The thinkin' man's Stompin’ Tom

That’s Cape Breton’s John Allan Cameron, Aquinian philosopher turned folk hero

BILL HOWELL December 1 1973

The thinkin' man's Stompin’ Tom

That’s Cape Breton’s John Allan Cameron, Aquinian philosopher turned folk hero

BILL HOWELL December 1 1973

The thinkin' man's Stompin’ Tom

That’s Cape Breton’s John Allan Cameron, Aquinian philosopher turned folk hero


Onstage, the notes are almost compulsively sweet and sad at once, their air as weird as where they come from. It’s as if they’re always trying to catch up to themselves. They follow a dozen diverse roots, scampering across the whole distance between well fed and fed up, but they all somehow seem to localize themselves on that broad Celtic face. He’s a big man, built like a piper, but he moves well with his weight. A double chin provides a perfect place to tuck the fiddle into, and his huge hands coax the music out with that deceptive ease that immediately puts him right up there with the best. The dark eyes zap out at you from under a mop too long for home, and it all begins again with the hint of a wink and a less than half past sly grin: if you happen to break your hand with the punch that knocks the other guy out, who wins the fight?

“They tell me I’m overly loquacious.”

John Allan Cameron sits back like a big bear on our somewhat less than new dining-room sofa, quietly sipping tea in time with his own voice. He neither smokes nor drinks. The stereo rounds out I'm A Rover Seldom Sober from his first Columbia album, and the house, to tell the truth, is somewhat more than a reasonable facsimile of that polite pandemonium we all love to call home. The scene is set with the usual assortment of Saturday afternoon visitors and friends coming and going, but he’s not at all averse to the idea of interview as performance. (I mean, here he is, this strange man who plays bagpipe music on a 12-string guitar!) I’ve met him maybe a dozen times before, and with John Allan one soon learns that the important things are often implied in what he leaves unsaid. It’s hard to separate

the man from the performer sometimes; the two are often interchangeable, and his way of working his words through four or five levels and sensibilities at once, a not unCape Breton trait, mocks the situation cybernetics of most showbiz defense systems. It’s the difference, perhaps, between good carpentry and high architecture. When the song ends, I start the tape recorder, and the afternoon’s conversation winds its own way around a distinct sense of personal history, told on its own terms. Like the ghost of a childhood?

“Looking back on it now, I had a tremendous sense of frustration that the particular history of my people was never really portrayed to me. I think that as a kid it wasn’t made real enough. You know, the fortress of Louisbourg has a tremendous history. I don’t know a hell of a lot about it. And neither do that many people in Cape Breton. And that’s a bloody shame . . .”

John Allan Cameron was born on Friday, December 16, 1938, in a farmhouse at southwest Mabou, Inverness County, Cape Breton. His father was from Creignish, his mother from Judique, both in Cape Breton. The children came in this order: John Donald, John Allan, Marie, Jessie, Alec, Donald Angus, and Cyril. John Allan skipped grade three. He first heard fiddler Buddy McMaster play it right at a square dance in his one-room school at Glencoe Station in 1946. Electricity came to Glencoe in 1952. The Canso Causeway, linking Cape Breton to mainland Nova Scotia, was completed in 1955. Sociology may not have a sense of humor, but the circumstances beg the mind’s patience for understanding.

“The thing that I remember most was

the tremendous respect given the parish priest by the community. He was from the area, and he was the intellectual pillar of the community, the man who made the ultimate decision. Now, granted, a lot of that has changed. An awful lot. When I was growing up there were a lot of questions that weren’t being asked, sort of thing. Most things were being taken for granted, which is good and bad, I suppose. But growing up in that particular thing was really great, I kid you not.”

