ll ever hear – has become his signature song. It has found its way into the playlists of several Celtic/folk performers, inside and outside the Maritimes (and inside and outside of churches, for that matter). On our wedding day in 2008, Cathy and I got a few friends of ours to play a fiddle-instrumental version of “Lord of the Dance” to end the ceremony; it worked on several levels, particularly when the newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Cooke joyously sang the chorus as we headed back down the aisle (below, left) and out the church doors in L’Ardoise.
But let’s return to the mid-’80s. Teenage Adam was still getting a grand charge out of John Allan Cameron, Entertainer, months after he first borrowed his parents’ cassette. I even convinced Mom to get us tickets to a John Allan performance at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax, even though it was actually billed as a children’s show. Ever the joker, John Allan showed incredible versatility in sharing some of his favourites with the energetic moppets that surrounded him on stage. This mid-1987 concert is also special to me because it was my first chance to see John Allan’s classic reworking of Cinderella, the Spoonerism-heavy “Rindercella,” and his cover of the bizarre but catchy little number “Plant A Watermelon On My Grave And Let The Juice Seep Through,” complete with enthusiastic slurping sounds.
Now, that’s not to say that John Allan appealed to everybody in the under-20 set. At least, not right away. I vividly remember Mom playing that greatest-hits tape in the family car while we were travelling along the Cabot Trail, from Ingonish to Neil’s Harbour, to visit my maternal grandfather in the hospital. My cousin Dana (in full teenage-metalhead mode by that point) and his mom, my Aunt Fran, were in the car with us; it only took a few bars of John Allan’s voice to prompt the complaint: “Mom, WHY are we LISTENING to this? This is TORTURE! How can you TORTURE kids like this?!?”
The story does indeed have a happy ending, though – Dana came to visit our part of Nova Scotia roughly a decade later, having fully immersed himself in Celtic culture, gushing about Lord of the Dance (the Michael Flatley stompity-stomp extravaganza, not the song) and even making requests for very specific fiddle tunes when we caught Sheamus MacNeil of The Barra MacNeils at Piper’s Pub in Antigonish later that afternoon. So help me, I’ve even seen my cousin in a kilt since that time. And I can’t help but think that John Allan had something to do with all of that.
Only a few months after my cousin Dana’s tartan-tinged return home, I got my first chance to interview John Allan as he performed at the inaugural Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso. By that time I had several more years’ worth of sampling his catalogue, specifically the latter-day releases Good Times and Wind Willow and the 1996 disc that would prove to be his last full recording, Glencoe Station. Several other John Allan tracks had entered my personal and professional set lists by the time I met him in Canso, including “Good Times in the Maritimes,” “Overnight Success,” “Peter Behind The Wheel” (penned by Kevin Evans of Evans & Doherty fame), “Getting Dark Again” (the best-known song of T.R. “Buddy” MacDonald), Gary Fjellgard’s “Islanders” and Dennis Conn’s “The Miner’s Song.” I was also blessed to have a wonderful circle of friends in my college years that gravitated to my love of John Allan’s music and happily played and sang along during our jam sessions. (One of the dearest of these friends, now an Anglican priest in Toronto, played “The Minstrel of Cranberry Lane” in my honour at the King’s College campus pub, The H.M.C.S. Wardroom, while I was recovering from major eye surgery in Halifax during my third year of studies; following my recovery, we went as a group to see John Allan play at a Halifax pub, with a then-unknown teenage fiddler named Ashley MacIsaac as his special guest.)
Despite John Allan’s place as a hero in my heart, there was an appropriately-casual feel to the interview with him that I conducted for CIGO-AM Radio (now 101.5 The Hawk) on the first weekend of July 1997. I didn’t have a formal remote microphone – I just happened to be camping with some friends and enjoying StanFest – but with the station’s Community Cruiser on-site, driven by my colleague Ruth Meagher, I thought we could get some famous folks to chat with us about the ground-breaking event. So John Allan sat with me in the back seat of the cruiser, with Ruth up front feeding our conversation to the station in Port Hawkesbury, and we chatted about John Allan’s tours with Stan Rogers in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These tales included a great story about how John Allan used to drive Stan bonkers by dedicating “Farewell To Nova Scotia” to him onstage; apparently Stan regularly groused about the Helen Creighton-collected chestnut’s chorus lines of “mountains dark and dreary” and insisted that he would write a sunnier song about Nova Scotia to make amends.
I still enjoy that part of the interview for three reasons; I, too, am no fan of “Farewell To Nova Scotia” but I loved John Allan cheerily talking about gentle pokes at a fellow Canadian music legend (both pictured below), and I got a great laugh out of him with my follow-up comment about how that kind of talk could help John Allan displace Ashley MacIsaac as Celtic music’s reigning bad boy. (I still have that 1997 interview on tape. I will never, ever erase it.)
Just over four years later, John Allan and his son Stuart Cameron – who has now put in a quarter-century of his own impressive guitar work, albeit in a session-player/backup-musician capacity – made another impression on me that I’ll never forget. The pair were on their way back from a performance in Mabou when they decided to drop in, unannounced, to the latest Sunday afternoon jam session held by the long-running Highland Guitar Society at the Judique Community Centre.
As a longtime board member for the society, I can tell you that none of its participants – including me – were music stars on the John Allan Cameron level. We just enjoyed playing some favourite tunes with our friends – no more, no less. So you can imagine the hubbub that arose when this gang of casual pickers, who ended each one of their jam sessions with a group sing-along of John Allan’s arrangement of the beloved Scottish ballad “Sound The Pibroch,” suddenly had The Godfather of Celtic Music in their midst.