The Holy Trinity, they say in Sydney Mines, are all private detectives. Cape Breton continues to love itself, regardless of closed collieries, futile distance, and those who choose to see the exodus from the place with the highest unemployment in the country as a natural thing, and interpret the people from there the same as hicks from the Ozarks. (The typical Cape Bretoner, according to popular belief, is a well-fisted man who habitually spends the last of a night asleep under a bush with a grin on his face that betrays his drunken dreams.) Finding things and naming them isn’t owning them, especially in Cape Breton. But that doesn’t add up to unfriendly people; it just underlines the difference between handicrafts and art. So let it be said that Cape Breton is a sweet place that celebrates itself with a self-mocking irony at home, and a pride that’s never wrong in public. “The Cape Breton fiddler is a unique sort of person. Doug Kershaw, with his Cajun fiddle music down in Louisiana, is a progression. The Cape Bretoners are the roots. And this fiddling is different than any other in Canada, in that it has its own essence and existence. The ordinary fiddling — let’s say the /

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Ottawa Valley, or Don Messer — well, a guy can walk in from Texas, hear it, and play it. But he cannot walk in to Cape Breton and hear it and play it.”

People have been trying to walk in on Cape Breton for a long, long time. The Island sticks out into the Atlantic like a sore thumb. The English explorers, led by John Cabot, came in 1497, and the French with Cartier in 1534. Then, in 1629, Scottish settlers under Knight Banneret of Nova Scotia the Lord Ochiltree landed on Cape Breton at Baleine, near where Louisbourg would eventually stand. 'They built a fort, cleared the land, and began taxing whatever foreign ships fished off their verdant (as Pierre Berton would say) shoreline. A French captain, Charles Daniel, separated from his fleet on the way to Quebec, got word. And figuring, no doubt, that Ochiltree’s neighborliness was somewhat more than heavy-handed, he destroyed the fort and took all the Scots to St. Ann’s as prisoners. So it goes. Most of them eventually made it back to the Scottish Lowlands, leaving behind them somewhat less than an ill-fitting and flat footnote in the Island’s history. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, fewer than 200 of the 12,000 people living in Nova Scotia were Scots, and none of them ever owned a 12string guitar.

“There’s a Gaelic word — waussness. I don’t know how you spell it, but it means sweetness. And there’s a certain sweetness, and some little hook in Cape Breton fiddling that stands it apart from everything else. And it has some type of soul that gets people going. When I was growing up, the fiddler to me was like Bobby Orr to the hockey freak. 1 mean, the fiddler to me was God Almighty. The fiddler and the priest, they worked together like that. On pretty well equal levels. Musically, the fiddler was the epitome of greatness; and then on the metaphysical religion level the priest was the ultra, the person who stands apart from the rest.”

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, the crofts were cleared so that the glens and braes could be leased to sheep farmers from the Lowlands and England. In July, 1773, 200 Scots, unwilling victims of the Highland Clearances, set out for Pictou, Nova Scotia, in the Hector, somewhat less than a half-decent vessel. You could pick pieces of wood out of her sides with your bare hands. Smallpox broke out, the voyage took 11 weeks, and at the end they were living on the scraps of scraps. But they stepped ashore proud as only the clans could, in time to the screaming tune of a stowaway piper. Time, and the human rhythms of history, brought the pipe music across the Canso Strait and into Cape Breton, where it met the Acadian fiddle,

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and a new music was born. By 1850, more than 25,000 Highlanders had come to make their home on the Island, and how they’ve spread themselves out across the continent since is somewhat more than a song in itself.

“Conflict wasn’t the big thing. Our next door neighbors were Protestants. My father taught me probably the best lesson of all — to be able to get along with people of diverse faiths and of diverse political persuasions. The big thing wasn’t a conflict of religion. The big thing, when I was growing up, was whether a guy was a Liberal or a Tory.”

It’s called going out into the world. He’s got a grin that says it all, but I can sense he’s not too sure where my questions are coming from. Personally, I don’t care what anybody wants either to ignore or believe so long as they don’t go around hitting people over the head with it. But I’ll have to admit here that, although I like the man, I’m more than a bit uneasy about any performer who goes around publicly calling himself a Liberal Catholic from Cape Breton. I can’t help finding it disconcerting. And I have more than half a hunch that anybody who’s not a Liberal Catholic from Cape Breton will more or less feel the same way. But that’s all, because, given his own context on his own terms, he’s a whole lot more than just a likable, easygoing kind of guy.

I grew up in good old southend Halifax, and the kind of things he grew up in were about as close to me as, say, the fourth house in a subdivision is to the woods. So in between tapes, as I keep having to change reels, the talk is pretty well equally divided into mutual insults and human respect, which any Nova Scotian can tell you is the best base for a friendship there is. People run like rivers, they say; they sometimes take the long way around. Meanwhile, back in the Actual Life Story, it was five and a half miles from Glencoe Station, where John Allan grew up, to Port Hood Academy, where he went to high school: “Which was a traumatic experience. I love that word. Because you’re coming from the country, where you’re pretty isolated. There was an underlying inferiority thing there, working between a person who was totally brought up in the country and the kids who were brought up in town. I mean, they were the” — he snaps his fingers — “the people with the intellectual prowess, et cetera. And coming from the country, sometimes your teachers, the teachers I had, a lot of them didn’t give me that much confidence in my intellectual ability. I remember one teacher told me I didn’t have enough intelligence to get out of grade six. And I never forgot that. And I don’t like that. In fact, that stayed with me for a long, long time.”

Most of the guys he grew up with

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dropped out of school after grade 10, and started working in the woods or mines. A few left for Ontario or Boston with their friends. But John Allan got his senior matriculation, and eventually he went on to get three degrees. In 1957, before he left for the Oblate Seminary in Ottawa, the furthest he’d been from home had to be a couple of trips each to Sydney and Antigonish. New worlds, perhaps, hold human dreams only for as long as it takes to acquire the style of boredom. The process can be called the anarchy of the spirit. He got a dispensation and left the Ottawa seminary late in 1963.

“The only reason I left, it boils down to one word: honesty.”

He left with the self-discipline of fluent ecclesiastical Latin, a degree in Aquinian philosophy, and a guitar. He felt he couldn’t go home. He took a job as a Christmas helper in a Toronto stock room for $55 a week. His father died that January, and John Allan came home for the funeral. It wasn’t easy: “There was still that particular thing which unconsciously stated that I-LeftThe-Seminary, and you walked around with a great big FAILURE written on your back.”

John Allan first met Gus MacKinnon at a concert at Glendale, Inverness County, on July 12, 1964. Gus was emceeing local concerts that summer, and taping them for his morning show on CJFX, in Antigonish. The first time he played John Allan on the air there, the board was swamped with positive calls. They became good friends, traveling together to these concerts, called ceilidhs (kay-lees), and Gus got John Allan dates all over the area, and even in Boston and Maine, though there wasn’t much money involved. John Allan enrolled in Arts at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish that fall, and lived in a small apartment in the same building as CJFX, let to him free after Gus had a talk with Clyde Nunn, the station manager. Three mornings a week he’d join Gus on the air for chitchat and music, then run across the campus to classes when the news came on. Every couple of months he’d come up with a new tape, and the people of the area got to know him well. He’d play anywhere for anybody; old people’s homes, the whole works. Gus MacKinnon’s mother used to cook cakes for him. He didn’t have a great voice, but he was immediately in contact with the whole audience, no matter where he played. He always kept it simple, and he was never nervous or tense. And it was this, as much as how he was the only guy who could play it right on a 12-string guitar, that made him unique. The fiddle came later. “I’m not at all apologetic about the type of music I do, sort of thing. And too many people have been, in the past. Too many

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people regard this music as just three or four old chestnuts. You know, You Take The High Road And I'll Take The Low Road, and Roamin ’ In The Gloamin ' and A Wee Doch An' Doris, sort of thing. And it’s me that’s out to prove otherwise.”