The Camerons took the stage and let loose with a blistering 20-minute set of favourite Celtic tunes (not unlike this one), on the six-string and twelve-string guitar. (At this point I should mention that Guitar Magazine named John Allan one of the world’s top-ten twelve-string guitarists in the early ’90s.) The Judique Community Centre erupted in a boisterous standing ovation when the two of them finished their tunes. And then, tragically, a grand total of nobody wanted to follow John Allan and Stuart; these were guitarists that I had respected and admired for years, but they were terrified of being “the one after John Allan.”
Finally, at the request of Highland Guitar Society president and MC Bill MacDonald, I caved in and asked a frequent musical partner of mine, Ashley (LeBlanc) MacDonnell, to back me up on guitar while I sang my cover of the Tommy Sands Irish ballad “There Were Roses.” Astonishingly, I got my own standing ovation – perhaps for being brave enough to follow a legend – and sat down in the front row, picked up my guitar, and joined the rest of the society members in playing along with the next few performers to take the stage.
And then, in a scenario that the 13-year-old boy listening to his parents’ John Allan tape in 1986 couldn’t have possibly imagined, I was struggling to play an open F chord – which I always find easier to play with a capo – and suddenly heard a very familiar voice, in its unmistakable Glencoe Station dialect, saying, “You know, if you stretch your finger across the whole fret up top, you’ll have it.”
And I turned to see those twinkling eyes and that smile that had beamed forth from so many TV sets on Singalong Jubilee in the ’60s and as the host of variety shows on two different Canadian networks in the ’70s. And slowly, quietly, I came to realize that I was getting a guitar lesson from John Allan Cameron. And I smiled back.
Throughout my teenage and adult years, John Allan was deeply ingrained in our collective traditional-music consciousness inside and outside Cape Breton, both inspiring and actively participating in the worldwide Celtic revival of the late ’80s and early-to-mid-’90s. (This 1990 performance of Stan Rogers’ “Mary Ellen Carter,” with backing vocals from The Rankin Family, on the Scotia Prince ferry that used to run between Yarmouth and Boston, drives that point home, even as John Allan flubs the last chorus.) In 1994, he accepted the East Coast Music Awards’ Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award, bounding onstage in his trademark kilt and boisterously singing “Rise and follow, Charlie” as the loudspeakers played his cover of “Sound The Pibroch.” The Order of Canada would follow in 2003, and John Allan kept performing across the country, looking for all the world like an ageless, timeless, made-in-Inverness-County perpetual motion machine.
Until he wasn’t.
Diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome in early 2005, John Allan’s condition progressively and dramatically weakened over the following 32 months. Shaken by the news, the East Coast music community – led by Pictou County’s Dave Gunning, who had toured with John Allan from 2000-02 and would go on to record a beautiful 17-song tribute album in 2011 – quickly organized a Halifax tribute concert and the release of a double album to honour The Godfather of Celtic Music. (Gunning would later confirm that these efforts were partly staged as fundraisers for John Allan’s family, which serves as a sobering deflation of the myth of a long-running musician’s personal wealth and a reminder of the high costs of health care, even with the publicly-funded system that we treasure here in Canada.)
I was somewhat rattled by the images that emerged from the tribute concert at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, the same spot where I first saw John Allan’s endless wit, energy and musicianship nearly two decades earlier. And yet, even in his newer, noticeably-frail form, John Allan proudly wore his kilt and was seen rising to his feet, cheering on the performers, pumping his fist and hollering, “YES!” – a trademark of so many live performances throughout the decades.
Three months after cancer claimed him in the fall of 2006, a quintet of East Coast all-stars that had been influenced by and/or performed with John Allan – his son Stuart, Dave Gunning, George Canyon, J.P. Cormier and Gordie Sampson – performed a loving musical tribute as part of what would turn out to be CBC-TV’s last-ever national broadcast of the East Coast Music Awards. Moments after bringing tears to my eyes with a stirring rendition of “Lord of the Dance” (and raising their fists to holler “YES!” as a standing ovation filled the Halifax Metro Centre), several of the tribute’s participants shared their personal John Allan memories backstage with the ECMA media contingent. Cathy and I were there as freelancers for The Reporter; we’ll never forget these heartbreaking words from J.P. (who, like John Allan, will forever be referenced without a surname):
“It always struck me, talking to him in private times, very quietly in the hotel rooms, that he really believed that he was going to be forgotten. He wasn’t bitter about it, because he was a very optimistic person, but there was a certain poignancy in him. So when I was preparing for this – I’m getting all emotional just talking about it – it became apparent to me that he wasn’t going to be forgotten. And he knows it now.”
To this day I am glad to be among the thousands – arguably, millions – touched and inspired by John Allan Cameron. I may have missed his heyday, his Grand Ole Opry appearance, and the majority of his TV work. But as a lover of Celtic music, a singer, a songwriter, and simply as someone who aspires to represent Cape Breton in any fashion, I will always be grateful to the fellow from Glencoe Station who put so much effort into making it all look so easy and so much fun.
I’ll also appreciate the fact that he was brave and determined enough to do this at a time when very few other people in Atlantic Canada were getting any kind of radio airplay or TV exposure for daring to sing about Scotland or Ireland – or the Maritimes, for that matter. And, to that end, I’ll always be grateful to my parents for bringing home that cassette copy of The Best of John Allan Cameron: The Man and His Music back in 1984.
Maybe someday I’ll give that tape back. Maybe.