And so it goes. After St. FX he came to Halifax, started playing the lounges there, guest-spotting on Singalong Jubilee and the Don Messer Show on CBC television, and he enrolled in education at Dalhousie University. (“I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”) After a difficult year teaching high school in London, Ontario, he came back to Halifax and finally got around to deciding to go into his music full time. He joined Singalong in the summer of 1968 for the duration, and started a tough grind of clubs, coffeehouses, lounges and concerts. He paid his first manager $4,500 in the first year alone, and cut his first album, Here Comes John Allan Cameron, for Apex. (“Which was pretty crude. I didn’t know the first thing about mixing. We did the whole thing in 10 hours. But the spirit was there.”) It sold 30,000 copies in the Maritimes alone. He played the Newport and Mariposa Folk Festivals, Osaka, the Grand Ole Opry (in his kilt!), a cross-Canada tour with "Tommy Makem of the Clancy brothers, and a two-week engagement at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland. But he was still John Allan. “I think that it’s a bad idea for any performer to take off to major cities after gaining a bit of recognition in their hometown. So many guys get lost in the stars they’re trying to become. I think it’s wiser to stay home and gain more confidence, sort of thing, and at the same time build up a repertoire of professional material and let it develop from there.”

Leonard T. Rambeau comes originally from Smelt Brook, Cape Breton. He’s a stocky man in his late twenties, and he wears a Pancho Villa moustache. Someday he wants to be Premier of Nova Scotia, he’s that ambitious, but right now he does nothing else except run Balmur Limited, the company that manages Anne Murray and, as of the spring of 1972, John Allan Cameron. The story goes that one day in 1968 Leonard was walking along Spring Garden Road outside the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax and happened to bump into John Allan for the first time. Catherine MacKinnon had been on a television special the night before, which Leonard thought to be somewhat more than fantastic. But for the next 15 minutes John Allan sold Leonard on another singer he thought was going to be great someday, perhaps even bigger than any of them could ever imagine. And she had a new album out with Arc Records called What About Me?, and her name was Anne. It’s a long way from

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Smelt Brook to Los Angeles.

“I don’t like the show-biz thing. I love performing for people, ’cause I probably get off more than the audience gets off on me getting off. I want to project myself to people as myself, not as a phony, formal, perfect thing. Sometimes you see some of those stage productions, you see a guy walking along the stage, and you see his guest — this lady will come out. And there are two chairs and a guitar. And he looks at her and he says ‘Why-don’t-we-sing-a-song-together???’

I mean, this happens so much. And she says ‘Ohhhh, wouldn’t-that-be-de//g/ztful! I-would-/ov£-to!!!’ So he says ‘Whydon’t-we-sit-down???’ And he sits down and he picks up the ... and it’s so phony! It’s dumb, though, I think it’s so stupid. The whole of my existence goes back to treating people on a human level. As people.”

Meanwhile back in Antigonish Gus MacKinnon was busy organizing a “100 Fiddlers Festival” for the summer along with Frank Maclnnis, a schoolteacher from the area. A whole battalion of young guys came up, and they had a fiddling school, and they were teaching Gaelic in the schools there, and they had dancing and pipers in the Legion halls. And that’s not the half of it, because there were 13 programs for regional ex-

change on the CBC television network this summer, produced in Halifax and called Ceilidh and featuring John Allan Cameron as host to what can only be described as a diversified Cape Breton fiddling attack.

“I’ve made statements before that I hope to do concerts in Cape Breton all my life. And I still hope to. But, then again, being a performer, I will still ultimately have to take orders from the management, sort of thing. Something that I’ve learned, and a lot of people don’t understand — let’s say a lot of country people, or the Cape Bretoners, still don’t understand — is that I’m in this business very seriously, sort of thing. And they still regard you as the guy from down the street, sort of thing, or on the next farm. And they don’t take you that seriously until you start making some noises. You know, drawing a star around a man’s name. But when I go home I feel I owe it both to myself and to the people in the audience to insist that I’m heard at my best.”

People back home were reluctant to buy John Allan’s first Columbia album, Get There By Dawn, though they were polite enough about it. (“It’s very Torontoish,” Gus told me when I called him, “and not the kind of thing he does best. The whole question is, if he tries to

be something else that he’s not, will he lose it?”) The new album, Lord Of The Dance, has one problem: not everybody can afford to buy the kind of stereo that hears everything. Apart from that it’s great. The songs are a mixed bag, and range, at least, from incredible to terrific and fantasmagorical.

“They tell me I’m overly loquacious.”

It begins again in spite of itself, like once upon a time. It’s a couple of weeks later and he’s six, maybe seven, songs into his opening set at the Riverboat coffeehouse, Toronto, which is somewhat more than a different adventure altogether from the Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto. But he’s still John Allan. At the Horseshoe it’s solid tables, brite lites, jugs of beer, and people of the kind that make it the biggest city country music club in Canada: 90% out front showmanship, and they love both him and his grin. The Riverboat, on the other hand, is all intimate booths and traditionally authentic listening quiet, as fits the place where folks such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan, and Bruce Cockburn get their big starts. It’s called executing a song without killing it. John Allan can play in both places, probably because his material ranges everywhere from individual discovery to institutional understanding. He wore his kilt at the Horseshoe.

“It’s the truth.”

He says it offhand, like the biggest bullshooter this side of Sydney Mines. In the middle of a hairbrained yarn that somehow turns into an intro for a song with a masochistically Cape Breton undercurrent. Like it’s a tough life, see, but nobody’s out to prove anything about his metaphysical insights or how tough and hard he is, because most of us, thank-you very much, are already doing fine abstracting and introspecting ourselves and each other almost out of existence anyway. So why don’t you grab your 50-cent lemonade and sit yourself back, because this song here’s not half bad. Only he’s too polite to say it like that. It comes out with that hint of a wink instead.

“Is there anybody here tonight from Glencoe?”

Some of the songs go back 500 years, to when oral history held forth as better than anyone could ever remember, and they come out of him intact. Watching him there, he’s got his voice mike fixed a couple of inches under that double chin, so he has to crouch a bit, like a centreman waiting for the puck to drop. And so he’ll have a bit of leg room, you know, to show us where the song comes from with his feet when he’s so inclined. The Riverboat will never be the same again. He works us all over with this gentle toughness, like a stern parent, and then the music takes over, building,

building, and, since it’s a good night, the lyrics fly out of him like the birds of joy itself:

I’m a rover, seldom sober,

I’m a rover of high degree;

It’s when I’m drinking I’m always


how to gain my love’s company!* The audience comes from everywhere. But the best of a song bloody well knows where it comes from, and it gets the kind of respect people can’t help feeling for someone who’s had it tougher than them. Someone who’s working it by himself. It’s as if, just by his being here, something fiercely beautiful has come into the lives of everyone listening. And it may seem kind of corny, and it might ask for something rare today — the willing suspension of disbelief — but the place is packed. He stops the song with a shout — “Yes!” — grins at everyone, then turns around and picks up his fiddle to finish off the set. There’s no one like him.

“Are you ready for this, now?”

The faces include your usual worldweary stoned crusaders left over from the Sixties (“Well, it’s different . . .”), burghers with short hair and wellscrubbed wives from North York (“It sure is nice to hear some good music for a change”), an extremely vociferous section of discorporated Maritimers who have almost made it in the big city (“Sing it again there, John, sing it again!”), some people’s grandparents (“I remember when I was a little girl, and . . .”), a couple of hard core country and western fanatics, Nashville style (“He should go on the road with somebody really big, like Buck Owens . . .”), four more than merely mildly inebriated gentlemen originally from Glasgow, Scotland (“MacCrimmon lives!”), and a strange nameless group of secretaries and social workers (“Awwwwwww . . .”), all of whom know he’s married with a kid but who love him dearly anyway. (“Didn’t he used to be a priest or something?”) Nobody will ever quite know what to make of him, but it has to be incredible, the way it all works.

“This next song was written by a friend of mine named Dan Hughie MacEachern, and it’s not a song in your usual sense because it hasn’t any words.” Up goes the bow and down comes the foot, and a matter of moments has everyone in the place hollering and pounding their hands and feet together. When he’s through he’ll take the time to shake hands and have a chat, but he doesn’t believe in autographs. It may not be your usual cultural kind of art, but it works, as sure as mayflowers don’t grow too well on bloody soil. ■

*(Copyright 1971, by John Allan Cameron, Tessa Music, BMI)